Friday, November 30, 2007

"Life is what happens when..."

Some individuals are perfectly happy to get through a day and accomplish all that they set out to do, however simple or far-reaching those goals may be. I admire these folks, but I am not one of them. Chores, errands, and daily rituals, while admittedly necessary for one's own sanity, often prevent me from doing all the things I want to do. The problem is, I'm not sure exactly what it is I need to be doing. Getting out more, living more, seeing more, etc. (Key word here is "more", for those who haven't picked up on my bloated sense of self-importance). There is no set list of things I want or need to do; it's all very cluttered, and most usually ambiguous to my own identification. It's nice to experience Big and Profound things, but I also like to sit at a diner and eat a delicious omelet, or stop off on some random exit on an interstate highway and see the lived-in world around me. There is as much richness and poetry in seemingly mundane experiences/destinations as in the stereotypically fulfilling ones, sometimes more. I guess I see a little of Jack Kerouac in me, or at least I wish. I could travel the world and meet thousands of different people and still feel like I need to see more. But when I become so bogged down by the simple tasks of day-to-day experience, as we all do to varying degrees, watching a movie can be downright therapeutic. I suppose it's only therapeutic when I forget how absolutely necessary it is to have a quiet outlet as a break from the busyness of daily ritualizing. Nevertheless, it's downright essential. I forget this quite frequently, only to re-learn it again in new ways.

Lately, I've had a build-up of schedules, "to do" lists, and all those random things that pop up and conveniently require a great deal of attention. While I've accepted there to be a certain amount of this in my life, which is probably a good thing, my tolerance for these chores begins to wane when it occupies the majority of my time in a given stretch. Regular movie watching has been down as a result; what little of it I've done has been 20 minutes here, 40 minutes there. But it's absolutely critical that I squeeze in those little bits of movie-watching, no matter the kind of movie, because sometimes the right movie at the right (or wrong) time is just what I need. Of course, it's impossible to know it until I've seen it and internalized it. You never know when that therapeutic experience of cinema will sneak up. Some of these movies just take your mind off things, providing necessary reprieve and absurdity to counter all the reality of life. Others penetrate the very depths of your consciousness, impacting how you view and partake in all of those daily rituals. Sometimes they can even help one to appreciate those pesky errands, schedules, and jobs a little more.

Here's about the point where I narcisitically mention my own experience with cinema therapy. The movie is Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart (2006), which I've been waiting to watch for quite some time. I saw it under the most thankless of circumstances, squeezing it in where I could over the course of a few days, but finally having the chance to take in most of its running time after several attempts. It's an easy film to admire purely on "technical" grounds. (I place quotations on the word, technical, after having read Jim Emerson's recent post concerning the petty way so many critics understand and employ terms like "technical" and "style".) But there is something so intangible about seeing this quiet, simple story unfold before me in such perfect detail, i.e. involving me in both the internal experience of its central character as well as the environment (New York City) within which he lives and works anonymously, cut right into me. It captures that world so effectively -- all the cars, trucks, and people swooping by at brisk pace, unable to see each other or connect. More importantly, it captures the feeling of complete insignificance as a member of that world; the feeling of being the tiniest cog in the massive web of society unfolding around you.

But the film is anything but cynical or depressing. Even though we never quite learn about Ahmad's tragedy, who quietly moves about the city every day in his push cart, there is a profound sense of existential aching to the proceedings that's captured in every movement of the camera and every sound of a vehicle driving by. Existentialism is not really about misery anyway, but about how to live with one's choices and take responsibility for them. Quite simply, it's about the choices one makes regarding how to exist in the world out there.

Often times in the movies, or stories in general, we play witness to the "drama" of the characters' lives. There is a tidy beginning, middle, and end so as to enable our pleasure, like we experienced the dramatic arc with the characters. People go through highs and lows, and learn something in the end, where themes culminate and the narrative takes on a particular significance to the reader/viewer/critic. But often times the most honest of films are the ones that can capture the everyday motion and ritualizing of someone's life other than your own (in a non-creepy way of course). Cinema is a powerful aesthetic expression because it can transcend boundaries of narrative and capture organic life, right down to the most seemingly mundane of details. Its visualization of nearly any abstraction or connection enacts an ambiguity of perspective that defines the richness of lived experience.

