Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween special: memorable slasher title sequences

One of the reasons why Jim Emerson's Opening Shots project is so essential is that it highlights the importance of atmosphere and mood in cinema. When seeing a movie, these affective states are established immediately, from the opening shot of a film through its expository scenes. Unlike other scenes, shots, or moments, there is something unique about the opening of a film, which probably has something to do with the idea that in the openings shots and scenes, the "world" of the film is being established. Every sight and sound is working toward the construction of a cinematic universe into which the viewer enters. And the amazing thing about opening scenes (like cinema itself) is that one can do practically anything with them, from establishing themes, characters, and locales, to forshadowing them. Sometimes these sequence are movies unto themselves, offering complexities wrapped in simplicity through the simple power of images and sounds. They have such power so as to manipulate the viewer into perceiving and interpreting particular things that will influence how she or he partakes in or understands the film's elements.

While Jim's project represents a rather thorough exploration of the endless possibilities of opening shots and how they connect to their respective films, there is another cinematic device (often consisting of many shots, or sometimes just one) that can build atmospheres and moods so effectively: the opening titles (or opening scene, if there are no titles). In the spirit of Halloween, ahead are a few of my favorite opening titles sequences from horror movies over the years. Since so many opening sequences from horror cinema stand out in my mind, I'll limit my selection for slasher movies for the sake of brevity and because the treasures of slasher movies are sometimes overlooked. So, without further pontificiation, here are some of my favorite slasher movie opening scenes:

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Perhaps the quintessential slasher title sequence is Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Part of Hitchcock's intent with this film was to really manipulate audiences' sensibilities and expectations by torturing and twisting around accepting narrative structures. His famous remark about the film, saying that he "played the audience like a violin," all too accurately sums up the film. He relied not just on narrative and cinematic convention, confounding them and contorting them, but also the viewers' expectations of his own work. Hitchcock's most recent films (North by Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)) were wide-spanning stories, almost epic in their execution and thematic detail. Although they were stylistically distinct from one another, Hitchcock's direction in all of these films was enveloping and deeply focused on particular ideas. With Psycho, he wanted to provide the most simple, gritty version of the very same themes (i.e., guilt, murder) he'd been dealing with on a larger scale for quite some time. This comes through in the frantic opening title sequence, which resembles that of Vertigo and North By Northwest only in sense that it's visually conceptual and latent with the film's themes.

Although nothing happens in these moments from a narrative standpoint, one could argue that the entire movie is in this title sequence. Right away, the stark black and white image and the shrilling strings of Bernard Herrmann's score grab you, sweeping the viewer into a frenzy. As the countless perfectly sliced lines move up and down the screen, fading the titles in and out in the process, the string section -- the only section of the orchestra employed in the film's entire score -- harshly and violently chops along to the image, providing a sense that all the lines and titles are stabbing the viewer. But the thing about all the lines is that they are all even, perhaps suggesting the persistent, even chops that Norman unleashes on the poor, unsuspecting Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) midway through the film. After the "Directed by Alfred Hitchcock" title appears, the lines then fade out the gray background to reveal an open shot of the city, the opening shot of the picture. The music comes to an abrupt end, transitioning from its climax of high strings to very low chords suggesting the guilt of the character we will soon be following.

The brilliance of this title sequence is while the film itself hasn't even started, Hitchcock works you into such a state just on the pure combination of images and music that the abrupt contrast to the rather subdued, even talky opening scenes is jarring and unsettling. What Hitchcock is doing, if course, is planting these sounds and images deep within the unconscious of the viewers, preparing them for what's to come but also manipulating their senses by jumping into a seemingly random story about a secret affair. It's a masterful sequence, one that has inspired films of all kinds over the last (almost) 50 years. Hitchcock's ability to play with narrative conventions, stylistic devices, and the psychological states of the film viewer gave him a unique perspective of the relationship between the viewer and the screen.

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

John Carpenter's Halloween is considered by many to be the next generation of Psycho. Where Psycho essentially created the slasher movie, Halloween gave it new life and spawned legions of imitators. Perhaps it is appropriate that its opening title sequence (among other things) has taken inspiration from the historic Hitchcock film. However, while the film has similaritites to Hitchcock's picture, it is its own unique entry in the horror genre, and no doubt one of the finest. Appropriately, the opening titles to Halloween are much more brooding and ominous than Hitchcock's slap-you-in-the-face style. That's due to the fact that Carpenter is not interested in incongruous juxtapositions or reflexivity. He is more interested in building and sustaining an atmosphere of dread set within small-town America, where a masked, implaccable villain terrorizes a community (not unlike the leviathan from another horror masterpiece, Jaws, a movie that owes much to Hitchcock). Every moment of Carpenter's film is building toward the showdown between Laurie Strode and Michael Myers on Halloween night.

In the opening titles, Carpenter shoots a lone, plain-looking jack-o-lantern set amongst the black void, which calls attention to the mesmerizing flickering light within the pumpkin. The pumpin itself is on the left side of the shot, with the orange titles appearing alongside it on the right. As the camera zooms in closer to the pumpkin, the ordinary pumpkin seems to embody the evil that will soon overtake the small town of Haddonfield. As we get closer, the plainness of the face carved out of the pumpkin actually looks like Myers' mask. And what gives the scene that building effect is John Carpenter's now legendary electronic-based music, which takes a simple melody and compounds it, layering it with foreboding chords.

Like Psycho, this opening title sets the stage for the rest of the film, informing you that much lies in store without even showing you a single image other than this pumpkin. I have watched this film every Halloween for the last ten years or so, and it never loses its impact, which is partly due to the perfection of this title sequence. It sucks me in each time, pulling me into its nightmare long before Michael Myers is ever seen on film. While the movie conceals Michael through much of its running time (another tactic borrowed from Jaws), the marriage of the images and music in this title sequence invites you into simply mystery of the seemingly indestructible, reasonless beast that prowls the streets of small-town America wearing only a gray suit and a mask.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

Although the film is often mocked for its wise-cracking villain and infinite bad sequels, A Nightmare on Elm Street remains one of most visually creative and out-and-out enjoyable horror movies that established Wes Craven as the near-legend he is now. While the film suffered from Craven's somewhat clunky dialogue and phony performances, which Craven would gradually tune over the course of his career, it stands out as pinnacle of the endless number of teen slasher pics from the 80's, and boasts quite a few terrifying dream sequences that rank among my favorite moments in horror cinema.

One of the best of these sequences is the film's opening scene, in which Freddy Krueger stalks a young teenage girl through an inferno-like labyrinth full of dripping pipes and endless dark hallways. The scene is very disorienting because it follows a close-up montage of a figure (presumably Freddy) putting together a glove with knives for fingers. Then, it abruptly cuts to this girl entering this maze, where she encounters sheep and hears a deep voice whose voices echoes throughout the chamber as he calls her name. The girl contrasts with her environment, embodying a youthful feminine innocence that Freddy will (quite literally) rape with his knife-fingers later in the film. From the outset, we never get the feeling that Freddy exists within a real time and space, but is everywhere, around every corner, behind every wall. Unlike the end of the film and in all of the sequels, Freddy is seemingly indestructible here, shot in shadow so as to accentuate the scarred, pulsating tissue on his face. But before the climax of murder, the film cuts away to the girl awakening from what we subsequently understand to be a nightmare.

As I mentioned already, the rest of the film doesn't live up to this sequence, which is common of a Craven film (as the next film I'll look at demonstrates as well). However, the movie offers several brilliantly realized scenes showcasing a nightmarish dreamworld wherein the line between reality and the dreamlines is ambiguous.

Despite its falling short just when it should be picking up (at the end) A Nightmare on Elm Street is an, atmospheric, intelligent, and well-structured slasher movie the likes of which is rarely captured nowadays. Its opening sequence will live within my mind for as long as I can still dream at night.

Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)

Just 12 years later, Wes Craven had corrected his initial problems of directing actors and had already built his reputation as a master of horror. This enabled him to enter a more reflexive stage of his career, when he made "meta" horror movies like Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), by far the finest of all the Elm Street sequels. But one of his most accomplished and underrated films (despite its popularity) is the 1996 sensation, Scream, which satirized teen slasher comedies while simultaneously playing out as one.

One thing I love about Scream is its opening scene. After the Dimension logo and a very brief title announcing the film, it launches into a six or seven-minute scene starring Drew Barrymore as a defenseless teen, Casey Becker who is home alone. The sequence is the most powerful in the movie, and the most violent. It has Casey (Barrymore) taking calls from a movie-obsessed stalker who at first seems charming but slowly becomes quite terrifying. He first questions her about her favorite scary movies, to which she playfully and flirtatiously responds, feeling very secure. But soon the man alludes to seeing her from outside, and we are hit with the hard reality that she is in a defenseless position against a killer who will stop at nothing to kill her. After a tense moment in which he offers her a horror trivia for her life, the ghost-masked killer breaks into her house, prowls around as she hides and eventually chases her outside as the girl's parents arrive home.

As she is rather mercilessly slaughtered on her lawn, Craven interestingly manages to tap into many of the things Hitchcock was after with his suspense films. He presents a murder in extreme, unrelenting detail, as if to push the boundaries of what we will accept as pleasure. Craven wants to explore how much gore and blood we can take before it affects us and makes us violent. His killer has seen horror movies, internalized them, and is now bringing them to life. And while the scene itself is one of those prototypical horror scenes, Craven imbues it with an edge of realism. Part of what makes it work is Barrymore's earnest performance. When she runs and hides, we don't disbelieve her for a second. You can almost feel the cold rush of blood running through her body, both in disbelief but reacting as necessary. She fights valiantly, but the killer eventually straddles her squirming body and penetrates it with his knife over and over again. Where most horror movies will dump out and cut away after a quick death, Casey dies slowly and is hung to dry (again, literally) for her parents to see. Suddenly, we go from cliche horror to outright tragedy, and the scenes is played to perfection. By the end, it's hard not to be emotionally wrung outof the experience. I still remember sneaking into the theater to see this when I was 13 years old and being so wrenched by it, and by the experience of feeling rebelious (yes, that was rebelious for me at that age). It's just a movie, Craven asserts. And In a quick seven minute scene, he considers the implications of this mentality. The rest of the movie doesn't approach this genius and unnerving sequence, but its resonate nonetheless and represents fine slasher cinema.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Mainstream independent filmmaking: the end of American cinema?

Traditionally, indepedent movies are a tough sell. That's what makes them independent. As little as 15 years ago, they were shopped by filmmakers at no-name film festivals with the hope of being picked up for even the smallest release. But in the 1990's, when the studio comedies, slasher movies, and R-rated action epics that were so popular in the 80's were beginning to slow down, independent filmmaking was on the rise. While independent filmmaking was huge, independent films weren't. Hundreds of indies a year seemed to slip into oblivion, as the box office market was populated by PG-13 actioners and epic dramas with adult actors. Independent releases certainly had an audience, but it was an audience that didn't seem to grow; one that occupied its own space in the film market as the "artistic alternative" to Hollywood.

But in the past several years, American movies seemed like they were in the midst of a transition, one that would see the rise of the independent film. Each year, more A-list actors are appearing in indie-like films, Oscar season is littered with movies that you rarely see advertised or hyped in mainstream media. International films have also received larger attention on the American market, with digital media offering a seemingly more diverse selection of films to see. With sites like Netflix and GreenCine, the consumer can see films from just about any country, films that, 15 years ago, would never seen an American release in any form. Moreover, on internet media such as blogs, readers can explore a variety of critical perspectives and styles that did not exist a few years ago. Rather than displacing newspaper and magazine criticism, the presence of digital media and a shifting sensibility in criticism and serious film culture in general has actually given journalistic criticism a shot in the arm, with publications like the New York Times, The LA Times, and various other news sources offering a variety of articles. All of these apparent shifts in film culture seem to have facilitated a changing market in film distribution. Suddenly, the "indie" has catapulted into the mainstream.

But hold on a minute. Before we champion this injection of diversity into American film culture and declare these new movements successful, let us look at more recent box office winners. Over the weekend, Saw IV dominated the box office, grossing more than $30 million. In three days, Saw IV has achieved what The Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Darjeeling Limited, In the Valley of Elah, Gone Baby Gone, and Into the Wild have combined, with some of the above-mentioned films having been released back in September.

Perhaps all is not well in Indiewood. In last week's LA Times, Rachel Abromowitz writes that the low box office revenue generated by the more mainstream indie movies like Jesses James and Into the Wild is troubling for studio executives, who may now think twice before funding smaller projects, even if they star Brad Pitt or Owen Wilson. She writes:

"Hear the screaming? That's the cri de coeur coming out of Indiewood this fall as multiple films emerge to good critical reviews only to find scant audiences waiting for them.

After years of scooping up awards and having micro-budgeted films go on to mainstream success, the specialty divisions en masse are having a down cycle. So far, 2007 has not borne any breakouts like 'Little Miss Sunshine,' 'Brokeback Mountain' or 'The Queen.'

'We're all suffering. It's the entire business,' says Focus Features Chief Executive James Schamus. 'At least someone should be succeeding. It's as bad a fall as I've ever seen.'

Why haven't more people shown up to see 'A Mighty Heart,' 'In the Valley of Elah' or even the comedy 'Lars and the Real Girl'? Some films -- like Richard Gere's 'The Hunting Party,' Kenneth Branagh's 'Sleuth' or the Mark Ruffalo-Joaquin Phoenix film 'Reservation Road' -- haven't made even $1 million. And a crew of classy star vehicles from studios -- essentially art films with bigger budgets -- has been flailing at the box office. Despite George Clooney's tub-thumping, 'Michael Clayton' has earned only $21 million. Cate Blanchett's 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age' has taken in $11 million, and the Brad Pitt western 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' has earned only $2 million, according to"

One of the more revealing aspects of the article is the concern by most studio executives who fear that they are overpopulating the market too many good films. Nevertheless, the most depressing bit about all of this is that many of these films received substantial marketing campaigns and have still massively underperformed. Meanwhile, assembly-line confections such as Saw IV, The Game Plan, and 30 Days of Night, easily dominate the box office, even during a time of year when prestige releases often flood the market. All it takes is a comedy or horror film aimed at children and teenagers to create a box office winner. Many of these films can barely be considered movies, in the opinion of some, and yet they effortlessly stride to box office glory while studios are seeing their marketing campaigns for their smallers films go to waste. Some pundits fear that studios may lose the incentive fronting serious filmmaking in their smaller divisions and opt instead to produce more audience-friendly "films."

Some attribute this to the apparent transition, citing that the mere presence of a wider variety of films is encouraging enough. Indeed, indie filmmaking is becoming more mainstream, but not in the sense that we'd expect. In fact, "indie" is a term abused so commonly that its meaning seems to have faded away. Maybe, the transition we speak of so positively isn't very positive at all. Instead of Hollywood cinema becoming more daring, daring indepedent cinema is becoming more safe. And what concerns me most is that films that are successful tend not to be very good; Some of them are, but by and large, the Little Miss Sunshine's out there are just as mainstream as anything else. That people would consider them "independent" or a great stride in indepedent cinema is appalling. Meanhile, movies that are challenging and provocative go unrecognized, except for those who really care about good cinema. Unfortunately, when it comes to box office, those people (serious film lovers, mostly adults) don't matter. No amount of strengthened presence in awards season or at the multiplex seems to change the outcome. The simple fact is that movies with "hip, young stars" (translation: terrible movies) will continue to rule the box office and better movies are not just "smaller," but increasingly insignificant to the demographic who control the box office. That's not to say that "smaller" American cinema is becoming as superficial as the rest of it. Just because something is "indie in spirit" or expeirmental, does not make it better cinema by definition. In fact, these distinctions may partly explain why this problem continues to thrive at all.

