Friday, September 28, 2007

Lust, But No Caution

There has been much conjecture following news that Lust, Caution was slapped with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA. As many pundits and critics have explained, the NC-17 is the kiss of death in Hollywood. Although Lust, Caution will not be distributed by a major studio on thousands of screens across the country, the expected move on the part of the studio (Focus Features) and director would be to appeal the rating and make the appropriate edits for an R rating, as that would ensure higher distribution and box office, especially for an awards season "prestige" film. But the appeal never came. Lee instead accepted the NC-17, and Focus Features is moving ahead as planned with the release of the film next month.

As a recent Los Angeles Times article observes, many claim that the MPAA's system for movie ratings is more than questionable, and that the dreaded NC-17 is typically assigned for strong sexual content rather than strong violence. Pornographically violent movies like The Passion of the Christ (2004) are never questioned, but any movie showing pubic hair or female pleasure is an immediate danger of receiving an NC-17 rating. Although I haven't seen Lust, Caution as of yet, early reports indicate that the sexuality, while erotic, is by no means pornographic. Like many, I'm not surprised that the movie was hit with the rating, since the MPAA has always imposed infantile values on the American public, in doing so reducing expression and representations of sexuality to sitcom-style innuendo that reflects our insecurity and fear about sexuality than our embrace of it. Therefore, that this film was hit with the kiss of death rating is not at all a surprise.

The real surprise here (and a welcome one at that) is that Lee has accepted the rating and that the film continues to pick up steam as it moves toward release. Though it was never going to be a wide release, news of the NC-17 could have severely damaged the film's chances of turning a respectable gross and gaining enough media exposure to be a contender come time for awards season. Focus Features and Ang Lee have instead turned this into a positive for the film, which may be the first sign of progress toward upending a criminal ratings system. As critics, movie goers, filmmakers, etc., we have to accept that the ratings system is here to stay. The MPAA and its "clients" have structured a system that makes it nearly impossible for filmmakers to take the cinematic medium seriously as an art form. The MPAA is a tentpole institution for the commodification of images, and it functions as such by informing the American public how it should feel about sexuality, religion, drugs, etc. While film goers can voice their dissatisfaction in their consumer choices, one of the few ways that filmmakers can work for change is to work within the confines of the very systems of power to work against them. Of course, this isn't easy, but Ang Lee has done just that.

By not caving in to the MPAA's intimidation and accepting their rating, Lee and co. are trusting in the intelligence and will of their audience. I may be overly optimistic, but if more filmmakers stood up for the art of cinema and braved the distribution and box office risk of the NC-17, then the rating's image as the kiss of death would evaporate. Of course this isn't as easy as it sounds, but I remain confident that the weakness of the system is the expectation that filmmakers and studios will always comply. The moment one does not, it may influence others to test the NC-17 waters, and (at best) maybe create a snowball effect that would relieve the rating of its death wish status. It won't change the pomposity of the rating, and it won't alter our collective approach towards sexuality in art, cinema, and culture like the flip of a switch, but it may be a starting point; the foundation of change.

I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that the filmmaker behind this potentially revolutionary step is Ang Lee, the filmmaker who two years ago made a quiet drama about the love of two men that captured the nation. Hollywood and Indiewood have dealt with homosexuality in cinema before, but never have I seen a movie work both as broadly appealing storytelling and as an intimately personal narrative grappling with some of the most relevant themes in American culture today. I was not among the camp touting Brokeback Mountain (2005) as more of a love story that happened to involve gay men, as if that's some kind of compliment. Brokeback Mountain is a gay love story, plain and simple. Lee wants you to know that, as he should. Through sublime images and brilliant performances, Lee digs deep into the minds of two men who learn to hate themselves because they love each other, in so doing digging even deeper into the collective unconscious of viewers. It is a profound film, one in which Lee manages to find just the right balance in approaching matters of repression, sexuality, and cultural Otherness through a straightforward narrative account of a gay relationship beautifully committed to images. It didn't preach messages or politicize, and its impact on America was vast. But the collective response and constant jokemaking resulting from the film's popularity essentially demonstrated why it was so necessary.

Although Lust, Caution does not deal with any hot-button issues and will not likely have the impact on American pop-culture that Lee's last film did, it nonetheless marks an important step in American cinema consistent in spirit with everything that Brokeback Mountain represented. Along with David Cronenberg, Ang Lee is emerging as one of the most important voices in contemporary cinema. Yes, I am aware that both of these filmmakers have made great films for many years. But each of them right now are uniquely addressing utterly essential issues in how we behave, communicate, and situate ourselves within a culture in their recent films. Lee is now doing so both inside his films and out.

Although I haven't seen the film yet, its title, Lust, Caution strikes me as simple, urgent. Two words that, in light of Lee's refusal to bow to the MPAA, rather concisely sums up a major cultural problem. Its impending release may well represent a monumental step in cinematic activism.

A Blogging Anniversary

Although they need no plug from me, I thought it appropriate to point out that David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson are celebrating their one year anniversary of blogging. They each hold high positions in film scholarship, which is why one might think they would be "above" a medium such as blogging. One year and houndreds of thousands of words later, they have themselves one of the most informative, provocative and useful film blogs on the web. Observations on film art and Film Art is one of the very few absolutely essential film blogs out there, and it is such because David and Kristin take full advantage of the medium's properties and freedoms by imbuing them with knowledge, information, and insight. They often write at length on a wide variety of issues, some which function like book chapters in one of their books, others as supplementing chapters or articles already published with new ideas and perspectives. They also provide film festival coverage and feedback on more topical, immediate issues on the contemporary cinemascape.

They both advocate a very hands-on, science-based method for analyzing cinema, which is desperately needed in film studies today. Scholarship is in need of a massive paradigm shift toward the specific relationships of sound and image, spectator and screen, and Bordwell and Thompson are doing pioneering that shift. They've done it for years with their books and journal article, and now they've taken to digital media, which they appropriately recognize as a really important medium for the development of new models of film criticism. Of all that I've learned from perusing their archives over the last year, I find their "smaller" observations most striking, the kind that can only make it onto a blog and not really into a book, at least in such a subtle manner. As my way of tipping my hat to their accomplishment, I present the best bit of information I've come across on their blog in a series of simple sentences:

"We can talk tastes forever. Maybe you think Bergman is great, or the greatest, or obscenely overrated. I think that there’s something more general and intriguing going on beyond our tastes. What makes this hard to see is that the venues of popular journalism don’t allow us to explore some of the ideas and questions raised by our value judgments."

