Thursday, May 29, 2008

Strained nostalgia: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

In the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we are cued on multiple occasions to swell up in nostalgia for a sense of old-time moviemaking that even the filmmakers seem to think is dead. In the very first shot, director Steven Spielberg wastes no time to make a joke out of the established tradition of the Paramount logo dissolving into the film's opening shot. We think we're looking at a mountain, which turns out to be quite different. From there, the opening title sequence begins with the same letter font that was used for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. After the title sequence, Indiana Jones makes his "grand" return to the screen with the famous Raiders March performed triumphantly in spite of the downbeat circumstances of his situation. Even when the action begins (in the warehouse from the end of Raiders), the filmmakers can't resist allowing us a small look at the lost ark. These pinch-yourself moments remind viewersm and remind them again that they are in for a trip down memory lane. But with the film resolutely and insistently banging the nostalgia drum every moment it can, the feeling that it is a true Indiana Jones film often seems manufactured.

This mood hangs over the fourth installment in the popular action-adventure series. It's as if Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are winking at us, expecting that we will simply play along in their harmless revisiting of an old friend. Lucas has openly stated that the film is "just a movie," which is no doubt true, even if the marketing campaign would convince you otherwise. Lucas has also said that the film is like the previous films; but this statement is only half-true. While Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull embodies the Indy mood and style to a tee, it also strains to imitate the previous films, rather than fully embracing the energetic spirit of this kind of storytelling. The other films --at least the first two-- worked partly because they delved so deeply and unashamedly into absurdity, reveling in seemingly ancient filmmaking and storytelling conventions. They were travelogues through movie sensations that were made with full conviction, whereas Crystal Skull is far too self-conscious to build and sustain its own rhthyms.

That said, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull still boasts a few moments of pure, unfiltered energy. These inspired bits surface in small places and throwaway sequences, such as in scene transitions, stagings of dialogue, and less than big moments during action sequences. An early example of this is during the extended opening sequence, after Indy escapes from the Russians and makes for a small town in the middle of the Nevadan desert. The vision of an aged Jones -- donning his iconic, unchanged getup of brown slacks, a fedora, and a whip-- running frantically through a sunny, colorful suburban town is a stroke of brilliance. The sequence culminates with a silhouette of Jones foregrounded in the corner of a shot pulling up to reveal a massive mushroom cloud in the background. This play against expectations establishes a harsh contrast in setting and mood that pulled me right into the narrative even more than the sound of the whip cracking in the warehouse scene.

Following these scenes, we return to Marshall College, where the Red Scare has invaded campus grounds. With the constant reminders of the Cold War affecting academia, it's oddly welcoming to return to the classroom and see Indy teaching. Although archeology remains dictated by the same principles, it's obvious that in spite of his love of archeology and adventuring, Indiana has changed. During these expository scenes, the film sets up the main plotdilemma in two ways: First, by establishing the Russians as a collective force and threat, as Indy is dismissed from teaching duties due to a suspicion of his national allegiance. This is an interesting plot device that sets up the remainder of the film rather beautifully, especially since it brings together Indy's absence of place in the world. The next plot push, however, is not as successful. Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp bridge the two plot shifts in a beautiful sequence where Indy gets on a train leaving town. In just a few economical shots, we go from feeling Jones' estrangement from the world --with train smoke billowing in the background as a solemn version of the Raiders March going through what seems to be its last, dying statement-- to the introduction of Mutt Williams, a la Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who glides into the film as if to remind that there's a story to tell. Before Indy takes off on the train, Mutt informs him that an old professor of his (and friend of Jones) is missing. This is the basis of the film's real plot hook.

This all sounds like a great set-up, but Koepp sidesteps many of the potential points of drama surrounding Jones' age and his self-realization about never having grown up. Instead, Koepp plunges right into a complicated legend surrounding the crystal skull, the main artifact of interest, mistakenly referred to by George Lucas as the McGuffin. As students of Alfred Hitchcock know, the McGuffin does more then push the plot; it does so for no good reason. The McGuffin actually has no real significance or relevance at all. It's merely the thing everyone is after. Each of the other Indiana Jones films feature a pseudo-religious or supernatural artifact that drives each of their respective stories. Moreover, the first three films concluded with some kind of exposure to the other-worldly power of these artifacts. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull follows a similar path, but the difference is that the artifact actually is a McGuffin. It doesn't have any significance at all, beyond vanquishing the villain and giving the heroes some place to go. This wouldn't be a problem if the film focused more on style than plot, which the others did. Crystal Skull, however, is weighed down by a mid-section that explains everything and features so much talking about the skull. As a result, no amount of style can maintain the level of interest initiated so brilliantly in the opening 30 minutes of the film. That's not to say it becomes a bore, since there are a few nice flashes through the second act, such as a nice dialogue between Indy and Mutt as they walk through a town in Peru. Even some of the skull jibber-jabber is somewhat interesting early on, as in the nicely staged scene in Professor Oxley's (John Hurt) cell in the town asylum, where Indy and Mutt try to decipher the professor's drawings on the walls and floors.