Man Push Cart, like another favorite film of mine, Lost In Translation, captures an exact moment of a person's life. We can't get inside his head; his expressions don't communicate pre-packaged emotions such as "anger", "rage", or "jealousy", and the manner in which his life is portrayed does not follow the dramatic archs of most storytelling. We have a man, his interactions with those around him. Even though we cannot peer into his thoughts in the same way we can observe his everyday actions, the portrayal of his small place in the larger world around him ultimately becomes the gateway into his innermost dreams, thoughts, and frustrations. That's because he is doing what we are all doing; existing. Getting through each day. His thoughts and passions may differ from yours and mine. They probably don't always make sense or connect in ways that typical narratives tend to present. But the expression in his eyes and face represent everything that he is, everything he is not, and everything he wants to be.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

New technologies for old stories

Much has been made about the motion capture animation and 3-D technologies in Beowulf, yet few of the critics (whose reviews I read) mentioned much in regards to what the movie and its technology are actually doing. A fair amount of critics seem comfortable to label the movie as a purely technical affair, a digital incantation of a boring story they read in high school. But in making these bland claims, these critics (if they can be called that) have not just misunderstood the film, but its source material as well. Strange is at may be to them, director Robert Zemeckis is actually after something with this movie, and he is uncharacteristically subtle about it. Beowulf is a deep exploration of the nature of heroism, and the manner in which we cling to hero myths. That Zemeckis has launched his inquiry into the hero myth with perhaps the quintessential hero's tale is no coincidence either.

Matt Zoller Seitz's review of Beowulf is one of the more thoughtful reflections on the film, not because he admired it, but because he's willing to examine the ideological undercurrents embedded within the criticism about the film, ranging from its digital animation to its humorous use of sexual imagery. Seitz certainly acknowledges its shortcomings, but like any good critic he realizes that plainly stated opinions about a film are pretty useless. In his more detailed criticism of the film, Seitz argues that it is much more going on than many are willing to see. He then offers a somewhat different approach to Robert Zemeckis' position in American filmmaking today:

"If indeed Zemeckis lost his way, he lost it in Reagan's first term. He's been on this quest -- applying technological innovation to mainstream commercial blockbusters -- for nearly two decades, starting with 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which employed motion-controlled cameras to let 'toons interact (often in elaborately choreographed long takes) with flesh-and-blood actors. Even then Zemeckis was accused of being too enamored with the mechanics of technology. From the Back to the Future sequels through Forrest Gump, Contact and What Lies Beneath, the gripes continued. (Only Cast Away escaped them.) The all-style-no-substance rap discounts the possibility that Beowulf's substance is embedded in its style. And it discounts the possibility that, in his determination to tell elemental stories with increasingly daring techniques, Zemeckis is one of the few true visionaries making studio blockbusters today."

Seitz later explains that the film's brains are in its images. This would seem like a fairly ordinary observation until you give it time to sink in. The majority of contemporary film criticism looks past the image, seemingly beyond the image, but really right through it. Movies like Beowulf are written off and placed into the "Hollwood blockbuster" box before viewers/critics even see the images, movements. Film criticism and a great deal of film studies start on the "inside", that which is suggested in or represented by the image, and then work out to the image. This approach to cinema is not about the cinema, however, but the Grand Theory thats supposedly underneath the images. In fact, the viscituded of grand theory are within the critic/spectator's own theoretical world. According to this method, the image is secondary to the ideas that the critic is looking for.

Of course, each viewer approaches a movie based on certain perspectives, values, and assumptions, but the argument here is not whether there is a "right" or objective way to assess a movie. Instead, an emphasis must be placed on seeing the image and drawing an inquiry based on that image and the relations it forges based on movement, shapes, color, and yes, narration. Only then can one approach any level of thematic depth and aesthetic value, rather than slapping images with pre-digested labels and comfortably packaging them into easily understood value claims. Rather than situating our interpretations of a film from the standpoint of whether it's "good" or "bad", critics should first see the images, react to them, and try to understand the how they affect us as spectators.

Concerning my experience with Beowulf, I'd say it was anything but straightforward for a number of reasons. I will readily admit that I approached it with a fair amount of assumptions about Zemeckis, the technology employed to construct the movie, my experience with the story over the last ten years, big-budget Hollywood moviemaking, etc. All of these factors contributed to how I saw and interpreted the film. After two weeks of thinking about it, I've still not really settled on much about it, suffice to say that it struck me. I've since learned that my inability to "place" the film is actually a good thing. (I learn that lesson over and over again, by the way.) In some ways, it was disappointing as an "action ride", but that's only because I was expecting that; all those neat shots and 3-D elements popping out at me. But the action was never really the point of the story, nor is it the focus of the movie, save for its final climactic sequence in which Beowulf fights the dragon.

