Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin

The negative criticisms I have read about The Adventures of Tintin —that it's dramatically shallow and that it's all surface, etc.— don't resonate much with me. While these observations may be true, that doesn't detract from the movie. It's supposed to be dramatically shallow. To borrow Keith Uhlich's phrase, "But what surface!" This a straight-up adventure yarn, cut to the bone. While this kind of fare may not hold the interest of more serious film types, I lament for their sake. Cinema, apart from offering an array of avenues into the deepest of human feeling and experience, also gives us simpler pleasures, such as a childlike exhilaration of motion. Steven Spielberg has long been a purveyor of these base components of movies and here he explores them via digital animation, which is especially conducive to his classical compositional style.

The chief complaint lodged at Tintin that I am more inclined to accept is that it rarely slows down. It moves through its scenes as well as the overall plot at such a high pace that I wish I could have soaked it all in just a bit more. This is what separates it from its elder brother in the Spielberg canon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which can count pacing and rhythm among its many strokes of genius. Despite these elements being slightly off-kilter in Tintin, there is something to be said for a movie like this that is succinct and direct, as opposed to so much of the bloated spectacle representing today's blockbusters.

Partially making up for the pacing problems is a flurry of wonderful small moments, ranging from Captain Haddock's animated outrages to Snowy's (Tintin's loyal dog) playful interactions both central and aside from the main action. There is nothing about Tintin that will bol you over with its awesome power, other than the shear energy of movement. It's all in the detail, both technically and in content. Jamie Bell holds his own voicing/acting a one-dimensional hero, but the real achievement here is Andy Serkis' performance as the alcoholic Haddock. I was surprised with how well his addiction was portrayed, particularly given that it walks a fine line with the humor. But Serkis and Spielberg poetically capture the sadness of addiction through Haddock's opposing but (sometimes simultaneous) expressions of reckless confidence and intense self-loathing. I was surprisingly moved by Tintin's discovery that Haddock had been drinking again after a short period of soberness and how he handles it. It's the little moments of humanity that —despite being irrelevant to the main plot that rockets along so fast— are most affecting about this film. Yes, it would be nice to see more of these moments take the forefront and the always-moving adventure take a backseat. Nevertheless, we are seeing the evolution of a medium in small doses, each offering a glimpse into the extraordinary visions of which it is capable of realizing. If you're into that shallow kind of thing, of course. (Steven Spielberg, 2011) ***

[A note on the 3-D presentation: I was planning to see the film in glorious 2-D, but the listing on the web was incorrect and so I was stuck with 3-D. I am a fairly vocal detractor of 3-D, but I should give Spielberg and co. props for the smoothest 3-D presentation I have seen. Having said that, I still do not feel as though I can take in the images fully with 3-D. It's just such a strain. So while Tintin has some of the best 3-D I have seen, I was still incredibly frustrated that I couldn't fully appreciate the atmosphere and geography of Spielberg's compositions. I look forward to seeing the movie in my preferred 2-D format on DVD.]

Thursday, November 3, 2011

War Horse

Oscar prognosticators lately have been crowing about Steven Spielberg's other December release: War Horse. A quick internet search should reveal why. It is a World War I narrative set on the English countryside that chronicles the story of "a boy and his horse." The premise is dubious and potentially fraught with ideological quandary, but Spielberg's name on a wartime drama all but guarantees it a spot on the list of Best Picture nominees. Feedback has recently begun to emerge on the movie, and, while I won't speculate very much regarding its Oscar chances, I did have the opportunity to see the film recently and can offer some reflections.

The film centers on a horse named Joey, who is auctioned off to a poor farmer who can hardly afford to maintain the farm and support his family. The farmer's son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), trains Joey to plow the fields and eventually takes the horse under his wing. Structurally, War Horse resembles Spielberg's film of ten years ago, A.I.. The first act presents a focused family drama before drastically changing course for an episodic second act, which follows the horse on a series of encounters with a variety of folks on different sides of the war. Like A.I., this film is most effective in delivering the shorter vignettes in its long middle section rather than with the main story established in the opening 30 to 40 minutes. However, while A.I. gave us a machine who simulated the actions and emotions of a human, Spielberg here asks us to invest in an animal that cannot feel or simulate human emotion. But to my surprise, the "horse perspective" plot device works very well because the story remains fixed on the human characters that weave throughout the horse's narrative. Each of the smaller portraits in the middle of the film are delicate and compelling in depicting how various individuals are affected by and participate in the war. The human characters are mostly all good people who do little things to help each other out. While not especially subtle, these smaller stories are quilted together into a larger anti-war mosaic that I found much more convincing than the director's 1998 anti-(but-also-pro-)war film Saving Private Ryan. This film gives us characters on all sides of the conflict that are fearful, caring, and human.