However, once the skull is discovered, the plot becomes much less interesting. For the first time in the Indiana Jones series, the hokeyness of the plot gets in the way of the real storytelling. I don't want to make it a habit of comparing Crystal Skull to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but consider the "Discovery of the Artifact" scenes from the respective films. In Raiders, Indy and Sallah find the ark in the Well of Souls -- where the jokes about Indy's fear of snakes are actually organic to the narrative. The first shot of the ark itself is one of the film's most memorable moments. As the shiny gold object is removed from the stone chamber, you can feel the power of it. Of course, the concept is absurd, but the brilliance of Raiders of the Lost Ark rests in how effectively in balances that cartoonishness with a real sense of wonder. They are derived from each other. From the moment the ark is discovered, the film's narrative moves to a new stage of intensity, where the stakes are raised, the questions around the ark are still looming, and the mysticism pervading the narrative is taken to new heights. When the film then engages in episodic fist-fighting and truck-chasing, we know that the power of the ark will be unleashed by the time it's done. The action is all anchored by the interest in the ark, and Spielberg was able to comfortably go off on wild tangents of action.

In Crystal Skull the narrative actually loses something when the skull is discovered. The plot susbsequently thickens, as we are reintroduced to Marion (who turns out to be Mutt's mom), as well as the same Russian baddies from the opening scenes. And yet, in spite of all of these plot points coming together and setting up for an action-packed third act, muted interest in the artifact and a convoluted plot distort the enjoyment of seeing all these plot threads in action. I have absolutely no problem with the amount of characters and story threads in the movie; the problem arises out of none of them being terribly interesting. Characters like Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), the head villain, and Mac (Ray Winstone), Indy's old friend turned enemy, should be compelling enough to anchor the action, but I found my interest in all of the details and characters fading as the complicated second act unfolded.

Nevertheless, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull manages to pick up steam, starting with the great jungle chase sequence. Beginning as a bickering match between a captive Indy and Marion, this 15-minute action centerpiece of the film is brimming the kind of energy that made the original films so lasting. The action starts with Indy's off-screen punch of a Russian driver. As his body hits the ground on the side of the moving truck --a trademark Indy shot-- John Williams' brass chords essentially announce the onset of an urgent, epic sequence. Once the scene takes flight, we are catapulted into symphony of crashing vehicles, bullets spraying through the jungle greens, and a swashbuckling sword fights on moving cars.

I'll admit that the first time I saw this scene, I had trouble following the action (which is reflective of the overly complicated plot, perhaps). But on second viewing, after realizing that I didn't care about the plot, I opened myself to the sequence as a pure cinematic experience. Interestingly, where the scene doesn't cohere narratively, it does visually. Even if you can't make sense of all the action at a given moment, the flow of the images is masterful. A couple of shots particularly stand out, like when one vehicle flies over an uprooted tree and we see many Russian bodies flailing up into the air just as the vehicle touches down and exits the shot (rather than the shot continuing along with the vehicle). Also, one has to appreciate Spielberg's willingness to hold action shots beyond the norms of contemporary action aesthetics. We've been conditioned to expect edits between shots (usually a string of close-ups) at points of impact, but Spielberg allows the clarity of the action to flow within singular, sustained compositions rather than stringently adhering to traditional montage. When Indy leaps from one truck to the next, the image may not contain the visceral impact of, say, the Bourne films, but we are more entranced by the spectacle of movement. I would have preferred a little less editing on the whole, but Spielberg still manages to orchestrate a wonderful sequence of balletic action that rings very memorable.

On the topic of the visual experience, many critics and audiences have complained that the film is overly reliant on digital effects. There are are certainly sequences that come off as blatantly computer-generated (e.g. certain shots in the duel between Irina and Mutt), but I'm more taken with the successful integrations of digital effects, which are many. Spielberg often employs CGI to lengthen of those sustained shots (mentioned earlier), except he gets more out of them with digital enhancements. He never treats the CG aspects any different from anything else. Perhaps my favorite shot in the whole film occurs during the jungle chase, and features two vehicles emerging from the jungle to approach the cliffs along the river. The composition starts by closely framining Indy and Spalko as the points of focus, but then pulls back to reveal the rocky, jagged cliffs. That it's all accomplished in one shot, with the main characters eventually shrinking out of fucus, is what makes it so simple and perfect. Adding to the visual wonder of the sequence is a shift in musical direction, beginning at the start of the shot, in which John Williams introduces a whole new rhythm on the brass and snares. This all makes for a gorgeous, transient moment of excitement that still dances in my memory. These are the kinds of moments that Spielberg has made a career of conjuring, and yet they are so rarely discussed. Critics would rather seem to discuss the "bigger" moments in Spielberg's library of memorable images.

The remainder of the film is a series of short-stinted action sequences, some of which are rousing and fun, others that are less so. It all leads to a finale that's short on explanation and heavy on supernatural activity. The closing scenes mostly involve the fate of the skull, and work purely as schlocky hocus-pocus fun. Placing them in the context of the building excitement and frustration around a complex plot, the finale represents a weak way to end the movie. Considering the number of potentially interesting characters featured in the climax, it's hard not to see the characters (Mac, Marion, Mutt, Oxley, Irina) as missed opportunities. None of them get the attention they deserve, including Indy. Much of the drama about Indy losing relevance in the world drifts into the background in favor of the standard Spielbergian familial themes that dominate the latter half of the picture. Most of this, even, appears rushed along.

