Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Familial lament: Rachel Getting Married

With his 1975 film, Nashville, director Robert Altman located a connectedness in people's disconnectedness. He created fluidity out of chaos. Seemingly without regard, the film moved from one place in town to another, following characters with no apparent relation or connection to one another. Nashville instead captured the spirit of something much larger. Altman was also obsessed with details and atmospheres; with people filling a space and living in it. He was not after some great message. He didn't "use" narrative as a vehicle for overlying perspectives or ideas. He was after the motion of life, using one geographical destination as a lens through which to observe it. Narrative emerged from movements, actions, and moments.

It's no wonder that Altman is given special thanks in the end credits of Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, a film made very much in the spirit of that intangible Altman sensibility. The plot focuses the affairs of a family as it prepares for a wedding over the course of a couple of days. Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt) is due to marry Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), and the family gathers to organize final preparations for the ceremony and celebration at their house. Although the event for which crowds gather is altogether different, Demme's naturalistic approach to character and tone enables him to paint an intimate portrait of a real family. Where a lesser film would center itself aesthetically and tonally on the conflicts of the main characters, Rachel Getting Married is all about the "small" details --the exchanges between new acquaintances, former spouses, and everyone else. There is a sense that we're looking through the lens of our own eyes as we wander around this house, listening to conversations, gauging facial expressions, and surveying reactions.

The key role in the film is Rachel's sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), who is greeted with an uneasy sense of enthusiasm and overwhelming trepidation by her family. The small talk is accompanied by the expected smiles, hugs, and kisses, but is painfully and obviously hollow. At the same time, Rachel, a psychiatrist with all the right things to say, appears genuinely happy to see her sister, as do some others. But, as we learn, there are deep-ridden problems sustaining and bolstering the conflicts between family members. Kym's drug addiction is revealed to be the white elephant clouding every exchange and and encounter within the family.

The treasure of this film is not in the gradual unveiling of plot details, but in the intimate and intensely relatable portrayals of familial relationships. Demme is not attempting to represent "the American family." The core of this film is instead its dynamic observations of one particular family and the confluence of both similar and clashing ideals, perspectives, and backgrounds. Rachel Getting Married is not about anything more than the immediate and complex emotions it conjures. It is compelling in the purest sense of medium; connecting the viewer affectively and cerebrally to action on screen.

In many ways, taking part in this movie is as much a pleasure as it is demanding. This is a tricky relationship, but the best of movies involve you in an experience that is both external and internal. All viewers, those of us with and without families, can fundamentally relate to the conflicts of these characters. We see all their shortcomings, but we also feel those inexplicable and transient highs from just being with people and sharing something with them. The only flaws rest in the occasional insistence on significant dramatic moments, e.g. the lost brother plotline, Kym's relationship with her mother. The movie is at its best in moments between the drama, when quiet fills the air.

While a direct comparison to Nashville wouldn't be appropriate, both movies are propelled by keen observations of people in motion around an event. The players are different, all with different tasks, concerns, and wishes, but in both films the event is both lived and not; it becomes idea, or an ideal. The country festival of Nashville embodied deeper ideals and fleeting ideologies, and although the event here is shared among a more intimate group of people, the motions and feelings are nearly the same. That these actions are framed through a wedding, and in "real-time," i.e. without formalistic or narrative thematic threads guiding the viewer's perception and comprehension, every nuance and flaw can be experienced both in the moment and as a broader examination of relationships to which any viewer can relate.

The film ends with a wedding celebration so intoxicating and hopeful in its own right that, ironically, actually expands the distance between Kym, Rachel, and everyone else in the now-larger family. Rachel Getting Married culminates in a moment of sad beauty, lamenting the inherent void in human connection while finding hope in the transient moments when people come together.

Monday, November 10, 2008

On The Dark Knight (again) and other things

It's been a tough scene for film blogging lately, at least from where I'm sitting. There are so many film and media blogs on the web that I couldn't possibly try to surmise an overall state of blogging. But from my perspective, at least, there has been a minor lull in the past few months likely due to a combination of factors. Outside the Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals, it hasn't been a particularly exciting time for new releases. Moreover, a number of writers have probably been so attached to Presidential politics (myself included) that movies have taken a back seat to other concerns. Even a film as politically inflammatory as Oliver Stone's W. couldn't shake things up in film coverage. Then again, the idea of W. is more inflammatory than the film itself, which rather well sums up the state of movies in the last few months.

It's worth noting that I have done nothing to help the situation, as I have taken my longest hiatus from The Cinematic Art since I started it in January 2007. My reasons for doing this ranged from the aforementioned waning interest in films by film culture at large, strange as that sounds. This coupled with my fervent, almost obsessive interest in the election and the media coverage of it made finding time and inspiration to write about movies difficult.

In all fairness, the election was just one of a couple of things to occupy the majority of my time. The Philadelphia Phillies' unlikely journey to a World Series title was another. As a lifelong fan, hearing those words "And the Phillies are World Series Champions!" was one of those perfect and surreal moments. While elections and baseball championships make for great times (especially since the outcomes of both were as unexpected as they were joyous for me), nothing compares to what I experienced just six weeks ago, when my son was born. I can say without exaggeration that moment was the most humbling and illuminating of my short life, and it now lives in my memory as well as in my everyday experiences.

All of these things have contributed to my absence. I've had some time here and there to watch movies, among which Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure and Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married stands out. I'll have more on these films in coming posts. But I don't want to stress myself out with writing full-out reviews at this juncture. It took me about four weeks without posting to actually feel content with not posting. Ironically, this has enabled me to begin writing again, stress free. I'll have some collected thoughts on movies again (and on blogging) soon, but for now I want to get my feet again, take it easy, and remember why I began doing this in the first place.

As I attempt to regain focus, it's only appropriate that the article I'll be commenting on was written by another blogger who has taken some time off and only recently re-emerged into the film blogosphere. Ali Arikan, whose Indiana Jones blog-a-thon yielded some nice analyses on the Indy pictures, has written his first post in several months, offering his reflections on the film event of the summer: The Dark Knight. His post is refreshing for a number of reasons; first, because after an influx of discussion about the film before, during, and immediately after its release, interest has dropped off. It's as if critics and bloggers collectively decided that we are all on Dark Knight overload for a while and balanced it out by abruptly cutting off major discussion about it.

Given the context, it makes sense that Ali decided to write about this film for his return from blogging hiatus. But it's what he has to say about the film that's most interesting. He acknowledges the power of Christopher Nolan's juggernaut of a movie, but his implicit observation about the homogenized tone of the critical dialogue about the film is especially intriguing. In short, he's not buying the movie one bit, and for very different reasons than those presented by the film's detractors. He says:

"The Dark Knight is not a sequel to Batman Begins. The actors are the same, sure, and, thus, the characters, but they inhabit two completely different universes. A shadowy organisation of ninjas (none of them diminutive, alas) called The League of Shadows, run by a foppish Frenchman, and intent on razing Gotham, would feel completely out of place in the latter film. The Dark Knight doesn't just have a different tone, it plays a totally different instrument.

Gotham, too, looks different between the two films. In the first one, it has a reddish orange hue; it’s claustrophobic, and, even though I don’t want to use the word, gothic. In the second film, it just looks like Chicago. I know the first film was mainly shot on a soundstage, and that a big deal was made of the second film’s use of Chicago, but still, one would expect some sort of consistency.

Batman Begins is a superhero film that pushes its boundaries to the extreme. The Dark Knight is a film that obliterates those limits in the hopes of becoming a crime noir. And that would be a laudable intention, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s still a film about a guy who dresses up as a fucking bat and fights crime. It is because of its very essence that the film is inherently unable to make that leap towards serious crime drama. Batman Begins succeeds by remaining a superhero movie, The Dark Knight flounders by trying to abandon its roots.[5] And it’s not a pleasant sight."

In my original post on the film, I made a similar argument about the atmosphere and overall presentation of The Dark Knight. Where my thesis was buried in a sea of arguments, Ali directly critiques the movie for its almost complete lack of resemblance to the Batman Begins. Where Begins found a balance between the hero myth and a gritty cynicism. The film blended two very different sensibilities into an ambiguous tone that actually achieved both. The Dark Knight is just about the reverse of that. Thematically, its covering some similar territory, but the movie could not be any different from Begins from an aesthetic point of view. Moreover, that it almost completely shuns the cloudy tones of the first film is jarring.