I realize that these (mostly unsupported) claims are rather weighty. While I do not advocate such distinctions of indie or blockbusters, they are very real terms that influence how many film viewers perceive and interpret film advertisements and the films themselves. And in that sense, indie and mainstream filmmaking are undoubtedly coming together, and maybe not for the better. But I'm not about to declare the "death of cinema", as most sensationalist pundits are so inclined. I have had the wonderful opportunity to see a number of great movies that have come out over the years, and I am confident that I will see many, many more. The truth is that good filmmaking is alive and well today, no matter what the production cost. And I have no doubt that great cinema will continue to be made so long that there are artists, writers, and viewers who love the form. The difficulty is in accepting that much of the art and criticism that really is great and progressive will not ever be relevant to an ever-growing audience that simply doesn't care.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Encounters with Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog's latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, screened at a few film festivals over the past few months and likely won't see a release for quite some time. But a couple of nights ago, I had the unique opportunity to see the film. It was part of a series running all of this week organized by the University of Pennsylvania's Cinema Studies Program. The focus of the series is Werner Herzog, who is on hand here in Philadelphia and is partaking in conversations with various cinema professors through tonight. Last night, he spoke about 21st Century technology (which I did not attend), and tonight he'll be talking about ecstatic truth and how it connects to his thoughts on documenting, narrative, and filmmaking in a conversation with Karen Backman, the chair of Penn's Cinema Studies program.

As much as I'd enjoy going to an event where Werner Herzog discusses his work (as I am pretty sure I won't have the chance again in the future), I am not yet certain whether I will be able to attend the conversation this evening. I'd imagine it will probably be along the lines of topics he's been talking about at film forums and festivals lately, that being ecstatic truth, narrative, and lived experience in our contemporary technological culture. These are all topics of great interest to me -- much of my current study focuses on them. Which is why Herzog's films resonate so strongly with me. His documentaries in particular, guided by his softly relaxed voice and keen perspectives, function as deeply reflexive ruminations on narrative, communication, nature, perception, and technology.

A couple of months ago, when Herzog was in New York screening bits of Encounters at the End of the World (which was not yet complete), The Reeler featured an extensive article on Herzog, the film, and his preoccupation with ecstatic truth. Among the article's treasures is a section at the end featuring Herzog's quotes on various things. On ecstatic truth, he had this to say:

"I think it's in all of us that we are trying to understand out human condition, and that we are here on this planet, in this life, for something that has more meaning than being part of a consumer society and then perish. Of course, that happens to all of us, and that's OK. But I've always had an almost religious sense of something deeper within creation. Something deep within our human condition. And something deeper within images per se, and the grammar of telling stories in terms of images. Ecstatic truth is not just an isolated thing I'm after; it's a much larger context of things that has engaged my mind throughout my working life. I can't explain it much further."

It all of course seems vague, but is rather deceptively articulate. The last line says it all: "I can't explain it much further". It seems that film journalists and critics everywhere have been trying to grasp ecstatic truth on the level of language. This, Herzog says in so few words, is not really possible. Ecstatic truth cannot be defined because that would impose a singularity on the concept; a singularity whose bounds are drawn by the structures of language. And while language is all that we have to comprehend our sensory perceptions and engagement in lived experience, Herzog insists on a deeper level of abstraction that transcends language, code, or fact; one made possible by cinema. That is the project of body of work; be they fiction, non-fiction, narrative, documentary, or whatever term you'd like to use. Herzog wants to break down the artificial barriers that constitute a very real understanding of lived experience. While we have structured it to be that way, cinema does not break down into narrative and documentary, fiction or nonfiction. It is more nuanced than that, but it only embodies that level of abstraction when filmmakers and viewers are willing to abandon these loose terms. This is Herzog's approach not just to cinema, but to lived experience as well. His greater project is probe the connections between cinema and life, by exploring the tropes, styles, and conventions of filmmaking and life in his inquiries into various events, figures, cultures, and pockets of existence.

Interestingly, the following quote in the article is Herzog's comments on the nature of reality, which, again, speaks to this larger notion of ecstatic truth that drives his work and his questions:

"We have a momentous and massive onslaught of new media -- new tools, new instruments -- an onslaught on our sense of reality. ... I cannot recall another period in history when we had such an enormous challenge. It reminds me of the medieval knights; they would do combat with sword and shield on horseback, and they had done that for centuries and centuries. Human combat used the be the same for millennia. And all of the sudden the medieval knight finds himself confronted with firearms and cannons -- cannon fire against him. And the entire attitude and the entire idea and practicality of warfare had to change almost overnight. The onslaught on reality that we realize nowadays has the same magnitude. And that's why I think the context of all the nonfiction films that I've made -- and those I've nominated by other filmmakers -- give a very good idea about what we are trying to be after."

What he seems to be describing is convergence, wherein various media and technologies are intersecting in new and unforseen ways, contributing to our collective memory, psyche, and experience. Most of these media do not displace older media, but instead exist with them, as Henry Jenkins explains in his essential book, Convergence Culture. And so we have these many technologies and media colliding in millions of ways to constitute our existence, as they always have; extensions of ourselves. But now, with mechanical reproduction enabling an age of digital reproduction, we cannot even begin to understand a core identity or even launch a simple inquiry into human existence with science or mathematics. It's much more complicated; too complicated to explicate in structured thoughts.

These questions and observations underlie all of Herzog's films in different ways. In Encounters at the End of the World, he travels to the most remote location of this planet to observe the people who inhabit it. The film is comprised of a series of interviews with various scientisits, divers, and "dreamers", as Herzog calls them. He is not merely attempting to observe and gain insight into the desolate ice world and the planet, but also to understand what motivates the people who have elected to live there and study it. Herzog seems to believe that while human beings and nature cannot connect or live together in harmony, they constantly intersect, inevitably so, even in the the most far-off land, where people require the best of minds and technological access to survive at all. This tense relationship fueled his last documentary, Grizzly Man (2005), and while he isn't exploring life and death and the harsh collision of humans and nature, Herzog is nonetheless searching for something in his probing of the Antartic culture, wildlife, aquatic life, and the glaciers that move about the ice-cold waters.

By observing the idiosyncrasies and odditities of the continent's residents, Herzog captures both the beauty and absurdity of what they do. He uses voiceover to frame his questions and thoughts, some of which are practical and humorous, others more subliminal. Regarding Antartica and its residents, Herzog wants to understand their unique motivations, as he paints them as dreamers (as I mentioned above). But he also uses the voiceover to interject his own very estranged thoughts (i.e., distanced from their thoughts and thought-processes) in the form of hilarious observations such as "Her story goes on forever", which typically cut off the person talking. However, these hilarious moments are often times genuine, whether they're honest feelings of his or simply elongated takes of a given individual after she or he is finished talking; It's esepcially interesting to see how uncomfortable people become when they've said what they wanted to say but the camera keeps rolling, as if its stalking them. But these bits of humorous discomfort are never outwardly mocking of the interviewees. In fact, Herzog often finds real humanity in all of persons with whom he speaks in the most mundane or comedic of times. Whether he's enamored, bored, or "searching for something to talk about", Herzog often finds life in the simplest of ways.