And finally, in the very same entry, the most educational, insightful, and important sentence I've read on their blog, or any blog, in the last year is an even simpler statement in a similar spirit: "The world is more interesting and unpredictable than our opinions."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Thoughts on Missing the Deadline (Part II)

For those who haven't seen it already, the list is now up over at Edward Copeland's site, and what a treat it is. As I've said countless times, I wish I had participated in this project. Seeing the titles and the various comments on them, I am both frustrated and relieved that I did not partake in the voting. Judging by the fact that I've only seen about 25 percent of the represented films, I've got a lot of catching up to do. Nevertheless, it's a great list; one that captures the pulse of contemporary film lovers and critics' sensibilities regarding international cinema, from which some interested trends emerge.

I'm not surprised to see The Rules of the Game sit atop the list, since the film is regarded in just about the same light as Citizen Kane. I just recently saw it and was riveted. While watching the analyses on the Criterion DVD, I concluded that to fully appreciate this film for all of its details, I must see it several times again. As is the case with most great movies, one is almost overwhelmed with feeling and thought on first viewing that to try to process it all in a comprehensive and intelligible way is both impossible and undesirable. I can often feel on first viewing, but cannot articulate, which is, oddly enough, how it should be.

Despite the Top 10 or 15 being fairly easy to predict (which is not necesarily a bad thing), there were some fairly significant surpises concerning what made the list as well as placement. Three films that appeared much higher than I anticipated are Spirited Away, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and City of God. I suppose their relative newness (all released in the last seven years) may account for it, but I am nonetheless pleasantly surprised to see them feature so prominently because I also hold them in such high esteem. I have seen each of them multiple times and discovered new things about them each time; yet I also have that wonderful feeling watching them that there is still so much to explore in these films, especially Y Tu Mama, Tambien, which I viewed back in January (for a second or third time) and felt like I was seeing it for the first time.

Another welcome surprise was that Run Lola Run appeared so low (or is it high) on the list. I just assumed it would appear at least in the Top 50 due to its strong following among film class 101 students; the same members who voted on The Usual Suspects and The Shawshank Redemption in the Online Film Community Top 100. Although I find the movie very entertaining, it's hardly good enough to appear on any such list. Occupying the 95 slot, I was pleased to see that it didn't get as many votes. It's also nice to see Raise the Red Lantern on the list; a film of such restrained sublimity. I saw it probably eight years ago, and moments of it (many of them, actually) stand out so perfectly in my mind. I keenly remember my fascination with the culture it depicted, my astonishment for the cool blues of the outside snow and the enveloping reds of the interiors, and the pain I felt inside for a character that speaks so little in a world I knew even littler about. For pure atmosphere and feeling (even of the ambiguous sort), very few films can match Zhang Yimou's film. It carves out its own place and time with its sustained sense of ambiance.

I could go on forever describing the various titles on the list, but I promised I would get to a few movies on own list. I must admit that my Top 25 selection includes many of the films on Edward's Top 100. So I don't have a whole lot to add to the list, I suppose. Many of these familiar titles that are frequently discussed in critics circles and film blogs require little more commentary from me. Nevertheless, they deserve mention as they are some of my very favorite films as well. These include (in no particular order):

- The Bicycle Thief directed by Vittorio de Sica
- 8 1/2 directed by Federico Fellini
- The 400 Blows directed by Francois Truffaut
- La Strada directed by Federico Fellini
- The Seven Samurai directed by Akira Kurosawa
- The Seventh Seal directed by Ingmar Bergman
- Aguirre, the Wrath of God directed by Werner Herzog
- The Rules of the Game directed by Jean Renoir
- Playtime directed by Jacques Tati

All are wonderful films that I've had the great opportunity to see throughout high school, college, and beyond. Some I've seen more than once, others in various classes only once, but they all represent important staples in my own narrative with cinema as well as for the medium's own narrative and shaping. Plain and simple, cinema would not be the same without these movies, and neither would I. The final word has not been made on any of these movies; if it were, than none of them would be as good as many claim they are. That there still await so many more perpsectives on these works to be voiced, on blogs and on book pages, is what makes cinema so special. The images are the same, but the world around them and the eyes seeing them continue to change.

Since many bloggers and critics have already sounded off on the above titles, I will here briefly discuss some other non-English language films that either didn't make the list (as well as the nomination list) or maybe that did make it, but are often glossed over in favor of the more established masterpieces.

L'Argent (Robert Bresson, 1983)

Although Robert Bresson's last film did not make the initial cut of Edward's list, it nonetheless remains a profound experience. Bresson's masterwork unfolds in what appears to be a very simple visual style, with a contrast of long shots and close-ups observing a variety of characters whose lives are altered by the most trivial of things. In its depiction of a young man who begins a chain of crime after the simple transaction of counterfeit money, Bresson evokes the existential agency of human beings, who, in their participation in (and deviation from) societal norms inevitably causes them to collide with devasting effects. With L'Argent, Bresson's visuals mirror the thematic convergence of the simplicities and complexities that comprise human behavior and communication.

Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel, 1967)

When I worked at a video store in High School, I remember picking up this film because of the Roger Ebert quote on the cover box claiming the film was "an erotic masterpiece." Alas, the film was erotic, but in an entirely different way. Bunuel's masterpiece is one of the very first non-English language films I've seen, and it's probings of guilt, shame, and pleasure through the life of an upper class wife left an indelible imprint on my mind. What struck me most at the time was how I was unable to get inside this woman's mind and understand why she felt so compelled to rebel against her life of security and meaning. The film never provides an answer, but rather manages to pose many questions about gender roles norms, especially as they pertain to narrative. In particular this film manages to both call into question typical representation of sexless female while also observing that representations of "male" and "female" wield great influence in our own understanding and embodiment of gender, sexuality, and identity. The images of Catherine Deneuve's legs as she struggles to decide to go into the whore house is a perfect expression of the profundity of cinema.

Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988)

What happened to appreciating sentimental moviemaking? For some reason, Cinema Paradiso is scoffed at by more than a few bloggers and critics. I understand that each and every person is entitled to her opinion about a movie, but so much of the negative backlash over this film seems a bit too guarded to be genuine. I have never been afraid to express my enthusiasm for sentimentality in cinema. To me, Guiseppe Tornatore's film is like a gateway into my own nostalgia, of childhood and first love. Maybe I'm presumptious, but I have observed that those who love cinema often hold a lot of unrequited passion; the need to intensely feel, or emote. Part of being a lover of cinema requires the individual to in a sense never really let go of her/his childhood, happy memories, and strong affective states. Because in the cinema, feeling lives forever right there in the marriage of sight and sound. Cinema taps into how we all construct our own narrative narrative, which is rather bittersweet with the realization that much of our own selves is a romanticizing and framing of memory, feeling, pain, and passion. Cinema Paradiso evokes the perfection and the pain of loving cinema, the innocence of childhood, the magic of first love, and the transience of life. It may be sentimental, but much like other great sentimental movies (e.g., E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial), it's outward expressions of emotion are actually much deeper than their "bigness" lets on.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979)

Remakes have it worse than sequels. In the eyes of many film goers and critics, the very idea of a remake is enough to cause nausea, especially for one of cinema's beloved masterpieces. But as a medium of spatial and temporal relations, sight and sound, and moving images, one must question whether a remake is actually possible on any terms other than plot. Nevertheless, the remake debate might have something to do with what seems to be an overwhelming absence of discussion about Werner Herzog's masterpiece, Nosferatu the Vampyre. While the film exhibits the same narrative elements as F.W. Murnau's historic film, which itself took its narrative cues from Bram Stoker's novel, Herzog's film is mesmerizing in its long, quiet interludes. Imbuing the story with a real sense of dread, Herzog's vampire is far more of a mystery than in many other dracula renditions, and the world around him is equally cold. While Aguirre, the Wrath of God remains Herzog's ultimate mood piece, the atmospheres he achieves in this film are vast, ambiguous, and sensuous.

Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

Henri-Georges Clouzot was often refered to as the French Hitchcock. Although such a term is currently understood as a high praise, we must not forget that Hitchcock was not appreciated for his time, despite his amazing popularity. Moreover, Clouzot was reportedly insulted that he was reduced to the french version of an American filmmakers. (I'm sure Hitch would have equally loathed the reverse term, as well.) He was rightfully upset, because although his penchant for suspense was of the same level of Hitchcock, his films were altogether very different. While Diabolique (unseen by me) is often cited as the director's premiere work, it would be unwise to overlook the film that preceded it, Wages of Fear. The plot focuses on four men transporting nitroglycerine across the French countryside,. While it boasts a number of tense set pieces, the whole film is an exercise in rising tension, to the extent that by the end the suspense reaches almost unbearable heights. As the story unfolds and the tensions ratchets up, Clouzot refuses the viewer the ease of placing the characters and visual styles into familiar boxes, thus enabling easy judgment and passive enjoyment. In so doing, Clouzot teeses out a surprising amount of subtlty stemming from its simplicity. In simplicity, Clouzot finds nuance instead of easily exploited convention.

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

Any person who calls her/himself a lover of horror simply cannot afford to miss Dario Argento's film, which can best be described as an erotic fetishization of gore and death. I should note that I have not seen very many films by Dario Argento, but Suspiria is nonetheless one of my very favorite horror films. Although I hear Argento uses color to great extent in all of his films, his overt, sharp color palettes make the ballet school where the film is set become a labyrinth of flesh, blood, and death. As the film does on, Argento digs more and more into this vivid imagery, transforming the school into an inferno world from which the central character cannot escape. The first murder scene stands as one of the most gruesomely sexual sequences I've seen in a horror film, and one of the most memorable.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Making Body Sense

"It's all about bodies. It's about the destruction of bodies. And I insist on that as the reality of this. And I want to see it all. This fight scene has to make physiological sense. It has to make mechanical sense. It has to make body sense." - David Cronenberg

The opening scenes of David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007) depict a man awkwardly severing another's neck. They both quiver in fear; one for losing his life, the other for taking one. Cronenberg draws out this precise feeling to unbearable lengths, with the stable camera refusing to edit to another image as we see the struggle ensue. Where many filmmakers are content to represent brutality via images of slit necks and stabbings often containing just enough detail to keep the viewer at a pleasurable distance, Cronenberg refuses you that pleasure. In doing so, he locates a primal state of feeling blood flow through your vains and his images invites another form of pleasure. The scene consists of a very simple series of shots which (as Jim Emerson expertly notes) evoke the difficulty and the struggle of being on both the perpetrating and receiving ends of the killing of a person. It's almost a sexual encounter in a sense, one that's revealed to be nothing more than business once it's over. Of course, this isn't the last time we see violence of this nature in the film. But in that moment is the whole movie.

Eastern Promises is an equally sumptuous and repulsive exploration of family, bodies, and the social structures that govern the underbelly of society. The narrative focuses on two central characters, one a driver for the Russian mafia (Viggo Mortensen), the other a suburban London midwife (Naomi Watts). Both Nikolai and Anna deal with violence and its effects as part of their jobs, but must remain detached from it. Both also understand the trappings of family. And yet they could not be more different. When Anna uncovers the diary of a young Russian prostitute who died giving birth, she seeks out the Russian company with whom the girl was connected in an attempt to locate the baby's family. This, however, unwittingly involves her in what she soon discovers to be the Russian mafia.

While the exposition seems almost to be setting up a suspenseful thriller about an innocent woman trying to escape the the mafia, Cronenberg instead uses it as a means for exploring the interactions and perceptions of Nikolai and Anna with each other and in their respective environments. He reveals the innermost character of complex individuals who, being typical "villains" in many films, are easy to simplify to bad guys. Instead, Cronenberg observes the simplicity of their lives through the the day-to-day practices of their operation. The head of the family, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), is a softly spoken gentlemen who wears button down sweaters and moves gingerly about his restaurant, talking of food and wine with family. His son, Kirill (Vincent Cassell), is a lunatic who tries to be tougher than he really wants to be, has no idea how to express anything resembling an emotion in an intelligeble, respectful manner. Nikolai, the driver, maintains a detachment concerning his daily work that represents the face of Semyon's business. He does not emote, show worry or remorse for anything. Nor does he have to. When you look into his eyes, you don't question a thing he says or does. But he remains a mystery to everyone around him. Mortensen has a unique, sublime way of making emotionless behavior so expressive that when Anna is unafraid to approach him, one can relate to her doing so. Nikolai, while seemingly cold and detached, has much going on beneath his surface. Capable of the most brutal of murder and operating seemingly without conscience, however, his motivations and inner secrets cannot be discovered by anyone.

No matter the amount or level of violence, the best mafia/mob movies are never about violence. They instead probe the lives of violent people in honest and subtle detail. There are many long scenes of dialogue among the many characters in Eastern Promises. During them, there is a feeling that we are being let into the mundanities of mafia life, seeing their familial and economic tensions. This of course makes the outbursts of violence all the more intriguing, as we see how violence manifests within the characters' lives as an assertion of power, and a test of will. Even sex for these men is a raw expression of violent impulses, as if that's the only way they now how to interact with another individual meaningfully. In conversation, we see masks and repression. Therefore, it's in how their bodies interact that enable Nikolai, Kirill, and others to attempt to express their inner desires and repressed states.