I have only seen the film once, and I look forward to seeing it again. But on first viewing, the movie failed as both a crime saga and a representation of the hero myth. It failed to build upon anything established in the first film. As Ali notes, we're listening to a different instrument altogether. Equally important as that fact is how little it has figured into the greater discussion about the film. Although a number of critics / bloggers have grown tired of talking about The Dark Knight, we've really only just begun to comprehend its relevance as both a cultural artifact and a piece of cinema.

Monday, October 6, 2008

"A fervent and frightened prayer..."

Over the last week, I've been reading tributes in newspapers and on websites to the enduring career of Paul Newman. I heard reports of his sickness in recent months, almost refusing to accept that the frail man pictured in photos was actually him. When I learned of his death late last Saturday morning, I was as surprised as I was saddened -- not just because cinema has lost one of its greatest actors, but because it lost a true artist and model citizen. He gave the movies a positive face at a time in which American movies were undergoing such great change. He was an honest, sensitive actor whose charisma endured over many decades and defied easy categorization, even though that smile was so recognizable. One might even say that Paul Newman was born to star in the movies, with his classic good looks, commanding voice, and unending charm.

Thinking back on his most memorable roles now immortalized in the pantheon of cinematic images, I came to see that Newman as more than a good actor boasting several significant performances. He had a way of uniquely embodying each character he played while still making it his own. There was an undeniable "Paul Newman" spirit to his characters, despite never playing two characters the same. He didn't "disappear" into roles, but instead made them apart of him. It's not often when being yourself is noted as an actor's strengths, but Newman was one of the few who was both himself and whoever he was portraying; the likely result of the shear honesty he brought to his craft.

That honesty was also revealed through his many humanitarian efforts and political activism. I am not nearly knowledgeable enough to fully honor that work, suffice to say that there were many instances from his life on screen that revealed the many sides of Paul Newman.

Perhaps my favorite performance of his is from Sidney Lumet's brilliant 1982 film, The Verdict. Newman plays a depressed alcoholic whose best prosecuting days are behind him. In the film, he finds himself at a moral crossroad, where doing the right thing stretches far beyond the one single case he is serving on. Here is Newman's final case to the jury:

This speech crystallized the vision I have held of Paul Newman for as long as I can remember; i.e., what he means to the movies, his enduring acting career, his humanitarian efforts. Everything I admire about the man and his work can be seen in this singular moment.

Monologues in movies are so often remembered for their intense dramatic rhythms and strong delivery, yet what makes this one of the very finest is the perfect tone Newman finds between defeat and hope. His summation is more than three minutes, but consisting of only a few hundred words. It is somber, soulful, and especially relevant as Americans head to the polls for one of the most important Presidential elections they'll take part in. (One could say that this election itself is a frightened and fervent prayer.) It's also a great tribute to Paul Newman's career in movies and commitment to justice.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Back to school

In honor of the annual autumnal return to school and the end of the Big Summer Blockbusters, now is as good a time as any to crack out those pencils and erasers, and put on my thinking cap for Dr. Zachary Smith's End of the Summer Quiz over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. As always, Dennis has come up with some doozies for questions, with topics ranging from reflections on the summer to the failed promise of movie posters. Below are my answers.

Your favorite musical moment in a movie

There are just too many. But if I may show my true colors as a rank sentimentalist, the final sequence in Edward Scissorhands still stands out as one of the finest marriages of image and sound, narrative and music. It's tough to say what a musical moment is, because I'm inclined to think that some movies are more musically inclined than others and can be like pieces of music themselves. For someone like Tim Burton, the breadth of a moving image only takes shape with music, and the finale from Edward Scissorhands, as well as various other sequences of musical punctuation provide shape and scope to the affective climate he has created.

Ray Milland or Dana Andrews

Wish I knew more about both of these gentlemen, but I'd give the edge to Dana Andrews, if only for his memorable detective in Laura.

Favorite Sidney Lumet movie

Maybe this will answer the question...

"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."

Substitute some of those proper nouns with the corporate juggernauts of today, and this speech is downright prophetic... in a really scary way.

Biggest surprise of the just-past summer movie season:

How about Brendan Fraser starring in two (nearly) $100 million movies? I'm sure they're both deliciously bad, and I can't wait to see them! Hats off to him.

Since I haven't seen either film in the Fraser double feature, the biggest surprise among films I have seen is that neither Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or The Dark Knight were tops on my list of favorite blockbusters. (That honor goes to Hellboy II: The Golden Army.) Indiana Jones was more of a personal / childhood nostalgia experience than it was a movie, and while I liked it very much I don't think it was among the cream of the summer's crop. The bigger surprise is that The Dark Knight didn't ring true on any level. Unsurprisingly, I loved Wall-E. Finally, if Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World can be considered among the blockbuster crop for its limited run in July, than that would easily take the prize for best film of the summer.

Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth

Remember that head swing in Gilda? Enough said. Hayworth.

What’s the last movie you saw on DVD? In theaters?

Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 and Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Stalag 17 is not among my favorite Billy Wilder pictures, but is worth seeing for William Holden's masterful performance alone. I guess I've seen so many prison break movies to really appreciate the film to which so many owe their existence.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona was the perfect movie to see at summer's end: breezy, gorgeous, tinged with feeling. Like it or not, any critic who wishes to assert that Woody Allen's desire or gift for filmmaking is becoming the broken record that Woody himself is so often called. Allen's observations about people and relationships are resonant (as usual), but what makes this movie special is that it is both painfully tragic but light as a feather. This is movie is about wounded souls, and Allen succeeds at straddling the line between tragedy and comedy.

Irwin Allen’s finest hour?

The Towering Inferno, if only for its massive scope and its great (but little-known) John Williams main theme. Though when it comes to skyscraper disaster movies, I much prefer Joe Dante's Gremlins 2.

What were the films where you would rather see the movie promised by the poster than the one that was actually made?

Cutthroat Island. I'll admit I'm a big sucker for Drew Struzan's work, but this one is especially interesting in how it falsely advertises throwback adventure in the vein of The Sea Hawk. I can't blame Struzan for anything other than turning out some of his best work for a movie that simply can't live up to it. That's not to say I disliked Cutthroat Island at all. But it certainly doesn't live up to the promise of the poster, which promises just about the coolest pirate adventure ever. Renny Harlin has said this is his favorite movie poster. It's a shame he didn't live up to his end of the deal and make a movie deserving of such poster greatness.

On a side note: I'll bet that John Debney's magnificent score was inspired more by the poster than the movie.

Most pretentious movie ever

Most pretentious movie I liked: Dances With Wolves.

This movie is still maligned by just about every critic who didn't vote for the Oscars in 1990. Of course, Dances With Wolves not hold up under close ideological scrutiny, but I was staggered by Costner's vision of the American West. Of all the characters, Two Socks the wolf was most endearing. There is something so benevolent about the early sequences in which Costner and Two Socks are familiarized with one another, with John Barry's music echoing over brown plains stretching into the horizon. This may be shallow stuff, but it hits me hard.

Most pretentious movie I didn't like: The Usual Suspects.

I'm with you, Roger Ebert. I still do not understand why this movie is so beloved by many. It's confusing, uninteresting, and painfully overlong. It exists solely for the big twist, making it little more than a parlor trick. And the fact that director Bryan Singer plays it off so suavely (as if to say "Gotcha! Now aren't we cool?") is even more repulsive. Simply put, this movie is carried away with itself.

Name the movie that you feel best reflects yourself, a movie you would recommend to an acquaintance that most accurately says, “This is me.”

From the moment I saw Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation, I don't think I've ever felt more close to a movie. I likely never will again. It's not that I "relate" to the characters so much that the film captures the feelings (and subsequent implications) of human interaction and relationships so painfully, fleetingly, and delicately. I can't even describe how it does it. No amount of discussion about performances or shot lengths can explain this movie or sum up why it's good. For me, Lost In Translation is the perfect expression of humanity, from introspective explorations of loneliness to the benign and transient feeling of connecting with another person.

Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo


Best movie snack? Most vile movie snack?

Nothing beats it a tall, cold Coke. As for the worst, anything I eat too much of and then feel sick while watching the movie.

Fitzcarraldo—yes or no?

Yes! But it's only Herzog's second best jungle movie starring Klaus Kinski. Much like Aguirre: The Wrath of God, this film is a hypnotic fever dream, both a celebration and revulsion of obsession and Man's awkward relationship with technology, nature, and fellow Man.

Your assignment is to book the ultimate triple bill to inaugurate your own revival theater. What three movies will we see on opening night?

Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr., Henri Clouzot's Wages of Fear, and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These movies fully showcase the wonderment of cinema in very different capacities, exhibiting the range and the perpetually expanding horizon that one can experience in cinema. The series could be called "Movement, narrative, and affect."

Most impressive debut performance by an actor/actress.

Ahmad Razvi in Man Push Cart. Of course, you could say that not much was asked of Ahmad Razvi in portraying an emotionally guarded New York city street vendor, but this performance is among my very favorites in recent memory. The movie reminds me of Lost In Translation in how it so pointedly observes its central characters simply existing in the world around them. The performances may be restrained, but Razvi's in particular is deft and mature.

2008 inductee into the Academy of the Overrated

Iron Man. Conventional wisdom would say The Dark Knight, but at least that film had a small, but vocal crowd of detractors. Very few critics were bold enough to come out against the more harmless and less incisive Iron Man, a film whose politics are curiously irresponsible. Jon Favreau is an excellent craftsman; he lives for this stuff. But he is failed by a pedantic and condescending script. There is very little here.

2008 inductee into the Academy of the Underrated

My Blueberry Nights. Please allow me to quote my favorite piece of criticism this year, Matt Zoller Seitz's review of Wong War-Kai's underrated gem. No words I write could hold a candle to the planes Matt reaches here. Poetic criticism for a poetic film:

"There's no sense pretending that My Blueberry Nights is a towering addition to Wong's filmography. The stakes are quite low throughout, and the movie's pace is as boozy-meandering as the tempo of its soundtrack selections. (Cooder's instrumental tracks recall his work on Wenders' melancholy, Sam Shepard-scripted road movie Paris, Texas.) Jones is a stunning camera subject and never less than likable, but she lacks the technique to suggest a complex interior life. Law is, as usual, gorgeous and charming but not especially exciting. Weisz's performance is a touch shrill, her "southern" accent a botch; she only rallies during Sue Lynn's confession. Portman is livelier here than she's been in some time -- the character's brassiness liberates her -- but the role still doesn't quite seem to fit. (Was it written with an older actress in mind?) Of the major players, only Strathairn makes a deep impression; few actors are better at playing men coming to terms with failure. Yet if you're willing to ease into Wong's mindset -- that of a barfly who's in such a good mood that he doesn't care what he's drinking or what's on the jukebox or how many hours are left till closing time -- none of the aforementioned flaws feel like flaws. My Blueberry Nights seems to be unfolding in a world of perpetual night -- one in which the darkness is illuminating. It's an exploration of interiors, geographical and emotional, and it seems acutely alive -- as if the movie itself is a luminous being that has seen the world and survived heartbreak and resolved to savor each remaining second of its existence, however long or short it may be."

Antonioni once said, “I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.” What filmmaker working today most fruitfully ignores the rules? What does ignoring the rules of cinema mean in 2008?

Stylistically, that's tough to say. There are so many filmmakers stretching the capacity of film, from redefining compositional conventions to re-calibrating the notion of "Film as Narrative." Where we still need to make great strides is in overcoming the commercial censorship of cinematic representations of sexuality. Unfortunately, pornography has staked a claim on visualizations of sexuality, which has certain implications for what it means to visually represent sexuality in cinematic terms. Movies have been pushing the envelope for years, challenging the standards and chipping away at the censorship tower. Recently, John Cameron Mitchell made a bold film called Shortbus, which was essentially an attempt at making an artful movie about sex. It succeeded on many symbolic levels -- Mitchell himself has described the film as a statement of rage and protest for having to endure last seven to eight years of the Bush administration. But the tower still remains and is as powerful now as ever, and my hope is that more filmmakers seize on the opportunities presented by the shifting conditions of digital culture.

What’s the movie coming up in 2008 you’re most looking forward to? Why?

Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. No screenwriter in recent memory is as creative as Kaufman. The Spike Jonze two-punch of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation is arguably the most impressive tandem of screenplays in contemporary American movies. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isn't too far behind, either. I'm really looking forward to what he'll do with a camera.

What deceased director would you want to resurrect in order that she/he might make one more film?

Alfred Hitchcock. Call me a traditionalist, but I don't think there is a more impressive filmmaking resume than the one he has put together between the 1930's and 1970's. It's now trendy to like Hitch, but there is a dangerous tendency to reduce his films to a matter of flashy style and surface detail. For me, Hitchcock has always represented much more; even a great deal of his throwaway films took us to some kind of void. Seeing his style develop over time is a real treat, with his images become more sublime and subtle as he aged. He gave us a brief glimpse of what he might do without the bounds of censorship in Frenzy, but not my mind is only left to wonder.

What director would you like to see, if not literally entombed, then at least go silent creatively?

Rob Reiner. If he hadn't shown so much promise in the 80's (e,g. The Princess Bride, This is Spinal Tap, etc.), I wouldn't be so offended by the atrocities against filmmaking he has been committing for the better part of 15 years.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Between spaces: Cinema 2007, part II

Well here we are again. With the Telluride Film Festival winding down and the Toronto International Film Festival now in full swing, a four month period of moviegoing relished by cinephiles has officially kicked off. During the course of these two festivals, attendees will be / have been offered a glimpse to the future of independent and international cinemas. Some of these viewers will write about these movies on blogs and web sites. For impatient movie lovers (like myself), reading about so many interesting films is both a great pleasure and a pain, as most of us know full well that we will never see half the movies we read about. Moreover, the ones we manage to see are often many months later.

Having said that, there is something special about knowing there is so much out there. These desires and pleasures are rolled into a certain nostalgia I find myself experiencing this time of year when I indulge my cinephiliac impulses, if only for a taste of that perpetually out-of-reach horizon of affect that movies produce in us. For me, it's actually comforting to know that there is too much for one person to handle. It's the feeling that cinema cannot be contained, that there is so many different kinds of it and such a plurality of aesthetic and narrative forms.

In the introduction to my previous post on my favorite movies of 2007, I argued that a different approach to retrospective commentaries is likely needed to better grasp what these flickering images mean to us. But when it comes to our relationship with movies themselves, it's also important to keep in mind that we are mired in out own constructions of the world around us, and that we approach all movies from within those fields of perception and comprehension. This, I think, is what makes the discussion of movies so unique and potentially enriching. I don't believe in such a thing as all-encompassing Knowledge, the type that underlies all of experience and can be universally accessed. That doesn't mean that all knowledge is useless. Quite the opposite, actually. There are many knowledges, and our relations to them are dependent on the values and assumptions we hold not just about cinema but about our relationships with people and the world around us. These ideological factors are based on both personal and collective meaning structures, giving each of us a unique perspective.

As I alluded to above, we are all coming at movies from such different places and spaces. And when it comes to movies, film festivals are reminders that we occupy a small, but unique position in the scope of cinema, whether we're watching, discussing, writing about, or making films. As the late Manny Farber intoned, termite art exists in all places, most especially in the spaces between spaces typically designated specifically for art. The multiplicity of cinema -- both in terms of the number of individual films, and the infinite spectrum of cinematic moments within individual films -- is all around us, and we each carve out our own place in that spectrum; stretching, expanding, and re-defining it.

Following is the second part of the list of films from last year that meant something to me, personally as well as critically. Together with the films I mentioned in the previous entry, this collection of cinema represents the year 2007 to me. There are some odd picks on here, for sure, some expected critical hits that moved me, and other movies that stood out at to me as revelatory. As Toronto and Telluride prepare to unleash a new crop of cinematic treasure upon us and the cinema of 2007 becomes an afterthought of the moment, allow me to take this moment, however fleeting, to reflect on films that in my estimation deserve recognition.

The Savages (Tamara Jenkins): With startling simplicity, The Savages subverts two massively cliched sub-genres: elderly people / nursing home movies, and dysfunctional family dramas. The film focuses on a brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and sister (Laura Linney) who deal with having to put their abusive father (now with vascular dementia) into a nursing home. While this adequately sums up the plot, the movie is so much more than its narrative design. It's full of subtleties and inexplicable joys, mostly stemming from Tamara Jenkins allowing Hoffman and Linney to create real moments of drama on screen. Her style is all but invisible, and it rests in knowing when to let silence fill the screen. The Savages is in many ways a cookie-cutter pseudo-independent film, combining a less showy aesthetic approach with the strong performances of strong, successful actors. Even though it mostly plays by the rules of its stylistic and generic influences, the film has so many moments of real humanity, simply and beautifully committed on-screen.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates): Following the now-famous opening of the Warner Bros. logo slowly coming into focus, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix does something very unexpected considering its status as the fifth film in a series. Instead of trudging through more redundant encounters with Harry's cartoon-ish aunt and uncle, this film places its central character (and the audience) in a very different world. On a creaking swing set in a lonely park Harry sits alone in the dreary summer heat, caught between a desire for isolation and a yearning for a connection he will never have. In these opening moments, you know this movie is not just another harmless sequel, or a bland regurgitation of source material like the previous film (enjoyable as it was), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Instead, this Harry Potter pulses with its own dramatic energy; it crawls underneath your skin like a good horror movie. Equally exciting is how the film balances the wonderment of the magic world and the bureaucratic underbelly of its institutions. The opening sequence establish these conflicts right away and create a stirring atmosphere that's eventually expanded by the rest of the film. Director David Yates makes it known immediately that he wishes to re-explore something that began with Alfonso Cuaron's third film in the series (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), and that is an affective state almost completely independent of the books.