In Spielberg's vision, the larger context for the war and the strategic interests of the sides are not factors. This is where the plot element of the horse perspective plays a key role. Without projecting too much human feeling onto the horse, Spielberg uses Joey's story to fashion benign observances of the fear and benevolence. The film adopts a serious view of the implications for war while also citing the need to distort its reality (particularly in a wonderful passage involving on older Frenchmen and his granddaughter). One common thread to the human stories is the often dehumanizing social roles we inevitably must inhabit to survive. And as is typical of a Spielberg film, technology also features prominently among the film's thematic undercurrents, particularly the technology of warfare. Another integral element that begs further exploration is how people communicate, whether with animals, the enemy, or through technology.

Considering all that it has going for it, it's a wonder that the film's main plot is its most problematic element. That is not to say the story of Albert and Joey is vapid; it just doesn't connect on the gut-emotional level that Spielberg is known for registering. He handles the early scenes of familial drama with uncharacteristic sluggishness and sentimentalizes Albert and Joey's relationship and Albert's relationship with his father to an extent that will some will find too much to stomach. And the John Ford-inspired ending —in which Spielberg uses every item at his disposal from the sentimentality toolbox— reminds of the ultimate simplicity of the narrative, which after all is about a boy and his horse. Nonetheless, despite baring the director's weaknesses, War Horse also showcases Spielberg's considerable strengths, which include the ability to infuse a tired, maudlin plot with a high level of visual sophistication and narrative dimension. (Steven Spielberg, 2011) ***

[On the film's Oscar chances I will say this: If War Horse has a shot, it's going to be on audience response. I expect critics are going to be hard on this film. It might have the broad support of the general reviewing community but the more discerning circles will be unsparing, much like response to last year's winner, The King's Speech.]

Monday, October 24, 2011

Almost Still Famous

Pearl Jam Twenty spans the two-decade-long journey of the other musical act from Seattle. Setting out to author the definitive account of Pearl Jam’s formation and endurance, director and long-time fan Cameron Crowe infuses the project with a breadth of knowledge as well as an appreciation for a band whose influence, he believes, speaks beyond dwindling record sales in recent years. Indeed, few would deny the historical significance of Pearl Jam as a moniker for the rise of grunge (despite the fact that the band would reject the term), but Crowe’s work frames the band at the center of a changing music and cultural scene from the 1990s into the 2000s. Pearl Jam Twenty features extensive interviews with band members and other folks tied to the history of the band. Wrapped within its travelogue of concert footage and behind-the-scenes video are various threads tied to band’s rise and prominence, from its bonds and performances with 1960s music legends such as Neil Young and Pete Townsend, to Andy Rooney’s ignorant rambling about modern teen angst. In Crowe’s vision, these details are integral to how Pearl Jam endures and why their story resonates as one of survival and integrity in the presently grim state of rock.

The film opens in Crowe’s hometown of Seattle with nary a mention of Pearl Jam. Crowe narrates over skyline shots that shift to ground level, humming to the furious guitar chords that would epitomize the underground Seattle rock scene. It is here that, as he sees it, music lovers convened over a mutual thirst for a new sound. Taking his time to establish a context for the formation of Pearl Jam, Crowe gives particular attention to the demise of Mother Love Bone, whose decidedly hair band sound contrasts heavily with the more soulful anthems for which Pearl Jam became famous. Guitarists Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament guide us through a personal journey of their frontman’s tragic death from substance abuse. This set a solemn tone for a band that would eventually conquer music and remain continually wary of the fame that would follow. But it only achieved that status with the entrance of a vocalist named Eddie Vedder, to whom they gave a chance in what became their defining moment.

Whether these early scenes accurately portray these events or their wider significance is practically irrelevant. Pearl Jam Twenty’s assured opening passages establish it as equal parts a profile of the band and a personal journey for the director. Thus, how Crowe sees the band is arguably more revealing than what’s revealed from and about the band. And from the outset, Crowe is unafraid to express his enthusiasm as well as his knowledge of Pearl Jam and rock in general.