Physical signifiers of the importance of the body are the tattoos that cover the bodies of the Russian family. Physical markings on one's body tells his story so that it need not be expressed in language, which is used primarly for business interaction. These mens' identities are lliterally cut onto their bodies; which tell stories of their family, country, and achievements. Their naked flesh reveals their innermost passions and memories.

Similar to A History of Violence (2005), Cronenberg's visual and stylistic approach in this film is subdued, with meanings sublimated into the environments and subtle relations among characters and images. During the day, London is shot in washed out colors and seems very gray and gritty. At night, Cronenberg heightens the color palette. He also opts for longer shots, lengthier scenes, and a real exploration of the characters through smaller details of their actions and business deals. Both films also contain outbursts of savage, almost inhuman violence that both feels real and unreal due to the somewhat believable surroundings of the characters and their tangibility in their respective worlds. Cronenberg does not shy away from images of violence, and he never has. His approach to committing violence to images is no different than how he stages conversations between characters: little editing, a mostly steady camera, and always enabling the viewer to see, as he understands that it is through seeing that cinema becomes alive. Unlike his previous efforts in horror and sci-fi, in which Cronenberg heavily stylizes his fetishizations of flesh, both A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are actively more reflexive about violence as its situated in a narrative as well as how it manifests in the lived experience of ordinary, relatable people. In these films, Cronenberg expresses a fascination in the very flimsy boundary separating "normal" people from violent ones. The violence in these two pictures is almost more shocking because it is surrounded by a subtle, yet sublime visual approach that captures both the shade and the color of the characters and the world they inhabit. During the day, London is shot in washed out colors and seems very gray and gritty. At night, Cronenberg heightens the color palette. Cronenberg always reminds that despite the sumptuous colors of Semyan's restaurant and the night rain through which his mafia characters move, these people live and interact in a very real, believable world.

But the glaring difference between his two most recent films is that A History of Violence fetishized mechanical weaponry and its effects on bodies; malforming and mutilated them. However, there is not a single gunshot to be seen or heard in Eastern Promises, and yet many people lose their lives. It does not contain so much as one composition of an automatic weapon of any sort. Here, Cronenberg more explicitly focuses on bodies mutilating bodies and colliding with one another other.

Rather than employing the advantages of mechanical weapons, the characters in this film are instead forced into close contact with each other with the use of knives in combat. Despite that knives starkly contrast with the brute force of a fist, they nonetheness function as extensions of bodies, enabling one body to penetrate fully into the surface of another. It is the convergence of sharply cold surfaces and warm flesh that Cronenberg evokes so sensuously in moments of bodies crashing into each other. He observes the icy precison with which a blade smoothly glides across the skin's warm surface to unleash spools of blood, as well as the sharp plunge of a knife's edge deep into the body. It is both beautiful and harsh, and Cronenberg finds both in individual moments, particularly in a scene late in the film in which Nikolai, naked, must defend himself from two attackers using only his body. In this scene, Cronenberg wants to to see and feel every detail of bodies in action, the vulnerability of it, and the primal behavior of survival. In these moments, in the coming together of bodies, Cronenberg elucidates the complex relationships that emerge from the seemingly simple aspects of lived experience. And his framing it all through the diary of a violated woman, a woman who never had a choice, and the physical marker of that --a baby-- is wrenchingly powerful.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Thoughts On Missing the Deadline (Part I)

After weeks of preparing for Edward Copeland's Top 100 Non-English Language Films List, Sunday came and went, and, alas, I failed to submit my list. I noted in different posts (here and here) last month that my place in the discussion of international cinema is small (at best) and that I still had a long way to go. With the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni immediately following the online response to the updated list of American classics earlier in the summer and the subsequent announcement of the Non-English Language Films List, I decided to spend much of my movie time on films I should have seen years ago. I did this not just so I could enter the rich discourse sparked by Edward's project, but that I could also broaden my cinematic sensibilities. While I have seen a number of classic non-English language films over the last seven or eight, I made a point to introduce myself to the work of particular filmmakers about which I only knew from reading film books. These directors include Jacques Tati, Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, and others.

In a sense, I knew that my own list would represent only the beginning of my journey through the works of countless artists of cinema. Nevertheless, I still wanted to try to submit a list of 25 films from the 123 that were nominated. I realized as I was watching one treasure after the next that there was no way I could embark on this endeavor responsibly. That is to say that when I received the movies in the mail, I would watch them, in most cases relish them, and then send them right back so that I could see more. It was a constant revolving door of movies I knew I had to see many more times, movies that had to dance around in my memory for some time before I really came to grips with them, no matter where I've only seen each one of them once or several times. It's almost too difficult to process so much great cinema at once, if you'll excuse my indulgence. It's not that I missed what seemed like the mediocrity of everything else, it's that I became aware that I was beginning to think that much of what I left behind was mediocre; you know, all those ordinary movies. Of course, this isn't true. Lucky for me, I came to that awareness.

Awakening somewhat hung over to the September morning sun after hosting many friends for a fiesta on August's last warm night, my friends and I decided to put on Reno 911!: Miami (2007). As we watched the movie over the next 90 minutes, crammed in my living room, we probably woke immediate neighbors of mine with all the laughing (as if we hadn't kept them up all night with the music and noise already). I was hesitant at first, but it turned out to somehow be the perfect movie to watch at that moment; certainly not the best one, but the right one. I had seen the show before and enjoyed it, but I didn't expect to enjoy the many hilarious stagings, framings, and visual gags that the movie boasted. It also contains one of the funniest shootings I've ever seen with an unexpecting victim begging for immunity. Is Reno 911!: Miami a great movie by the standards set by the movies I've seen previously that month? Of course not, and nor should it be. It's a totally different film, designed for a totally different response. And whether or not the context in which I saw the film had great influence on my enjoyment of it was rather beside the point. I may not have enjoyed the movie as much at any other time, and I likewise would not have enjoyed a film by Truffaut or Godard as much had I watched it then. Acknowledgment of this subjectivity of experience is both crucial and very difficult to grapple with on being a responsible critic.