Despite the family dynamics, Crystal Skull is the least involving of all four films, from an emotional standpoint. The glimmers of affection in the opening 30- 40 minutes are all but absent in the second half, when the script has its characters in sand pits, waterfalls, and running through Mayan ruins rather than building anything between them. When the end comes, one's emotional response will likely depend on one's affinity for the previous films, particularly Raiders of the Lost Ark. This strange detachment is reflective of the overall tension of the movie: In trying to be relaxed, Spielberg and co. are at their most boring and ineffective. The real life of the film seems to come where the filmmakers committed less effort to consciously imitating the fun of previous movies. Instead, Crystal Skull introduces a lot of new elements to the series and the character, but never does anything with them. The action moves fast, the plot moves slow, and in the midst of the plot and action, promising thematic ideas are lost in the mix. These include the nation's paranoia that manifests not just in the Russians, but in the increasing prominence nuclear warfare, and suspicions that beings from another world have visited ours. Also tossed aside is Indy's struggle of aging in a changing world, and the implications of his generational divide and its implications for knowledge. These are all hinted at in the film, but it never explores them with enough detail because it's too busy reminiscing.

With Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Steven Spielberg aimed to make a light, non-threatening, throwback picture. And although he unfortunately largely succeeds at this task, he thankfully contradicts himself with occasional bursts of audiovisual bliss. These portions of bold, unhinged energy are inconsistent, for sure, but they appropriately subvert the atmosphere of comfortable familiarity that Spielberg and Lucas were out to produce. Just like there is never a sense of urgency or threat in the film, Spielberg doesn't seem all that concerned with making a film anywhere near the level of visceral energy as Raiders of the Lost Ark or the almost as brilliant Temple of Doom. Even at it's best, Crystal Skull is tame in comparison to the audacious, and absurdly beautiful imagery of the first two films. The wonder of movement achieved by those films requires a filmmaker to operate completely outside a sense of higher purpose and a feeling of distanced affection for a lovable hero. While Spielberg still loves Indy, he is not willing to give him the kind of film that endeared him so greatly with viewers. As Manohla Dargis noted, Spielberg is not so much bored with this material, but he has clearly moved on from it. He will likely always love the storytelling and ideas that these films represent, but it's obvious that he simply doesn't have the burning desire to make old-fashioned adventures with that kind of fiery vigor that is required of them to be truly memorable in an age of action saturation.

But, to return to the initial observations at the start of this article, there is also something else at play regarding the the reception of the film, and the attitude about Indiana Jones that lead to the film being made in the first place. The nonchalant mood of the movie seems to represent the filmmakers' and audience's self-conscious acknowledgment that Indiana Jones is no longer a hero of the moment, but now a pop culture icon. To see him constricted to a flawed, nearly inconsequential narrative may damage the increasingly positive retrospective of the original three films, which now seem to operate within their own universe and logic. But the underlying tension between the self-conscious approach to the narrative and the real sense of storytelling rhythm that the film only sporadically produces, may be attributed to the notion that both the maker (Spielberg) and the audience, are simply not that interested in the kind of things that Indiana Jones --as a film series and as a cultural idea-- represents, no matter how much we're convinced of that we are.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The event of the year, and the movie too

Now that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is here, we may soon finally catch a break from the film's marketing machine. Seeing Harrison Ford's face plastered over everything from buses to candy bar was cute for a while, but in recent weeks the saturation of Indiana Jones has reached a frightening high.

I expected this with the new Star Wars trilogy, since the 20 years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace have shown that Star Wars was not about the movies or the storytelling, but instead about the consumer product, as evident in the resulting movies. But with Indiana Jones, the films have always stood on their own, as big budget, old-fashioned Hollywood entertainments. The films weren't advertised to death, wrapped in plastic, or spewing out products in every kids market. They achieved their notoriety in American culture because of their charm and style; you know... things internal to the movies themselves. Now that Indy is everywhere, though, my spirits are somewhat dampened. I am looking forward to the film as much as any die-hard Indy fan, having grown up watching the films, but I am more than a little turned off by the media blitz, to be honest.

The (marginally positive) reviews are piling in now, and soon I will have finally seen the movie. But when I sit down in the theater tomorrow morning, I don't think I'll so easily be able to divorce myself from the assault of advertising images I've seen in the past weeks and months. And it will have a bearing on how I see the movie.

I'll offer my thoughts on the actual movie by Thursday evening or Friday, but for now I'm interested in where the many symbols and images of Indiana Jones converge. The two that most interest me are: Indiana Jones, as both a character and a popular movie franchise, and also, Indiana Jones as a successful business model and marketing tool. This may be hard for me, due to my previously established connection to the original three Indy films. But my allegiance to those movies (and to Raiders of the Lost Ark, especially) may actually make for an interesting exploration of the cultural status of Indiana Jones, and what its popularity indicates and reflects about American culture.

My interest in this discussion began when I read Carrie Rickey's refreshingly negative perspective on Dr. Jones, which appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer only a couple of days ago. In her article, she refers to the films as sexist, and their hero a colonialist. These are hefty claims that she couldn't possibly justify in one article; but that's not really the point of the article. With all the sensational media buzz about Jones, it's a breath of fresh air to see a prominent film critic voice her near disdain for the franchise, deeming it an masculinist and nationalist fable. I'm not sure I agree with all of Rickey's claims, but I applaud her willingness to raise them. Her piece represents the best thing I've read about Indiana Jones in the last six months, and it got me to consider these films in a different light. While I have been slowly realizing over the years how many of my beloved movies as a kid tend to represent dominant masculinity and American domination, I've resisted situating the Jones films in this discussion, mostly due to my love of the first film.

