Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Dangerous Method

Since shifting away from creatures and techno-fetishes in recent years, David Cronenberg’s macabre sensibilities have manifested in new ways. He expounded on the intersection of violence and identity in both A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, whilst stretching each of their narratives to reflexively visceral extremes. His latest film, A Dangerous Method, continues this trend and ventures onto new ground for the noted auteur. It deals with the beginnings of psychoanalysis. Specifically, A Dangerous Method tells the story of the relationship of two of the most influential practitioners of psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. If the thought of a turn-of-the-century drama about the birth of one of the most influential movements in human thought doesn’t excite you, don’t let the plot fool you. For beneath its fiercely theoretical overtones, A Dangerous Method arouses the senses and provokes thought in typically strong Cronenbergian fashion. In fact, the glossy period trappings and meticulous language play an important part in the film’s rich evocation of the underlying ambiguities of thought and sexuality at its core.
A Dangerous Method opens with a virtuoso sequence involving Keira Knightley’s contorting body. Its rawness forms a stark contrast to the composed characters introduced thereafter. Knightley has been criticized for the unhinged nature of her physical performance, but she handles the role with assuredness and merges a range of sexual foibles rather convincingly. Knightly provides the source of the film’s manic energy, while Michael Fassbender, as Carl Jung, gradually sheds his mannered veneer and slips deeper into imprudence in order to satisfy his sexual desires. Finally, Viggo Mortensen balances the film’s hyper-sexuality by imbuing his portrayal of Sigmund Freud with a cool intellectualism and serene arrogance. His ongoing dialogue with Fassbender’s Jung (both in person and more compellingly through letters) makes for some of the movie’s most tantalizing moments as the animosity between the two grows deeper.
While A Dangerous Method parts ways with Cronenberg’s usual preoccupation with violence, the ease with which it fashions a vividly sensual aesthetic in such an understated manner remains consistent with the director’s past work and shines in fresh ways here. But don’t buy the hype that A Dangerous Method is somehow incongruent with Cronenberg’s style because it is not concerned with violence. The director’s usual savagery is very much intact (especially considering that each of the trio of characters inflicts harm upon the others that is equally devastating as any physical pain), along with his keen fixation on bodies. The difference with this film is that it more explicitly hones in on and explodes the Cartesian notion of the separation of mind and body that has afflicted psychoanalysis and invaded broader cultural notions of the two. Instead of highlighting the contrast between humanity’s base sensibilities—intellect and sex—A Dangerous Method removes the seams between them and dares to suggest that, in actuality, each intensifies the other. (David Cronenberg, 2011) ****

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A bit of permanence

In 2008, Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb, co-editors of the book, Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction, Vol. 1, invited me to join their panel at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies annual meeting. It was a moment of true happenstance, given that the meeting was held in my home city of Philadelphia. I graciously accepted the offer and focused my presentation on the contributions of internet writing to film criticism and cinephilia, particularly how it might redefine and collapse the space between the two. (Back then, my writing approach was more polemical, reflected by the longer posts.) The presentation went about as well as it could have, when you take into account that I'm a nervous wreck of a public speaker. I was more impressed by the uniquely focused presentations by the other panelists. Afterwards, Jason and Scott asked if I would be interested in contributing something for their planned second volume of the Cinephilia book series. Again, I accepted with equal feelings of excitement and trepidation.
Four years later, I am pleased to report that the outcome of that conversation has taken shape in the form of Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction, Vol. 2. The book aims to illuminate the larger historical and global contexts of the changes in technology and film spectatorship in recent years. My contribution is a chapter entitled "Revisioning Critical Space in the Digital Age." It represents an attempt to synthesize elements of my 2008 SCMS presentation with some writings that I've done here at The Cinematic Art. In retrospect, I wish I had given more time and energy to the product. But, having said that, I am generally pleased with the piece. It is not the definitive argument for my platform but its very publication may represent an important step in realizing the broader perspective of a kind of "critical cinephilia" that it outlines. It's also worth noting that it is an incredibly dated essay. I suppose that's the nature of the beast when it comes to academic publishing, but I cannot help but note the irony of an essay about the shifting state of media relations and film viewership that in some ways is already obsolete.
Limitations notwithstanding, the article is a standing reminder of what is possible in the digital age. On a personal level, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction that my small contribution to the still-growing network of film writing in the digital sphere has secured a bit of analogic permanence in print. When I started this blog five years ago, I had no inclination that it would result in a presentation at an academic conference and a chapter in a prominent book series in film studies. I am profoundly grateful to Jason and Scott for taking notice of The Cinematic Art—flaws and all (and there are many)—and seeing its potential. Moreover, I am thankful to them for providing me the opportunity to stand amongst scholars and argue the value of this format as an intermediary to criticism and cinephilia.

Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, Vol. 2 is available now through Columbia University Press and can also be purchased via Amazon.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Tiny Furniture

To know where you are and where you are going is a something many of us only occasionally grasp. Nearly everyone seeks to achieve some version of this scenario, in which the world makes sense and we have a clear role in it, but the means are not always clear. This is the premise of Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham’s second feature-length film in which she plays a recent college graduate who returns home without a strong sense of her next step, much less who she is. Her mother and sister are befuddled by her presence and her friends seem as confused as she is, although many of them wear the sheen of assuredness. The film follows her exploits as a privileged 20-something named Aura living in Manhattan and it oscillates between sympathy and laceration without ever wading too deeply into one. Aura is not neurotic or unconfident, but simply lacks a strong of vision of role as a daughter, sister, friend, and professional. This is apparent in Dunham’s lively aesthetic, visually reflecting her confused state with wide-open interior compositions and disproportionately framed conversations.
As a series of social encounters edging between awkward and playful, Tiny Furniture articulates and re-enforces the challenge of becoming an idea of yourself and settling for the aftermath of those choices. Whether at home, at work, or in sex, Aura cannot separate the decisions she makes out of convenience from those she makes out of genuine desire. Dunham focuses on how this manifests through the daily habits and ordinary bits of life. Her portrait of Aura can therefore neither be described as loving or scathing, which is perhaps why it is so genuine.
After Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham created the much-buzzed HBO show airing currently called Girls. It reportedly delves into many of the same thematic and aesthetic angles and has gone on to win much acclaim. But this should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with Tiny Furniture. Its “fish out of water” scenario somewhat undervalues Dunham’s apparent ambition to re-envision feminine space (both visually and narratively), but the film nonetheless holds up and is a notable early achievement in what will likely be a long, fruitful career. Moreover, Tiny Furniture reveals a filmmaker with attuned senses and a unique and badly needed voice in today’s mediascape. (Lena Dunham, 2010) ***

Friday, May 18, 2012

The state of the superhero

My latest Critical Distance essay is now up over at The House Next Door. It is an extended reflection on The Avengers and the decade's worth of superhero films that made way for it. In retrospect, I wish I had focused more on the film's critical reception and how critics seemed to praise the film while distancing themselves from it. Nevertheless, given how some critics have admitted to running out of things to say about the superhero film circuit, I thought it was worthwhile to dive into the aesthetics and thematic backbone of The Avengers. As I noted in my initial reflections, the film is an impressive, even layered work. In fact, I argue that it likely constitutes the maximal creative expression of the format. Have a read and let me know what you think. Now, I'm looking forward to diving into non-blockbuster fare, at least until Prometheus.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Avengers