Paprika (Satoshi Kon): From my original review:

"Satoshi Kon's Paprika is a film of many things, but above all, it is about dreams. It shatters all distinctions between actual and virtual, analog and digital, in its exploration of cyberlife, avatars, and digital space via the realm of the unconscious... Paprika is thoroughly conventional in its narrative cues and dramatic beats, even its thematic trappings about the actual/virtual binary. But the manner in which it weaves these threads around, through, and within each other is incredibly inventive. Moreover, its marriage of movement and sounds is like being in a dream through the swirling colors and motions of its animation. Kon's film is an intoxicating experience that will linger in the conscious and unconscious mind. On several levels it could be seen as an allegory for cinema; not just cinematic technology (as the plot deals with scientific advances which enables individuals to explore dreams), but about the state of movement and time that cinema can construct, a way of seeing and hearing that manifests in all of us."

Atonement (Joe Wright): Each year, there is at least one film around awards season that the more "sophisticated" critics make their punching bag. In 2007, Atonement took that title, if only because its World War II setting and apparently generic forbidden lovers plotline, all somewhat typical and expected for awards season. But I'm having none of it. Despite the amazing period detail and formal filmmaking prowess, this movie has tones of thematic and visual subtlety that far transcend its traditional surface details. Constructed with such precision, its aesthetic unity is constantly undermined by a narrative that cannot be trusted. Some have said that Atonement is all about perception. I would argue instead that it's about what shapes perception as well as the implications for manipulating the perceptions of others. It is both a wonderful throwback to old-fashioned epic romances as well as a contemporary critique / update, and it is much more sophisticated than many critics believe.

Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul): There are likely hundreds, if not thousands of feature films and shorts each year stretching the aesthetic capacity and narratological structure of images that are unseen by me and millions of others. Syndromes and a Century is a reminder of this. It is a reminder that the quiet simplicity of images often results in the most immediate, even illuminating viewing experiences. The film tells two stories, each with the same characters and dialogue, but in different settings. Rathern than becoming an exercise in shameless narrative manipulation (a la Run Lola Run), Apichatpong Weerasethakul's film is striking rumination on love, memory, and identity. It is neither positive or negative in its portrayal of its ideas and characters, but is instead a reflection on the images, memories, and words that form the basis of our being in relation to each other.

Away From Her (Sarah Polley) Thinking about this movie, I'm tempted to quote Luis Bunuel's statements about memory and self -- featured prominently at Dennis Cozzalio's blog. It goes like this: "You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives." Away From Her is a spiritual companion to Syndromes and a Century, but with an entirely different narrative design. The film is deliberate in its insistence on silence. That silence fills the space between an elderly couple, one of whom whose memory slowly fades away. "I fear I'm beginning to disappear," the woman says. How many times these two people have likely failed to understand one anther, to listen and see each other through the course of their lives. But the silent bonds that often keep people together is a mutual experience in each others' memory; the ability to not just experience life together to make meaning out of that experience together through stories and recollections of experience. Sarah Polley's film is a poignant, yet painful meditation on these things, as well as the more intangible qualities of love.

One final note: while Julie Christie was nominated for an Oscar for performance, the real anchor of the film is Gordon Pinsett, who beautifully portrays a man who comes to grips with losing his wife.

3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold): The first time I saw 3:10 to Yuma, I enjoyed certain aspects of it, such as the performances (by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale) and the writing. I was surprised at how moved I was by the end, because I hadn't thought of it as much more than a slightly above-average movie experience. But it was on second and third viewings that the film really came into focus. Simple scenes such as the classic Western night camp seem effortless and simple but are actually quite amazing in their ability to capture the nostalgia of a genre as well as build its own narrative energy, the threads of which are more than relevant in contemporary times. In the age of the great American westerns, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Fred Zinneman, and others used the genre to spin morality tales of good and evil, right and wrong. The genre has undoubtedly evolved into something different, and James Mangold was able to bridge the past and the current with his film, and he does so with eloquence and nuance.

Persepolis (Vincent Parannaud and Marjane Satrapi): Showing off the limitless creative potential of which animation --and the medium of cinema, as a whole-- is capable, Persepolis is also a deeply personal account of one woman growing up in several countries. It's the kind of story that is only enhanced by the whimsy of its style. With unflinching surrealism, Vincent Parannaud and Marjane Satrapi (whose story this is) invite viewers into young Marjane's mind as she witnesses war and family loss and experiences the physical and psychological aches and pains of growing up without an identity. They take full advantage of the autonomy that animation grants filmmakers and viewers, and they offset their brilliant images with a very real portrait of a woman, a family, and a country at a time of crisis. And yet, the directors never let the movie be defined by its settings and circumstances, but instead locate something much more personal in a girl's growth into womanhood.

No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen): How does one begin to talk about this film? Discussed constantly on blogs and in print, The Coen brothers' film can be described as nothing short of a masterpiece. I'd like to single out one aspect of its greatness here: sound. A number of critics have discussed the noteworthy absence score in the film, which is surprising considering how comfortable Joel and Ethan Coen are with music in their films. Some of their most memorable images --the Ax Man in Fargo, the hat in Miller's Crossing, etc.-- were so memorable because of Carter Burwell's musical accompaniment. No Country For Old Men is equally memorable for its music, which is almost impossible to notice due to how it is so part of the image. For example, watch closely Anton Chigurh's conversation with the gas station clerk early in the film. Burwell augments the mood of the scene and its perfect compositions with just the right chord, so deep it's almost unrecognizable. But it's right. As for the sparing use of music, one could argue that the decision not to put music to images in this film does not take away from the musicality of those images at all. After all, as I have argued before, we don't just see images, but smell, taste, and hear them too.

Once (John Carney): Speaking of music, there have been many filmmakers and critics that have referred to cinema as something of a sibling to music. From a purely technical standpoint, the two art forms don't appear to have much in common. But both as an expression and as an experience, cinema mirrors the transient affective experience that come from listening to music. John Carney's Once is the perfect expression of this union. The whole film is like a song, and the songs contained in the film tell stories that are movies unto themselves. Simply told, Once is a film that follows the relationship of two individuals. They never kiss, or even embrace (to my knowledge), and yet their connection is sensual and impossible, resulting in one of the more bittersweet, deeply felt films in recent years. Small and seemingly mundane as they are, every look between these two, every smile, is a rich expression of feeling.

Zodiac (David Fincher): Jim Emerson said it best: Zodiac is about information -- its production, distribution, and consumption. David Fincher dares to introduce an irresistible plotline about the unsolved mystery of a serial killer in San Francisco and then turns completely away from it, as if uninterested. What starts as a visceral, brutally physical movie ends up following a cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhal) driving 100 miles to a small-town police station to dig up old records. The murder scenes trail off about midway through the film, and we're left with one person's obsession with uncovering his identity, losing his wife and family in the process. But Zodiac is not so much about the serial murders of the real-life zodiac killer as it is about media and technology, and the massive implications for their use in the digital age. The film paints an idea of its killer with a painstakingly constructed vision of something so unimaginable: a pre-digital world, where information is spread over real physical geography, inked onto pages, and traveling through wires. Information was something to be handled and used for specific means. Fincher's film depicts the unique collision of the analog and the digital that now constitutes our current media culture and manifestations of violence, celebrities, and the ongoing necessity of purpose.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The year that was, the year that is: Cinema 2007 (Part I)

Journalism has become more about the moment in recent years. As news networks and publications rush to be the first rather than the best to report something, mainstream film criticism has been trying to keep pace. In an increasingly crowded market of films. Journalistic criticism is suffering from the many of the same flaws as mainstream media. These drawbacks can best be summed up in the overall poor coverage of the nuanced crop of films currently available. It's become clear that the old model of film reviewing simply isn't condusive with the economic and cultural changes in film, criticism, and media. A consumer model for years, journalistic film criticism has stayed relevant simply by keeping up with the ever-revolving door of films in current release. But now more movies are released each year and the conditions of digital culture have enabled viewers to see a wider variety of films. There will always be blockbusters to help critics (and most others in the movie industry) pay the bills, but the current system of film reviewing is failing economically and critically.

