Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cops: Special Iraq Edition

Brian DePalma's underlying concept for his lraq war film, Redacted is noteworthy, along with his conviction and outrage regarding the subject matter. But those qualities are often hindered by sloppy execution, at least when it comes to formal film appreciation. Where DePalma is concerned mostly with stylistic details, his empassioned presentation of a soldier's experience in (and perspective of) Iraq is marred by poor acting and connect-the-dots screenwriting. Yet Redacted still manages to fulfill its purpose -- i.e. to disturb and provoke -- despite its failure to engage on the cerebral levels its makers clearly want to. The feelings/reactions that DePalma attempts to evoke are complicated, no doubt, but his film may work best as a piece of sensationalist propaganda, a la "Cops" or its news equivalent, "The O'Reilly Factor." Only instead of the dangerous streets of urban America, this film turns the tables on dominant representations of Iraqis and looks at the atrocities committed by American soldiers in Iraq; not safe territory. But the film isn't so much about heinous acts of bigotry and racism as it is about the dangers of representation in media economy, and how theses representations foster unhealthy and overly simplistic perspectives of people and cultures.

Redacted both critiques and embodies the kind of trash journalism that is pervasive in today's media environment, one that feeds on spectators' fears and nationalistic desires. Despite the formal failings in fundamental areas of filmmaking --acting and writing-- DePalma seems content to explore the nature of perspective in an age of ever-multiplying information sources and commercial interests. Redacted is a literally a visual assault of information, and although it sacrifices sound, formal filmmaking and occupies a particular political position, it is an important film because it is assaultive. It's an active reflection on the crisis of representation that has mounted for some time and is now boiling over in digital culture.

The film follows a squad of American soldiers stationed in Iraq, who, when they're not playing cards and bonding in male comradery (as only the movies can deliver), patrolthe dilapidated streets of an Iraqi city. Children run and play like any kids in a schoolyard might; kicking soccer balls and playing tag. Men and women walk about the rubble of destroyed buildings, going about their days in a more seemingly haphazard manner than would be Manhattan business people, patiently waiting in masses for a "Walk" sign to instruct them. City dwellers regard the soldiers with trepidation, despite having grown accustomed to their presence. Interestingly, the film keeps a strong focus on the soldiers themselves, concerning how hot, uncomfortable, and disoriented they are rather than anyone else. The soldiers loathe being there, and justifiably so. But the film keys in on the soldiers with regards to their view of everything around them, implicitly or explicitly wondering why or how a culture could be so different, violent, and barbaric. Every civilian is a potential suspect in the eyes of the soldiers, and after surprise assaults and bombings, they have gotten used to that.

The movie is especially interesting in these moments, which are mostly captured on a small hand-held camera operated by on of the soliders who is resigned to capture the realism and immediacy of what they're enduring. This narrative and stylistic tactic is brilliantly used to form a soldier's sense of the surroundings and provide a feeling of the underlying tensions between two very different cultures and ideologies in such close prximity, each physically and symbolically occupying the same space. And yet on that ground, there tragically exists no plane of understanding, of sympathy, and of acceptance. Whether each culture's -- i.e. persons on the street (soldiers or citizens) -- perspective of the other is accurate or inaccurate, those perspectives are sealed in the cultural and ideological assumptions underlined in their respective practices. It's a cynical interpretation of everyday encounters between American soliders and Iraqi citizens, but one that's hard to deny.

Redacted doesn't remain grounded in these observations in the first portion of the film, arguably its most provocative. DePalma instead shifts attention to the rape of an innocent girl by two U.S. soldiers, an event depicted in graphic detail via the hand-held camera's night vision. The idealistic soldier operating the camera in no way condones the actions of the two soldiers who raped and killed the girl and her family, but his choice to record it becomes the central thematic groundwork on which the film bases its ehical, social, and philosophical claims. To play witness to an event is to submit to some kind mediating structure which enables one to interpret that image or event in a particular way. In other words, the spectator plays just an integral a role in the construction of a representation as those who construct it to be seen.