He juxtaposes his encounters with the people of Antartica with some of the most awesome cinematic sequences of underwater footage. Throughout the film's 99 minutes, there are several long sequences underwater in which the camera follows divers down to explore the chilly depths underneath the ice. There is nothing overtly flashy about the images, yet they exude a real sense of discovery, as if the viewer is among the privelaged few to be able to see that which rests underneath the ice, which is a whole other world. We can observe this world, shoot it on film, and try to explain it with science, math, or language, but such attempts ultimately fail. Sometimes sounds and images stand for themselves. As is typical of Herzog's films, Encounters at the End of the World finds sublimity in the most seemingly mundane of ways; in patches of air traveling between the ocean and the ice that sits on top of it, in lone penguins who "walk to certain death", and in the ramblings of its many interviewees. The most outwardly poetic moments are those underwater, where the sea life seems almost alien in that it resembles nothing we have categorized into a species or form of life. Underneath the ice in Antartica, life eludes the human capacity to understand it. And in these sequences, whether underwater or in ice caves, Herzog rarely interjects with his own voice, except when observing peoples' strange ways of trying to connect with it. (Buried in a tunnel of ice is a frozen fish and strings of popcorn!)

With all his wanderings about this world "off the map" with no real understanding it, Herzog finds great clarity in balancing "Profound Moments" with seemingly pointless ones. He is utterly fascinated by everything, prompting him to contribute his own thoughts about it. After seeing the film and reflecting on its rather free-flowing tendencies and sensibilities, think I now understand a bit more why Herzog enjoys making documentaries, even though he keeps the term "documentary" at a distance. There are things so wonderfully strange and strangely wonderful about this film, which is more an exploration of a foreign land and culture. No "narrative" film or talking heads" documentary" could ever broach the eccentricities of the people interviewed and observed in this people, and no amount of creative framing or special effects could yield the kind of strange, almot too gloroius for words images of the lost world underneath the glaciers. With this style of documentary, Herzog can frame his own narrative and present this world as he sees it. He is the true master of this cinematic universe, and I must admit that it's a universe I love to lose myself in. In this universe, Herzog dives into different places of our shared world --or collective unconscious-- to observe how each of us interpret the very same matter and sensory perceptions differently, crafting our own worlds in the process.

Encounters at the End of the World is yet another attempt to explore ecstatic truth in one of the endless amounts of ways one can. It reminds of the true elusiveness that is cinema, which itself is a tool for experiencing ecstatic truth. It is a medium rich with possibility. Only with cinema can a filmmaker foster such a world in such a unique way so as to offer insight into how humans construct their own narratives and fancy their own worlds. It is a medium of many media, itself the true convergence of technologies and artistic perspectives developed and progressed over thousands of years to shape our consciousness, individually and collectively.

If I do happen to miss tonight's conversation with Herzog, I won't feel like I've missed on on something once in a lifetime. I say that because watching his films is itself a sort of personal experience with the filmmaker, like a conversation wherein I am constantly engaged in his thoughts and observations, which in turn provoke my own, which may thus inspire me to approach the film in a different or unique way. I find some version of this pattern occuring each time I watch a Herzog film, whether that's a narrative film or a documentary. But the greatness of his body of work is in the way in which he makes films collapses these broad frameworks that turn the cinematic experience into a process of structuring and categorizing.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Month of the living horror

I was in Northeastern Pennsylvania this past weekend, where in a rustic-looking antique store somewhere in the mountains I discovered a dusty, out-of-print book --at least according to the sign-- on a small table in the corner of the store. It appeared to have been written sometime in the 1970's, by the looks of it, and was called "The Horror People." Like a great deal of film books that I purchased in my teen years, this one is more a pictorial journey through a certain area of cinema, that being horror cinema. Its commentaries are hardly critical, but are instead more of appreciations for various figures (mostly actors) who contributed to the construction of horror as not just a literary genre but a cinematic one as well. I have yet to read the book, but I did have a chance to browse the chapters, which were organized by actor. Just from paging through the book, I was able to tell that it was very imformative from a film history standpoint about the famous horror actors through the mid-70's, with extensive notes on Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, etc.

So I decided to buy the book with the hope that I can brush up on my horror genre history. It was also an irresistible buy because, quite simply, it's that time of year. Like many others, October is a special month in my cinematic calendar because it gives me reason to watch as many horror movies as I can. I am not as well read on the genre as others, but I'd like to think I have a fair grasp of this creatively lucrative genre. October is typically a fertile time for critical reflections on horror cinema, from the classic cinema as evoked in "The Horror People" to the slasher flicks of the 80's, and everything in between. On the film blogging circuit, several enthusiastic horror fans have written dedicated space to writing about horror films in the spirit of October. One of the more ambitious of these writers is Rob Humanick, who is currently trudging through a brilliant series entitled the 31 Days of Zombie! on his blog, The Projection Booth. Over the last several weeks, Rob has posted a review of a different horror film each day, and, apart from the freshness of his writing and perspectives, the films he's chosen to write about are incredibly varied. He's written about movies as diverse as Shaun of the Dead, a recent horror comedy, and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead sequels. He has even written about low-grade zombie flicks that I've never even heard of. Elsewhere on the blogging front, Dennis Cozzalio recently offered reflections on his love of horror (particularly in October), as well as a review of an overlooked horror film of the 50's. In his posts, there is an enthusiasm for this style of moviemaking, a nostalgic yearning to understand the ecstacy of turning the lights off, cozying up on the couch with some popcorn, and watching a scary movie, no matter how laughable or truly scary it may be.

Herein lies the wonder of horror as a genre. It's both amazingly versatile as well as inherently nostalgic, limitlessly calling upon audiences' desires to feel fear deep in their blood. From the shadowy masterpieces of the silent era to cheap midnite flicks of the 60's and 70's, cinema has seized horror from the literary world and claimed it as its own. While some would consider horror films to be low-grade trash, especially when compared literary masterworks by Poe, horror occupies is own unique place in cinema. Its finest entries vary from cliche-ridden, self-proclaimed filth to high-class art cinema. If there's anything I've learned while chronicling the various stages of horror cinema through the years, it's that "horror" is a flexible term that doesn't quite function in the same manner as other genre labels like sci-fi, or western. There are countless narrative and stylistic sub-divisions of horror that have spawned over the years, all interesting in their own ways. Moreover, nothing binds horror to certain setting, locales, or even narrative and stylistic approaches. It is a genre of true diversity that represents an overt exploration of the pleasures of spectatorship.

Although most current critics will try to convince you that horror (like westerns, sci-fi, etc.) is dead, I find quite the opposite to be true. While I concede that popular horror cinema is currently stuck in a rut from a mainstream standpoint, especially with the popularity of "torture porn" (which actually seems to be waning), the genre itself is not dead. Within the sub-division of zombie movies, which have been with us for the better part of 40 years, there continue to be new entries that stand out for different reasons. While 28 Weeks Later brings a contemporary flair of style to a relevant story about refugees of a massive virus outbreak, other films simply have fun with the trashiness of horror storytelling. One such example of this is Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, which serves up just about every cliche in the book on zombies and still manages to be ceaselessly compelling. While these two disparate films from this past year serve very different purpose and occupy different position in the "zombie canon", they together illustrate the contempoary relevance of horror cinema both in terms of its contemporary relevance and its ability for pure pleasure in the familiarity of movie convention and the explosion of zombie heads. We can know exactly what's going to happen, which ends up becoming part of the fun, or the fear.

Even torture porn is interesting because, like other sub-specialities of horror, it provokes a different reaction and consideration to the question that all horror films beg: What attracts us to being scared, to being on the edge of our seats, biting our fingernails, and squirming in suspense?

