Thursday, December 27, 2007

A semiotics of hair

The two characters pictured on the right, Anton Chigurh (from No Country For Old Men, played by Javier Bardem) and Briony Tallis (from Atonement, played by Saoirse Ronan) each represent the destructive forces of their respective movies. The nature of their destructiveness may initially appear quite different -- one is based in violent amoriality, the other in classist jealousy. Helping this division along is their contrasting physicial presence. Where Chigurh is a physically imposing figure whose eyes, nose, and mouth are blunt and hard-edged, Briony is petite, almost weak-looking, and amazingly pale. Chigurh primarily wears dark clothes that fit him like a glove and are an extension of him, while Briony wears clothes that don't appear to be on her body at all. The differences are amazing, or at least they seem to be. But I think these performances --these characters-- are of the same material and bodily presence.

No two sets of eyes are more piercing and forceful than theirs; and each of their distinctly similar haircuts seem to drape over their stone faces - still, and as motionless as their eyes. While their inexpressive eyes and hair complement both characters' calm, non-chalant demeanor, the contrast of their bodily presence may seem to separate them, because Chigurh is physically intimidating (and destructive), and Briony is not. But don't be fooled by this apparent contrast of physical presence. They appear in different kinds of films and impose their will on others around them in wildly different ways, but what they are communicating with their faces, eyes, mouths, and hair is deadly similar.

Also, consider how each of these characters are framed within specific shots in such a way that highlights their lack of gesturing and overall control of the shot. Notice how each of these characters are framed within the visual scheme of each movie. They occupy the space of the shots in which they appear in intimidating, imposing, and sometimes disturbing ways. Although each is quiet and methodical in their methods, they occupy the space of their respective films' images incongruously to other characters. In some shots, they both appear to look directly into the camera, at the audience, with those lifeless stares. Other images envision them as enveloped by the larger, equally still world around them. Even when they move, the rest of the image remains strangely still.

I began thinking about this because I was thinking about how similarly evocative are their hair styles, particularly how their hair is both separate and apart of their existence. The more I considered this idea, and thought about the similarity of those styles, i.e. how their hair hugs their heads, embodies their stillness, and defines their existence in the world and their relation to the people whose lives are violently altered due to encounters with them.

As a pure aesthetic device, hair can define a performance and give it a life it would not otherwise have. And in this case, it has led me to re-evaluate screen presence and performance. It is a microcosm for the core of a truly great screen performance. It suggests the intangible, the untouchable, but also most importantly, the aesthetic aspects of the perception in a visual narrative.

There's something intangible about good film performances. It's not just about the level of one's acting craft. Actors can sometimes turn in very good performances that is right in all aspects of how we define good screen performances, but still lack that special something that makes it transcendant. Unlike the theater, acting for the screen involves more than just an actor, and moves well beyond body movement, facial expression, and voices. A strong performance is defined by how an actor builds a relationship between the "inner" character and her/his material and/or bodily surroundings, i.e. mise-en-scene, props, costumes, other actors; in other words how that actor jointly shares space with other elements of the image. Since the composition is often controlled by the director, a performance is never a single effort on the part of an actor. An inuitive director understands that great performances emerge in strange ways, and can come from average acting talent. It's all a matter of how that particular screen presence exists in relation to the totality of the image.

Beyond a literalist level of interpreting cinematic images, fine screen performances are a perpetual mystery and a constant discovery. Juxtaposing characters from movies as apparently different as Atonement and No Country For Old Men, two of the finest films of 2007, might seem ridiculous to a literalist, but actually reveals the level to which screen performances are deeply abstract works of motion, movement, and framing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The dreaded Top Ten lists we've been anticipating all year

Critics often write about year-end top ten lists as if they are journalistic necessities demanded by the institution of journalism. Nevertheless, top ten lists are staple of journalistic film criticism. Moreover, some critics who denounce them seem to demonstrate a strong passion for them.

Though I have railed against year-end listmaking in the past, I have also expressed my insatiable desire to construct my own and read others. There's something undeniably enticing about ranking movies, as if the critic espouses some kind of power or control over the image. S/he is the judge, and only one movie can stand above all others in a year.

Of course, measuring cinematic greatness is arbitrary, as well as problematic on a number of levels. There are no criteria for "Great Filmmaking," and the idea of naming one movie above another just is absurd. Nonetheless, this practice is a stamp of journalistic film criticism that seems to undermine criticism. Yet we love to do it. Our enjoyment of constructing and/or reading these Top Ten lists is thus a kind of masochism; or perhaps the sort of pleasure that invokes guilty pleasure.

