Thursday, August 21, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

"The opening scenes of David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises depict a man awkwardly severing another's neck. They both quiver in fear; one for losing his life, the other for taking one. Cronenberg draws out this precise feeling to unbearable lengths, with the stable camera refusing to edit to another image as we see the struggle ensue. Where many filmmakers are content to represent brutality via images of slit necks and stabbings often containing just enough detail to keep the viewer at a pleasurable distance, Cronenberg refuses you that pleasure. In doing so, he locates a primal state where you can feel the blood flowing through your veins. His images invite another form of pleasure. The scene consists of a very simple series of shots which evoke the difficulty and the struggle of being on both the perpetrating and receiving ends of the killing of a person. It's almost a sexual encounter, one that's revealed to be nothing more than business once it's over."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for more...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Manny Farber: In Memory

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

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

Some tributes:

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

Monday, August 11, 2008

My favorite Randy Newman score

Please excuse this brief excursion into cinephilia...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 2, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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