The central principle of horror is that it's designed to stir fear within the viewer. But the importance of this genre is not so much its function of creating fear so much as the viewer's desire for that fear. While it's true that it's largest fan base is a rabid core of individuals who live and breathe horror, horror --as a broader concept-- never seems to fall out of the public spotlight, which is staggering when considering the many morphings and permutations of the genre over the years. Just when you think it's gone, dead, or only for the junkies, a horror film will come along that stirs audiences of all ages. The most recent example of this is probably The Blair Witch Project. Although it was almost ten years ago, that film got people talking. Some loved it, and some hated it. Some laughed, while others were kept up at night thinking about its images. This is usually the case with horror movies, whether the threat is paranormal, supernatural, religioso, psychological, doesn't really matter... we seem to crave fear.

Most critics or film professors will use the term "identification" when describing the frameworks of narrative and cinema. The reader or viewer is supposed to identify with the central character; the protaganist; the hero. But in the case of horror films, I wonder if this really holds true. Some of the most famous "scary stories" on film, from Psycho to Jaws, do not incline the viewer to identify with the protaganist, but rather the villain. In the case of Psycho, Hitchcock deliberately toys with narrative and cinematic convention by following the central character long after the conventional expository death. She feels incredible guilt throughout the film, like everyone is watching her. That's because we are watching her. The viewer is the ultimate voyeur, which is why so much horror cinema seems to delve into voyeuristic fetishization rather than identifying with a fearful character, like most horror stories. In most horror films, there is usually one character who manages to survive and take out the villain, but that has always felt more like an obligcation on the part of storytellers to tell a tidy story and let the hero win. In reality, the most successful horror stories on film force the audience to identify with a voyeuristic, predatory killer, whether that's a 25-foot shark, stalking swimming woman from the depths of the sea, a psychotic motel owner who watches his residents shower through holes in the wall, or a rogue alien, stalking members of a ship in deep outer space.

The most overt example of this form of identification is the "killer vision", used extensively in films like Jaws and Halloween. Beyond these obvious stylistic touches, there is something larger going on in horror cinema that deserves serious consideration, because through horror films we see why cinema differs so greatly from other storytelling media. Showcasing brutal acts of violence, twisted feelings of surveillance, and a impulse for penetrating skin/bodies, horror films seem to tap into something deep within the collective psyche. In its focus on trauma, violence, bodies, and skin, the genre calls to mind several key issues with regard to spectatorship and the perception and interpretation of narrative through images. Apart from latent cultural perspectives on gender, race, class, and narrative, which manifest in a variety of archetypical images of force, power, and domination, the crisis of identification evoked in horror movies almost forces one to consider the relationship of the viewer and the image in a new light. In short, horror cinema is a microcosm for cinema itself.

Monday, October 15, 2007

"The State of the Blog" as narrated by...

In consideration of the blogging format's validity as criticism, many have said that the "immediacy" of blogging is probably its greatest weakness as well as its greatest strength. Those who defend blogs, myself included, may tend to use the word, "immediacy" when describing the virtues of web writing and posting. It sounds nice, yes, but it is a painfully vague term. What does it mean that blogging is immediate? That it's "in the now"? That it's all-inclusive? Along with "interactional", "immediacy" has become a cliche in web discourse and in discourse about web discourse. It's one of those words that we so readily throw around without really knowing what it means.

There are a number of terms and familiar writing conventions like this in all critical arenas, from 500-word Weekend Section reviews full of your standard superlatives and remarks on "hapless" or "fluid" direction, to 3,000-word articles in Film Quarterly, which can be so "complex" (another vague word) that they serve to confuse the reader (and writer) into thinking that an all-over-the-place criticism is actually deeply intelligent. That's not to say that all scholarly writing is nothing more than semantics and pontification, or that all journalistic criticism is predictable. Nevertheless, each pocket of film writing culture has its own pool of terms and larger stylistic conventions from which critics draw upon to structure their articles, even their interpretations of a film. Obviously, the goals of journalistic criticism and academic criticism are quite different. Where journalistic criticism serves as something of a quick-hit consumer guide, scholarly writing attempts to probe the thematic depths of narrative and visual tropes in relation to theoretical frameworks. No matter the style or occupational field, each critic has a certain knowledge of that mode of criticism and therefore attempts to engage readers with these acknowledged terms and conventions that have informed reactions, responses, and interpretations of movies. As the now-absent Andy Horbal once observed, criticism is in many ways much like the crafting of the art form itself. After all, what is art without an adequate discourse about it that may inform not only critics but various viewers/consumers of that art?

Where does that leave blogging, or more appropriately, blogging as criticism? We hear arguments from journalistic and scholarly writers as to the validity of the blogging format, with words like freedom, interaction, and immediacy being employed at a high frequency in service of what eventually becomes a "pro" or "con" opinion about whether blogging should be considered a "real" form of criticism. The rhetorical devices used to shape this debate are particularly intriguing. First: it's ironic that the only acknowledged discourse regarding blogging comes from camps whose own views and writing styles have been shaped by the norms of their respective modes of criticism. When Peter Bart or Richard Schickel observe that "busy bloggers" have no sense of film history or that bloggers are more interested in the number of visits at their sites, they do so from rather privelaged positions in journalistic criticism from which they thrive on the acknowledged conventions and their lofty positions of power in that medium. Both of them have disparaged blogging and bloggers, and yet they have offered no insights into the state of criticism. Since they feel threated by the increasing buzz concerning blogging as criticism, which, if either of them took the time to actually research, is a growing presence in film criticism, they instead choose to follow their journalistic impulses and make uninformed claims about blogging from their respective perches in the publishing world.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the published critical spectrum, a number of media scholars are particularly critical of bloggers and fan cultures. Although they are more interested in the level of communicative tendencies and modes of interaction than they are in critical validity, the issue of digital democracy is quite a trendy one. The notion of freedom has always been debated in various academic disciplines, and if the increasing importance of 20th century thinkers like Foucault and Deleuze is any indication, the freedom debate will continue as increased mediation in an age of mechanical and now digital reproduction constitute our presence, individually and collectively. That debate has been taken on by media scholars, and while I think it important to continue wrestling with these issues, I cannot help but feel that we are running in circles in some ways. Instead, I wonder about the implications of considering communicative behaviors and technologies in the 21st century in light of theoretical frameworks that have been long used and developed over hundreds of years.

Radical change may therefore not be possible, since we will forever remain entrenched in and guided by the level of discourse that preceded and informed current discourse and communication. But nor should it be aspired to. Real change occurs when the various elements that constitute a given discourse are forced into juxtaposition and incongruous relationships, thus yielding new perpectives. Sometimes, the norms of a given "section" of a culture --in this case film writing culture-- function so strongly that they actually discourage the exploration of potentially new frontiers. Critics of all kinds are often mirror images of the homogenized styles of Hollywood storytelling that they so often criticize. These accepted norms are exercised to such an extent that they are rarely questioned and they are shallowly understood and used to instead put forth a "yes or no" opinion about a film, a filmmaker, or a movement in cinema. So the end result is a spectrum of sectioned off critics, scholars, and writers, all subscribing to different norms and practices within that larger spectrum, engaged in masturbatory dialogue wherein those who subscribe to the same theories, views, and opinions love the sound of their own voice, and those who disagree simply do not associate. And never once is the makeup of that larger spectrum that keeps them so divided ever challenged.

These pockets of film writing culture rarely breach other, but they have nearly unanimously made certain to frame the debate over web discourse and critical validity as if it must "earn" some respect via the same means that enables published writers to lay come claim to validity or qualitification. The blogging debate is continually engaged on the level of asking the question as to digital democracy, which is indicative of publishing trends that too many writers and readers have bought into. Proponents of digital media and blogging are forced to enter the dialogue by defending this supposed wasteland that is the internet. In doing so, they are immediately handicapping themselves to the dominant underlying assumptions as set forth by published writing. The only way of seemingly entering this dialogue is to accept the pre-established position of skepticism regarding digital media and web interaction.