Unfortunately I cannot offer much in the way of thematic or stylistic depths until I see it again. (MZS does a great job of that in his review, for those interested.) I'd therefore like to shift gears and explore the very thing that prevented me from experiencing the whole movie: the 3-D presentation. Seeing Beowulf in a digital 3-D presentation was my first experience with 3-D, in a feature length film, at least. I should note that I have been cautious about 3-D for quite some time. Rather than digital animation and photography, which I approach with great enthusiasm, 3-D technology is a different beast entirely, and not something I take lightly. Alas, my skepticism was confirmed. After the Paramount Logo and the opening title sequence -- with the stone letters coming from all angles to spell "Beowulf" -- I was entirely put off by the 3-D presentation. Simply put, the 3-D images felt like a gimmick, garnering "oohs" and "ahhs" at first, but then is ultimately distracting from the movie.

As I search my thoughts for a statement to follow such a generic claim, i.e., that the 3-D "distracts from the movie", I have probably uncovered a deep-ridden assumption that may account for why I approach 3-D technology so timidly. To me, cinema is the flatness. No doubt, 3-D makes for exciting moments and more involving action sequences because it blends the lines between the viewer's eye and the screen. But there's something deeply unsettling about it from the consideration of how we define cinema.

While a viewer can navigate the economy of dimension in a "flat" image, discerning its shapes and movements and making sense of them three-dimensionally, a 3-D image requires that the viewer add another lens between the eye and the image. The spectator still views a flat a screen, but the added lens of the 3-D glasses disrupts the dimensional relations of the image and alters the perception and interpretation of "flat" images. Thus, images seem to occupy a real space in front of us.

The 3-D experience is so "distracting" because it disrupts the spatial unity of the cinematic image. For those who approach cinema from a more formal theoretical perspective, 3-D technology makes cinema something else entirely. It is, quite simply, a betrayal of cinema. There are likely a good number of critics who would claim that digital animation and motion capture technology, rather than the r-D presentation, is more a "betrayal", but I would argue that cinema is built upon principles of movement on a flat surface. That's not to say that I'm advocating the "fore fathers" principle to explain why 3-D isn't cinema. (You know, the very foolish "It's what the fore founders intended" argument.) I feel that cinema is wide open with possibility, but once that motion is rendered off the screen or designated space occupying that image, one must wonder whether it's really cinema anymore, and, for that matter, what defines cinema at all.

Pat Graham, of the Chicago Reader, asks many of the same questions of 3-D movement relations and space. In a recent blog entry, he writes:

"The pictorial surface (aka window) seems primarily an occasion for helter-skelter effects. Not that it's a question of Zemeckis's doing this well or badly, it's simply the nature of the 3-D beast, what filmmakers automatically assume you'll be wanting to see—since why else do 3-D at all? Things flying out of the frame at indiscriminate angles, figures interacting (or not) at varying depths of the visual field: can't put all these elements in the same conceptual package, the mind-eye coordination isn't made for it. Not to mention the myriad irrelevant distractions: ceiling candelabras and whatnot floating seductively by you when the actual point of the scene lies elsewhere. It's hard to know which visual data to pay attention to, and by the time you've figured it out the critical dramatic moment's already come and gone.

But why should you figure it out—is it some kind of sadistic test? Because if you've been weaned on Renaissance expectation—that pictorial space has unity, that you take it all in with a kind of "global" awareness, all perspectival elements smooshed into one coordinating surface, the idea of what a fresco does, conventional portraiture or landscape (not to mention the "normal two-dimensional" filmmaking strategies Zemeckis purportedly employs)—this brave new visual paradigm can only seem jarring ... and probably disappointing. But yes, there's lots of random "reality"—details you can't help noticing whether they make any sense or not."

Graham recognizes the flatness of the cinematic image as an inherent quality of cinema. Flatness assumes a space between the spectator and the image. When the separation between spectator and screen is infringed upon, movement is perceived differently. Applying the same set of rules for cinematic interpretation to an altogether different kind of visuality results in a disjointed experience. These new spatial relations disrupt all senses of cinematic space as we've come to know it. We perceive them via interpretive schemata constructed on the principle that images that inhabit some kind of discernable space or surface, usually a screen. In other words, once the image jumps off the screen, it becomes a new kind of image, one that requires a different way of seeing than the one that has been constructed by over a century's worth of cinema.