Nowhere is this more evident than in those end-of-the-year Top Ten lists. Apart from the mostly homogeneos structure of these annual reflections, they also only turn up only between December 15 and January 15. While this appropriate for economic purposes, it reproduces a notion of film and criticism as plastic-wrapped products, appropriated and consumed in the moment, forgotten quickly in the desire to consume more. I want to avoid being hypocritical, though. In many ways, movies are commodities. And so often are movie reviews. My main concern here is not so much the commodification of film and film criticism, but when this underlying truth absorbs any and all other potential paths to participate in movies and criticism as readers, writers, and spectators.

There is nothing inherently wrong with following the conventions of the trade, whether we're talking about deadlines, word length, or content. I do, however, fear that with the normalization of these Top Tens and retrospectives, it's become difficult for criticism to really engage cinema outside the boundaries of commercial consumption, because it appears now that even memory has been co-opted. These boundaries condition us to keep on trucking through new films and to appreciate anything not "in the now" in a very controlled way. We should accustom our minds and memories to contain the sounds and images we associate with great films. We need to re-calibrate our critical consciousness, place movies, images, and modes of criticism in such a way that we aren't accepting or rejecting the current system or methods of inquiry / discourse.

One way of beginning this process is for those of us outside the professional laurels of film criticism to take advantage of the autonomy granted by the digital media we work within. Although many critics are forced to move on from discussing films from last year or the year before, all of us have the unique opportunity to continue those dialogues, start new ones, and set new patterns for what films are being talked about and how they are discussed. I'll be doing that here by writing about movies that have mostly dropped off the film critical radar. I've been squirming to keep up with as many '08 releases as possible. But all the while I've been thinking, reflecting, sometimes writing about my favorite films from last year, especially since I've only recently caught up with many of them on DVD. So instead of a Top Ten, I'll look at all of the films that I believe to be important. Moreover, I've seen them all at different times and some more than others. My goal is to try to locate a new way of talking about some of the more popular ones and getting some other movies talked about at all.

Allowing some distance between yourself and a "cinematic year" helps situate certain films or the year as a whole in the context of a changing life. We can see the reflections and the shadows of ourselves in movies, and time. Some movies are still fresh in my memory as if I've seen them yesterday, where others have lurked deep in my consciousness and may appear different than I remember seeing them. Often I will recall a certain time of year or an event in my life that I associate when I return to these films.

The movies I'm going to discuss here stood out to me in some way, sometimes in the moment of seeing them, sometimes after a passage of time. The circumstances are different with each movie. Some films on this list probably are more significant to me personally than to the artistic growth of cinema, and others may illuminate cultural moments in terms of either their impact on audiences or in terms of their narrative / thematic content. It's difficult to say where exactly the lines between these different levels of significance are; which is partly why these kinds of retrospectives are so relevant, especially when they are situated outside the commercial tides of film criticism. Movies are all about time; shrinking it, expanding it, and recreating moments within it. Maybe they mean so much to us because we are constantly caught in the flux of time, narrativizing our lives out of the raw material of experience.

So without further pontification, I now share with you my impressions on a year in cinema that still lives in my mind, even if we're well into a new one. Rather than trying to capture movies themselves into a matter of paragraphs, I have opted to pick out moments and details -- a scene, character, movement, a line of dialogue, or something else -- that locks each respective movie in time, personally and culturally, defining it rather than representing it.

[Note: Because there are many movies I'd like to discuss, this is the first of two posts with my reflections on 2007 movies. Next post to follow in a couple of days.]


I'm Not There (Todd Haynes): "It's like you got yesterday, today and tomorrow, all in the same room. There's no telling what can happen." This line --the last in the film, I believe-- says it all. Unlike many other supposedly postmodern movies which slice up their narratives and present them out-of-sequence, this film actually achieves a fluidity with its disconnected components. These disparate elements include visual styles and the many lives of Bob Dylan, and they manifest in different aesthetic rhythms and physical incarnations of Dylan himself (with six different actors playing him). Rather than chopping up a linear narrative and presenting it in puzzle form (which is ultimately linear), this movie really follows through in its non-linear aesthetic and narrative style. And the most amazing thing is that it comes together in the oddest, most abstract, and lyrical ways.

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg): This movie was a standout to me when I first saw it in September of last year, and its images still invade my memory to this day. Having to pick just one scene would be cruel. I'll instead reference the opening paragraph from my original review of the film, which describes the opening scene of the film.

"The opening scenes of David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises 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 where you can feel the blood flowing through your veins. His images invite another form of pleasure. The scene consists of a very simple series of shots which 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, one that's revealed to be nothing more than business once it's over."

Helvetica (Gary Hustwit), Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye), and Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal): I know, I know. Lumping three movies together simply because they are documentaries is pretty inexcusable. Having said that, my choice to run them all under one heading was inspired more by what their differences as well as their similarities. Each of these films is visually inventive, eluding the simplistic conceptions of documentary that many individuals hold. And although they deal in different subject matters and aesthetics, they are bound by an underlying inquiry into culture, social action, and responsibility. These films don't preach about a message or assemble various talking heads to blather on; they are earnest, inquisitive films examining social actions, issues, and phenomena -- from abortion, to language, to biosocial aesthetics -- and they do so in a way that illuminates something about the world. I fail to find a moment in any one of them that defines or represents their worth. They are each a collection of images, thoughts, and representations that engage you in questions of what it means to be a member of culture/s, belief system/s, and the social fields and constellations that we inhabit.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik): Under cover of trees and night, Jesse James (Brad Pitt) rides alongside his next victim, talking casually, slowly, as if the thought that he was not about to take a man's life didn't once cross his mind. James tells the man to "go on ahead," reassuring him that he'll be just behind him. They both know what's happening and yet neither makes a rise. The man obliges and begins walking his horse foreward into the darkness. In one sustained shot, Jesse is slowly obscured into a motionless figure in the background as we lock on to this man's face as fear and dread beckoning in his eyes. Finally, a gunshot cuts through the night silence.

Few movies from last year are as introspective about death as The Assassination of Jesse James. This scene haunted me for days in how much it was unlike typical shooting or death scenes in movies. The feeling I had while watching it hangs over the whole movie, as if the spirits of Clint Eastwood and Terrence Malick were somehow melded together.

Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog): In the opening minutes of Rescue Dawn, you'll feel like you're seeing a Herzog film from the 1970's. Images of scorched earth fly by slowly in one fluid shot (from a helicopter flying over jungle in Southeast Asia) to the ethereal sounds of Klaus Badelt's score. Herzog has always been fascinated by the collision of nature and technology, and this shot sets the mood perfectly for a quietly riveting film about one man's survival from being a POW. The remainder of the film is less like it's opening minutes and more committed to a gritty realism, heavily contrasting with these introductory images. Christian Bale and Jeremy Davies are both brilliant, mostly without ever speaking above a whisper as they conspire to break free from the camp they are imprisoned within. Some have said that Herzog has gone "Hollywood" with this film due to its ending. But its clear that Herzog is not much interested in survival itself, but the intangible drive for it.

Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright): Both a work of comedic brilliance and formally sound filmmaking, Hot Fuzz is one of last year's underrated treasure. Here's an excerpt from my original review:

"Every time a door is opened, every time a change of location takes place, we are treated to a loud, rapidly cut montage of close-ups that are now typical by contemporary murder drama/action movie standards. There are small touches of visual humor peppered throughout the proceedings, but the movie keeps a straight face -- mostly through Pegg's earnest performance -- even as it stoops to the most pendantic of visual gags. Such contrasts are the foundation for a narrative that never overtly establishes itself with any kind of consistency when it comes to genre placement. Rather than haphazardly surveying a patchwork pastiche of movie conventions as many other directors might, Wright instead opts to use this aura of stylistic and narrative inconsistency to his advantage by building the drama, action, and comedy of the film around it."

Ratatouille (Brad Bird):
Django: We look out for our own kind, Remy. When all is said and done, we're all we've got.
Remy: No. Dad, I don't believe it. You're telling me that the future is - can only be - more of this?
Django: This is the way things are; you can't change nature.
Remy: Change is nature, Dad. The part that we can influence. And it starts when we decide.
Django: Where are you going?
Remy: With luck, forward.