When one is exposed to a great deal of anything -- whether in cinema or other art forms -- that is situated within canononical frameworks and acknowledged to be brilliant, innovative, and all those other superlatives, there is a great risk of becoming "too good" for the rest of it and becoming reactive as a critic. Context appears to be both essential to obtaining knowledge of something -- in this case cinema -- but it can also be dangerous, I learned. As a proponent of the notion that the discourse of social context determines the level at which we engage the world, each other, and our own thoughts and experience, observing the limitations and potential dangers of too much conscious emphasis on context is a harsh reality to face, but an important one. While we cannot escape various levels of social conventions within our discursive practices, too much outright awareness of these structures can negatively affect how one approaches a medium as a critic. We must remember to see films as films; to, on some level, strive for an openness to a film's images, sounds, and stylistic approaches, while never forgetting the context in which we see it and in which the film itself situates within the grander context of the medium. This is an immensely difficult task, one that may not be entirely achievable. But that flaw is what makes artistic expression so unique in the first place. Yes, we have to consciously appreciate film history and its many treasures; I want to soak them up for years to come. But it's so essential to maintain as open an attitude as possible about all types of cinema, of both of the past and of the now, international or domestic, animated and live-action.

That's the Great Lesson Ted Learned in reflecting on missing the deadline for submitting my list of non-English language films for the project. Upcoming, I'll discuss some of the recent films I saw because of my ill-fated intent to participate in the survey, as well as other non-English language films I've seen over the years. Some of the films I'll discuss are not on the list of nominated films for the project (I missed the nomination vote for that as well), so this list will be uniquely my own, reflecting both my connection to Edward's project and my disconnect to it. Be warned: my list will no doubt display my relative inexperience with international cinema, but that's alright. It will, however, represent a springboard from which I will launch into the movies of all languages that await me in coming days, months, and years.

Friday, September 14, 2007

"Because You're On Television, Dummy."

[Update, Monday, 9/17: The following article is now slightly longer and much more coherent than when I originally posted it on Friday.]

"You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it! You think you've merely stopped a business deal? That is not the case. The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity. It is ecological balance. You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations; there are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems; one vast, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars. It is the international system of currency which determines the vitality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today. And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little 21-inch screen and howl about America, and democracy. There is no America; there is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today."

The above quote comes late in Sidney Lumet's Network (1976), long after Howard Beale's infamous "mad as hell" speech, and long after Beale was imprinted into the collective conscious of the American TV-watching public. Although Beale's early speeches are the locus of the film's ideas, I would argue that the real center of its themes is Arthur Jenson's speech to Beale from across the board room table (pictured above). Enveloped by the ordered surroundings of commerce, a brightly lit Jenson occupying a small portion of the frame informs Beale that there are no countries, no individual voices, and no real humanity beneath our surfaces. This inspires Beale to accuse his audience of having become "humanoids", in doing so Howard becomes just another blip on the screen. After single-handedly reviving a news division and a network, his ratings dip and executives discuss ways of getting him off the air. Audiences didn't want to hear they were humanoids -- they wanted to remain passive recipients of a message about revolution while complacently sitting in front of the television.

Sidney Lumet made Network more than 30 years ago. The film is remembered for Howard Beale's many famous speeches, in which the seemingly crazed news man preaches a revolution from the shackles of capitalism, war, and corporate power. Today, Howard Beale is considered a prophet. Critics and scholars cite the film's relevance in this time of hyper media attention and saturation. The cliche is that we are currently in the "here and now" age of digital reproduction. While I often despise the use of cliches and broad, familiar claims, there may be some amount of truth to this widely held belief. For example, popular magazines of the pre-digital age were known for long articles exhausting all angles of the given subject. Today, however, articles are becoming shorter. Online versions of popular news sources such as CNN or MSNBC routinely make errors in attempt to get something online or in print ahead of the competition. Networks now report "Breaking News" every 20 minutes on their websites without adequate information. Fearing that the consumer will choose another source, news Web sites and shows will do whatever it takes for those precious ratings so as to attract more advertisers. Moreover, our technological gadgets have further enabled us the convenience of shrinking the world into our own hands. Now we have more people to call or text message, more things to consume, and more pictures to take with our camera phones. And "news" -- both in presentation and content -- becomes a passing headline on the screen; faster, less trustworthy, and more controlling.

But it would be a great misunderstanding to assume that these digital media are displacing analogic media. Mechanical reproduction of electronic media enables the benefactors of capitalism to maintain dominion over the public, and digital technology only helps to sustain that. We are now experiencing a greater onslaught of the same systems of power, a greater reproduction of them in which the illusion of choice now becomes more believable to consumers. What appears to be pure democracy as represented by blogs, onDemand service and choice, YouTube, and digital downloads is just another veil of ignorance. Suddenly, Howard Beale's comments strike a resounding chord. Much like he says in his now famous speech, we have learned to isolate ourselves in our homes, cars, and in front of computer screens, surrounding ourselves with the comfort of brand names and products that we've been instructed to "need".

Perhaps, digital media are an intensification of our transformation into a culture of humanoids. Research, inquiry, and real living thought are argued to be devalued in our contemporary media culture in which the mainstream media will do everything in its reach to ensure that we choose between the Right and the Left. There we remain under the illusion that we "know a thing or two" about what's important in this world, totally oblivious that we think in product names and are conditioned to be good consumers. But now I'm starting to sounds like Howard Beale, aren't I?

Although it's tempting to reflect on the film and only think about Howard's illustrious speeches, perhaps our being so struck by them makes us just like the audiencing applauing his death at the end of the film, passive, acting and thinking that we're not going to take it anymore, but really taking all of it. The film poses this question by offering a narrative to which Howard Beale's plotline is the counterpoint. While Howard's speeches endure as some of the most memorable expressions of passion in cinema, the movie is so brilliant because it embraces the very real nature of its satire and the illusory nature of its drama. Lumet juxtaposed the biting satire of Beale's program with a subplot involving television executives Max Schumacker (William Holden) and Diana Christensen (Faye Dunnaway), the former a committed news man, father, and husband approaching the autumn of his life, and the latter a young, ambitious woman who thinks, lives, and breathes her job. Their work on popularizing the Howard Beale show brings them together. It isn't long before Max leaves his wife and home for a relationship with Diana. The film follows this subplot along with the behind-the-scenes subplots with Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), who manipulates the business end of the Howard Beale show. Intercut with these subplots are new episodes of the Howard Beale show, as he continues to gain popularity by articulating "the rage of the people", as Diana puts it.