Like drawing, painting, and even writing, part of the aesthetic beauty of cinema is internalizing the experience of sensory perception and rendering it on a seemingly restricted surface. The spectator can thus experience three dimensions through two-dimensional space. But the miracle of cinema is that through motion and sound, a whole new kind of experience can be created. Through its own spatial reality, it constructs a temporal world within which the limitations and infiniteness of human experience can exist, only in a different way. That's why, as Deleuze says, "the cinema is always as perfect as it can be." Whether its real or artificial doesn't seem to matter.

More on the the animation end of things later...

The school of reflexivity

If I were to say there is one overriding concept that most defines, influences, and reflects cinema as a narrative medium, a technological device that communicates, an artistic expression, etc., it would be reflexivity. It defines every aspect of cinema as a social practice, an aesthetic model, and a medium of many media. For me, reflexivity captures the illustrious diversity that cinema represents, from the commercial to the artistic, and everything in between. So then what is reflexivity? It's a difficult idea to label with a simple definition, let alone think of it as something that can be "applied" to the study of something like cinema or various other media. It is not so much a singularity, but a plurality of meaning. I've been wrestling with it for years now as a student of communication studies, particularly media and culture, wherein I have been not been driven by questions of "What?" (which would be the project of empiricism) or "Why?" (Philosophy's question), but rather "How?". Of course, this is a simplification of the discipline, but it rather pointedly evokes the difficulty of approaching cultural meaning making and the ideological tensions that underlie the production and consumption of media in global and political economy.

At times, narrowing my focus to studying cinema both ignores and involves the theoretically rich study of communication and its implications for cultural and individual agency. Many critics would like to believe that a movie is just a movie, there for my critical assessment. But what informs me as a critic, as a privilaged spectator passing judgment on a movie's "aesthetic quality"? How do I assume that role, and under what assumptions am I operating when I look at moving images on a screen and attempt to measure their value? Certainly, there are a innumerable factors that contribute to my position as a watcher, lover, and critic of cinema; systems of values and beliefs that together constitute my consumption and understanding of cinema. But how do I individually, and we culturally define what we call "cinema" or "movies"? It is indeed a unique intersection of a various media, technologies, and narratives that have developed through various cultures over thousands of years. And only now are we in a position to understand it through various theoretical lenses, such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, cognitivism, formalism, neoformalism, etc. The fracturing of cinema studies into varied schools of thought as diversified how cinema is viewed, relate to, and understood. But despite the disparity among these various approaches, the increasing level of diversity signals the necessity that elusive concept of reflexivity.

But, again, what is reflexivity? I'm not sure it can be understood directly for the very reasons mentioned above. It's just too big to try to understand linearly. But in my recent reading, I came across a wonderfully stated approach to reflexivity, one that broadly encapsulates reflexivity, yet avoids the very clear-cut tendencies it critiques. It's from Gillian Rose's book, Visual Methodologies:

"Reflexivity is a crucial aspect of work that participates in the so-called cultural turn. There, reflexivity is an attempt to resist the universalizing claims of academic knowledge and to insist that academic knowledge, like all other knowledges, is situated and partial. Reflexivity is thus about the position of the critic, about the effects that position has on the knowledge that the critic produces, about the relation between the critic and the people or materials she/he deals with, and about the social effects of the critic's work."

That summation captures the feeling and presence of reflexivity. For me, reflexivity is a constant state of repositioning and revisioning how I see what I see, and how I perform what I perform. Its the abstraction that what makes it so essential, so necessary in our individual/cultural being.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Tommy Lee Jones and his masterpiece

"If you turn the movie's sound off and just watch the movement of it, and try to look at it the way a dog or a bird would, not recognizing any shapes, it's quite pleasing. It's a balletic event. It moves beautifully; the shapes, the colors have an abstraction. It's about movement."
- Tommy Lee Jones, director, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Tommy Lee Jones is one of the finest actors working today. His facial expressions, body movements, and speech patterns are mesmerizing; communicating so little, but suggesting so much. Watching his film, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, I discovered that his mastery over the craft of acting has carried over to his direction, which has that same sense of understated lyricism that defines his best performances. As soon as the film ended, I started it again with the commentary. Watching the movie with the commentary, I learned that Jones is not just great actor and director, but a outstanding critic as well! That it's his directorial debut is perhaps most staggering.