Apart from these consideration, the images are difficult to watch. There is a reality to it, one that is all the more sickening knowing that something similar to this actually happened. But if there was no desire to see the event, then it would not have been captured, and only would have existed in the memories of those who experienced it. Nevertheless, the man watches through the lens of the camera before leaving the building in sickness and disgust. The remainder of the film presents a variety if disparate images, some involving soldier's tributes to fallen heroes, others taking on security-cam vision of the soldiers interrogated over the events of rape. And perhaps most interestingly, several scenes offer up internet images of YouTube-like sites, where videos are posted by soldier's wives, anti-war activists, and masked soldiers admitting to having seen the event of the rape.

These moments are provocative in the greater consideration of media economy that the film actively constructs. Where the drama of the characters and soldiers' encounters tends to fizzle out in several scenes of poor acting and literalist writing, these different mediated images imbue the film's final proceedings with a level of interest that was only subtly suggested in first two acts. Whether DePalma knows it, the film eventually becomes the schlock pastiche of violent images and mediated information it seeks to question. The final montage of real images of carnage, death, and destruction suffered by the people of Iraq illustrates the polarizing differences between two cultures that ideologically and now physically clash. The problem is that those physical clashings are captured and portrayed in very particular manners, so as perhaps to facilitate further ideological clashings between what Slavoj Zizek deems the war between the "civilized" West and the "barbaric" culture of Islam it seeks to cleanse. Therefore, when we see these alternative, painful representations of those physical clashings, the need for a stronger and altogether different way of engaging issues of war/violence, media economy, and international relations becomes quite evident in the visceral, emotional reaction of witnessing such tragic occurrences.

In spite of its failings, Redacted strikes a resounding chord in an age in which cable news shows assault viewers with a plurality of violent images designed to evoke a specific emotional response: Fear; of terror, extremism, both which are too often foolishly associated with Islam. DePalma's central premise --that fear is harnessed by media powers as the central tool in the production of misguided nationalism-- is potent and relevant, and is one that mainstream (and so-called "liberal") media wouldn't dare consider.

The real question is to what extent his assertions against mainstream representations of violence and destruction may actually reproduce the very same kind of fears, thus failing to offer the beginnings of an alternative method of thinking the situation. And so we arrive once again to the crisis of representation: by refusing to offer dominant, i.e. patriotic representations of American soldiers and instead constructing a wholly different portrait of Iraq -- one that is readily accessible to those who decide to educate themselves about the American occupation in Iraq -- is DePalma degrading all troops and America? That's tough to say, but I would venture to guess based on the methods of his film's inquiry that he is more likely examining the notion that this "conflict" is more intricate than our narrow interpretations and representations will allow.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The films (and reviewing) that got away

Year-end dialogues regarding the finest films of the year have gradually whittled down the number of films discussed from about 15/20 films to about five or 10 over the past few months. Then the Oscar nominations were released last month, and it was down to five films. Bloggers, pundits, and critics have since argued about the five movies -- whether one of them didn't deserve to be there, which should win the prize, etc. After Sunday, it will only be one. And then we will all move on.

Seeing the plurality of great cinema released last year be reduced to bland discussion of "bests" is no doubt a tragedy. To see only five films, which is really only three -- Juno, There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men -- being discussed in spite of the many great films that didn't "peak at the right time" in the politics of awards season can be depressing. That's not to say that the Oscars are the be-all, end-all of critical discussion, but they represent the public's small investment in good, quality cinema. So the fact that only a few films, some of which are considered questionable by many, are being examined by the public eye is somewhat discouraging, especially when thinking back on the many great movies last year that slipped under the radar. Although I at least liked all of the Best Picture contenders this year (including Juno, minus the first 15 minutes), even the one I loved, i.e. No Country For Old Men, which has been written about and discussed in such great detail, is perhaps receiving an excess of attention, especially considering that so many other movies that are equally good, interesting, and worthy of discussion in the public domain.*

That's why it's refreshing to see other movies being talked about this time of year, and not because they were released in theaters or DVD. One of my very favorite movies from last year, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, had initial surge of discussion back in September during its theatrical run. (Here's my review of the film, written in September.) But this dialogue was quickly suppressed when the Toronto Film Festival started, and a variety of other films shared the attention. Nevertheless, Eastern Promises is a great achievement; that it's not currently held in the same high esteem as No Country For Old Men is a cinematic/critical crime.