I try to avoid being too Jungian with movies, but it's hard to deny the allusions in the Indiana Jones series. Jones himself represents the ultimate masculinist in the tradition of James Bond, with a new girl in each flick, none of whose combined screen time in all three films add up to his time in one film. Moreover, the films are made in the male-centric Hollywood tradition, where the men are always heroes, and the women damsels in distress. But besides the issues of gender in these movies, there are also some trouble nationalistic conflicts as well. One could say that in the movies where Jones battles the Nazis, that he represents America; a sometimes reckless, but ultimately pure hero who comes just at the right moment to save the day, and bringing peace to the world by stopping the Nazis. And then, in the Temple of Doom he arrives (by mistake) in poverty-stricken India, where primitive villagers need the white man to bring prosperity and purpose to their lives again.

As I said before, these connections are by no means definitive, or even substantive. But they are troubling in their bluntness. And now that Indiana Jones is invading all areas of commercial America, it's hard not to consider the implications of these notions for American consumer culture, where, despite a proliferation of media and information, many age-old assumptions and stereotypes about gender, race, and class are intensified.

The other side to Rickey's argument, one for which I hold considerably less optimism, is her assessment of the movies' effect on Hollywood action aesthetics. She cites David Bordwell in a concerted effort to demonstrate Steven Spielberg's ushering in of contemporary visual styles of shortened shot lengths and attention-deficit cinema. There's certainly no denying that Raiders of the Lost Ark boasted a considerably reduced average shot length than Spielberg's previous pictures, it's important to note that in comparison to most other motion-oriented action films, 4.5 seconds per shot (which was that of Raiders) is quite long.

Where we're on shaky ground here is in the potential confusion of forms of content and expression. Spielberg can certainly be credited (along with George Lucas) to invigorating Hollywood cinema with speed and motion, he did not do so with heavier editing and more close-ups. He did it by mastering classical styles, and achieving a maximum effect of impact and movement on screen. Say what you will about what Raiders of the Lost Ark signifies as a narrative or cultural artifact, it employed a thoroughly traditional visual style to create some of the most amazing sequences. Indict Spielberg for a hundred other things, but it would be foolish to argue from a pure formal standpoint that Spielberg ushered in a shorter attention span for cinematic consumption. He may have done so in his synergistic approach to Hollywood moviemaking and marketing, or in building on traditional racial and gender stereotypes, but his aesthetic is grounded firmly in a rich classical tradition. If it appears intensified, it's because he imbued that tradition with greater impact and motion, staging more impossible sequences and only cutting for impact.

Interestingly, Spielberg's Indy films were amazingly influential on Hollywood moviemaking, but in the worst of ways. Because while he stayed true to a traditional aesthetic design, his imitators took his ideological direction and pushed it forward by intensifying those aesthetics. Hence, shot times have diminished, and the average moviegoer's sensibilities are skewed to favor quick flashes of sight and sound rather than formal appreciation of a moving image. Subsequently, movies have been made with this kind of consumption in mind, and fewer filmmakers working on a bigger budget have a sense of the craft of filmmaking anymore. But Spielberg has always honored the rick cinematic tradition of moving images, and it's why his work is significant as not only that of a icon of economic synergy, but also of real cinematic artistry. He may be a slave to American capitalism, but his aesthetics are honest, and therefore he demands attention and consideration.

So as the dialogue continues about the cultural significance of Indiana Jones and the implications of its mass distribution in a globalized (although some would say Americanized) market, there is only one thing left to discuss: the movie. Lucas' Star Wars flicks suffered immensely from being placed on the back burner of the commodity machine. Soon we'll see if Spielberg has followed the same path, and in doing sacrificing the one aspect of his commercial filmmaking that makes him interesting: the filmmaking.

[As I noted earlier, I will be seeing the film early tomorrow morning, and will post a review of the film on its own terms (as much as I can, at least) shortly thereafter. After this discussion of the movie as a piece of pop pulp, I will do everything I can to keep my focuses on the movie itself in the review.]

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

There's something in The Mist

Grocery stores are fascinating places. They are among the few social gathering points that attract people of all classes, races, ethnicities, cultural orders, and religious views. With the exception of the wealthiest of wealthy and the poorest of poor, almost everyone frequents the grocery store; for practical purposes, and also in a more elemental sense, for survival. We need sustenance simply to keep living, and to support or social and cultural practices, different as they are.

Throughout movie history, some of the most tense films have transpired in a single, mostly isolated location. Horror films, in particular, have benefited from a focused setting, where an atmosphere of suspense and terror can be amplified from the feeling of isolation. Stephen King used this basic device as a way to frame a seemingly by-numbers monster thriller against the backdrop of a supermarket. Using a traditional setup and narrative structure, King explored the social relations of a staple institution in many of our lives. On an average day in a New England town, the story is populated with townspeople and out-of-towners alike, all who whom agree on the policies that enable a supermarket --as a social institution-- to function. But when a man comes frantically running through the parking lot --blood dripping from his nose and down his face, eyes widened in shock-- bursting through the entrance doors of the store, that order is ruptured. And in a few short moments, those who expected merely to pass through the store and move along with their lives find themselves enshrouded in mist, enveloped by a perpetual void in the form of a foggy realm moving over the town.