Maybe his knack for these seemingly different modes of expression, i.e., acting, filmmaking, criticism, stems from his understanding of cinema, which he suggests in his commentary. The quote (at the top) was something he mentioned seemingly off-the cuff, in his down-trodden voice, like he's merely making any plain observation; which it is, and it isn't. Turns out the man himself is just as soulful and elusive as the characters he inhabits, not to mention even more compelling. There's no "artist's genius" attitude or pomposity in that statement. It spoken so simply, without any complicated language or scholarly terminology. Yet it is as deep an insight that can be offered about the film. He makes statements like these throughout the commentary. Listening to him reflect in his quietly introspective sort of way is inspiring. It's like he's channeling all the great artists and thinkers that have inspired his art, which this film certainly is. His knowledge and demeanor may speak to not just to his lyrical artistry, but also his strong sense of criticism. After all, as my loyal readers are aware, I've argued to great extent in previous posts that criticism is inextricably linked to cinema.

I am mentioning this quote (at the top) in particular because as I was thinking about the film, I couldn't stop wondering how Jones envisioned its compositions, finding such beauty and benevolence in the most simple of things. Unlike many actor-turned-directors, he seems to understand that acting/actors, while important, are elements of the larger picture, or image. That said, the best movies find rhythms and poetic impulses through the most simple observations of people, or lived experience in general. Good cinema is therefore focused on the image, the framing of a narrative. It's not about what's on screen or suggested underneath, but the relationship between the image and that which it depicts. In that convergence, the spectator becomes part of the image. We process it according to a wide array of physiological and social principles, all stemming from the pleasure of pure movement -- shapes, and colors -- and the primal urge and necessity of communication, or narrative (which is really just another word for communication).

I realize that I've not included a single observation regarding the story, plot, or characters. This is intentional, but I realize just the same that for those who haven't seen the film, it may be difficult to draw any connections with no knowledge of the more concrete elements of the movie. Therefore, I'll let someone else handle that explanation: Jeff Shannon, of, who is much more adept than myself in the art of plot commentary. But I'm singling out his account because it's suggestive of those lyrical moments that the film is really about. Shannon says:

"While the majority of critics and Oscar®-voters heaped praise upon the "gay cowboy" breakthrough of Brokeback Mountain, Jones delivered this equally resonant, elegiac study of male friendship in a Western setting, crafting a flawless parable of borderline existence on the border of Texas and Mexico. It is there, amidst some of the most beautifully bleak landscapes in recent American film, that Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) set their existential quest for meaning, focusing on the honor-bound commitment of Texas ranch foreman Pete (played by Jones with a heavy heart and deep moral conviction) to return the body of illegal Mexican immigrant ranch-hand Melquiades Estrada (played in flashback scenes by Julio Cedillo) to his preferred resting place in the Mexican wilderness. Estrada had been accidentally shot by Mike (Barry Pepper), a newly-arrived U.S. border patrolman, and Pete forces Mike to participate in his cross-country ritual of duty--a voyage of revenge and redemption that will change both men forever, and bring some semblance of meaning to the senseless death of Pete's good friend. In triumphant collaboration with cinematographer Chris Menges, Jones carefully instills his superior cast (including Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, and Melissa Leo) with the slow, desperate rhythms of lives on the border (of Texas and Mexico, and life and death), prompting many critics to draw praiseworthy comparisons to Sam Peckinpah's thematically similar 1974 drama Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and the exquisite absurdities of Luis Bunuel. Whatever your own reaction might be, Three Burials is not a film to view or respond to lightly; there's humor and more than a bit of madness to this great, inquisitive film, but Jones is looking deeply into the soul of humankind, and he dares you to draw your own conclusions about the journey Pete and Mike have taken."

Strange as it is, the film is subtly operatic in its climax. It brings story elements and thematic details together, as any classical climax would, while continually revealing more and layering what's there. Somehow, it's where the film was always going, if it was indeed "going" anywhere at all through it's journey. That exact question is what Jones so deftly explores in his subtle compositions, morbid humor, and quirky observations of life on the border, literally and figuratively. Although the film is linearly structured narrative for the most part, it evokes the underlying tension of all narrative (i.e., communication) via the juxtaposition of the desire for structure and the complete absence of it, as in instances of untimely, senseless death. Like Pete (Jones' character), we are all searching for that structure, yearning for it, needing it, even if it may not really be there.