Most discussions I've read and been apart of about Ratatouille have focused on the whimsy of the narrative or the wonder of the animation. Sadly, little of said of what the film is really after. The dialogue I've posted above is an exchange between Remy and his father facing one another in the rain, each breaking the other's heart without a voice needing to be raised. Out of context, this chunk of dialogue may appear to be speechifying about a message, but it's actually articulating of a conflict that affects every individual within or a part of a culture, gender, race, sex, religion, etc. This thematic focus is subtly stated through the film, and it's not about party lines or moral balance so much as perception. One could say that Brad Bird is making a statement about digital cinema and animation as they fight for validity amongst the tide of traditional photography-based filmmaking, bu it's about that and so much else. Ratatouille will speak to its viewers in various ways, but for me, this dialogue is the centerpiece of the movie because it painfully evokes the wounds at the heart of all social divides.

Sunshine (Danny Boyle): "What can you see?" So asks the spaceship's crewsperson as his captain stands immobile on the hull awaiting certain death, with the sun's rays moving closer. Sudden waves of light and movement surround the captain, enveloping and filling the composition with sharp, disjointed sensibilities. But as the plane of light passes over his body, all of these currencies of beams and vibrations disappear. What we have is an isolated, even intimate moment of intense senation as time and space fold into one transient moment of illumination -- life and death. One of the memorable motifs throughout the film involves sight or the power of the vision. Sight is often obscured in focus and movement, but in moments of death, it becomes the vantage point through which transcendence and death are intensely experienced. As I observed in a previous post, Sunshine "makes the sight of the sun utterly sublime, whether one is close enough to touch it or millions of miles away..."

Into the Wild (Sean Penn): There is a moment between Hal Holbrook's father figure and Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) so heartbreaking that it captures the whole film. Holbrook clearly doesn't want Chris to leave for Alaska so he offers to adopt him. Through most of this quiet exchange, Penn locks on Holbrook's beaten, worn-down face, tears filling his eyes, as he must come to terms with the fact that Chris simply will not listen. What struck me most about the negative response to Into the Wild is the misguided focus on the central character's arrogance and/or foolishness. I don't see how that equates to the film being arrogant and/or foolish, but that distinction was lost on many. Sean Penn's film may not be one of the very finest from 2007 when it comes to critical or formal analysis; I'm sure I could watch it right now and point out flaws galore. But that is exactly the kind of attitude toward movies and art in general that I find arrogant and foolish. Into the Wild is an empassioned, ambitious, and heartfelt experience centered around the life of a person who saw and lived in a very different world.

Stay tuned for more...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Manny Farber: In Memory

"The liveliest, smartest, most original film critic this country ever produced."
-- Susan Sontag, on Manny Farber

Considering who those words are coming from, this is the highest compliment one could receive. And Manny Farber deserved it. Having provided us so many indispensable ideas about visuality and criticism, Farber now leaves us --termite critics, as Andy Horbal once wrote in the spirit of Farber-- to realize his vision of engaging the multitude of images in the world. He will always be one of the most unique voices in film criticism and aesthetics.

Some tributes:

-- Jim Emerson at scanners
-- Brendon Bouzard at My Five Year Plan
-- Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running
-- David Schwartz at the Moving Image Resource
-- Ryland Walker Knight at Vinyl is Heavy
-- Zach Campbell at Elusive Lucidity

Monday, August 11, 2008

My favorite Randy Newman score

Please excuse this brief excursion into cinephilia...

Last weekend I was out of town, and in my endless channel-flipping one morning during my hotel stay, I came across one of my very favorite comedies, The Naked Gun (1988). I'd seen it numerous times since I was a kid and still cherish it immensely, but I never would have thought to gain insight into why this film always made such an impression on me, especially for being such an absurd comedy. Maybe it was the change of scenery, but I was able to enjoy the movie in a way that was both familiar (i.e. anticipating every shot, every joke) but different. It was kind of like being in a room that you're inside frequently, like an office or bedroom or classroom, but standing in a completely different area of it. You know the room, but it feels so strange and new from a different angle. My epiphany with The Naked Gun was the realization that it contains a perfect montage.

Here's the set-up: The scene occurs late in the movie, when Lt. Drebin (Leslie Nielson) is undercover as the home plate umpire at the Angels / Mariners game, where during the 7th inning stretch, one of the players is supposed to kill the visiting Queen of England. Drebin doesn't know which player will commit the crime, so he attempts to frisk each and every player at some point during the game. This isn't terribly interesting stuff, but it makes for some delightful comedic payoffs in the hands of Leslie Nielson, the world's best actor at playing dumb. It also sets up nicely for an expedient montage that shows us the passage of time in the game and provides comedy in rhythmic doses of visual set-ups.

Well, this montage does that and more, combining the perfect musical score with images of sports bloopers and Nielson-esque comedy. Have a look:

If you're seeing this for the first time, the absence of context may make it difficult to distinguish between this and the current (dismal) crop of spoofs. But for me, it's a time capsule to the 80's-- Not just with the Zucker brand of comedy (which began with Airplane!) that seemed so fresh, delightfully offensive, and hilarious at the time, but also the many minor details such as the old-but-not-vintage baseball uniforms, the facial hair and wardrobe of the spectators, etc.

That music you hear is one of Randy Newman's finest scores, even though it's not the film's score (which was written by Ira Newborn). The song is "I Love L.A.", and it it's got that perfect combination of a pleasurable, jumpy melody and a touch of synthesized sound that grounds the scene in the 80's. Although the song first appeared on Newman's 1983 album, Trouble in Paradise, it was beautifully employed here for this montage, representing a likely scenario in which the music for a scene was selected before the images were edited. In other words, it's the music that guides the images. The quick-cut images would have no life without the music; it would be dull and static. But with that song, the images just seem right. Something about the jovial tune, Newman's raspy voice, and the unbelievability of the game melding together in one short sequence is just perfect.

The images make little sense in the context of baseball or in any other way, whether it's the players rounding second base one-by-one to the high electronic notes in the song, or an elongated celebration at the plate after a home run (while Drebin frisks them all), or the frequent cuts to changing electronic numbers on the scoreboard. But they have an inexplicable rhythm and atmosphere that sells us on the comedy, the passage of time, and most importantly, the affective state or atmosphere that is unique to The Naked Gun which seems to exist outside the bounds of space and time.

While surely bearing no significance to those who didn't grow up watching this movie and associating it with childhood memories, montages like this one illustrate perhaps in some small way the intangible accessibility of movies; the way they are both relevant within and outside of our lives, how they reflect and inform our own state or the state of the world. These sensibilities extend far beyond conventionally attractive movies (by the standards of most critics), as I'm sure all of us have those movies that we simply love, no matter how critically taboo. Only when we change and movies do not can we realize that movies -- no matter how serious, dramatic, absurd, etc. -- mean something to us (both immediately and retrospectively) beyond our conscious appreciation.

How ironic that Montage allows us to experience that impermeability that movies have to time -- since, after all, Montage is all about time. As a concept and practice, montage can be thoroughly analyzed and dissected, but even if we are successful at excavating the sensations it can create in us in a comprehensible way --nostalgic or otherwise-- the sensuousness of that experience would likely be drained. Whether they are comprised of one shot or many, maybe movies themselves are larger montages in that, apart from boasting many individual moments, are moments unto themselves, enrapturing us in an affective experience built on associations and linkages having little to do with logic.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Terrorism, Criticism, and Opinionism: Observations on The Dark Knight

With the influx of discussion about The Dark Knight on the internet these past several weeks, I have deliberately avoided a written reflection on the film. While I normally praise the networked approach to film criticism that blogging enables, the explosion of dialogue over Christopher Nolan's film has left me rather cold about the prospects for critical dialogue via digital media. Of course, it's disconcerting to see such prominent expressions of outright negativity and blind opining, from Rottentomatoes to the comments section of Keith Uhlich's review of the film at The House Next Door. But how ever easy it is to point out extreme examples of this rhetoric, singling out the worst cases often invites (even encourages) one to gloss over the ideological undercurrents of the larger practice, ultimately to validate and re-inscribe those underlying trends while losing sight of them.

