Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The House away from home

I am pleased to report that I will now be writing for The House Next Door, a film / media site I have long regarded as one of finest of its kind. I don't have a specific direction or set of goals I'd like to accomplish in my articles for The House, but I anticipate drawing up a number of commentaries on a variety of cinephile subjects, as well as offer some more in-depth film criticism the likes of which is not appropriate on an individual blog like The Cinematic Art. I have every intention of upkeeping this blog at the same pace regarding post numbers and content. I may not write at the same length that I have in the past, but I will continue to keep this site up-to-date in similar capacity as I have over the past year. As always, thanks for reading, and your comments are always welcome!

My first article is an appreciation of Ang Lee's Hulk, a film I believe to be underappreciated and underrecognized. With the release of the new film, Lee's version of the story may likely be driven into even deeper obscurity. I argue that the film is important, both as a work of digital cinema and simply as a melding of experimental and conventional filmmaking styles. At a time of greater nuance and confusion in the film landscape -- with aesthetics and sensibilities shifting to accord to new sociocultural conditions -- Hulk is especially relevant. Hopefully, time will be kinder to it.

Below is an excerpt from the opening portion of the article:

"Midway through Ang Lee's Hulk (2003), Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) and a Hulked-out Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) share an exchange that could easily be confused with a scene from a less commercial film made at one of Universal's smaller subsidiaries. Aside from the impressive CG-effects (somewhat obscured, and assisted greatly by the darkness of night), there is palpable affection between the towering digital creation and Connelly. Bruce shamefully gazes on Betty in self-disgust, the moonlight shining off his bulging arms as he moves to gingerly lift her off the ground. When her arms drape over his giant limbs, we can feel it. No dialogue is uttered; there are only faces.

In that moment, Lee achieves something that so few filmmakers have with digital effects. He literally brings a digital creation to life. The scene can be seen as something of a precursor to the under-appreciated
King Kong (2005), wherein director Peter Jackson momentarily mutes out the world so that a flesh-and-blood woman can connect with a pixelated monster. But unlike Jackson's Kong and various other works featuring memorable digital creations, Hulk will not be remembered as a defining moment in the history of CGI. And yet, the film's use of digital technology is more subtle, evocative, and arguably more innovative than a great deal of the so-called greats (e.g. Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Independence Day, The Perfect Storm, etc.).

Lee understands that the quality of effects have little to do with their photorealism. How "real" the Hulk looks is irrelevant—the reality is instead contingent on the conveyance of feeling. This affective connection is not necessarily achieved by top-line effects (a notion that echoes a traditionalist application of digital filmmaking). Instead, Lee illustrates that with the appropriate sensibility and aesthetic unity, such pure moments can be constructed traditionally (analogically), digitally, or with a perfect melding of the two.
Hulk essentially embodies a new kind of cinematic connection that is both subtle and profound. The digital components are physically married to the composition and emotionally embedded in the narrative."

For the full article, head on over to The House Next Door.

Monday, June 16, 2008

David Hudson sounds off

"Movies make you want to see more movies - but, because of the collaborative nature of their making, often in very interesting ways. If I read a book and I like it, or I'm moved or intrigued by it, I'll probably go looking for another book by the same author. Same with a painting and its artist. With movies, it might be more movies by the same director I'll want to seek out, but it might just as well be an actor's work I'll want to see more of, or a cinematographer's. Or maybe it's more the look and feel of that movie's genre or origin - noir, Iran, what have you - I'll want to seek out and sample again.

'The other thing's related: Just as movies arouse a hunger for more movies, they also arouse a hunger for more real living. They make you want to get out and do things - stay out late, eat, drink, fall in love, see new places, meet new people - even the downers. In a way, these last two impulses - see more movies; live more fully - are contradictory. Again, the old anxiety: not enough hours in a day, days in a week, years in a life."

These are the words of GreenCine Daily editor David Hudson, who was recently the focus of Adam Ross's indispensable Friday Screen Test series. Hudson is oft-referred to as the hardest working blogger on the internet. In this piece, Hudson waxes about film, philosophy, and the daily struggles of his work. The interview is a joy to read, especially for those who keep up with his daily work. The quote above does more than highlight the collaborative nature of the cinema. His description of the endless doorways and passages that film can open works as both a concrete metaphor -- i.e. exploring the work of another filmmaker, actor, etc. -- and a more abstract one, which he teases out in the last paragraph. In my view, his final remarks articulate the tensions dormant within cinema and of life so perfectly, evoking the transience of both more effectively than any essay or book that I've read on the subject.