Director Frank Darabont recognizes the importance of character, isolation, and perhaps most importantly, our sociocultural policies, in adapting King's work on film. One of the more difficult tasks that Darabont accomplishes is the juxtaposition of the human drama arising from an expected crisis, and the supernatural forces which besiege them. This is not easy to execute on film, but Darabont achieves a fluid aesthetic of elongated shots and smooth closeups, building an atmosphere out of the relationship between the tangible, palpable fears of isolation, and the creatures who invade the world outside with no regard for those who have ordered it. Darabont draws this distinction sharply, giving equal weight to both narrative threads and allowing them to feed off one another for maximum effect, separated only by a thin sheet of glass. From the inside, the racial, social, and cultural tensions embedded deep within the beliefs and values that inform each of our lives are exploited by the looming vision of mist pressing up against the glass exterior of the market, and slowly penetrating that barrier.

At the heart of the human drama is more than just a fight for survival, which, although compelling as a center of clashing individual ideologies, is heightened even moreso by deeply embedded cultural conflicts that largely determine how individuals organize and construct explanations, notions of justice, and divisions of power. While race, class, and occupation loosely form the ground on which individuals base their perspectives on each other and the external world, the film observes that deeper than all of these fabrics of identity is a more constitutive collective order of the organized belief in a supernatural order: religion.

Although the film simplifies this "culture war" of religious inclinations with its broad narrative strokes, Darabont's magnification of this conflict --in the form of one character who preaches to the townspeople about the wrath of god-- allows him to explore the extent to which theism and religiosity motivates individuals to achieve a particular end. Therefore, King's and Darabont's observations are cutting and cynical. As one of the characters observes in a crucial (though perhaps too literal) exchange midway through the film, "As a species, we're fundamentally insane. Put two of us in a room, we pick sides, and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another." The man who says this is one of the store's workers, who bands together with a small group of forward-thinking protagonists who are more concerned with surviving the chaos around them, rather than explaining it and co-opting those dangerous conditions to exploit the collective's fear of death and the unknown.

Yet, although the film appears to embody the struggle between religiosity and pragmatism, its real focal point is the discussion of whether or not people are fundamentally good. There are those who believe that people are born good, which is usually attributable to some kind of grand design. From this perspective, it's all of the "artificial" and "unnatural" things that corrupt individuals. On the other side, there are those who believe that people are not much more than animals, refined by thousands of years of cultural meaning-making and socialization. Although people divide themselves over those very learned conventions and policies of language and rhetoric, these are also organizing principles that enable civilization as we know it. Division is built into the unifying principles of language and culture. But, when stripped of the complex world if discourse and forms that provides our lives with meaning, all slips into chaos, and people engage in a primal struggle not only for survival, but for power. And the key means by which to achieve that power is fear.

This struggle culminates in a deeply cynical ending that will undoubtedly divide viewers. Wherever you stand in interpreting the film's final moments will likely say much about which kind of person you are, with regards to the film's central questions concerning the fundamental nature of humankind. And while this struggle of ideology and theistic enterprise makes for fascinating human drama, the film embodies that experience so effectively because it is more oriented toward probing human behavior and communication rather than titulating the viewer with shocks and gore.

There's no doubt that The Mist is an intense experience in cinematic horror. But the horror arises out of human interaction, and subtle observations on individuals dividing themselves and bounding together when facing extraordinary circumstances. Life is lost to the creatures in the mist and to hellbent people, but how that life is lost is where the film really takes effect. Darabont's deft vision of humans in crisis is staggering, particularly at moments where life is draining away. Almost every "death scene" in the film is shocking in its quietness, and almost unbearable to see in the level of detail Darabont depicts it. Victims' skin quivers, their eyes well up, and after great struggle, each resign themselves to the inevitable reality of death swallowing them whole. Darabont's images are starkly real, even apocalyptic, often in the most subtle manners. Any fan of the horror genre has seen tentacles swallowing human prey, but Darabont can make it brutally real, focusing more on the in-the-moment details that a body in fear experiences. You feel it when a tentacle pierces flesh. And yet, no single image in The Mist is more frightening than the sharp blade grasped on one end by human hands plunging into the stomach of a fellow man. Encircled by a crowd function as a larger body of righteousness, the defenseless man is the unfortunate target of the twisted logic determined solely by his social position (an army officer). He is reduced to nothing more than the means by which members of a dominant majority can carry out their insatiable desire to provide meaning and structure to things that, quite simply, defy explanation.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The curious case of Woody Allen-- Psychoanalysis, auteurism, and film criticism

Of all the films in Woody Allen's extensive filmography, Annie Hall (1977) is the one we have latched onto. It's the one by which all other Woody movies are measured. Announcing to critics and moviegoers that its star and director was more than a clever stand-up with a flair for making funny movies, Annie Hall is a naked statement of vulnerability, about a man who turns everything into a joke as way of covering up his misery. At the time, Annie Hall represented Allen in a nutshell. Like the Alvy Singer-penned play (shown at the end of the film) replicating his life, the film was seen as something of a self-portrait, an image of Allen as he saw himself.

The film also established many of the themes and motifs to which Allen would eventually return in some capacity, from narrative arcs (e.g. the difficulty of relationships, talky and unhappy characters, etc.) to aesthetic styles (e.g., jazz and classic music, voiceover narration, long shots, practical effects, deep points of focus, etc.). But ever since the film unexpectedly nabbed Best Picture from Star Wars in 1978, Allen's career elevated to new heights, if not commercially than artistically. In short, he had the freedom to make the films he wanted. Post-Annie Hall, Allen's films have explored many of the same concepts, as well as a variety of new ones. Running down everything from death, separation, religion (or lack thereof), psychoanalysis, and other obsessions to varying degrees, Allen has philosophized in tragic and existential undercurrents in some of his movies, while in others he has waxed in comedic overtones. And in others, he went for both.