My disenchantment with the discussion about The Dark Knight extends well past these often-disgusting negativities to encompass the overall state of critical mud-slinging about the film. On the film's release, the journalistic film critic community nearly unanimously annointed it as one of the finest studio pictures in years, comparable even to sequels like The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back. Comic-book audiences and general moviegoers echoed those sentiments. (The film has already crossed the coveted $400 million mark in just 18 days.) The massively positive response felt destined, what with the allusions to contemporary American political landscapes and the tragic death of Heath Ledger, who delivers one of the most memorable performances in years. It only seemed appropriate that critics and audiences would stand in solidarity in praise of the film.

Unfortunately, the effect has been devastating. The few dissenters were verbally crucified, with commenters demanding that these reviewers provide explanations and "evidence" for their purported mis-readings of the film. Those with less than positive perspectives provided no more or less evidence than those who liked the film -- they just happened to be singled out and raked over the coals because of those views. As Matt Zoller Seitz noted in the comments thread in Keith's (very good) review of The Dark Knight, what makes this all so scary is not that some commenters were downright vitriolic, but the collective mentality that smothers differing perspectives as if they are not allowed. At times this behavior borders on robotic uniformity, and it's worrisome.

Framing this within the larger discussion about blogging and digital discourse depresses me most. There were some two or three hundred responses to Keith's review, which is almost exponentially more than your typical response to blog posts, even the more controversial ones. We blog writers would like to think there is a silent majority of intelligent individuals reading our posts, but the overwhelming prominence of these naysayers may point to a very say reality that without commercial support, little will come of this experiment. This may signify that blogging or digital communication will eventually become just another corporate commodity with no such ability to influence anyone outside already established camps (e.g. film bloggers).

Equally disappointing was the "serious" discussion that's followed in light of the initial explosion of opinionated sneering on the film's initial release. Almost mirroring the tidal wave of uniform hatred expressed toward those who voiced discontent about The Dark Knight, a small band of determined, well-meaning critics / bloggers launched a counterattack on the film, as if to tear it down from the pedastol on which it has unrightfully been placed. I can't say I've read all of these reactions, but one thing I noticed in many of them was a homogeneous perspective -- ripping the film's formal elements, inept storytelling, and shallow allusions to post-9/11 America. Meanwhile, so few actual inquiries into the film have been attempted and we've instead found ourselves in an ideological and cultural struggle for commercial and/or intellectual superiority. These discussions almost never had anything to do with the film at all. The Dark Knight just happened to be the point through which all these lines of behavior and reaction passed through.

The majority of what I've read about The Dark Knight has not revealed anything worthwhile about the film. Seldom have I encountered pieces in which individuals have reflected on the immediate experience of the movie, its cultural significance, tonal qualities, or thematic relationships. Perhaps the discourse surrounding the film reveals rather than informs the state of culture than.

With the critical and popular responses to the film falling into such a bland pattern, it's now become obvious that a shift away from opinion and towards questions is more relevant. If we rendered ourselves incapable of discussing the film in terms of rateable quality or good-bad judgments, there might be a more varied perspectives. I would never discourage someone from having an opinion, it's basis for which we form those opinions that I would like to see expand. Then our opinions become more nuanced and interesting.

That said, the most interesting pieces about The Dark Knight that I've read were posted relatively recently (notably Rob Humanick's review at The Projection Booth and Ryland Walker Knight's email dialogue with Jennifer Stewart spread over two lengthy posts at Vinyl is Heavy), and I suspect that may be because we've had a little bit more time to digest both the film and the whirlwind of coverage about the film.

I saw the film just once about three weeks ago. So I'm finding it hard to review it in the same capacity as some others. It would also be relatively inconsequential, since thousands have dissected and analyzed the film's significance and plot points over and again. The last thing I would want to do is add my own judgments to the stockpile of opinions about The Dark Knight, suffice to say that it was endlessly intriguing and not at all what I expected. Which is probably why I am so disappointed with the dialogue both in print and online about the film. Nevertheless, there were some things that struck me about the film that are worth exploring in more detail.

I'll start with the "post 9/11" connections. After reading countless posts and articles about the connections of the film's events to Bush-era politics and post-9/11 American life, many of which very interesting, my inclination is to consider these claims in relation to the specific narrative relations in the film. There are countless allusions to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with images of videotaped torture, as well as a scene in which Batman uses cellular surveillance to track down the Joker. The film makes these allusions very explicit indeed, but to what end? I think the film is far too hazy to simply situate these blatant connection within pro-Bush :: anti-Bush or pro-war :: anti-war schemes. Christopher Nolan no doubt wants viewers to think about these issues, but that doesn't necessarily mean he endorses the actions of his protagonist, or, for that matter, that the film should be a 1:1 comparison to current world events.

On that note, why does Batman and Gotham have to represent something, a la Bush or America? We have connections between the fictitious world of the film and the non-fictitious world in which it is set. But that doesn't mean we have anything tangible. Besides, the "real" world we live in is anything but real, come to think of it. We all have our own perceptions of it, and our engagement in it depends on those perceptions. Who's to say what is fictitious and what is not? If we must ground our criticism in Jungian cine-psychoanalytic approaches, then perhaps Batman and Gotham represent the harsh collision of the fiction and the supposed real world. The Dark Knight could therefore be depicting the collapse of social order under the weight of our obsessions with myths, heroes, and villains. Our desire for these things is insatiable, perhaps because they help to narrativize and streamline the chaos and absence of meaning.

Batman Begins (2005) dealt with these relationships head-on. It speechified too strongly about its themes of fear and justice, among other things, but it balanced its construction of myth and reality so effectively that they bled into each other to become each other. The film made known immediately that it was happening in a world like our own, that it would be less cartoony and comic-book-y and more something that could potentially happen. The action was down-and-dirty; Bruce Wayne made a believable arc to becoming Batman; and Gotham City felt like a real city. Interestingly, the film contrasted this move toward realism against the building desire and purported need for a hero. It romanticized the hero myth. Aesthetically, thematically, and structurally, the film was a blurring of gritty realism and mythmaking, both grounded in and taking flight from the everyday.

The Dark Knight all but leaves this world behind. Entrenched in city politics and the corrosion of social orders, it seems to be moving farther away from the romantic vision established in the previous film. I will have to see it once or twice more before I begin to really delve into the possibility that The Dark Knight is a result of the schizophrenic unity of Batman Begins. But I initially perceived the aesthetic discontinuities (from the first film to this one) as a deep flaw; Gotham is more open, glassy, and overall more cool in tone-- nothing like the Gotham from Begins. Moreover, Batman is hokier this time around. He stands out in an otherwise serious story about the injection of paranoia and chaos into a society. Unlike in Begins, this film seems to fully take place in a more "real" world controlled by fear, where it has become nearly impossible to feasibly envision a hero.

The Dark Knight never achieves the sense of aesthetic flow of the first film. Narratively and aesthetically, Nolan is intently focused on something larger than individual moments or scenes. What that larger something is, I don't know. It would be easy to criticize it for too explicitly manipulating the many elements it has in motion, moving so quickly from one moment to the next and rarely fixating on a pure moments. Plot-wise, so much transpires in the course of the film that there appears to be no narrative rhythm at all. Whether this was Nolan's intent is not really what's important, but I will admit that I found the experience of the film very disorienting, while watching it and in retrospect.

At the heart of this estrangement is Heath Ledger's Joker, who just about takes over the film. His presence makes such an impression that all else seems to fade into the background -- whether that's the aesthetic design or character plotlines. Ledger embodies a void as a man who (some have argued) is the antithesis to the symbol that Bruce Wayne set out to create in the first film. Where Begins represented sound structural precision in developing the evolution of that symbol (The Batman) into an inevitable union of man and symbol by the end, Knight is only interested in the effects that Man as Symbol (The Joker) can have on a society. The Joker has no connection to the human life around him beyond that of maneuvering within the corrupt infrastructures of society and government. He passes through legal systems and defies physical possibility simply by being everywhere and anticipating Batman's every move. Many accounts have situated the Joker as the terrorist to Batman's America, but this is overly reductive. He does not represent a terrorist or terrorism, but is instead both a man and an idea, a manifestation of collective fears and a deeply buried desire for any figure that is both a person and a symbol, even if he is an agent of chaos. There is something attractive about him, which is the real focus of the film. The closing narration explains that Batman is the "hero Gotham needs," but not the one it wants. The Joker may be both the villain the city needs and wants, which is why his presence comes to swallow up the film much like he does the city.