Those who claim that cinema is dead, or is not an art, or that all movies are the same, should take the time to see this film and take it in. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is that perfectly intangible experience of cinema, both celebrating and ruminating on narrative and faith, and the extent to which they define experience, let alone each other. It's poetry, fable, and myth. Living, dreaming, dying.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Criticism in action: the hard-knock lives of film critics

Although I don't need to point anybody reading this in the direction of Jim Emerson's indispensable blog, I would like to take note of something that's happening there right now: critical debate. It's there unfolding before you in (almost) real time and in all of its impulsive and ideological glory-- the difference in perspective, the faux-reverence, and the rising frustration in attempting to articulate your thoughts and feelings when another person interprets them differently than how you intended.

With the release of No Country For Old Men today, the (mostly positive) reviews have been piling up over the last week, bringing into full focus the scattered critical glimpses of the film from when it screened at Cannes over the summer and more recently at the Toronto Film Festival. I remember Jim's enthusiasm for the Coen brothers' new film back then, so I wasn't surprised to see him visit the topic again on the day of its release. But his piece is much more interesting than your typical print review. Instead of sharing his opinion and interpretation of the film within the identifiable, safe conventions of structured journalistic film criticism, Jim instead voices his love of the film by taking issue with Jonathan Rosenbaum's more negative perspective. He does so rather defensively but with complete conviction and insight. Sure, it's impulsive and (as Jim admits) somewhat agressive, but it's real, as is the debate to follow.

Afer reading the debate, it's clear that Emerson and Rosenbaum are each operating under different assumptions and thus occupying vastly different ideological stances, not only with regards to the practice of film criticism, but in how they understand the ideas brought on by the film and how they approach seeing and responding to cinema in general. Their debate is fascinating on the grounds of pure content, with Jim's more form-based approach seemingly at odds with Rosenbaum's content-based views on examing cinema. This is of course overly simplistic; I would need to see the film about which they are debating to really probe their difference in perspective. But to me, that seems almost besides the point.

What's really important here is that how they're choosing to engage each other reflects more about the ideologies as writers and critics than what they are actually saying. These are two writers I respect immensely, and I feel downright lucky be to treated to a dialogue such as this, let alone be able to participate in it (which I cannot, since I haven't seen the film). And seeing them butt heads as openly as they are and in this forum is a blast. It brings to mind the harsh realities of film criticism, i.e., the very subjectivity of it all, while also highlighting the importance of this kind of writing in general; so raw and upfront and in the moment, where real ideas are discovered and eventually cultivated through the processes of rumination and editing. But here, comments have an urgency and convinction that is often filtered out of most professionally edited and handled writing. That the dialogue is between two well-seasoned professionals whose work we mostly know after those thoughts, feelings, and ideas have gone through those industrial processes is what gives it that unique flair. You won't find this kind of debate in most other forums (at least not that I can think of), other than perhaps academic conferences, which are usually sunk by their properness anyway.

Posts like this and the kind of fiery dialogue they incite reveal many of the strengths and weaknesses of film criticism, and are where real critical discourse lives. It is stripped down of the image of the critic sitting on a perch, walled away from real dialogue and debate, where s/he can comfortably judge and assert his/her own pompous views. Here we see that debate in motion and can in turn understand kind of life a critic leads (which isn't easy), and the kind of discourse s/he attempts to responsibly participate in. This discourse can be both illuminating and frustrating. Sometimes there is understanding, and new perspectives can be achieved. Other times, debate can be like two people speaking in different languages. This particular case seems to be a bit of both, recalling the pleasures and annoyances of trying to perceive a piece of art, interpret it according to universal meaning structures as well as personal ones, and then share with others with the hope of providing insight. This can be successful in some instances, but sometimes it isn't. It's the life of a critic, and it's all right there in this post/discussion. It's great stuff, and yet another reason why this form of writing lends itself so well to critical commentary.

I have not seen the film yet, mind you, but after reading each comment following the post, I am motivated more to do so.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Ratatouille on DVD

It's not often you'll find me endorsing the purchase of Disney commodity, but with today's DVD release of Ratatouille (2007), I'll make an exception. I saw the movie back in July and was completely dazzled; so much that I described it as one of the most engrossing cinematic experiences I'd had in years. One could go on forever trying to explicate the depth of the story or characters, but it's the sumptuous compositions that elevate this movie to sublimity.