Allen has paced about one film a year for the last thirty-some-odd years, and has made more than a handful of intriguing, sometimes even masterful films. And still, Annie Hall continues to shine as his quintessential film. It may likely always be known as the defining movie in his career. That being said, it did not gain that status alone. In fact, one could argue that another movie (for better or worse) enabled Annie Hall to become the artist-defining, cultural milestone it became. Released two years later, Manhattan was and still is perpetually compared to Annie Hall. Like Allen's Oscar winner, Manhattan stars Allen as a neurotic man who loathes himself too much to let someone else love him. Moreover, it's set in Manhattan and stars Diane Keaton... just like Annie Hall!

It didn't take critics long --clever beasts that they are-- to catch on, almost unanimously deciding that Allen liked to make the same movie over and over again. Unfortunately, that's all it took, because it was critics and moviegoers who constructed such an identity of Allen, and it's one that he himself even believes. Now, many films and personal controversies later, Allen is looked upon as a 70-year-old version of the 40-year-old in Annie Hall, as a neurotic, overanalytic, cynical, dismissive, and emotionally frail little fellow with glasses who is unable to embrace happiness is how the rest of the world sees him. And rather than examining the extent to which the dialogue about Allen has informed critical analyses of his work, critics instead continue to (rather stubbornly) insist that Allen is himself solely responsible for his own image image.

Now that this dialogue has saturated, members of film culture have inevitably accepted the broader image of Allen on some level. These projections and assumptions manifest within the framing devices used to discuss his films, both current and classic. Not unlike the neverending dialogue about Keaton vs. Chaplin, conversations amongst cinephiles tend to be divisive affairs in which an individual's sensibilities are defined almost exclusively according to which film she or he prefers, Annie Hall or Manhattan. As much as it may appear that this dialogue illuminates the nuances that distinguish the films from each other, these divisions amongsts cinephiles likely thrive because of similarities between the two films, not the differences. If they are seen as different, one still has to question the usefulness of the dialogue simply because the films are defined by each other.

Although Annie Hall takes the lion's share of the credit, and it may be the film that resonates more on the cultural front, Manhattan made possible the comparison of Woody's films. It is the first and most famous example of Woody Allen's supposed self-plagiarism. For example, many a critic have argued that Scoop is a re-hash of Manhattan Murder Mystery. and, more prominently, that Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors are essentially the same movie. Apart from these plagiaristic duos, there are a number of other stereotypes about Allen's films, like how they have to fit into one extreme of "dark, brooding character studies about murder and deception," or "light, airy comedies with dated dialogue." These are but a few examples of the critical dialogue taking on an established rhetorical design. And now that critics have become so familiar with this pattern, reading a review of a Woody Allen film is every bit as routine as the films many critics label so.

Importantly, many of these trends began not just with Annie Hall, but in its rhetorical pairing with Manhattan. The two are inseparable. The Annie Hall / Manhattan duo is also significant for how critics and moviegoers would build an image of Allen --as an artist, and as a person. But this only holds up when the two are taken as one continuous idea, separated by only a few "minor" differences. Or at least that's how they are positioned. Whether the films are individually distinct from one another is not really the issue in these dialogues. Any differences between them are inconsequential to the fact that the conversation has been framed as one film defining the other. Neither will truly stand on its own beyond commercial worth. Taken together, the two films are equally integral in comprising the vision of "The Woody Allen Film" that still informs critics to this day. And their dichotomous relationship has cemented the prevailing notion that Allen plagiarizes his own work. Some would argue that this is evident in the films themselves, but few can deny that this trend has persisted in critical dialogue for years, which suggests that there may be more to this scheme than Allen's narrative and stylistic repetition. Many published critiques of Allen and his movies --e.g. books, articles, reviews-- focus on recurring fixations, themes, character traits, and narrative tendencies.

While the similarities in Allen's work are as undeniable as they are influential, I sometimes wonder whether his films actually resemble the discursive representations of them that critics have been piling up and recycling for years. The film criticism canon on the cinema of Woody Allen has reduced him to a simplified image, framing his films according to very defined properties emerging from the popularity of Annie Hall, and the subsequent critical discourse placing Manhattan in direct relation to Annie Hall. In spite of the high critical status of both movies, each film's individual merit is based on the other. That they are compared and contrasted so heavily prevents one from seeing each film on any other terms besides the counterpart, or the "other half" of the other. No matter how much Allen grows, that growth is only judged by how it relates to the established Woody Allen Film lexicon.

Having a brand of filmmaking and broad narrative and aesthetic styles assocated with a filmmaker's name is a sign of respect or significance, but the downside is that it also places the filmmaker in a bind, since she or he will likely always be critiqued by it -- e.g., Alfred Hitchcock (suspense master) and Steven Spielberg (king of the blockbuster). But the difference is that Allen doesn't get the credit as a filmmaker that Hitchcock and Spielberg do. Woody Allen didn't define or revolutionize the medium. Instead, critics, moviegoers, and Allen himself see his films as imitations of those from cinema's great directors. He's considered an American wannabe, pining after the European greats like Bergman and Fellini, his filmmaking idols. Taking this discussion into account, one could say that despite the Annie Hall / Manhattan tandem having opened many doors for the filmmaker to grow into fruition as an artist, it now prevents viewers from appreciating the richness of those films. Much like Allen's own obsession with psychoanalysis preventing him from recognizing his own worth, psychoanalysis has also jaded critics --particularly auteurists-- from engaging movies in a productive and open-minded manner.