That's not to say that blogging is a "whole new realm", since this too is a rhetorical device emerging as the fierce alternative to the "internet is inherently bad" mindset that permeates the debate. Those who blindly sing the praises of the internet, hailing it as a bold new medium of communication, are essentially playing right into a dominant deology to which they are positioning themselves in direct contrast, thus sustaining a binary level of discourse that is required to preserve that ideology.

How, then, can one responsibly enter the dialogue about web discourse, let alone become a responsible participant in it? A good starting point, in this blogger's opinion, is to employ the strengths of other writing media while exploiting their weaknesses. So established are the conventions under which journalistic and scholarly writers operate that their arsenal of endless conventions and vague terms have provided cover to a great deal of their advocates to function on auto-pilot, where they sit unengaged to films or film criticism. Bloggers, however, come from all backgrounds, both professionally and cinematically. Those who have helped to build this format into the undeniable growing presence that it is are using their knowledge and background in various traditions of writing, criticism, and cinephilia to enter in a "new" form of dialogue, one that actively acknowledges its influences and history but remains open to allowing these established norms to violently crash together in various ways. It's extremely difficult to embrace new frameworks when so many of our views and theories have lead us to approach cinema and criticism in a very specific way. But I will retain hope that it is possible to grow criticism as cinema itself grows.

The meaningful debates concerning web discourse and critical relevance is happening on the blogging front itself. Where one year ago (before I was blogging myself), I would think this trend to be an exercise in isolation and irrelevance, at least in terms of the accepted norms of published writing, I have learned that the outlook for blogging as criticism is actually quite bright. I say this because I have seen a rise in bloggers who are not merely interested in posting quick-witted thoughts or images (which can be useful, however), or embodying fandom. Perhaps I am biased, naive, and overly hopeful, but blogging may be slowly realizing its own potential through the work of writers coming from various sections of film writing culture who meld various writing styles, in so doing offering unique critical perspectives of the film about which they write. Embracing the new doesn't necessarily mean that established norms and traditions should be completely upheaved. But we must press for new understanding of those very conventions and tradiitions. With any luck, If blogging continues to grow, it may influence other writing media to re-evaluate their dominant practices, while at the same time shaping the image of all critics as being informed by these practices, but fresh to the cinematic experience at the same time.

As filmmakers continually test their capacities for working within this narratological audiovisual medium, so too must the artists who incite dialogue and discourse about the medium. Here on film blogging circuit, critics of all professional backgrounds (or lack there of) challenge cinema and criticism; stretching it, progressing it, and evolving it. The most significant contributors to this movement are not walled off or restricted by our own rhetorical devices and occupational language, but, in their exposure to a variety of styles and perspectives, are confounding those critical norms. Not deconstructing them. Constructing them.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Touching the void

The opening shots of Sean Penn's Into the Wild alternate between tight close-ups and long wide-shots of the convergence of humankind and nature; worn wood, a train gliding along its metal track through wilderness, and spanning vistas of Alaskan wild, where Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) spends the final days of his tragically short life. No human bodies are shown during these opening moments; they consist primarly of stable images of the world. It's only appropriate that these images juxtapose nature and artifice, indicating a clear schism between the planet and those who have colonized it.

This contrast drove Chris McCandless; it drove him away from cultural norms and social policies, and away from human relationships. In the wild and on the road, he sought to reconnect with a primal state of nature not dissimilar to that which inspired the evocative, poetic words of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. But this frame of mind has been largely forgotten by "civilized" people. Both to his benefit and detriment, McCandless possessed a passion for life as it exists in nature. In trying to connect with the wild, a journey many of us wish to take but cannot muster the courage, McCandless fails to embrace human connection in the same way. Into the Wild examines and romanticizes McCandless' passion, but it also acknowledges the cost of that nearly more-than-human passion. With poetic lyricism, Into the Wild poses difficult questions about humanity and nature.

Combining overtly sentimental narrative/cinematic conventions (e.g. slow motion shots, voiceover narration) with an almost Herzogian observation of people and nature, i.e., emphasizing the disconnect between the two, Into the Wild is accesible as standard biopic material. At tims, however, it is also oddly detached, never failing to recognize the difficult implications of rejecting "society." Despite digging into Chris's troubled past with his family --a staple for tragic biopics-- Penn invites multiple perspectives on McCandless and his decisions and motivations. Importantly, though, he eludes a singular explanation for Chris' inner rebellion, pain, and passion. He is not out to explain why Chris McCandless was who he was. Instead, Penn advocates a more inquistive approach to understanding Chris. The film is unassuming, yet still obsessed with what drove him. It may romanticize McCandless, but it doesn't blindly admire him. Chris' own explanations of his disdain for society come off like standard revolutionary rhetoric, full of vagueness and pontification. It's like he took an English class that blew his mind. Thus, the film certainly finds flaws in Chris.

But on a deeper level, it seems purport that this young man saw the world in a totally different way. Penn is fascinated by the concept that underneath Chris' refusal and sometimes inability to connect with people is a searching soul who embraced abstract feeling in ways most artists can only yearn for. McCandless may have been somewhat pompous and hard to love, but he lived with an sense of liveliness unmatched by many, and he was better for it. Few among us have come so close to that void; and yet, somehow, it's buried deep within us. McCandless' quest to destroy the means for being controlled and manipulated by social convention echoes deep within the collective human psyche, and Penn's honest portrayal of this is illuminating, inspiring, even maddening in its penetration of such depths.

To strike ourselves from our pasts or our participation in the increasingly artificial social practices and institutions of capital, commerce, and economy is ultimately impossible. But Chris' bold rejection of these things --while not entirely successful-- is incendiary. Perhaps we all shouldn't give away our life savings and destroy our social security cards, but Chris' insistence on the outright rejection of the institutional means of power that control our interests is a plea to artists, poets, philosophers, scientists, and everyone else to wake up from quiet complacency. It's a call to act, to challenge systems of authority, and to openly question and think about that which constitutes our being in this culture and this world.

Penn frames McCandless' life with an embracing, yet carefully distant attitude toward nature and McCandless himself. He has made his movie in the free spirited shadow of McCandless, balancing the beautiful with the implaccable. He audiciously attempts to penetrate the mysteries of Nature and McCandless himself, as the narrative travels of young Christopher's life. Rather than emphasizing Chris' disconnect with human society, Penn finds as many moving moments in Chris' encounters with the people he met on the road as he does when Chris is alone in the wilderness. The tragedy becomes evident in the film's juxtaposition of the beauties nature and human interaction, where Chris is only consciously concerned with the former. Yet some of the most fascinating stretches of this film involve McCandless' encounters with the people he meets on the road. His conversations with various folks, from aging hippies to a youthful woman attracted to Chris' innocence, is most revealing of his own mythologizing. In his review of the film, Ty Burr hits the nail on the head:

"As Christopher treks ever outward, though, there's no corresponding journey inward; his travels only make him more unyielding. When Stewart's Tracy offers herself to this beautiful young saint of the open highway, he declines, saying it would defile her innocence. In fact, it's Christopher's own purity he wants to maintain, and with it a fatal distance from other people.

Penn knows that, and he acknowledges as much in the final moments of "Into the Wild." In general, though, he loves his hero too much to sort out his own feelings. The result is a road movie oddly lacking in the exuberance of the road; the tone is occasionally as dour and scolding as Eddie Vedder's unadorned songs on the soundtrack. Yet Penn's fascination with Christopher is genuine and legitimate. What does it take to go on a vision quest in modern America? Whose fault is it if the journey ends in death?