These seemingly disparate story threads of drama, comedy, and satire converge as the film reaches its end, and this convergence is Lumet's pedigree. The late scenes represent the movie's punishing blow. Otherwise, it would be just another smart satire about media and capitalism. In these moments, Network really becomes about Max and Diana's dwindling relationship, to which the Beale storyline becomes the counterpoint and mirrors its demise. Although Max's mistakes are many -- and he is by no means a protypical hero -- his leaving Diana represents the only bit of hope in the film; hope that some people will resist the commodification of life and fight for whatever humanity has left. But he too has fallen victim to the overwhelming power of the media that surround him and constitute his life at all. When he's telling Diana why he's leaving her as if he's pitching a script, he describes his own ending as a hopeful one in his desire to re-unite with his wife. If he wasn't so influenced by the illusory nature of his life's work, he'd realize that there is likely no happy ending for him and his wife. He has burned the bridge between them. But the film never shows us what happens to its characters. In fact, what happens to them is essentially besides the point.

The final tragic scene between Diana and Max encompasses the human side of the film's themes, where we see that the line between life and fantasy that Howard Beale speaks of no longer exists, between real people and flickering images on a screen. Those images inhabit our existence, which results in a disconnect from what's real and human, one from which we as a culture cannot return. Much like the heartbreaking exchange between Max and his wife earlier in the film (which won Beatrice Straight the Oscar), Lumet finds a dramatic pulse to the film that is both unexpected and bittersweet. Here we realize that Network is far more than just an intelligent satire. Lumet is not content to just let Howard Beale act as a symbol of his film's messages. Instead, he makes a film with a real story made with concern; it's about real people whose lives and personal relationships become the hollow network plots they discuss in meetings. By the end, these characters are speaking only in television terminology to convey their defeated emotions. Their artificial surfaces have enveloped them to the extent that artifice constitutes their very being.

This is made tragically clear when Howard Beale's popularity begins to slip and becomes just another passing trend. His message is the same, but he delivers it with a more defeated tone and disgust for humanity. Perhaps he finally acknowledges that he is himself another pawn of the corporate power that packages and markets him to consumers. Maybe he realizes that he spouts off messages which resonate only superficially with the massive audience he's amounted; for if it really did have the desired effect, no one would have to watch the show to begin with and Howard wouldn't be on the air ranting. But he is on the air, and his very presence reproduces the problems about which he preaches. His tirades against television fundamentally ignore the fact that he is the content of the medium he so detests. The irony of the film therefore is its McLuhan-inspired acknowledgment that the medium is the message. Control lies not in the message of the medium, but in the medium itself. Network therefore posits that television is an institution in which relatively few can control the interests of its viewers, where capitalism exploits even the smallest trace of humanity and knowledge, transforming it into a means of controlling consumers. This is perhaps best said by Beale himself:

"Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation; this tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers; this tube is the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people, and that's why woe is us that Edward George Ruddy died. Because this company is now in the hands of CCA, the Communications Corporation of America; there's a new chairman of the board, a man called Frank Hackett, sitting in Mr. Ruddy's office on the twentieth floor. And when the 12th largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?"

To talk about Network is to talk about issues of media, corporote control, and, of course, being mad as hell. But the film is far deeper than its satirical surface. It's a deep ponderance of humanity in the age of hyper-capitalism as manifest in the mechanical reproduction of media sources and corporate power. But, it also examines these notions within the dramatic spectrum of relationships and characters. Underneath its depictions of a news anchor turned media spectacle named Howard Beale is both a tragic narrative and a profound inquiry into media relations.

Howard Beale tapped into the fears and rage of the people so much that they kept tuning into his program, playing right into the very traps he was enraged about. Therefore, viewers remained in their passive states of inactivity and Beale was reduced to just another image on the screen, one that will vanish with the click of a button. And when Beale began broaching issues that no longer appealed to viewers' passive states of faux-rage, they did precisely that: they changed the channel. Then, a real, breathing individual preaching a message that wasn't condusive to the corporate interests that undergird the medium of "the tube" is shot down on his own show. The camera zooms in on his lifeless body, the lights come up, and the room fills with applause, signaling not just the end of the Howard Beale show and tragic media image that was once a man, but the death of individual voice, reason, and humanity. The finals image of the film consists of four television screens at the corners of the frame repeatedly displaying graphic images of his death intercut with various commercials and advertising. They show quick images at different times; a sensory overload accompanied by a mechanical voiceover narration.

The questions raised by the film's juxtaposition of Howard Beale and the personal struggles of the individuals who made him accessible to the public are startling and troubling: Can humanoids even recognize that they are no longer human if they have purged themselves of the means by which they once embodied humanity? Can one recognize the problem/s with a system (let lone try to solve them) if that very system has provided the tools with which one can determine the problem at all? Since we started speaking these words, writing them down, and reproducing our means of communicating, have we really been able to understand ourselves and that which is outside ourselves to even understand what it means to be human?

The scene I quoted at the start of this article evokes these questions and more when viewed in relation to the rest of the movie. Watch it real closely; the dialogue, the performance, the sound, the framing; it's all right there. Jenson is more right than he, Howard, or any of us really know. Maybe we're not as mad as we think. Maybe we're happy as hell and will continue to take it. After all, it's all we know, and it's all we are.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Cronenberg on Sex, Violence, and Cinema

In a perfect world, I wouldn't know very much about the movies I see before seeing them. So often, critics write about the importance of having as little exposure to a film as possible and seeing it with fresh eyes. Since I usually can't see them until well after their release, the reality is that I read quite a bit about movies long before finally watching them. Even in the case of movies I go to see on opening day, I find it utterly impossible not to read interviews and reviews, especially if it's something I'm really looking forward to. One such movie is David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007), which is currently playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, where several critics have written rather enthusiastically about it already. In a recent post, I explain why it's not the worst thing in the world to read about a movie before you see it. But it's a fine line to walk, because it is a more pure experience when you know less.

When it comes to particularl filmmakers (e.g. Spielberg, Scorsese, Sofia Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Woody Allen, etc.), once I know the littlest thing about their films I become intrigued enough to seek out more. Sometimes, it's almost uncontrollable and I have to consciously stop myself from reading too much; not so much for knowing too much about plot (as plot means very little to me) but instead about compositions, themes, ideas, etc. It's always a struggle, one that the everyday cinephile has to deal with, especially this time of year. And with Eastern Promises coming out this week, I'm on overload with enthusiasm. This morning, I came across this outstanding interview (via GreenCine Daily), in which Michael Guillen talks with Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen about the film. Here is an excerpt from Cronenberg's comments that particularly struck me:

"The nudity in the scene is really about vulnerability; it's not sex. Most nudity in movies has a sexual aspect. Not that this doesn't maybe have some of that as well; but, it's much more sublimated. I've only recently been talking about it - because it just occurred to me - that it's like the shower scene in Psycho. You're naked, you're wet and there's some people with knives who don't like you. This is a very vulnerable kind of thing that people can relate to. Of course, it's all set up properly because of the tattoos that you meet there, so people can see the tattoos and see that it's all legitimate, and then it goes quite wrong.