This interview represents a glimpse into the mind of a man whose passion and enthusiasm for movies come through more in his coverage of films rather than his opinions about them. His tireless coverage of the hundreds of films released each year is enough to inspire any cinephile to embrace the larger worlds of international and independent cinema, while still keeping up with the cultural dialogue spurned from discussing studio films. As the subject of discussion here rather than the facilitator of it, Hudson paints a portrait of himself and the art form about which he writes that is reflected in his daily postings on GreenCine.

In some ways, Hudson is film criticism equivalent of that eclectic teacher you had in high school who inspired you to ask new questions, make bold observations, and embrace new forms of thinking; all without ever revealing his own "take" on the material about which s/he teaches.

Do check out the interview if you haven't already.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

At world's end with Werner Herzog

It's been almost eight months since I've seen Encounters at the End of the World, and to this day its images live in my memory. Amazing underwater sequences; pleasantly absurd interactions with Antartica's resident culture of researchers, scientists, and poets; and the haunting sight of a single penguin briskly waddling away from the group to "certain death." All of these moments and more have taken on their own life in my mind, strung together by the occasional voice of Werner Herzog, who lends his perspective to the encounters that he and his camera operater have on the dwindling ice block at the bottom of the world.

The film opens in New York and Los Angeles today, and in honor of its release, I have included excerpts from the piece I wrote when I saw the film late last year. Framed and presented in this form, they constitute a brief review of the film:

"In Encounters at the End of the World, [Herzog] 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."

Some of the concepts referenced in these passage correspond to thoughts on ecstatic truth, which I discussed earlier in the piece. (Here's the whole article.) Reading this review again, the images and sounds stand out to me even more. I don't want to create any false notions about the dramatic aspirations of this movie, because they are nowhere near those of Herzog's Grizzly Man; He is after something very different here, or so it seems. There is a profound absence of direction in this movie, which, guided by Herzog's thought processes and strange observations on his adventure, makes for an equally compelling, albeit very different kind of experience than than the more somber Grizzly Man, or some of his other documentaries. That said, Encounters at the End of the World is in some ways the movie that Herzog has been making his whole career. Centering on themes of the interrelations of humanity, nature, and technology, the film is full of those Herzogian moments of simple profundity manifesting in its interviews and underwater compositions. We learn that his preoccupations haven't change; only his manner of exploring them.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Patriarchy and criticism

An increasingly bitter dialogue about Sex and the City has developed in the past several days, on blogs and in publications. Currently, the movie stands at a mediocre 53 percent on the Tomatometer, which seems awfully high for the drumming this movie has received. I don't doubt that's it's true, though, and that critics are more split on the merits of the movie than it appears. For whatever reasons, and I'm sure there are many, Sex and the City represents one of those rare cases in criticism where the detractors are making so much noise, despite not quite representing a majority. It's not so much the "for or against" rhetoric that's especially interesting, but the condescending manner in which the film is approached, even by its supporters. It seems to me that even critics who are fairly indifferent about the movie are going to great lengths to let their readers know that Sex and the City simply isn't their thing.

I don't want to make any grand suppositions, but this phenomenon seems to reflect the hegemony of patriarchy within journalistic film criticism. The irony of this statement is that when it comes to the proliferation of masculinity in cinema, Hollywood usually takes the blame and critics get a free pass. But the level of discourse about Sex and the City reveals a few tendencies in even the most productive sects in American film criticism, about the assumed male spectator.

I have not seen Sex and the City, so I cannot say what is true or untrue. But that's not really the aim of my observations. What really interests me about the SATC discourse is that it features so much self-conscious defensiveness. Critics who are downright vitriolic are targeting Sex and the City for its glorification of hyper-materialism and consumer culture, and its audacity for centering on four female characters more interested in the latest fashion trends anything else. This seems an odd claim to me, since American cinema represents one of the pinnacle commodities in contemporary culture. When critics are routinely pumping out 600-word formulaic pieces in support of "consumer culture," I wonder why films like Sex and the City are singled out, and not some of the massive action blockbusters whose saturation in media and advertising reaches sickening heights.

On the other hand, you have critics who are not outright hateful of the movie, but admit that it's not their thing. This position is much more useful than blind rage, but, again, why do critics speak this way of movies like Sex and the City and not other show-turned movies like The Simpsons, or even just certain genres or styles, like horror films or sword-and-sandal epics?

Not two weeks ago, critics largely raved about Jon Favreau's Iron Man, a comic-book actioner about a war profiteer turned-action hero. The film was competently made, no doubt, but it's hard to account for the overenthusiastic critical reception. Even critics who outright said they were getting sick of comic book movies seemed to like it. Winning over just about everyone, the film is an anomaly to me, and evidence that perhaps critics should be more reflective of their practice and reflexive. I know that it's a critic's job to treat a movie on its own terms, but if there's one thing anyone studying the arts and social sciences should know, it's that nothing stands in isolation. And part of the job of critics is to identify trends, anticipate them, and critique not just formal craft in individual movies, but to situate them amongst a larger inquiry into art, commercialism, and socioeconomic policies.