It's easy to forget about wonderful films like Eastern Promises when Oscar talk has smothered all discussion about any other movie. Although Viggo Mortensen was nominated for Best Actor, his presence in the race is an afterthought; further validating the notion that the Oscars are nothing more than a political race. Eastern Promises, for whatever reason, lacks the financial backing and social presence and has lost a lot of steam since its release. It was fortunate enough that Mortensen was even nominated. That said, he doesn't stand a chance against a film that's gaining more momentum, i.e. There Will Be Blood, especially in the Best Actor category. Again, it's all a matter of politics. People are talking about There Will Be Blood and not Eastern Promises; whether the former is more worthy is more than questionable, stripped of the politics. Looking at the films and performances though, Mortensen's performance still stands out to me as the finest by any actor this year.

Which brings me to why it's so refreshing to read insightful articles about another movie, such as Ed Howard's intelligent review of Eastern Promises. Ed's writing demonstrates that this film (or any film) can be discussed, analyzed, and enjoyed from several perspectives; not just can be, but it should be. And he does this with so few words. His writing on Eastern Promises --like much of his work-- serves as an introduction to the film's key themes, and suggests a variety of levels on which Cronenberg's film resonates. Here's an excerpt:

"The story of Cronenberg's film — the real, underlying story lightly disguised by its genre trappings — can be read from the abundant symbols he employs. It's a story of the traditional family undermined by both homosexual desire and explosive violence — a brief that sounds surprisingly conservative on paper, except that Cronenberg clearly takes such gleeful pleasure in disrupting the placid surfaces of Hollywood conventionality that it's hard to take the film as anything but a radical critique of the normative structures it sometimes apes. Unlike A History of Violence, where Cronenberg seemed to disappear too readily into the conventional surfaces of the genre narrative, Eastern Promises is a prickly, genuinely disturbing and potent film that may indicate a fresh new development in Cronenberg's oeuvre. Certainly, it's his most perverse and exciting film since the delirious high point of 1997's Crash, and that alone is reason enough to celebrate this return to form."

I recommend heading over to his site and reading the whole review over at his place, Only the Cinema; a site that, by the way, features some of the most consistently thoughtful and provocative film reviews on the film blogging circuit. This review, in particular, is a model example of strong journalistic criticism, which is so sorely needed in the published and blogging venues. And in the midst of pervasive Oscar previewing and discussion, it reads even better.

I have always strongly felt that journalistic film reviewing can serve a good purpose in film journalism. The best of it can even bridge the gap between analytic examination and reflecting on the immediacy of cinematic sensation in tantalizingly few words. When that happens, it's a special thing.

Your thoughts?


* Note: I'm not proposing that critics stop or greatly reduce discussion of films like No Country For Old Men. Engaging articles like this remind that too much can't be said about films like the Coens' eventual Best Picture winner. I'm instead suggesting that critics and bloggers --the latter of whom can mostly control the content of their output-- broaden their critical horizons and dare to discuss movies that aren't being discussed currently.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Trailer of Digital Nostalgia

With last week's debuting of the long-awaited Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull trailer, cinephiles, Indy fans, and casual movie watchers are now officially engaged in a three-month period of hype for the Man with the Hat's return to the big screen. For fans of the beloved 80's action series, the trailer serves up a heavy dose of nostalgia in painting Jones as a conqueror of worlds. The first minute (roughly) is a travelogue over the three films as a long build-up to the sight of Indy, 20 years later and fiesty as ever. After Indy and his hat are appropriately introduced via silhouette, all set to the instantly recognizable horn notes of the Raiders March, the trailer then presents a rapid-fire series of images from the new film, showing various explosions, wide-shots of exotic locations, character close-ups, and tons of "punchings." And within two minutes, the trailer has succeeded in reminding you why the world simply can't live without this character.

Although I don't usually keep up with the latest movie trailers (outside the occassional on-Demand trailer search), I should admit to having anticipated this one for some time. This is just one of those films that will escape all logical criticism for me. The series is too closely tied to my childhood for me to even pretend like this is any other movie. But now that I've seen it, digested it, and listened to various interpretations of its quality (or lack thereof), I've been thinking a lot about movie trailers in general; that is, how trailers and their condensed images work on viewers in the variety of ways they do. Obviously, a trailer for an "Indiana Jones" movie is different than your average trailer, especially with regards to how it's staged as "an event" (like the movie itself), and because it's function is not so much to advertise the movie as it is to envelop the viewer in a kind of cultural nostalgia. Specifically, the image-sound relations of this trailer are constructed in such a way so as to sell you on the idea that there has been a great void in "the movies" since Indy left the screen in 1989.