I said to the stunt coordinator and the camera man, 'This is not Bourne-like impressionistic cutting away, where you don't see anything. Violence is physical. It's all about bodies. It's about the destruction of bodies. And I insist on that as the reality of this. And I want to see it all. This fight scene has to make physiological sense. It has to make mechanical sense. It has to make body sense.'

If an audience is seeing a movie to live another life - which I think is one of the attractions of seeing movies; you get to be out of your own life and live some other life that maybe you [wouldn't] ever really want to live but you're curious about - so, I'm saying, if you're a Nikolai in the movie, then you're going to experience this; I'm not going to throw it away, do it off camera, and do it frivolously. All the hard work and the difficulty of killing someone, if that's what this character has to do, I want you to feel it and see it."

Cronenberg can articulate sex, violence, and images like no other. And yet, despite his reflecting on the film's themes, he's somehow very ambiguous about it all, still inviting the reader/viewer to see the images for her/himself. The mere suggestion that Eastern Promises explores similar notions as A History of Violence (2005) is enough to send me through the roof. Although some yearn for the Cronenberg of old, i.e., the sci-fi Cronenberg, or the horror-Cronenberg, right now may be the most intriguing point in his career. I say this because he is now entering into a realm of reflexivity about narrative, sexuality, violence, memory, identity, and the body, further cementing my belief that he is our foremost scholar on the interconnectedness of these subjects.

Videodrome, 1983

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Power (and Indifference) of Nature in Cinema

Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) represents cinema at its most evocative, elusive state. Last year, Jim Emerson added Aguirre to his massive Opening Shots Project, an entry that includes a reader's remarks as well as a few of Jim's own. They both commented on the total indifference of nature towards human beings as suggested by the stark images and sounds of the opening sequence, one of the most masterful of cinematic moments. The scene is almost hypnotic in its ambiance and atmosphere. It's underscored with the echoing, drawn out notes of the film's score as the ant-like soldiers descend down the mountain seeking to bring Western culture to a land they soon discover is incongruous with their ideas of God and society. The movie left an indelible imprint on my mind, and for some reason I kept thinking back to that opening sequence. It's amazing how those evocative moments stand out, not just on first viewing but seen in relation to the rest of the film. I remember being so enamored by the images and music when I first saw them that I felt somehow honed into the sensibilities of the film before it really unfolded. Only in retrospect can one appreciate the thematic depth of the images.

After seeing the whole film, I went back and watched the opening sequence again, which was both the same but also different because I had the knowledge of the film's events, characters, themes and images already fresh in my mind. The aura of feeling still remained, but I could detect more subtleties within the compositions, framings, and sounds, and I essentially experiencing them differently even though they have not changed. By the third time of watching the opening sequence, I realized that many of the central tensions and themes of the film itself are suggested in that descent that lasts only a few moments. It builds wonderful contrasts and relationships through its images and sounds, essentially planting them in the first-time viewer's mind, not allowing her/him to really understand them but rather to allow them to blossom and come into focus (however subconsciously) as the film plays out.

Throughout the film, we see the banality and insistence with which the conquistadors attempt to conquer the jungle and its natives. They seek to reach the city of El Dorado, but as their journey descends to madness they are slowly enveloped and eventually swallowed by their surroundings. All the customs, traditions, and social contructions that constitutes their Westernized lives are rendered totally insignificant. Herzog's observations of this with his stark compositions, gritty atmospheres of quietness, and long interludes of nature's own wrath (e.g. the mesmerizing slow pan of the rapids) effectively contrast but eventually coincide with Aguirre's own madness as the batallion of conquistadors slowly dwindles into oblivion.

I suppose the beauty of great opening moments in films such as this is the elusiveness of feeling created within sounds and images as they interact. It reminds how essential a film's opening moments are; they set the tone for how one sees the rest of a movie, as Jim explains in the introduction to his project. We see them differently as we would images later in a movie after we've become accustomed to its rhythms. But since the opening of a film establishes those rhythms, the experience of seeing those initial images is radically different. The viewer has no sense of the styles, rhythms, or temporal and spatial relationships. Without that knowledge, seeing an image is a wholly different experience. The moods, feelings, and thoughts provoked by the sights and sounds of a great film's opening moments both tells the story of a film, yet remains intangible to the viewer and digs deeper than the story. Those feelings and thoughts build, shift, and evolve as the movie plays out. In Aguirre, there's no dialogue or discernable character that we're following, but instead a line of people carrying their riches and armor through mud and water, shrouded and mist. Somehow, on a more abstract level, the whole movie is in those moments; not the story, but the movie.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Autumn in cinephilia: Or how I learned to stop envying those in Toronto and love my computer

This time of year always has a personal significance for me, as I'm sure it does many movie lovers. Now that August has ended, summer sequels and blockbusters are all but purged from the cineplex, barring the Labor Day stragglers like Rob Zombie's Halloween (which I would like to see). Although I tend to be more generous toward the big, glossy productions of summer (which I have seen noticeably less of this year), I am usually very eager to get to the Fall releases. And no matter how depressed I get in August about the state of cinema or Hollywood, it seems that every year I am re-invigorated and my appetite for great contemporary cinema really kicks into high gear. September is not usually the finest month on the cinematic calendar in terms of release dates, but it represents a crucial time during which the overall atmosphere changes. Film news coverage begins shifting toward studio prestige releases and international cinema with the onset of various film festivals. Also, the quality of the films in release tends to upsurge starting in September. After consistent years of seeing great films in the later end of the year, there's no reason to expect that this year will be any different in terms of the quality of films in release; though I should be careful not to emphasize sameness, because the reason why I love this time of year is that my choices of films become more varied. Although I can't see many of the movies I'm usually reading about in September, seeing my favorite critics and writers sound off about them while knowing that I will see a number of these films eventually is what makes this time in particular so special.

The catalyst of this shift in the cinematic world can be broadly summarized in one word: Toronto. Despite that I have never been to a film festival, the Toronto International Film Festival is my favorite for a number of reasons. Along with its perfect timing, the festival offers hundreds of movies and is open to the general patronage. From what I have read, the festival pretty much takes over the city for two weeks. Though I have never been, I envision thousands of cinephiles and critics walking the streets, wandering in and out of movie houses to see films they either may not have heard of or are directed by big-name directors such as Brian DePalma or Woody Allen.