Now, I didn't read all of the reviews for Iron Man, so I don't want to make a sweeping generalization. But I did read a number of them. The best one I read was by Filmbrain, over at Like Anna Karina's Sweater. He didn't write a review, or talk about plot or character. He offered a simple observation that qualifies as evocative, interesting criticism. The post was entitled, What I learned from Iron Man, and it read:

"A pretty, Ivy League educated, socially (and politically) conscious Vanity Fair reporter will, in a matter of minutes, toss aside her personal ideology (to say nothing of her professional ethics) and jump into bed with an alpha-male war profiteer who first questions her intelligence, and then follows up with a sleazy pickup line."

I don't expect professional critics to muster the courage to write anything like this, but a number of online writers with this potential don't exercise it for that kind of commentary. Moreover, at no point did I read anything in the sea of positive reviews for Iron Man that the film not being the reviewer's cup of tea, so to speak. I would guess not, since so many of the films critics are subjected to in a year are of this variety. I suppose no one goes into professional criticism expecting that they won't see hundreds of movies like this a year. Apparently, male-centric films are ok with most critics, and why not? Hollywood cinema has always been a dreamscape for a patriarchal society, so why should critics be any different? It's the expectation of these trends, the passive acceptance of the imposition of particular values and assumptions about gender, individualism, class, race, etc. that worries me; the fact that critics appear more interested in playing the game, than looking past the surface of film cultures and analyzing trends and practices, revealing new perspectives and enabling other, in hopes of bettering the production and consumption of movies.

As Andy Horbal once noted, there is a scary amount of sameness in professional film criticism, so much that it's hard not to wonder that criticism has become the very commodity about which many of its participants complain movies have become. It's hard to hold individual critics responsible for these larger ideological trends, but at what point do we begin questioning the punditry that criticism seems to represent when viewed in a collective light. There are definitely bright spots in film criticism, but they are shining lights enshrouded in a dominant cultural system that doesn't reward progressive thought; which is, in fact, positioned as "the alternative."

Some argue that other modes of criticism are a way of correcting some of the weaknesses of professional criticism. But this largely depends on the ideological stance of the argument. Framed from a perspective of representations of gender in cinema, and the manifestations of deeply embedded cultural notions of masculinity and femininity, I'd say that all venues of journalistic film criticism are subject to massive interpretive problems stemming from a hegemony of patriarchy that pervades media.

I'm sure this isn't a popular perspecitve, so I'm welcome to counterarguments. Discuss!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Sounds of the Knight

Of all the Hollywood blockbusters released in recent years --from superhero flicks to fantasy epics-- none stand out to me as more memorable and significant than Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Although there are other worthwhile, even great studio films in the last decade, Batman Begins is distinct in that it weaves intelligence, craftmanship, and character together with a narrative that is relevant.

At the heart of the film lies a central tension regarding the hero myth, which the film neither embraces nor shuns. The movie poses the question: Can one person rise above sweeping corruption, and make a difference in the lives of those preyed upon most by those with power? Moral fiber is the one attribute that has always separated heroes from villains, and yet the film seriously questions whether a moral center is enough to counter the fear and complacency that mass corruption breeds. Moreover, the film outright questions whether morality and goodness are productive in this struggle at all.

Complementing and enlivening these thematic depths is a dense aesthetic that is noirish in mood, but naturalistic in structure. Gotham city lacks an architectural identity. It is instead defined by labyrinthine streets and contemporary glass skyscrapers rising above the poverty beneath them. Their twinkling lights glimmer in the background of many compositions, obscured by the shear multitude of their numbers.

Part of what enables these images to breathe life to the narrative is the music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. Interestingly, traditional film score fans single out this score as one of the worst in recent years, which is likely due to the fact that it --like the film-- is incongruous with the expectations of a "superhero" film. The score rarely waltzes into the familiar ground of brass-driven heroic ostinatos (such as in Danny Elfman's outstanding theme for Tim Burton's Batman films), as the composers instead opted to auditorily augment the noir-ish visual style and subtle characterization with rhythmic, driving music for a man who seeks to embody a more primitive state of mind than most other heroes. When the camera pans the rooftops of Gotham, we can hear these rhythms building, pulsing, but not necessarily with much direction. Contrasting with these rhythms are frequent swirlings of strings and faint electronic echoes giving voice to a city (and a film) with no clear villain, but a plurality of pain, fear, and corruption underneath the slick, glossy surface.