In the realm of superhero movies, a subgenre that has flourished financially in the last decade, if not creatively, The Avengers is a small miracle. It is just as inconsequential as its brethren (evidenced by the static “Earth in Peril” scenario it employs), but, boy, does it hum. For such a behemoth, The Avengers moves nimbly and with purpose. Credit that to writer-director Joss Whedon, who seems to have recognized that films like this should not get by on their fights and tights, but on crisp writing and perhaps an implicit admission of their goofy nature. The plot involves a wormhole, an alien army, and a mysterious substance that grants everlasting power, but Whedon wisely recognizes that these elements don’t demand the attention that the characters do. He keeps a playful tone regarding the conventions of the genre—especially the degree to which many situations hinge on serendipitous convergences—while also weaving the backstories and personalities of the various heroes who must assemble to save the world. And in this sense, The Avengers is a juggling act of rock-solid precision. As many a fan and even critic will tell you, each character has a moment to shine. Moreover, seeing everything in kinetic motion together and bouncing off each other is delightful bit of viewing, even if you haven’t invested much in the characters. Of course, it helps when you have actors like Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey, Jr. on board. Tom Hiddleston is also a blast as the arch-villain, bellowing phrases like “Kneel before me!” about as convincingly an actor can. Almost as impressive as the actors is the design of the film’s main setting, a lumbering techno-vessel that soars invisibly in the sky. The inevitable third-act demolition of Manhattan is less successful and a reminder of the form's limitations. Nevertheless, it doesn’t diminish the achievement of this super-opus, which balances the solemn and the ridiculous to smooth effect.
The curious tonal disparity to the largely positive reviews of The Avengers is testimony to the reality that how we approach “event” films like this in large part determines how we receive them. Thus, some critics might appear to offer backhanded praise, as if begrudgingly acknowledging that Joss Whedon has made all the right moves with a tired foundation. Indeed, Whedon doesn’t try to subvert the genre, but instead points out how fun this kind of storytelling is supposed to be. In doing so, he also articulates exactly how his predecessors have failed. Ultimately, The Avengers’s most significant achievement is how proficiently it assimilates the more savory elements of the modern comic book movie, as well as those of the contemporary blockbuster, and streamlines them into a swift commercial package. The Avengers fits into a genre and style of filmmaking that may very well have run its course. However, as a tribute to the transient pleasures of archetypical lore, it proves that, with the right execution, a shallow story is anything but a shallow film. What to make of this underlying truth is another matter. (Joss Whedon, 2012) ***

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Gaining some 'Critical Distance'

At the start of the year, I announced I would be reviving The Cinematic Art and re-appropriating its content to suit my current interests and capacities. Four months in, I am generally pleased with the results. What started as the posting of simple, short capsules has evolved into the regular (and still brief) reviewing of movies and shows. While the format has limitations, it has also helped me understand and address my own limitations as a writer. If you've read this blog before, you know that I take to criticism with a high degree of reflexivity. Although I don't inject this into my writing these days, I am always wrestling with it and trying to improve my writing and approach with each review.

Another benefit of the recent writing I've been doing has been my rediscovery of long-form criticism. It started when I saw The Artist in February. I drafted a short review, but found myself reading more and reflecting on it. I returned to my capsule review and started adding to it. Eventually I molded it into a grander piece that was posted over at Slant Magazine's blog, The House Next Door. I had a similar recent experience with Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, which I began writing as short review but gradually developed it into a longer polemic. Both essays don the "Critical Distance" tag, a name that suits my long-form critical approach and also reflect my own film-viewing limitations. (I often do not see new movies until DVD release). "Critical Distance" covers both of these angles and more broadly represents my approach to come at a film from the perspective of having absorbed the hype and attacking it with a new set set of eyes. I already have a few ideas for movies to explore future Critical Distance pieces (e.g., Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises), but it's equally important to allow these essays to naturally develop from my reaction to something. (That I often am seeing films and shows well after their initial run adds to this approach). I realize that there isn't much need for a series like "Critical Distance." As David Hudson recently noted over at his new spot, KeyFrame Daily, "never has the mediasphere been noisier, nor have attention spans been shorter." Movies, even mega-commercial releases, have a brief moment in the sun on release, but are quickly chewed up and digested to make room for the next discussion of the moment. That goes for criticism, too. And that's why I like the idea of an essay series that runs against this trend. For the very same reason, I don't expect these article to resound much within the bigger conversation about a given movie. But it is my hope that they contribute a fresher perspective to works that have had their moment and are worth considering in a new light.

As I move forward with the Critical Distance pieces, I hope to put as much effort into the regular reviewing I've undertaken in recent months. Given that I am not a critic by profession, I am usually about six months behind the rest of the circuit with viewing/reviewing. This is an occasionally frustrating reality, but it also reminds me (as the Critical Distance series evidences) that there are other ways of spotlighting critical discussion than what constitutes the current moment. Nevertheless, I plan to have one foot firmly implanted in the new-to-DVD/streaming front and will also review select films in theaters. (On queue: A review of The Avengers, and perhaps also a Critical Distance piece on the same subjects at the end of May.) But as I am now winding down my engagement of 2011 movie fare, my review base will broaden in coming weeks and months, as I return to watching older films and television shows more regularly. This represents a relatively new direction in my reviewing habits, one that I am looking forward to carving out.