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...


Ed Howard said...

An excellent idea. I still haven't caught up with every movie I want to see from 2007. I'm very uninterested in keeping pace with the films of the moment; I'd rather watch the movies I want to see when I want to see them. If that means talking about a film that's a year old or several decades old, when nobody else really cares, so be it. I especially like your comments about I'm Not There and Eastern Promises, two of my favorite films from last year as well.

Ted Pigeon said...

Hey Ed,

Sorry for the late response. First let me say that I love what you do on your blog. Each time I visit, I'm always thinking about what movie you've written about next. Sometimes I will have heard of it, sometimes not. Regardless, I'm always interested in reading about a movie I'm pretty sure no one else has written about recently.

It's interesting to consider how bloggers such as you and me -- i.e. bloggers whose love of film and blogging aren't an extension of their professionally lives -- come to write about what we do. All of us keep to a system, in some capacity, whether that's focusing on strict reviews or commentaries, or an even mix of both. But the focus of those systems are really interesting, too. For example, when I write a reivew, chances are that it's for something new and mainstream, whereas you seem to review older films, international, etc.

Part of the reason I wrote this was to highlight the potential that "the blog" represents, when it comes to the style and subject of writing. When it comes to Top Tens and annual retrospectives, a lot of bloggers fall in line with journalistic critics. But it's nice to offer reflections at different times, whether it's nine months off or three years.