Woody Allen is an extreme example, but the critical discussion about his films evidences the dominion psychoanalysis holds over film criticism. Guided by the principle that films hold meaning that the viewer must unlock, psychoanalysis has clamped down on film theory and criticism ever since academia took on film studies in the 1970's, allowing no other possible way of engaging movies. Some would say that filmmakers like Hitchcock and Allen invite this criticism by "making the same movie over and over," focusing on similar themes, fixations, and character relations. But just because Allen makes psychoanalysis explicit to many of his narratives does not entitle critics to position his films according to the same theoretical principles. To think in this way plays right into psychoanalysis itself, allowing its universalized logic to fit over movies like a glove, block all other theoretical or critical perspectives to penetrate.

It's no wonder, then, that psychoanalysis and auteurism are so condusive with one another. In each model, the critic runs a similar risk of looking through a film's images, and "arranging" them according to the established knowledge of filmmaker or filmmaking convention. Auteurism groups films and their directors in a way that makes them taken on meaning as part of a larger collection. This approach holds that movies are little more the sites where plot structures, narrative arcs, and character development converge. All formal details --composition, framing techniques, editing, and overall aesthetics-- are understood only in relation to these narrative elements. Because, after all, narrative is the driving force of cinema; at least according to this view. This approach, however, does not constitute a overarching inquiry into cinema, let alone a respectable criticism of it. I would go as far to argue that overreliance on this kind of criticism is reductive and potentially dangerous.

In the case of Allen, it seems as though we cannot evaluate his films with any bit of freshness. A new perspective of his work is bound to be "the alternative" to the dominant perspective, rather than being truly its own perspective. I'm not saying that critics should ignore similarities in plot, theme, and aesthetic design, since to deny these factors would indeed be foolish. Blowing up what's there and starting over will do criticism no good. Of course there are similarities between in Allen's films with respect to the aforementioned elements, especially between Annie Hall and Manhattan. The problem is when you end the discussion at the similarities. Both films are tragedies from purely a narrative standpoint, since each sees its central character as his own worst enemy. But if one's sensibilities are slightly more open it's evident that Allen in pursuit of very different sentiments and aesthetic unities with each of them.

Annie Hall is a reflection on the intoxication of new love and the hardships of commitment. It evokes the tension of refusing to let go, and yet not being able to take the appropriate measures to ensure an enduring relationship. The flashbacks and fantasies are impossible to differentiate from reality, and that's the point; they are intertwined to the extent that neither is an accurate representation of Alvy, Annie, or their relationship. What we have are images, memories, and feelings of "love and loss," essentially. Allen presents this narrative in a series of short scenes, each like a half-formed thought escaping from his consciousness as if interrupted by another.

Manhattan, while certainly boasting similar plot and character threads, motivic elements, and even some visual techniques (present in many of his film), presents more focused tension between romance and cyncism. In terms of pure comparison, Isaac is a much more bitter person than Alvy. He seems singularly focused on the present -- what benefits him right here, right now. He's also slightly more mature than Alvy in the sense that his attention is directed at what is occupying his moment, rather than constantly reflecting on the past. He ultimately makes the same mistake as Alvy, in letting the one person who brought happiness to his life slide through his fingers. But the manner in which we expereince this loss, and thus the loss itself, is entirely different. There are budding moments of romanticism in the film, especially for New York and classic love stories, but ultimately the cynicism prevails in spite of the dream of romanticism. Annie Hall, on the other hand, is not about cyncisim at all; it's a bittersweet proclamation of loneliness and self-loathing.

These reflections are brief, and represent only the beginning point from which one could launch a very different inquiry into the two films, individually and together. One might also say that my descriptions fall under plot details and formal elements, a practice I criticized earlier in this piece. But my descriptions of these components only topically resemble the style in which many critics use them. Again, the acknowledgment that film criticism should shift from its current format of placing formal details in relation to narrative-centric aspects does not mean that matters of narrative should be ignored. In the end, there is no right or wrong way to dissect a movie; a critical analysis requires that the critic discuss tangible elements, definitely, but not to a specific end. Film criticism at its best goes far beyond narrative and aesthetic relations, no matter complex they may be.

However, within the psychoanalytic, broadly auteurist model, further examination is not necessary beyond these elements. Those who approach film from this standpoint find what they are looking for. It has already sealed itself off and justified its own existence, based on the logic it has conveniently employed to do so. As is typical of psychoanalysis and (to an extent) auteurism, the viewer/critic is prompted to sidestep the immediate engagement of the senses that a film provides with its moving images and sounds. The kind of reflection these models seek is one based in symbolism and causality. But these don't engage one in the experience itself; they're more interested in providing meaning to that experience; placing it. Film criticism --in academic journals, newspapers, and independent blogs-- should be more atuned to personal reflections of seeing the film, but it should also be invested in the reflexive exploration of movement, memory, and sensation, and how these notions relate to narrative and character identification. These latter elements are important to film criticism, but they are not themselves the means to the ends of valid critical inquiry.