And indeed much has changed, both in the world and in mainstream filmmaking styles. While the cultural significance of "Indiana Jones" as a brand name for old-fashioned adventure, and/or the aesthetics of American action films are certainly interesting topics to think about and discuss, I'm more interested here in how these concepts are envisioned, drawn on, and constructed through a two minute advertisement. The notion that a movie trailer can create a kind of cinematic nostalgia as a device to sell a movie is really quite interesting, particularly when it comes to the warring aesthetics of the trailer. Also, how this discussion can be framed fromt the concept of "movie trailer as event" is .

In today's market for action films --as opposed to 20 years ago-- the trailer is everything. The task of the preview is essentially to play out the film in two to three minutes, or at least provide a sense of the film's visual styles. When it comes to plot, viewers don't want to know too much. But you can never have too many quick action shots of guns, explosions, and chases. Interestingly, action films themselves have disappointed in recent years. Even long-awaited sequels to Die Hard and Rambo, two of the more successful franchises in the heyday of action franchises, are failing to garner the same interest they once did. A large number of current action films fail both at the box office and in terms of overall cultural significance. The films (for the most part) are so dependent on the level of destruction rather than a sense of space, tension, and character; elements that must work for a strong action film. After all, there is an art to these movies -- the serious ones and even the throwaway B-movies -- that has largely been forgotten with regards to large-scale filmmaking.

Although the movies themselves may fail to resonate, their respective trailers are so hyped, so pumped-up with action, that they have become the event, or the movies themselves. Thinking about trailers for Bad Boys II, Pearl Harbor, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and others, there is an epic cinematic quality to them, something that wasn't present in the action/fantasy/adventure/sci-fi films of the 80's, and even the 90's. The aesthetics of movie trailers have changed so much in recent years to reflect changes in mainstream contemporary action filmmaking, which now prizes not seeing rather than seeing. With more close-ups, shaky camera work, and rapid editing, action films are intensifying established styles to such an extent that they are embodying a new aesthetic: a trailer aesthetic of sorts. (Of course, many filmmakers are fiercely contesting this popular trend; namely David Cronenberg. But I'm mostly talking about mainstream cinematic conventions.) This movement is so firmly established that when one looks back on old action flicks, it's easy to recognize the massive gap between the then and the now. It also may account for why trailers for mega-budgeted productions are more memorable than the movies themselves. These extremely popular hyper-styles of camerawork and editing work excellently in short stints, as for trailers. It's almost designed for trailers. But in many cases, this aesthetic doesn't sustain itself in two hour-long films. When it works though, e.g. The Bourne films, Cloverfield, etc., you've got a hit. Interestingly, the trailers for the Bourne films as well as Cloverfield were very different than the epic trailers for other established franchises that floundered.

Trailers aesthetics is one small part of the picture when it comes to analyzing the box office success and cultural impact of action films in the digital age. There are so many more elements at play, but before I blow this discussion up to something epic in itself, I'd like to regain a little bit of focus and get back to the trailer for "Indiana Jones," and tackle the issue of why it seems so... off. Broadly speaking, it's caught between two worlds: one that's firmly built around contemporary demographics and current mainstream action film appeal, and one that's built on nostalgia for an age of filmmaking that couldn't be further removed from now. The first half of the trailer employs synthesized orchestral music to accompany the digitally mastered images from the first three films, which is a clear nod to new/old appeal it's trying to bridge. But in the second portion, everything goes haywire. The famous Indy theme seems misplaced with the rapid-fire and somewhat artificial-looking computer-generated images.

Looking at the trailers for the previous films, John Williams' music was far more conducive to the rhythms of the longer shots, which, captured the more old-fashioned style in which the films are made. Even if the images were cut together more quickly, the sense of hyper-motion doesn't pervade the old trailers. Which is why they aren't nearly as exciting. Nevertheless, it worked for its time because trailers were not nearly as significant a force in selling a movie as they are now. For the new preview, this old-fashioned musical approach simply doesn't work, and comes off as quite awkward. From a visual standpoint, the trailer is thoroughly contemporary, making the melodic beats of the Raiders March seem almost cartoonish as accompaniment to the images, resulting in a disorienting experience. And yet, looking at the films themselves, one should note that the Raiders March fits like a glove in some of the more memorable action set-pieces, notably in the quintessential chase scene, the desert truck chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The average shot length in that eight or nine minute sequence is probably not too different from, say, the trailer to The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and yet the music is rhythmically sound with the images.