Although The Dark Knight is still almost two months away, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard have recently given an interview to the LA Times. On The Dark Knight and Nolan's "intellectual" style, they shared their views about the place for music in this film and the 2005 film that preceded it. Excerpts below:

"Why go with a fast-and-simple string pattern rather than give the film a big, easily recognizable theme?

Zimmer: I wanted to take the romance out of it -- the fake fantasy to it. One of the things I kept thinking about was just how iconic the bat symbol is, and at the same time how dark and unadorned it is. I spent forever getting rid of notes to get it down to just two notes in this ostinato pattern.... The bat symbol is so efficient at getting the idea across. I wanted to get really efficient.

Howard: At the same time, when you write a traditional, conventional superhero theme, it gives you so much information that it might be misleading about that character. Our Batman? We're still getting to know him. He's a very complicated guy. To attach a theme to him, a theme you can sort of hum, it defines him emotionally in a way that is false.... It advertises so much about who you are during the film. I think, in a way, a theme like that would have done that. This theme is about implication, and it's about menace.

And there is still a recognizable sound attached to the character.

Zimmer: But I'm letting the character finish the thought. It leaves a lot more space. I don't see Batman as a superhero. I wanted to be very clear about that. I wanted to take out anything that is super about this.

Let’s talk about the "Joker Suite." This almost sounded like an orchestral interpretation of an industrial song.

Zimmer: Look, I'm German, so I come from the German tradition of Kraftwerk.... But I kept thinking I wanted to find a way to bring corrosion into Gotham -- corrosion and recklessness. The funny thing about that piece is that I knew what I wanted to do, but it took me months to actually do it. Nobody could play it.

It's all about acting and attitude, in a way. It's very much of the idea of taking one note and expressing any part of fearlessness and recklessness and surprise.... It is very industrial music. I tried to give it a punk attitude. I used to work with the Damned and bands like that.

Howard: What's great about the Joker theme to me is that it feels totally untethered. It just kind of exists. It lives somewhere in the cracks.

What else is different this time around?

Zimmer: This is what surprised me, and I think this needs a little clarifying. Everyone keeps saying that this film is darker than the last one. I always think that people think that means more violence. It's not that at all. There's much more of a precise intellectual thought that went into Christopher [Nolan] and his brother [Jonathan] while writing. The ideas are somehow more real and more grown-up. We're doing a summer blockbuster that deals with anarchy and old-fashioned values versus the modern man. That's a lot of fun to play with.

You guys split up characters a bit. James, can you talk about what you created for Harvey Dent/Two Face?

Howard: Basically, Harvey Dent is Gotham's great hope. He's going to turn things around. He starts out with the best of intentions. He's a brave, courageous, high-minded man. Over the course of this story, he becomes seduced and corrupted -- really by the Joker. The Joker kind of wins. It's just the arc of his character, which ultimately ends up in a very tragic self-destructive place. That was the musical line.

Zimmer: What makes it interesting is that there are such extremes. The music James wrote for Harvey Dent is really beautiful. On the hand, you have the Joker theme, and on the other hand you have that contrast of something really elegant and beautiful.

What makes this movie -– and this score -– interesting is the extremes. The black is a lot blacker because of the light."

It's first worth noting that Hans Zimmer is nowhere close to the talent level of James Newton Howard when it comes to film score, at least in my view. That said, his perspectives on how he approaches a film or character are always interesting and upfront. He also takes over the interview, as Howard's comments are usually pushed to the side.

At any rate, it's a very interesting interview that's worth the read if you're an admirer of Batman Begins, both the film and the score. There are definitely some hints dropped about the movie, but what's really intriguing is how they explain their approach to the musical texture of the first film, and how that carries over to Knight.

Howard's comments are more appealing on an intellectual level (as I noted in March), especially his reflection on how brashly heroic or dark themes for characters can constrict their ability to develop and morph. He describes the theme they've written for Batman to be more about "implication," which is certainly reflected in the score, I would say. It will be especially interesting how that theme is developed in Knight, and whether Batman will become more of a hero in that film. Something tells me that the film is headed in a new direction, as Zimmer notes in the later passage about the new film being more outwardly cerebral than the last movie.

Although my sensibilities are more aligned with Howard's more quiet, intangible sense of marrying music and images, Zimmer wins the award for the most provocative remark about "letting the character finish the thought," and the music "leaving more space," in being more about implication.

I would be interested to hear how others feel on these matters. So, your thoughts regarding your likes or dislikes in the score to Batman Begins, or the overall approach that Howard and Zimmer advocate about the role of music in the construction of character?