Last year, I remember reading about The Host, The Fountain, Stranger Than Fiction, Shortbus, Rescue Dawn, and Pan's Labyrinth among others. I just thought of these films off-hand, but even now that I look back at them, I can once again observe the shear diversity of filmmaking talent and style. Many of the films that excited me most I have already seen, while others I have not yet gotten to. Still, some others haven't even been released. While each of the critics whose accounts of the festival I have read (including Jim Emerson and James Berardinelli) didn't see all of the films or even a representative sample, the beauty of it is that its impossible see all of the movies or even sum up all of the films with a handful that one person sees. From the studio award bait to the small-funded shorts, each movie is a discovery waiting to happen. It's all a matter of what compels one to see a given film at a given moment.

Here are some films playing at Toronto that I'm greatly anticipating:

The trailer for Julie Taymor's Across the Universe is evocative and visually inventive. While some reports indicate that Taymor lost creative control of the film when the studio stepped in, I'm still very interested to see how this Beatles story unfolds. Taymor is not often one to offer simple narratives (see Titus), which is why I'm curious for her perspective on not just a biopic, but one that centers on one of the most influential bands of the 20th Century. [Update: Anne Thompson reports that Julie Taymor will retain creative control of her film. Thanks to Peet Gelderblom for the news.]

David Cronenberg's latest, Eastern Promises looks to be in the vain of his last film A History of Violence (2005) insofar that he's taking on violence and sexuality once again seemingly reflexively. I obviously have not seen the film, so I could be wrong, but early word indicates that the movie embodies a reflexivity about its themes and narrative structure. That's not bad news considering that A History of Violence is one of the very best movies I've seen in years. Both Eastern Promises and Across the Universe will have wide releases with month, which greatly pleases me, but just about all of the other films screened at Toronto (from what I've seen) will either be released later this year or have no release date of yet. I've already got Eastern Promises marked on my calendar (I'll be seeing it Saturday, September 15th).

Keeping with contemporary American films, one movie that's not getting strong early buzz is Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, which just screened at Venice to rather lukewarm reviews. I've come to expect this from critics today. With the exception of the largely praised Match Point (2005), critics have had no interest in Allen for the last 10 or 15 years. I will write at greater length about Woody Allen, his stature in American cinema for the last 35 years, and the image of him perpetuated by critics who claim to know him. If I see one more article about how he "stopped making us laugh", I just might snap. Nevertheless, his films are as interesting to me as any other filmmaker today and I look forward to this film with great interest, even if he's not trendy anymore.

Another film I am eagerly anticipating is George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead, a continuation in his ever growing zombie universe, which he again recently explored in the underrated Land of the Dead (2004). In each of the Dead films, a new group of people and social environment is explored in the same world overrun with zombies. Although his recent Dead movies don't measure up to the brilliance of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), they are fascinating entries in what's becoming one of the most intriguing film series in horror cinema.

Other films I greatly look forward to seeing include The Coens' No Country For Old Men, an apparent "return to form" for the once invincible filmmaker brothers; Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy), I'm Not There (Todd Haynes), The Brave One (Neil Jordan), Reservation Road (Terry George), Redacted (Brian De Palma), Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet), Atonement (Joe Wright), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik), The Mother of Tears (Dario Argento), Sleuth (Kenneth Branagh), Lust, Caution (Ang Lee), Into the Wild (Sean Penn). The list goes on and on and on... But take note of the variety of filmmakers on this list alone: Lumet, DePalma, Allen, Romero, Argento, Cronenberg, Jordan, Coen (and that's just the North American directors!); figures that have in different ways shaped contemporary cinema. They're still at it, and I can't wait to see what they have to offer now.

What I've learned about TIFF as an outsider is that the festival is sort of a microcosm for (or physical representation of) cinema. A critic or film lover can only see so many movies, and the list of movies that one person sees will differ from the next, despite probably sharing a few. What you have are a bunch of different people seeing different films, all with the potential to inform each other with their own unique experiences with them.

Reading about the many treasures has become something I look forward to every September. This year I'll be reading more reports because of my deeper involvement in the online film world, which I am in tune with than last year and therefore have greater exposure to quality online writing. Other than Emerson, Ebert, Berardinelli, etc., I will also frequently visit the blog, 1st Thursday, a site that's about the TIFF and nothing more. Darren Hughes has done such a great job with this site; it really represents the quintessential TIFF website; it is chock full of information about the festival, its films, as well as the city of Toronto, among other things. If you haven't done so already, I highly recommend visiting his site (click here for an introduction to the site and a description of its task), as I'm sure his updates will be many and informative. What 1st Thursday does best though is conveying an enthusiasm for this event that no other writing I've seen has done. Darren loves this festival; maybe for some of the reasons I've mentioned above, but probably for many others as well that I wouldn't understand since I've never been.

The only gateway I have into the festival is by reading blogs like 1st Thursday as well as the reports by Jim Emerson, Roger Ebert, Girish Shambu, and many, many others has lead me to promise myself that I will one day go to Toronto. But until then, I will read the reports and wet my appetite for what's in store over the next year. The air outside is still warm, but my inner-cinephile couldn't be happier (short of actually being in Toronto) to read about the many movies I will finally see when the air cools off and the leaves start falling.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Great Divide

Dennis Cozzalio's recent reflections on the "31 Days of Spielberg" captures the dread that some of us feel right now the blogosphere. As he observes, the film blogging community (if it can be called that) has experienced something of a ripple that struck a chord with many of us, whether we have written about it or not. As for me and my place in online film writing, I will admit that I've been a little unsettled of late. Although I have remained relatively quiet until this point, I have kept up with its backlash over the weeks. Right now I still don't have much to contribute outside expressing my upset over the situation. Arguably more interesting than Damian's actions, however, is how others have responded and used these media to express their views. Some have lashed out on Damian and others have shown their support, but sparing you all a disertation-length analysis of the communicative proccesses of online writring, I think it's important at this time to maintain a certain amount of professionalism as us film bloggers grapple with this situation and its implications. In light of my recent SCMS research assignment of cinephila, film criticism and blogging, I will say that the events have given me much to think about regarding the implications of blogging and the free-wheel form of writing its participants have enacted. In many ways, this event has elucidated for all of us the major schism between blog writing and published writing, no matter what the style (which I touched on somewhat recently). This divide must be taken seriously, even as we try to break it down.