Although some of us more outwardly complain about simplifying film criticism to a childish ranking system, these rankings/ratings/lists/awards actually hold some kind of meaning when you consider the shear amount of movies released in a year. Trying to make sense of film history, or a particular area of film history or style, even a calendar year, becomes a great burden without the canonical practices that enable us to sort them out. For example, I keep an annual log of every film I see and how I rated each film on a four-star scale. This helps me look back on a given year in film and to organize what I consider the best movies of that year accordingly. This is but a small example of how critics enact these larger ideological practices of evaulating cinema. The process of organizing and thereby assessing films whittles down the complexity, nuance, and ambiguity of the film world. Of course, this is inevitable and necessary, but it's potentially dangerous too. It's like using grades to signify one's level of intelligence, as our education system demonstrates. It can work, but its fundamental purpose as a universalizing system by which anything can be measures is also its central conceit.

That said, these practices structure a history of film and criticism as we know it, which is why some critics (myself included) look unfavorably on what appears to be a necessary evil. However, since listmaking is here to stay, perhaps the best way to participate in it is to think about why we attach ourselves to such reductive models of evaluating films and their "quality." This may be as simple as keeping a broad perspective of the films we see and not measure them on a scale of useless terms like "direction," "style," or "acting." Cinema is about the unique combination of all these things and more, specifically how they work together to create the moving sound-image.

An inquiry into these matters is really an inquiry into criticism itself, and how our vision of film may often determine what we see in them. A theoretical perspective on how film works is crucial to film criticism, but so is an inquiry into the pleasure associated with seeing and hearing moving images on a screen. That means that we must not just be good theorists of cinema, but also spectators of it. Performing film criticism is like walking a tight rope between engagement in and detachment from the emotions provoked by the sensory perceptions of seeing an image. We must be part of that image, actively feeling the film, but also removed from it. One or the other simply will not do, as each breeds a particular mentality that requires temperament from the other. We cannot "destory the pleasure", as Laura Mulvey asserts, but must be actively involved in the production and consumption of that pleasure in order to understand it.

How does all of this relate to how we read Top Ten lists, as well as form our own? It's more a philosophy to how we see and evaluate films at all. Although star systems and lists provide a structure that we wouldn't otherwise have, it's important to be reflexive of the them while using then. We need to form -- as the great communication scholar Kenneth Burke might say -- perspectives by incongruity. In other words, using star systems and top tens for the broad sense of structure they provide can be useful, so long that the critic/reader maintains a wider perspective of them. It's more productive to have some fun with them than to painstakingly determine which ten films in a given calendar year are the ten best films of the year.

In my experience reading countless Best Of lists a year, I find the most stimulating and educational of these lists to be the ones that loosely adhere to the rules of the Top Ten. Some critics will stringently adhere to the top ten and attempt to name one film as the film of the year. Roger Ebert is a foremost figure among these critics. He is quite aware of the limits of the top ten, which is why he names a bunch of other films that stood out to him. Nevertheless, he plays by the rules, and offers up ten films, ranked by quality, that he believes were the best of the year. But the interesting aspect of his lists are that he tends to choose films that have a very personal significance to him. Of course, his personal and intimate style of writing and approach to movies is what makes him unique, but it stands out in his often bold selections, particularly his number one film. In recent years, he has selected films like Monster, Minority Report, and Monster's Ball; all films that have their followers, but few of which were selected as The Best Film of the Year, or even appeared in many top tens, for that matter. This year, he named Juno as the film that struck him most deeply on an emotional level, if not a formal one.

Other critics whose selections tend to a reflect a particular ideology of cinema, e.g., cinema as Serious Art, may turn the structure of the top ten against itself while offering choices that generally represent that school of thought. (Keep in mind: That's not to say that a little predictability is a bad thing.) For example, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis of The New York Times provide lists that don't adhere to the rules of the top ten, even though many of the films they selected generally represents more internationally- and "smaller film"- based critical lens. They both feature one or two mainstream selections (Scott selected Ratatouille, while Dargis opted for The Bourne Ultimatum), but their lists tends to fit within that overall sphere of film criticism and appreciation. But because they package that differently, i.e., not in an ordered or ranked list of ten films, their selections are more fresh than many lists containing similar films.