Whether you consider The Dark Knight great, a masterpiece, or "flawed" (whatever that means) will more likely depend on your ideological relationship with its narrative form and aesthetic content. Some will inevitably try to isolate variables of the film to support an argument, but the film (like any) is about the movement and interaction of all of its variables. They are constantly in motion. When I initially saw the film I was extremely disappointed, not just because it failed to live up to my expectation based on the first film, but because it felt rhythmically out of kilter. On more reflection, I've been consistently more fascinated with the movie and all of the things that eluded me on that one viewing. But the impassioned of commentary and debate has distanced me from it to the point that I didn't want to write about it, or even to think about it. But I've since come to understand that The Dark Knight cannot stand by itself as other movies might. It is deeply embroiled in a cultural landscape --both internally and externally-- that the film and what it signifies have become so intertwined, like man (Bruce Wayne) and symbol (Batman) it depicts.

Now that may be a worthwhile starting point for a more relevant critique of the film.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Moments that mean: A novelist's perspective on movies, literature

[Editor's note: This essay was originally published at The House Next Door.]

A few weeks ago I listened to a Diane Rehm interview with Salman Rushdie, whose work is revered in literary circles and regarded among the finest in contemporary fiction. He discussed his novels, religion, and world affairs in typically compelling fashion. My own encounters with Rushdie's work are limited—I have only read The Satanic Verses in my college "Forms of the Novel" class, but that nevertheless represented one of the more memorable experiences I've had with current literature. Reading The Satanic Verses was like watching a film with the shared sensibilities of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, particularly as regards its reflexive journey through conventions of the narrative form. Unlike other supposedly "deconstructive" works, The Satanic Verses didn't distance me with its nonlinear approach to character and storytelling. I found it utterly mesmerizing, not once wishing it would focus its disparate elements and seemingly random interludes around a coherent narrative or character design.

It may seem problematic to compare the work of a writer such as Rushdie to filmmakers like Lynch and Kubrick. We often hear that books and movies are very different media/cultural artifacts. Although each deal in narrative to some capacity, the means by which films and books are made and consumed are vastly different. The academic dialogue on the topic largely resists the tendency to draw easy comparisons between books and movies, even when it comes to movie adaptations of books that tend to exemplify the respective form's strengths and weaknesses (with film usually on the low end of the spectrum). But the other side of this extreme—the insistence on these media being too different to reduce to the same plane, to even compare in any productive manner—is also problematic. That's because the experiences of reading a book and watching a movie are separated and united by more than mere narrative structures.

How appropriate that Rushdie touched on this idea, albeit briefly, during his interview. A caller asked for his insights on the potential competition between film and the novel as artistic, narrative media. The caller was compelled to ask the question after hearing a statement by Ridley Scott, who said something to the effect that film was the theater of the 20th century and will become the literature of the 21st century. Rushdie's response:

"I'm a great admirer of film, so I don't see this as an either/or question. Ridley Scott is a friend of mine, and I enormously admire his work. I do think film at its best is fully the equal of a great novel. Blade Runner, for example, is a film that would stand up against most contemporary novels. I do think that the great gift literature has is its intimacy. It takes place in a reader's mind, whereas a movie takes place on a screen and you watch it. But a novel is played out in your imagination, and interacts with the imagination. The reason for the durability of the form is that private conversation between the imagination of the writers and the imaginations of the reader. People have always found that attractive, and I suspect always will. The great gift of literature is that it takes you into worlds that are not your world and makes it feel like your world. I read the literature of the United States before I ever came to America, and when I came here I felt like I knew something about the country from reading Faulkner and Steinbeck, up to contemporary writers. So whether it's taking us into the past or into another country, we can gain the world through literature, and I think that is a unique gift of the form."

One thing to keep in mind is that Rushdie is responding off the cuff, so we perhaps shouldn't view his remarks as his definitive take on the subject. Having said that, his rendering of the novel in relation to film illustrates the discourse of dualisms that has shaped how we think about each of these forms. In his opening statement, Rushdie emphasizes that film should not be thought of as a lesser form than the novel. This is rather appropriate since film's status as an industrial art was born as much out of the mechanical technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries as it was from aesthetic and narrative traditions of painting, literature, and theater. Since the beginning of the medium, filmmakers and film theorists have felt as though they've needed to defend it from classicists who scoffed at the simplicity of its images, the lack of nuance in its narrative capacity. Unfortunately, this mentality has been preserved throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, to the extent that every theoretical inquiry into cinema's artistic, commercial, and cultural worth must be precluded by an argument for why movies are "worthy."

Given this background and now-familiar mold for thinking about film, it's nice to see a famed novelist speak so highly of movies. His response even seems to suggest that there is much bad fiction in the world as there is bad filmmaking. However, novels tend to get a pass in this department, mostly because—good or bad—they don't have the public exposure that films do. In the populist sense, movies appear to only be thought of as commodities. The proportion of bad movies to bad books may not be so far off, but as a commercial institution, studio films are immensely scrutinized. Their historical association with melodrama and flamboyance, and more recent connections with demographic-appealing schlock, does not help their image.

Tied to commercial interests is the fact that film is industrial, not just in terms of the end product but in terms of its construction. Auteurism certainly thrives in the annals of film theory and directors get the lion's share of the credit for a film's artistic success or failure, but the simple fact is that film is a collaborative medium. Even if a director has "total control" s/he requires the hands of many others to realize that vision, whether set builders, camera operators, or the lowly production assistants who organize flights and meal schedules. One person or even a few people cannot feasibly make a movie in the vast majority of cases, no matter what the reach or commercial aspiration, which may speak to why so many great visions are not fully realized on film, and why great films can happen seemingly by accident.

All of these discursive, social, and technological components have great implications for how movies are made, watched, and viewed as a medium—why they've always been generally seen as a "lesser" form of narrative, lacking artistic significance. Rushdie's refusal to pick between them or to make sweeping statements about one medium's superiority over the other is refreshing and intelligent. The remainder of his response addresses the other major part of this discussion, one which is more shaky from a cultural, even theoretical perspective. This has to do with the experience of engaging the work as a reader/viewer.

In a general sense, experiencing any form of art—or for that matter, any form of experience—is at once similar and dissimilar. Whether it's everyday life, looking at a photograph, reading a book, watching a movie, all of these activities are mediated by the countless technologies and signifying practices that give rise to them. We separate and categorize them because we need to contain and quantify them, as evidenced by our systems of communication and economics that are based on separation and distinction. As an active construction, engagement, and comprehension of sensual fields, however, experience is infinite in its capacity. In my view, this is the central condition that constitutes all art—reproducing, engaging, and representing experience in intangible ways, in ways that both separate us and immerse us in moments that mean.

When it comes to the specific similarities and differences of reading a book and watching a movie, Rushdie's comments are both right and wrong. Reading a book can be very personal and represent more of an exchange between a writer and a reader. It is certainly a gift of literature. But everything he says in the later portion, about how books can take you "into worlds that are not your world and make it feel like your world," or "into the past or into another country," can similarly be true of a film's sights and sounds. The media, technologies, and biological processes by which the moving image appears on screen and is branded onto the viewer's brain may differ from the kinds of images and sounds that the formations of words may stir from a good book. But the effect of sensual engagement with an image, sound, memory, is as unique to audiovisual media as it is to books.

When it comes to the production and consumption of cinematic images and affections, the circumstances are undoubtedly different and changing all the time. We can create new kinds of images based on new approaches to established styles in framing, composition, performance, and narrative structure, but we can also construct them in digital space, a method that continues to open new doors with regards to how we conceive of and see films. From a viewing standpoint, films are now not only communal experiences we share at a theater, but are also intimate adventures that we can view in our homes with media that enable us to freeze, quicken, or slow down the compositions. These various social and technological developments allow us to experience films differently and enable their images to saturate our memories in new ways.

We're still discovering the kinds of images and sensations that this ubitquitous medium is capable of. Those sensibilities will continue to evolve along with our media landscape and definitions of culture. To see, hear, and feel a moving image is an experience both personal and universal. It is a unique immersion in cerebral and affective processes that will continue to develop according to unique sociocultural and technological conditions. It may exist on celluloid or in digital space, but much like the images we conjure when reading words on a page, it also exists in our minds and memories. The world of a film extends far beyond the four corners of the frame, and is realized in greater detail beyond the onscreen color schemes, effects, and sounds. Movies invite an interaction between the viewer and the image, between our organic bodies and the synthetic world that we have constructed and and maneuver within. The changes seen in film form and narrative likely reflect the evolving ways in which we inhabit physical and digital space, stretch it, and embody it. Movies collapse the divide between self and other, all the while expanding our capacity for perceiving and creating new images and relations to the world around us. We are images, narratives, and agents of artifice, and we can gain the world through movies.