One the best criticisms of the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull trailer comes in the form of another trailer --fan-made, presumably-- using the same images from the recent trailer. This trailer, now on YouTube, is arguably more effective than the trailer we've got. What it does is break up the images of the trailer, re-assembles them, and present them according to the traditional model and aesthetic design for action films of the 80's. It uses audio and visual cues from previous "Indiana Jones" previews, displaying the disparate styles of trailers from 20 years ago and trailers from now. Despite the deliberate datedness and strange constrasts (especially after seeing the official trailer), this "old school" trailer actually works more effectively than the new trailer. It's still cut too quickly, which is perhaps inevitable since the source of most of images is the overcut preview. But it works still in spite of this. The images and the music together feel more appropriate for each other, and there is a consistent aesthetic structure throughout. The "old school" trailer is a strong reminder that a single image or shot is dependent on context. Its effect of an individual image depends on how it exists in relation not just to other images and shots, but to sounds as well. Which is why this fan-made trailer is more consistent and overall more satisfying than the colliding stylistic sensibilities of the official trailer.

Another fascinating venue of discussion is the 2008 representing a digital age, not so much in terms of specific technologies, but as a social environment. The conditions under which images are made and seen are overall much less linear than it was before the introduction of the digital. Information is not conveyed the same way or even defined in a similar manner. Which is perhaps why a sequel to a popular action series of the 1980's, made by a director who has long since changed his own aesthetics, is especially interesting in today's market. Twenty years ago this trailer analysis would not have even occurred, let alone have been possible. There would no old school trailers or discussions about the contrasts between aesthetic styles of different times. The "old school" trailer is reflective of the current sensibility of reflexivity with regards to how contemporary viewers understand older stylistic tendencies and conventions; it's self-awareness is oddly reminiscent of Tarantino-style pastiche, in which digital viewers come to udnerstand older styles through reflexive visual cues.

Ultimately, this discussion of digital reflections and nostaglia may breach on larger issues of why Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was made at all, and what kind of movie it will be... if it's even a movie at all, that is, rather than an experience in cultural nostalgia and digital reflexivity. But in keeping this discussion closely linked to the trailer itself, I would like to know your thoughts and reactions, no matter what angle you're coming from. Thus far, most reactions I've read/heard have been either extremely positive, mostly people who have bought right into the nostalgia, or extremely negative, i.e. those complaining about the use of CGI and the rapid-fire editing, and such. I feel both positively and negatively about it. I was swept into old reliable state of watching an Indiana Jones film. But the aesthetics of the preview are a constant reminder that no matter how true to style this film may be with regards to the previous films, it simply cannot recreate something that it's trying so hard to recreate. That's not to say that the movie will be made in this style -- just that the trailer is disjointed because of it. The movie may be an entirely different matter. It will be quite an interesting movie to watch indeed. Although it will be set in the 1950's, we will undoubtedly be seeing Indiana Jones in the digital age.


Update - 2/20 - 4:25 PM: Some post-thoughts after reading one comment and writing one myself... If the trailer is any indication, this movie will be try to show that Indiana Jones is a timeless, mythic hero. After all, this trailer is not selling the movie at all. It's selling the significance and recognizability of the brand name of Indiana Jones. Just pay attention to how Indy is re-introduced without showing the face of Harrison Ford. The two most key points to Indy's re-introduction is the hat --seen first on the ground (when the music starts up), then in silhouette-- and the shot of Indy dodging bullets to the tune of "dah--dah-dah-DAHHH," which is the clear money-shot of the trailer. This trailer clearly demonstrates that it's not about proving anything in terms of Harrison's Ford age. If anything, they're using the impossibilty of his age --he is currently 65 years-old-- as an asset to Indy's timelessness and cementing as the modern heroic archetype.

Let's keep this discussion up!