Scott's list is comprised more of combinations and juxtapostions of films than ranked order. This, I feel, is a fresh way of thinking about films. It shatters the notion that films are better or worse than other films, that they can all be ranked on the same scale, and that they exist in a vacuum. Scott instead wants you to think about these films in relation to each other; not just how they tie together thematically, or stylistically, but how they don't connect. He says:

"...Apart from the top two entries, the list below consists of pairs (and in one case a trio) of films that complete, complement, contradict or otherwise engage each other. Taken alone each film on the list is in some way exemplary, but each is also enriched and complicated by its companion. The twinned selections might work as double features, or as possible alternatives (if not x, then maybe y); above all they demonstrate the vitality and mutability of this impossibly fertile art form. It’s a big world, and we can never have too many movies."

Dargis, also, bucks the system and refuses to list, number, or rank her favorite films of the year. Her commentary regarding why she does this is nothing short of incendiary. The opening paragraph of her article containing her picks for the best of '07 captures the absurdity and necessity of top ten lists quite well:

"The whole point of a Top 10 list, a friend recently scolded me, is to number them. (I was declining to do so.) My friend was wrong, but only because Top 10 lists are artificial exercises, assertions of critical ego, capricious and necessarily imperfect. (I have a suspicion that the sacred 10 is meant to suggest biblical certainty, as if critics are merely worldly vessels for some divine wisdom.) More than anything they are a public ritual, which is their most valuable function. I tell you what I liked, and you either agree with my list (which flatters us both) or denounce it (which flatters you). It’s a perfect circle."

Although she cannot elaborate on these concepts (after all, she must get to her top ten!), her words cut deeply into a number of questions and concerns looming over criticism. (One last note on Dargis: the more I read her work, the more I am reminded how important she is to film critiism.) According to some, criticism is becoming less relevant as commercial cinema continues to take over the box office and dictate film journalism and, some fear, film criticism. These concerns are very real, and some even wonder what kind of legitimate future film criticism really holds. Let's be honest, many critics' top ten lists do not include films that would be included in Joe Moviegoer's top ten.

Questions of the critical schism are always raised, and critics themselves don't seem to know how to deal with it. While some have argued that critics' relevance may be waning (Richard Corliss most recently banged that drum), contemporary criticism commands strong influence over critical canon. More films are made and released each year; so many that it would be nearly impossible for any film critic or lover to recall the movies s/he has seen three, four, or five years ago, and beyond. Therefore, as film culture (i.e., critics, scholars, film lovers) looks beyond the films of the moment, and back to films of the past, it increasingly depends on these year-end lists and awards -- not so much the AFI Lists or the Oscars, but the various features by prominent film critics all over the country. No matter how similar or unique these lists may be, they provide a larger sense of critical trends at the time. (This past year, 2007, for example, will be reflected on as "the year of the Coens," among other things.) There are always loose trends and patterns emerging from these critical discourses at the end of the year. These trends are what survive when critics and readers move onto the next year, or the following year. They are what defines a year long after it's gone.

That's why these lists are important. They constitute a sense of film history for those select few who actively enact film criticism and cinephilia as we know it. Year-end lists collectively represent a frustrating inevitability, but they trademarks of criticism for those both within and outside its practices. And since Top Tens are a reality, perhaps it's not best to scorn them and think of oneself "above" them. The beauty of them, after all, is that they are personal reflections on a year a film. The best of these reflections are informed by a deep knowledge of the medium and its history, as well as one's own unique experiences, perspectives, and opinions. We all have different impressions of a given year in film. In the end, we're not just evaluating the year's offerings of movies and identifying films that advance the medium in some way; we're looking back on a year that further shaped and progressed ourselves, as critics and individuals. We can get a real sense of the critic by reading her/his selections for the best films of the year; especially critics who select films that struck them and interested them as film lovers as well as critics.

The examples of productive top ten lists which I've cited above represent but a snapshot of the variety of lists and critics out there. For evert bland top ten, there are countless other examples of interesting lists and year-end reflections; in print, on blogs, even in images (see Jim Emerson's list). The point of these lists is to highlight a diversity in cinematic art out there today, some of which are in the cineplex, others which don't receive a commercial release. The usefulness of these lists, then, is to identify films from all ends of the spectrum, arrange them in some kind of sequence, and argue why this particular band of films is indicative of the diversity of cinema in a year Will we get through to all readers and film goers? Of course not. But we will be actively incorporating familiar critical models to advance cinema and criticism. This hopefully will be what keeps keeps both alive, and will enhance our collective sense of film history and appreciation.