Movies are about more than a simple matter of plot, characters, and narrative, and they're about more than simply computing aesthetic sensations according to categorized responses or emotions. These tangible details are very relevant, even important toward understanding film spectatorship and and criticism. But sometimes even the best critical minds lose sight of the fact that movies are really about the movement of images and sounds, the very stuff of memory itself, as well as narrative. To paraphrase Jim Emerson, movies are about what happens to you while you're watching them. This seems simple enough, but it's actually a testament to the unending complexity of the film viewing experience. It's become a trend in film criticism for critics to use tangible details --i.e. plot, character, structure, etc.-- as a means for justifying or supporting a simplified response to a movie, their reaction; which is actually much harder to try to understand. But the more we lean on these tangible explanations, the more we're conditioning ourselves to look through the images rather than at them. That's not to say that the more abstractly we speak about cinema, the better. Logic is essential to any critical or theoretical inquiry. But there's a difference between logic and universalized rationale.

This is precisely why film criticism should begin repositioning auteurist theory. An inquiry into movies should address psychologistic components, for sure, but should also unashamedly delve into philosophy and lyricism, along with science and psychology. Ultimately, the perspectives expressed and the way in which they are expressed probably reveal more about the critic than the movie, but sometimes they illuminate aspects of the experience of seeing a images—and the thoughts, memories, and sensations they produce—which are at once permanent and fleeting.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Deleuze and film theory: An excerpt

Another semester has come to a close, and once again I have completed a paper that probably deserved a great more attention and reflection than I granted it. Although I may continue working on it, it was "officially" complete when I handed it in earlier this week. What once was a clean, unmarked collection of pages will soon become a sea of red, with a single letter at the end, determining the significance of the past four months of reading and study. Already, I see at as an incomplete work that will most probably be abandoned (although hopefully not).

Nevertheless, I see the paper (at the very least) as pregnant with possibilities. Which is why I have included an excerpt from the opening section of the paper. It essentially lays out the questions and thoughts that drove my research, and it suggests the beginnings of a thesis that may or may not have come together by the end of it. It doesn't, however, provide a full angle of the core analysis, which focuses on psychologistic models of film criticism --specifically psychoanalytic film theory and cognitivism-- and the implications of their respective rhetoric and positioning in relation to one another in the spectrum of academic film criticism. Approaching this relationship from a Deleuzian perspective was the point of emphasis of my theoretical exploration.

I honestly don't know if I was able to bring together all those elements and construct unique pathway of theoretical inquiry into cinema. I think I need more time away from this paper to really understand whether it has anything significant to offer. In the meantime, here's the introduction, which, as I said, presents the underlying questions and conflict. For me at least, the introduction nicely sets up a number of potential conflicts and relationships, and although much still needs to be addressed, it leaves me with the thought that Deleuze and film criticism may be more conducive than I previously thought.

I'm eager for feedback, so please feel free to volunteer your thoughts:

"Gilles Deleuze is known as a philosopher by some, a theorist of the cinema by others, and even an artist by his most ardent followers. His writings are ubiquitous, and his concepts unorthodox by the standards of philosophy, cinema and media studies, and art criticism. Despite the rising relevance of his two Cinema volumes in film scholarship, Deleuze’s place in the broader institution of media and cinema studies is oddly situated. Adamantly rejecting the claim that he was a “critic” or even a theorist, Deleuze constructed what he termed a philosophy – or logic – of cinema and movement. Film theorists who consider Deleuze’s concepts significant often draw on this logic, as rendered in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, and Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Meticulous in its description of spatiotemporal properties of movement and sensation, Deleuze’s philosophy of cinema at first appears to glide along the lines of neoformalist theories. Yet while Deleuze provided dense descriptions of action-images, affection-images, and perception-images, his concepts decidedly subvert the methods of dominant psychologistic models that now constitute a large amount of scholarly film theory.

While Deleuze’s Cinema volumes are gaining prominence, many theorists harness his principles of sensation as means for explaining or defining the cinematic image in a new way. However, this “application” of Deleuze is a fundamental misunderstanding of his concepts. In spite of their systematic detail and intricate design, Deleuze’s writings on cinema are not a critical model for evaluating or critiquing films, but the foundation for a larger inquiry into movement and sensation. For Deleuze, the cinema is not a communicator of messages or medium for delivering sights and sounds (Deleuze, 1983). And it is most certainly not a representational narrative or aesthetic device. Instead, the cinema is the site of pure immanence and sensation (Deleuze, 1985); it is quite literally its own reality. The image is not something projected onto a screen, but is instead the manifestation of pure thought.

Placing Deleuze in relation to existing theories of cinema is a complicated task. It’s not easily accomplished by employing his concepts as an extension or deviation from various established critical models. Deleuze’s logic of sensation lays the foundation for a fundamentally different engagement of cinema. This logic may provide the theorist with a different kind of criticism, or, moreover, a spectrum of theoretical possibility for engaging and seeing cinema. And yet, to grapple with this new vision of cinema as the basis for a new critical inquiry, one cannot simply stand outside the pillars of theory that have attempted to encapsulate and explicate cinematic motion and sensation. Exploring the possibility of a Deleuzian criticism requires that theorists actively engage the established theories, by analyzing the assumptions on which they are built and the values under which they operate, and situatating them in relation to Deleuze’s mapping of cinematic movement."