Only an American could have made this "Into the Wild" - impassioned, broad, unexamined. (Correction: Only an American from the Lower 48, since many Alaskans apparently consider McCandless an idiot of classic proportions.) To stand outside our myths and see them with a cold eye requires a director like Werner Herzog, whose 2005 documentary "Grizzly Man" contains all the lucid, bothersome paradoxes Penn's movie only guesses at."

It's interesting that Burr makes note of comparing Into the Wild to Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005), which also exhibited an unwielding fascination with a man so removed. As Burr observes, Herzog more explicitly teeses out the existential void that Penn seems to hint about in his depiction of McCandless. And where Herzog subtly suggests a strong admiration, even respect for doomed activist Timothy Treadwell, Penn more avidly romanticizes McCandless, finding the more positive and creative edge that Herzog does in fact acknowledge in his examination of a similar individual. That Penn's interpretation appears to be more hopeful and naive does not make it less of a movie, but instead adding a new perspective to the intensely complex relationship between human beings and the natural world.

In neither editorializing about nor co-opting this story for selling his own message, Penn locates the tensions of being human. These tensions spring from the acknowledgment of both the natural and artificial elements that contribute to our being. We are the result of that strange collision of forces, which makes connections amongst ourselves as well as connecting to the earth that has given is life impossible and inevitable. Inextricably bound to and seperated from nature and each other, we can take in the spectre of another's beauty and be fulfilled by the purely intangible feeling of connecting, be it to nature or to another person. Yet we can never able to be organically apart of that with which we connect. This film teems with these elusive tensions and depths. Penn is perplexed, maddened, and inspired by McCandless' story, and it comes through in every composition of this tragically hopeful film.

While Penn frames Chris' lack of concern for human relationships as his undoing, he seems to acknowledge that only the person who braves alienation from those around him can fully grasp a connection to the Earth. But at what cost? Unlike McCandless himself, the film finds just as much sublimity in the connecting to others as it does to connecting to nature. By the end, we understand that McCandless' tragedy isn't that he died at the young age of 25; it's that he realized all too late that human connection is equally constitutive of our being as the lands and waters from which we emerged.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The passion of the self-important cinephile... and DVD shorts

As I explained last month, when the Toronto Film Festival was in full swing and countless movie sites were posting their awards season previews, this is a great time of year for a movie lover, and an even better one for critic (though I would image more stressful) due to the number of releases now increasing). However, for your typical movie lover who sees and writes about a great deal of movies but whose profession does not involve seeing and writing about movies, it is also a frustrating one. While I can certainly read a whole lot about the wide variety of movies now in release and upcoming, my opportunities to see these movies are much less plentiful. Over the last six weeks, I have been to the theater three times (seeing The Bourne Ultimatum, Eastern Promises, and just recently 3:10 to Yuma), which is by no means scant. At the same time, it's not booming. This of course means that I must be choosy when going to the cinema, a task that is much easier in the summer than it is in the Fall and Winter. Whereas in the Summer, many films look the same and feature numbing cliches and contemporary aesthetic norms, this time of year means that there are consistently more interesting films that I not only feel compelled to see, as an unpaid critic who takes his blog writing too seriously, but obliged to see. (At least I can admit that!) Nevertheless, I still feel that I must balance my movie watching between big money earning blockbusters, award winners, small independent releases and older, "classic" films both from Hollywood and around the world.

I consider it a great responsibility and sometimes burden to try to be a well-rounded movie viewer and writer. Some of the films I want to see more than others, no doubt, but I am also often surprised by the quality of films I don't expect to be good, or the medicrity of films I eagerly anticipated. This coupled with the variety of films I see on DVD --this week, I watched Stroszek (1977) and Away From Her-- makes for what I aim to be a growing education about pure cinema. Now that educations goes nowhere if I don't engage criticism, both as a reader and a writer, so I must take note not to watch to many films and remember to read and write as well.

But enough complaining about my neurotic cinemania for now. The point I am trying to articulate is that I often get backed up with my planned screening schedules, and it's almost always around this time of year when things get out of hand. I have seen 23 American theatrical releases from this calendar year so far. A couple of years ago, I would see upwards of 100 releases for a given year (although it often took me until May or June of the following year to reach that number). That number is down to about 60 or 70, which is fair considering my more rigorously structured life not involving movies. (Who knew being a responsible adult could be such a burden?)

Having said all that, it's a bit frustrating to be reading all about films like Michael Clayton and The Assassination of Jesse James, which have both been through the journalistic circuit, having both been "released", but not within a hundred miles of my residence. So while there are so many more films out there to see this time of year, their limited availability can be an annoyance for someone trying to keep up with the current movie scene. I was fortunate enough to see Eastern Promises on opening day in its limited run (since it was playing at the Ritz Theater downtown, my favorite movie watching location) and review it time for its wide release, but I am not so lucky with the majority of limited releases. Tonight I will be seeing Into the Wild at the only other theater in Philadelphia other than the Ritz where it's playing, for which I am most fortunate. But I can't help but wonder how so many more interesting films are being released, but continually smothered by massive multiplex chains. With the explosion of home theater technology and digital media, I am encouraged that more consumers and moviegoers will take chances on smaller, less-marketed films, but I will rue the day when these films are more widely available.

I believe in contemporary cinema, but right now I can only hope that it continues to grow and will eventually influence maintream American cinema more strongly so that commercial excrement like Good Luck Chuck and The Game Plan will not dominate the box office.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Now that I've sufficently explained my "always behind" movie watching/reviewing, I am more comfortable introducing this round of capsule reviews of 2007 theatrical releases I just recently saw on DVD. All are worthwhile and occupy different levels of importance on the moviescape today:

Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)

Among those unfortunate souls who will probably never see the original theatrical cut of Quentin Tarantino's and Robert Rodriguez's double feature theatrical experience, Grindhouse, a throwback to 70's exploitation cinema (scratches and lost reels to boot), I instead will only see the two films as divorced from each other and individual landmarks. Which is perhaps only appropriate, given that part of the double bill experience is actually going to the cinema house to experience it. Now that the films are coming to DVD, movie goers can only see them as individual films, each now longer due to their seperate DVD releases, which defeats the purpose of the "experience" that Tarantino and Rodriguez sought to create. Their films were never meant to stand alone, but were instead designed to function (along with the fake trailers screening in between the features) as a larger film that was never really about its individual parts, but rather the experience of the filmmakers' own nostalgia for a certain point in cinema history that no longer exists since the rise of the multiplex. I cannot comment on the film itself (since I haven't seen it), but seeing the elements broken down into self-contained movies is problematic both for the films themselves and the spectator.

The first half of Death Proof contains a fair amount of visual references to exploitation cinema, e.g. the animation and lettering of the opening credits, the scratches and projection "problems" littered throughout. Also, the world of the film is a dreamlike convergence of contemporary and throwback. The locales are all realistic to today, and the characters speak, dress, and behave according in current norms. But somehow they embody that spirit that Tarantino gives the film with all the scratches, throwback music, and animated logos. The first portion involves a clan of women who don't appear too concerned with life's pressures and are perfectly content talking about sexual encounters, who's providing the next supply of weed, and placing bets about lapdances and pick-up lines. They visit a bar early on, where much of the remaining portion of the first act is set. Here the juke box roles, patrons order rounds of Wild Turkey, and an odd fellow with a soft spot for greasy food sits at the bar. He is Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), and he takes in the scene of care-free young people getting intoxicated and talking about music. He is waits, charmingly interacting with a young woman at the bar, before disrupting the subdued vibes of the entire first act with an unleashing of masculine aggression, preying upon all the female characters that the narrative has built. The metaphoric weapon of destruction is his car, an indestructible stunt vehicle that he uses to penetrate (physically and otherwise) the women, ending their lives at once (yet seperately, in a brilliant sequence) in one massive collision.