In the next (and final) episode of The Cinematic Art's "Indiana Jones" discussion series, we will take a look at the evils of the Motion Picture Association of America, who have once again wreaked havoc on the American moviegoing public, using censorship to impose certain values and ideas on us in their phantom removal of guns. The real question is: whose values/ideas are they representing? All that and more in the next chapter in this blogging saga... "Indiana Jones and the MPAA's Crusade."

Monday, February 18, 2008

Deleuze on mediators

The work of Gilles Deleuze is incendiary, even inspiring. His concepts draw no distinctions between scholars, artists, and scientists. He doesn't play to a particular discipline or crowd, especially not an intellectual one. If he is seen as inaccessible, it's likely because he harnesses language and theory in manners that are seen as incongruous to their predetermined function. One of his most profound statements is that we should all become multilingual with our own language, and even foreigners to our own language. For Deleuze, the plane of experience is about motion, movement, and images. There is no subject, and no ideology. There are no "correct" ideas or images, just ideas and images.

Although he has written just two books on cinema, a great focus of his writing is on the cinema. And his unique perspective about it is unlike any other I've seen or encountered. Both an empiricist and a poet, Deleuze locates the lines and spaces in between the binary machines and hetergeneous assemblages which call for experiences to be interpreted. For Deleuze, the pouring out of experience and the dually transient yet eternal plane of perception and experience is what we ought to be examining, and what he thinks writers like Kafka, Kerouac, and Fitzgerald tap into in an almost empirical way. Within these relations, the production of meaning, desire, and multiplicities developed – in the lines and particles of images and movements.

I've been reading quite a bit more about Deleuze's concepts over the last month, and the experience is both daunting and illuminating. I'm convinced that he may be our most relevant and significant thinker (although he died in 1995) with respect to art, science, and philosophy, three schools one would ordinarily think are so different from each other. For Deleuze, however, this is not the case. One book I've recently read of his, "Negotiations" contains his theoretical positions in a nutshell and is indispensable concerning how see media, how to analyze information, and how to critique art. Ahead I will highlight excerpts:

On Truth: "This idea that truth isn't something already out there we have to discover, but has to be created in every domain, is obvious in the sciences, for instance. Even in physics, there's no truth that doesn't pre-suppose a system of symbols, be they only coordinates. There's no truth that doesn't "falsify" established ideas. To say that "truth is created" implies that the production of truth involves a series of operative that amount to working on a material -- stricktly speaking, a series of falsifications."

"Truth, in other words, doesn't imply some method for discovering it but procedures, proceedings, and processes for willing it. We always get the truths we deserve, depending on the procedures of knowledge (linguistic procedures in particular), the proceedings of power, and the processes of subjectification or individuation available to us."

On the death of literature: "People who haven't properly read or understood McLuhan may think it's only natural for audiovisual media to replace books, since they actually contain all the creative possibilities of the literature or other modes of expression they supersede. It's not true. For if audiovisual media ever replace literature, it won't be as competing means of expression, but as a monopoloy of structures that also stifle creative possibilities in those media themselves. If literature dies, it will be a violent death, a political assassination. It's not a matter of comparing different sorts of medium. The choice isn't between written literature and audiovisual media. It's between creative forces and domesticating forces. It's highly unlikely that audiovisual mediawill find the conditions for creation once they've been lost in literature. Different modes of expression may have different creative possibilities, but they're all related insofar as they must counter the introduction of a cultural space of markets and conformity -- that is, a space of "producing a market" -- together."

On Creating Concepts/Images: "Philosophy, art, and science come into relation of mutual resonance and exchange, but always for internal reasons. The way they improge on one another depends on their own evolution. So in this sense we really have to see philosophy, art, and science as sorts of separate melodic lines in constant interplay with one another. With philosophy having in this no reflective pseudoprimacy nor, equally, any creative inferiority. Creating concepts is no less difficult than creating new visual or aural combinations, or creating scientific functions. What we have to recognize is that the inreplay between the different lines isn't a matter of one monitoring or reflecting another. A discipline that set out to follow a creative movement coming from outside would itself relinquish any creative role. You'll get nowhere by latching onto some parallel movement, you have to make a move yourself. If nobody make a move, nobody gets anywhere. Nor is interplany an exchange: it all turns on giving or taking."