The best film criticism celebrates the diversity of cinema. This criticism envisions cinema as a cultural artifact, a commercial institution, and, most importantly, an art form. It eludes essentialist claims, easy labels, and universalizing frameworks for analysis. It is instead a blend of historical, theoretical, and personal reflections on art, narrative, and aesthetics. That is why we should situate these ranking systems and lists within a the greater empirical and social inquiry that defines the best film criticism.

Top ten lists do not represent the ideal model for reminiscing on a cinematic year. But their flaws and their strengths enable them to endure; keeping us in eager anticipation of writing and reading them, and influencing the perspectives of others interested in this medium we - critics - so passionately value.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Some quick thoughts

For the first ten months of writing this blog, I've attempted to maintain some amount of consistency regarding the frequency of posts. The content and length tends to vary, but post count is something I've always considered important, especially if I wish for this blog to amount to anything. For the last month and a half, however, this has been hard to do. As alluded to in my previous post, much of my time has been spent on holiday preparation, taking care of my partner (who has been sick for the better part of two months), and the project I've been researching/writing/working on for class. These have all contributed to my lack of posts of late. Under typical circumstances, I would have posted some thoughts here or there, but I've lately lacked the inspiration to write. I've seen very few movies, and I haven't been able to structure my film-related thoughts at all. But things are looking brighter...

Looking ahead, I hope to bring that consistency and (hopefully) improved quality to future blog posts as we move towards the new year. I say this with confidence because many of the things I mentioned above that have taken up so much of my time are beginning to wrap up, and I'm starting to feel that tingle in my fingers again. This is not an official return to regular writing/posting/movie watching just yet, but more of a precursor to what will certainly be an overflow of those things starting next week. As of Monday, my class will be over, and then a few days later I will have a nice, long holiday break to enjoy. I will have plenty of time to catch up on writing, movie watching, and reading as well, now that all the end-of-the-year top ten lists are pouring in.

At that point, I'll begin shifting my writing slightly away from the journal-like entries (which have dominated the past couple months) to more structured and developed articles. In the meantime, here are a few quick updates on cinema-related topics:


Last weekend, I saw Blade Runner: Final Cut on the big screen -- it was playing at the Ritz East in Philadelphia. I always love the opportunity to see classics projected on the big screen. Although I've seen Blade Runner - The Director's Cut a number of times over the years, I don't recall being so intimate with it, in the sense of seeing it in the dark, completely uninterrupted, and on a massive screen. I've since understood that no matter how familiar with a film you are, it takes on a new form when projected in a theater. The moment the Ladd logo appeared on screen and Vangelis' foreboding electronic music introduced the opening titles, I entered into a euphoric state of disbelief. Eventually, that feeling wore off a little bit, but the film's majestic opening sequence was something special: pure intoxication. And seeing it on a massive cinema screen assisted in completely enveloping me in the image. That blaring sythnesizer score coupled with images of endless metropolis cityscapes makes for an experience at the cinema house I'll not soon forget.

I've watched different chunks of the movie at different times and places over the years, but just to see it in that environment helped me to see the movie more purely as a movie. In that sense, it was completely new. But because I was so entranced by the visual/auditory experience of the film in the theater, I think I missed a lot of the details I probably should have picked up on, especially for a film I've seen so many times. When the DVD is released next week, I will be purchasing it and watching it again to experience the detail of the new, cleaned-up cut, which I didn't fully appreciate. (I'm also looking forward to the original 1982 cut, which I have read about, but never seen.)

There were some things I noticed seeing it over the weekend, though. First, the digital enhancements are first-rate. Were it not for the very dated computer technology, the film doesn't look like it was made in 1982. It's unique melding of science fiction and film noir contributes to that timeless feel, but the digital clean-up really elevates the movie into its own temporal realm. Another thing I noticed, more on the level of the narrative, is that Harrison Ford's Deckhard is really quite clumsy. He's reckless with his weapon, and he spends most of his pursuit of the replicants being tossed around and beaten. I think I've implicitly recognized this before, but I was finally able to piece together how the film is disorienting and how that contributes to its purpose. These kind of details require further examination, but I was fascinated by the final action sequences in which Deckhard and Batty battle each other. Because of that long, intense encounter, Batty's searing speech before his death is so powerful. To this day, it remains one of my all time favorite moments in all of cinema. Every time I see it, I realize how banal and inconsequential all the conjecture over whether Deckhard is definitively a replicant or not actually is.