Here's a passage from my original review wherein I try to focus on these these more intangible qualities:

"Ratatouille, despite being purely digital, exhibits a real love of the art of filmmaking: the cinematic staging of actors and mise en scene, the simple beauty of composition, the depth-of-focus in how the camera 'captures', and the shear viscera of movement. This movie is not over-edited, but rather enjoys its 'filmness' despite not existing as 'film'. Interestingly, [Brendon] Bouzard was responsible for some of the finest writing I've come across about another film which blends the photographic with the digital: Miami Vice. In different ways, both Vice and Ratatouille represent crucial works in the advancement of the medium of digital cinema. They each acknowledge and romanticize their photographic origins and properties, but which actively pursue new syntactical approaches to how we see cinematic images and construct the world of a film in our memory.

There are moments in
Ratatouille so visually arresting and yet challenging at the same time. Its images do not exist for the spectator to become a passive recipient of information. These images actively involve the viewer in the construction of the "world" of the movie, which (in my mind) is closely connected to a movie's affective abilities. As we process the visual, auditory, and narrative information, we construct a knowledge of the cinematic space occupied by the characters and action. Too often, this aspect of film viewing goes unrecognized in criticism, but I maintain that the construction of cinematic space is crucial; specifically, how a viewer makes sense of a moving image and constructs a relational memory of its elements. This is no doubt an intricate process that I couldn't even begin to lay out in precise detail, suffice to say that the film exhibits a joy for movement and cinematic space that takes advantage of its digital and analogic properties. The end result is a film with so many memorable moments, images, and feelings that is both incredibly subtle and accessible to all viewers.

Its richness features in moments both large and small, from the detailed atmosphere of the film's rainy opening shot, to the sweeping majesty of Paris when it is first revealed. Amazing detail went into the construction of every aspect of this movie; its tones and moods come through in every scene and every shot. Sometimes, one can notice such details; others have to just be enjoyed to be understood."

Indeed, the fantastically realized world of the film is both real and dream-like, breaking simple barriers between "digital" and "analog" in how its fluid movements and images enable the viewer to see, hear, and feel its linear story and characters in a nonlinear way. Brad Bird finds amazing subtlty in what seems to be standard Disney material. Its dance between realism and moody surrealistic rhythms results in an intoxicating visual and narrative experience the likes of which Disney has rarely produced. Ratatouille, in its transcendence of quantifiable boundaries and categories, accomplishes what the best of digital cinema can: it destroys the walls between animation and live-action, film and video, realism and fantasy. Seeing it as a critic and lover of cinema, I couldn't help but feel like the discerning critic, Anton Ego, tasting the dish of ratatouille in the final moments of the movie. Great cinema is an experience that washes over you; sometimes that's the best way to describe it.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Socializing the senses (of cinema)

Many would argue that cinema is an experience that simulates a kind of reality. To see a movie and make sense of it depends on the viewer understanding the spatial and temporal relations of the compositional economy of the film, as well as possess an extensive knowledge of language, narrative, and the cultures and behaviors both depicted and reflected in the movies themselves. Since the rise of cinema, television, and videogames in the 20th Century, one could say that we have created multiple realities wherein viewers partake in a sort of co-constructed world by perceiving and interpreting the sights and sounds of movies, television shows, and games. Academia has attempted to grapple with our individual and collective abilities to interpret sensory perceptions, to separate "real" affective responses from "simulated" ones. It's certainly a provocative debate, one that's been dealt with by a number of 20th Century thinkers in a variety of ways.

On his blog, Steven Shaviro (whose book, The Cinematic Body, is a must-read for anyone interested in cultural meaning-making of bodies, sex, and violence in cinema) sounds off on the subject by considering the assumptions of an individual (Satoshi Kanazawa) who claims to know a thing or two about sensory perception and experience from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology. Shaviro strongly refutes Kanazawa's claim that our brains often cannot tell the difference between what's simulated and what's real. Shaviro explains:

"'Pretend' (as my daughters call it) or simulated experience is perfectly real in its own right, of course; and we get scared from movies just as 'authentically' as we get scared when something dangerous or horrible threatens us in 'real life.' But not only does this have nothing to do with not being able to tell the difference, it absolutely depends upon being able to tell the difference. Vicariousness is crucial to aesthetic experience (it is the basis for what Kant called “disinterest”). I eagerly go to watch horror films. I do not eagerly go to places where there is a strong likelihood of feral monsters or chainsaw-wielding psychopaths dismembering me limb from limb. And I cry much more readily at the movies than I do in real life situations.