Monday, February 11, 2008

Roy Scheider: In Memory

Roy Scheider is the acting equivalent of Sidney Lumet. His filmography is staggering, and not because he was in so many hits or because of the awards he won. Over his long career, Scheider has quietly assembled one of the most impressive careers an actor can have in Hollywood. And quite simply, it's because he was good. He committed to each role he played, which is evident in his variety of strong performances, from The French Connection to All The Jazz. His face expressed so much but with so little. There was a passion in his eyes that was at once confident and vulnerable. Revealing character in the most subtle, even mysterious ways, the beauty of Scheider's work is that he did it in his own way. He carved his own niche. His best performances will be remembered as some of the most important and significant in all of cinema.

His most famous utterance on screen is the immortal "We're gonna need a bigger boat" line from Jaws. The cigarette dangles from his mouth like he doesn't even know it's there, his body is frozen in shock, and in that one moment of immobility he communicates exactly what every viewer watching the film feels. It's one of the most memorable moments in all of the movies, and it comes across because of Scheider's ability to evoke the intangibility about acting. This moment alone will cement Scheider into the minds of millions. It will be forever branded on the silver screens of our minds.

But for me, his finest moment comes in the very same movie, but in a much more tender scene at a dinner table. The scene contains almost no dialogue, and consists of Chief Brody (Scheider) and his son, who is maybe four-years-old, sitting at the table after dinner. Brody is tired and stressed, more so than he would ever expected to have dealth with. He's also beginning to feel a bit like the lone figure of authority left on Amity island with a shred of ethical responsiblity. His son sits across from him, watching him and mimicking his actions. At first, Brody doesn't realize he is even there, let alone replicating his actions. When he finally glances over and sees his son gazing admirably at him, he doesn't smile or well up in tears but instead looks right back at him. His facial muscles begin to relax, but for a moment he looks searchingly back into his son's eyes, as if he is recalling his own childhood wonderment with his father while realizing what a figure of importance he is to his child.

Brody then decides to have a little bit of fun, almost to reassure him that everything is going to be alright. The playful candor between the two is so naive, so benevolent, and yet profoundly simple, that it locates a childish wonderment that lives buried underneath the stress and burdens of everyday life. In that moment Scheider and his young acting counterpart create real magic. The scene continues with Brody leading his son in a series of strange hand motions and facial contortions, before his son finally smiles at him like he knew that was the one thing Brody needed to get through the rest of his day. Brody then leans down close to the boy's face and softly says, "Give us a kiss." The boy asks why, and Brody responds simply, directly, even painfully, as if caught between the reality of being chief of police in shark city and the transient moment of connecting with his son: "Because I need it."

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Altman / Williams connection

Director-composer collaborations gave always been a great interest of mine. Rich in the old Hollywood filmmaking tradition, some of the best creative partnerships have been between directors and composers. Some of these relationships are so strong and long-lasting that it would be nearly impossible to imagine a director's images without his collaborating composer's music: case in point Tim Burton / Danny Elfman, and Steven Spielberg / John Williams. But in reality, many of these collaborations don't ensure, and the ones that do last tend to fade before too long. Perhaps the most famous director-composer relationship fitting this description is that of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, who worked together to create some of the most beautiful and exhilirating marriages of image and sound the movies as ever known: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1954), Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), Marnie (1964), etc. And even though there is little consensus to this day regarding why they split -- the most reliable story to date being a feud over Torn Curtain (1966) -- it was no secret that they had a severe falling out. Still, I can't help but wonder what it would have been like had they settled their creative differences and continued their collaboration. Maybe the twilight in Hitchcock's career, from 1966 to 1976 would have been better remembered. But we will never know.

Although long-lasting collaborations between filmmakers and musicians are interesting, more intriguing are the relationships that never realized themselves after a spark of fire between two minds, one thinking in images, the other in notes. One of these mini-collaborations that is rarely spoken of is that of Robert Altman and John Williams, who worked together on two films early in both of their careers: Images (1972) and The Long Goodbye (1973). I'm sure there are numerous instances in the history of Hollywood in which a composer and director have worked together that many wouldn't consider to be a mini-collaboration; it's kind of like calling two consecutive wins a "winning streak." But I am more interested here in the kind of filmmaking minds these two individuals possessed, and how they uniquely came together resulting in two wonderful films and scores. After all, I would venture to guess that Robert Altman and John Williams aren't typically mentioned in the same sentence together, not just in terms of director-composer collaborations, but also when it comes to artistic sensibilities.