The structure of the film is similar to Psycho (1960) in that it's told in two acts and disposes of who you thought to be the central character/s at the climax of the first act. It's also like Psycho in that the second act just doesn't hold up to the easy rhythms of the first. Where the film's first hour features subdued color, rain-drenched environments, and an elongated sequence at the bar that comprise the film's best moments, the second act ditches the "look" of the 70's exploitation flick when a new clan of women who Stuntman Mike tries to pick off end up turning the tables on him. The car chase at the end of the film is a doozy, but the characters, visuals, and overall moods are simply not as appealing as those in the first act. The film still works efficiently and represents yet another example of Tarantino's penchant for enlivening the seediest of places to make them teem with life and making good cinema in the strangest of ways. And Kurt Russell's performance is quite simply perfect.

Bug (William Friedkin, 2007)

If you can get over the fact that this movie is not what you think it is or maybe want it to be, it becomes easier to embrace it for the daring, ambitious, and wrenching movie it is. William Friedkin tells the story of a lonely woman named Agnes (Ashley Judd), who's living a dead end life from which she cannot escape. She spend her nights working at a bar and then snorting lines with her friend back at the motel where she lives. But one night her friend brings an acquaintance, Peter, who strikes up a relationship with Agnes that can only be described as unique. Peter and Agnes are aching souls, looking to connect with anyone, anything to seek refuge from the reality of their lives. At first, they are apprehensive with one another. But then they quickly know that they need each other.

All taking place within the film's opening forty minutes, Friedkin establishes this connection so perfectly, with subtle compositions and great lead performances that the viewer has no choice but to buy ever bit of it. But then things start going weirdly awry, and Peter's obsession and paranoia with bugs pervades not only their motel room, but their entire pocket of existence. This paranoia leads to a final act that is inspiring and disturbing, sad and exciting at the same time. And for as grotesque and disturbing as this movie is, it's really a tragic story about psychosis and isolation sublimely visualized on screen and featuring a performance by Ashley Judd this is magnetic and incredibly moving.

Bug is deceptive in more ways than its plot. It lures you in with the connection of these characters, ramps things up with the threat of the unknown, and then ends up becoming a breathless thriller in a totally unexpected way by the end. There are strange transformation and oddities throughout. Interestingly, when I first saw it, I wasn't "into" the movie for much of the running time in the sense that I would consciously praise of it. I was strangely compelled, but not really certain of why. But I was downright shaken by the final 20 minutes, when people start losing lives as result of the world that that Agnes and Peter have built together. It's poignant and sympathetic, and contrary to what many critics have said, it ends perfectly. This is a movie that hits you hard initially, and then crawls around in your head long after it's over.

But enough from me; Kim Morgan's review of is far more insightful and perceptive. She captures the real beauty of this gritty tragedy in her writing in the way Friedkin does with his visuals.

Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007)

There's something really disturbing about Knocked Up's suburban ideologies that Zach Campbell hits on in his review of the film. I can't even really explain it, or, for that matter, fault these characters or writer/director Apatow for embodying an image of suburban commodity and binary gender relations. But, I reminded myself constantly that just because Apatow depicts certain value systems does not mean he advocates them. In fact, this film can be seen as a rip roaring criticism of the suburban fantasy, as Apatow evokes its underbelly of emptiness. But he also seems to find great admiration in it by glossing over those very empty cores and constructing his own fantasy within such a world. (Pay extra attention to the confrontation between the bouncer and Leslie Mann's character; it's chilling.) Despite my inability to grasp these details, I must take note of Apatow's craft for constructing comedy based on real, palpable emotions from the characters. The humor here is an extension of the characters in every sense; it's never sitcom-ish in the sense that Apatow is tries to hit every comedic button and stage the most ludicrous of situations. He instead can evoke drama through comedy and vice versa.

There is also much to tug with in this picture. Apatow is asking a lot of questions, not just in his basic storyline of lazy boy who won't grow up and a smart, mature woman who are binded only by their fears of having to bring life into the world. When Alison (Katherine Heigl) character has her first ultrasound with Ben (Seth Rogen) present, their reaction is priceless and heartbreaking at the same time. Apatow clearly is trying to test the pulse of the contemporary youth of America via a classic narrative infused with fully dimensional characters who can't seem to connect, but make themselves love each other. It's shocking and poignant, and its observations on heterosexual, middle-class America are both incredibly perceptive, but frustratingly archetypical and reductive at times.

The real centre of the film, however is in Alison's sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her husband, Pete's (Paul Rudd) relationship. They are married, have two kids, the perfect home in the perfect neighborhood. And they refuse each other the simplest of things: openness and honesty. Rather than having them cheating or leaving each other, Apatow is realistic about their relationship, one that may not be salvaged for themselves but for their kids. He only subtly digs into the implications of the contemporary marriage, but they loom over the whole film.

Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2007)

Beautiful would be one word to describe Sarah Polley's directorial debut, Away From Her. She tells a benign story of happily married couple, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) in their late years. When Julie's memory and motor skills begin diminishing, Grant discovers that she has Alziemer's. They decide that Julie should live in an assisted living home under better care, and the rest of the film follows Grant as he attempts to deal with the monumental tragedy of his wife's mental deterioration. Unlike countless other films like this (e.g. The Notebook (2004)), this film is unsentimental in its approach to elderly love and loss. It doesn't offer message or "deep themes", but is instead very inquisitive about the nature of love, commitment, memory, and identity; not in a philosophical way, but in a human, emotive way. Because it refuses to jerk with the viewer's emotions, it manages to offer keen insights into these very things in its close observations of its two central characters, played with such convention by Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie.

Just about anyone watching this film can relate to its plot somehow. Its scenarios affect many people in different ways, so a number of reactions may be provoked. But the real accomplishment of the film is in how it offers hope and connection alongside its somewhat depressing observations of minds and people deteriorating. Some how it's just... beautiful.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Smoking is bad!

Put down that pipe, Bilbo!

More big studios are beginning to play right into the hands of the heavy anti-smoking campaigns, which seem to be the new trend in current pop discourse. The New York Times' Michael Cieply reports that more Hollywood studios are beginning to buckle under the pressure of these mega-strong campaigns working to halt the promotion and glorification of smoking in cinema and entertainment:

"In July, the Walt Disney Company said it would ban smoking in its Disney-branded movies, like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, while trying to discourage tobacco use in youth-rated movies from its Miramax and Touchstone units. A spokesman for the Sony Corporation’s Sony Pictures Entertainment said the studio — which showed tobacco use in all three of its PG-13 rated “Spider-Man” films — has a policy under which it tries to discourage the depiction of tobacco products in youth-oriented films.

Viacom is meanwhile scrambling to devise a smoking policy of its own, having been assured two weeks ago by Mr. Crosby and his allies that it was increasingly out of step with its studio brethren. That warning came about because antismoking groups had recently discovered that the News Corporation and its 20th Century Fox Film division were already on the bandwagon, thanks to a strict though intentionally unpublicized policy of rooting tobacco out of youth-friendly films for the last three years.

Since 2004, the studio’s production manual has mandated that no principal character can be seen to smoke in a film set in contemporary times and to be rated G, PG or PG-13 unless the studio’s president of production signs off on the scene. Tobacco ads and promotions are not supposed to be visible in Fox movies. Even antismoking messages on screen are not to have been provided by tobacco companies."

Thanks to the concerns of GE, Viacom, Time Warner, and Disney, parents of America can rest assured that their kids will not be exposed to the filth of smoking in entertainment. We can now feel safe tuning into American Idol, where the Coca-Cola logos on the judge's cups are all facing the camera, where we discover that we have it our way from McDonald's, that we can always save with low prices at Wal-Mart, that we can express ourselves with Botox, and that we can accomplish anything if we set our minds to from Nike.

Remember, though: Smoking is bad!