Over Thanksgiving, I saw The Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men and have been thinking about it a great deal over the past few weeks. Although I am convinced of its greatness and would consider it among the Coens' best, I haven't located a direction for my thoughts to actually commit to writing. That's probably because I've read so many intriguing perspectives on the film, that my own seems more like a hodgepodge of all of these. Nevertheless, here's some initial thoughts. I will have more later when I recount my favorite films of 2007 in January or February...

No Country For Old Men represents a formally sound piece of moviemaking, with stunning compositions and stunning performances. But its storytelling is so seemingly and disturbingly straightforward that the contrast between its arresting images and the stark nature of the story makes for a reflexive experience of cinema, one that cues the viewer to both enjoy and revile the experience of the chase, the shootout, and the violent confrontation. Of course, the movie is so much more than its plot execution partly because it refuses to overtly delve into the more metaphorical aspects of its story, whatever they may be. Instead, this film is quiet (with almost no musical score), simple in design, and rich in formal detail. But "simple" is the most deceptive word when talking about cinema, for it is often in simplicity that movies achieve aesthetic heights. To say that a film like No Country For Old Men is "simple" is accurate, and it is misleading. In that apparent simplicity, the Coens manage to tap into human psyche to examine our perceptions of evil, the agency of disparate bodies, and the morality of choice. They do this by inviting viewers to take pleasure in the spatial complexity of their images, the idiosyncrasies of the characters, and the lack of "big" movie drama. We are instead taken into the quietest pockets of life, where a man drinking milk is as compelling as seeing him chased through the desert.

In the film's first act, Llewalyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is twinged with curiosity when he accidentally discovers the site in the middle of the desert of a drug deal gone wrong, where he finds brief case containing two million dollars. When Moss comes home and tells his wife that he found two million dollars, he responds to her questions with annoyance that she asked, but he does so casually and without realizing that his simple choice to take the money has changed and likely shortened his life.

We are never allowed into the minds of Moss, nor his pursuer, Anton Chigruh (Javier Bardem), but the great majority of the movie consists of their continued encounters with one another; Chigruh the predator, Moss the prey. But even though these men speak so little, both to each other and their associates, they are endlessly fascinating in how they act on each other and their surroundings. Even though we may consciously fear Chigurh, he is one of the most compelling figures in contemporary cinema. No matter how grisly things get, it's impossible to take your eyes off of him. He operates without the entanglements of ethics or morals that so often clout one's efficiency for killing. Whether we are repulsed or intrigued, we want him to be on screen and to continue after Moss. Knowing so little about his motivation, thought-process, or feelings, we are drawn to him, even as he commits the most terrible acts of unfettered violence. His character is just one aspect amongst many that the Coens orchestrate to perfection. Their film is an incredibly deep inquiry into human behavior and agency.


Finally, a note on the paper I've been working on...

I am writing it for a feminist theories class, and it represents an effort of mine to bridge feminist theorizing with cinema studies. As it is, this is not a simple task. Film studies are steeped in a long-standing tradition of psychoanalysis, which essentially hold that there are meanings within, or underneath images that the viewer/critic must unlock. This notion was made popular by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema."

Naturally, I'm very critical of this idea. Nevertheless it's pervasive in film studies. Therefore, from a feminist standpoint, I am examining the level to which oppositional binaries have shaped what we knows as gender, class, and race, which have influenced and structured systems of commerce and economy, and how these manifest in cinema. Since psychoanalytic film theory readily employs these binaries (as the model is built upon them) I question its validity as a feminist model of criticism, even though it is the primary model for feminist approaches to cinema. From there, I analyze the social components of vision, specifically relationships of power forged within visuality, which results in representations supporting dominant ideological assumptions about race, gender, class, and economic relations. These representations are no doubt the result of oppositional binaries, and have very real implications. However, psychoanalytic film theory, I argue, does little more than reproduce these binaries and therefore the same social and institutional norms.

Although cinema is prone to many of these representations and now exists as a dreamscape for a patriarchal society, it does not inherently exist as such. Vision and visuality are more complicated, and a feminist approach entails one examine the image itself, not so much from the approach of how it reflects patriarchal norms of culture, but how it enacts and reproduces them within larger social networks and relations of race, gender, class, and relations global and media economy.