Probably if I said this to Kanazawa, he wouldn’t disagree with me, exactly, but rather say something about how the fear response evolved in such a way that it operates on its own, on the assumption that what is being seen is real — before some other, more highly conscious, part of our mind can remind us that, after all, 'it’s only a movie.' But I don’t think this gets him off the hook. For the point of the example — and, I’d argue, the point of aesthetics (among other things) overall — is precisely that the brain, or the mind, or 'human nature' in general, is massively underdetermined by the particular biological traits of which the evolutionary psychologists make so much. In the example here, the dismissal of vicariousness, together with the unexamined assumption that the physiological fear-response is meaningful in itself and enough to account for all the varied situations in which human beings can possibly feel afraid, or give meanings to being afraid, exemplifies the extreme naivete to which evolutionary psychology in general is always prone.

I am inclined to think that William James is right in saying that we feel afraid because we have a certain physiological reaction, rather than we have the physiological reaction because we feel afraid. But this is precisely why it is a category error to think that fear can be defined in cognitive terms, which would have to happen in order for the question of whether the experience is real or simulated to even come up. A corollary of this is that, when the cognitive question does come up, it is not constrained by the physiological response in the way that Kanazawa assumes. This is the ground of possibility for the astonishing diversity, between individuals and even more among cultures, of the meanings that are assigned to fear, of the situations that give rise to fear, of the ways that fear is dealt with, and so on and so forth. Evolutionary psychology can dismiss these differences as inconsequential (just as it dismisses the question of vicariousness as inconsequential) only because it has already assumed what it claims to prove. Its cognitivist assumptions (such as the assumption that the physiological fear-response has something to do with a cognitive judgment as to whether something is real or simulated) leave it utterly incapable of dealing with the non-cognitive, affective aspects of human life, as well as (ironically enough) with the ways that 'cognition' itself contains far more than it can account for."

For as much that we know about the brain, perhaps even more expansive is what we don't know about the brain. Ever since I started reading about cognitivism in cinema and media studies, a movement popularized by David Bordwell in the 1980's, it's been difficult to take a stand on the issue of affective response. So much of what cognitivism posits stands in direct contrast to much of my own stance on behavior, one which focuses more on discursive norms of language as constituting that which we refer to "time" and "space", or lived experience. Nonetheless, several theorists have made compelling arguments, including Bordwell himself. (Although much of his work dates back to the 1980's, Bordwell has written an intriguing entry on cognitivism and cinema more recently on his blog entitled This is Your Brain On Movies, Maybe.)

The general problem I have with the cognitivist camp is that it seems to leave very little wiggle room for the social factors entrenched within the biological and physiological experiences of sensory perception and experience. Rather than attributing the interpretation of sensory perception and constitution of self, memory, and culture solely to quantitatively measurable aspects of brain function, communication scholars tends to look at language itself as mediating device from which our infinite webs of discourse flow.

That's not to say that physics or psychology cannot account for behavior in more scientific terms, but rather to suggest that how our social behaviors and institutions are organized according to the principles of language greatly influences what is performed or understood within those practices and institutions. Communication theorists (by and large) don't necesarily reject the notion that a "real world" exists out there, but are instead more focused on how individuals or groups of individuals structure it and contribute to it via their understanding of and participation in the signifying principles of language. Systems of signification, i.e., language, have developed in oral, written, and textual form over thousands of years, and they enable us to differentiate between objects and to categorize sensory perceptions according to the structural makeup that language has constructed.

For these broad reasons, I find it difficult to accept phrases like "human nature" when describing emotions such as fear, jealousy, rage or any other behavior or affective action/reaction. Beyond these conundrums, however, is an even greater concern for the relationship between the self and that which is outside the self. A question as simple as, "How does one interpret sensory perceptions in a ways that makes sense?" becomes quite problematic when considering the ideological assumptions deeply embedded within the methodologies and discursive norms of empirical research. In that sense, I would argue, quantitative data is as much informed by qualitative methods as qualitative data is informed by quantitative components. They are entwined much in the same way that the social and the physiological/biological are inexorably wrapped within one another. To assume that these binary relationships, i.e., real/fake, subject/object, masculine/feminine, quantiative/qualitative, good/evil, are defined by two opposing forces, a yin and a yang, not only speaks more to the categorical properties of language shaping cultural understanding, but also foolishly undercuts the nuances, ambiguities, and vastness of lived experience.