Images is one of Robert Altman's strangest films, especially considering how early in his career it was. Echoing Bergman and other abstract European filmmaking, it told a story through a series of disparate images and even more dissonant music. After listening to Williams' melodic work on Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter, it's hard to imagine that his name was attached to the film. But as devoted followers of his know, Williams is more than capable of writing strong abstract music. The score contrasts a haunting central theme with unconventional percussion which may first sound like noise but slowly reveals itself to be very complex.

For Altman, Images came one year after his critical success (and masterpiece, in this writer's perspective) McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), a film that stands today as the quintessential Altman film, whose only score was the gentle voice and guitar of Leonard Cohen. But Altman finds such beautiful music in the silence of his images, and in the neorealist-inspired narrative and compositional style. It would come as a surprise, then, that Altman would choose (or maybe he didn't choose) John Williams to compose the other-worldy score for Images. At the time, Williams was mostly known for throwaway comedy scores, for which he was being typecast as a composer. However, he had also been dabbling in action scoring for the disaster flicks of the pre-Star Wars era of action filmmaking. Either way, he wasn't known for writing the kind of music that Images called for. Whether the studio arbitrarily selected Williams or whether Altman picked up on Williams keen sensiblity for evoking beauties in "simple" cinematic images (e.g,, his beautiful take on Americana in The Reivers), it proved to be a wise decision, since the music injects the movement and non-movement of Altman's film.

Images was something of a departure for both Altman and Williams, but its effect is dizzying and at particular moments mesmerizing. Not a major hit at the time, Images still does not stand out as a significant entry in either Altman or Williams' filmography. After watching it though, it may provide new perspective on their work to follow.

Their second, and final collaborative effort came the following year, with a film that was about as far away from Images as one could imagine. The film, The Long Goodbye, was both a homage to and parody of the film noir genre, which, at the time, was thought to have run it's course. Although Chinatown, released the following year in 1974, was deemed the revisionist film noir of the 1970's (and rightly so), some credit should also be given to Altman's film, which is arguably just as impressive, if not as subtle. But then again, film noir was never known for its absence of identifiable style, but rather its extreme incorporation of shadow, smoke, and cold emotion. For Altman, The Long Goodbye was his third impressive showing in a row. Despite the film fitting a different tone than the previous two, with a somewhat comedic and outwardly self-aware detective story played in a dead-straight manner, Altman managed to create an evocative atmosphere through long takes and wide-angle lenses that permeates a mood both light and dark.

For Williams, the film presented a unique scenario wherein he could play off the pre-established norms of music for film noirs as well as ample opportunity for building comedy around musical ideas. Employing a leitmotif approach, Williams built the whole score around a single theme, a theme that is played and repeated several times over and in various orchestrations. It's so overtly repetitive that takes on farcical dimensions, which at times contrasts with the level of serious detail in the images -- far more than your typical parody. The combination of the images and the music make for an oddly intoxicating, yet comedic film that is one of Altman's more unique efforts behind the camera. One can almost see traces of style that would come to full light in later films like Short Cuits or The Player. Williams never again composed a score for Robert Altman, who in many ways moved away from traditional musical scores towards the late 70's and all through the 80's. Yet their brief collaboration, now a third of a century ago, can be viewed as a precursor to various movements and themes they would draw on and evoke in each of their respective careers, even though neither of them would return to this specific style of filmmaking/composing.

John Williams' and Robert Altman's short-lived time working together came at just the right crossroads in their respective careers, when they were each relatively new but had some credit to their respectives names. After The Long Goodbye their careers took off in directions, with Altman gaining more artistic freedom to pursue various personal projects before settling down and embracing his indie maverick status, and Williams hitting the double-jackpot with Jaws (1975)and Star Wars (1977) shortly therafter. Despite each showing tendencies and subtle returns to that style (Altman to the epic auteur image and Williams to the quieter simplicity that defines much of his best work), their paths would cross no more leaving movie and score lovers only to wonder what could have come of the seemingly endless plane of possibility evident in these two lesser known films in the early 1970's. And although their directions after The Long Goodbye and Images took very different shapes, there are traces of that crossing throughout each of their respective work.

This is one of my favorite Never-Fully-Realized director/composer relationships. Are there any other memorable (however short or long) filmmaker/musician collaborations worth discussing? If so, please share.