The notion of Crowe as a student of rock strikes a familiar chord. His 2000 semi-autobiographical feature Almost Famous depicted the rock and roll scene of the late 1960’s from the perspective of an aspiring music journalist who accompanies a band on the road. The intimate narration in the early-going of Pearl Jam Twenty echoes the quixotic but pained vision of rock culture that Almost Famous cultivated, as expressed through the fictitious band Stillwater’s frontman, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Crowe’s entry point into Pearl Jam as both an enthusiast of rock and a giddy fan of the band bears strong similarities to that of the naïve teenager from Almost Famous. Crowe fawns over Eddie Vedder, painting in enigmatic, poetic tones in effort to put him on the pedestal of rock greats. Crowe elegantly captures the performer’s inner demons and impassioned stage presence, but the film becomes so transfixed with him that both its focus on the personal stories of the band members and its wider plunge into the cultural landscape that Pearl Jam found itself resting on top of somewhat suffers. To be sure, the sight of Vedder dangling some 50 feet above the stage is a brilliant image unto itself, but Crowe lionizes Vedder to such an extent that he renders himself unable to really explore the singer’s inner workings. By extension, the unique brand of observation and personal admiration somewhat morphs into Behind-The-Music territory with its strained rest on Vedder’s reflections.

From Vedder’s introduction onward, Pearl Jam Twenty swiftly navigates the post-mania stage of the band’s popularity, charting its appearance on Capitol Hill to fight Ticketmaster to Vedder’s hot-and-cold relationship with Kurt Cobain. Crowe attempts to balance these points in the band’s history with the performers’ own weighty reflections on fame, success, and (of course) mortality. He also tries to connect all of this to various things outside the band, from a chronicle of Vedder’s on-stage political statements to one inspired shot of David Lynch. And although these components are efficiently deployed, the film frequently feels hurried, as if it must hit every point on a checklist of topics in what ultimately amounts to a “How They Got Together and Stayed Together” narrative. Which is why for all its stylistic and visual flair—which includes some sensational concert footage—Pearl Jam Twenty is more conventional than it aspires and ought to be. The Kids Are Alright or The Last Waltz it is not.

But underneath the stubbornly straightforward presentation of the band’s 20 years together is another far more worthwhile story. As noted previously, Pearl Jam’s impact on and role in the transformation of popular music in the early 1990s is undeniable. But Pearl Jam Twenty eschews this narrative by suggesting that the band’s longevity and integrity have distinguished them in the current, fractured age of culture and music. The implications for this are touched on briefly but in a broader sense capture the overall sentiments of the film. Over 20 years, a band that started as a leading voice in the pulse of music became essentially an independent brand, isolated from the increasingly corporatized face of the music industry. Crowe’s focus on the band’s own feelings and reflections dilutes this story and also prevents him from making a direct case as to the significance of Pearl Jam’s music. But the film’s life comes from how Crowe distills his deep love for and knowledge of rock into a nostalgic tribute to a less tangible idea. For Crowe, Pearl Jam stands for something. Not a political statement or moral cause (though the band has offered plenty of those). Rather, in Crowe’s account, Pearl Jam is one of the last purveyors of rock, which is as much a concept as it is a practice.

If Pearl Jam Twenty suffers from straining to account for various points of view, then it excels as an account of personal idealism. The film’s final moments capture this elegantly, taking a single performance of the song “Alive” and intercutting various clips of the band’s performances over the years into a charged montage of music and motion. Whatever one’s feelings may be on Pearl Jam’s music—an amalgam of styles and periods in American rock—Crowe’s film is a veiled ode to rock and roll and a testament to that euphoric feeling of connecting with music, be it through a single song or a band that endures for two decades.

[Article originally posted at The House Next Door.]

Monday, September 19, 2011

A fallen star of late-night

Late-night television just isn't what it used to be, at least in terms of its relevance. It doesn’t matter like it did when Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon ruled the late-night airwaves. By contrast, the late-night giants of today more resemble PR mouthpieces, serving up stale celebrity interviews and safe topical humor carefully designed not to offend key demographics. The structures remain unchanged, but the content has been neutered.

But for a short time in early 2010, late night television was relevant again. With NBC’s ratings tanking from the disastrous move to insert Jay Leno in its prime-time lineup, the network decided to move Leno back to 11:35 and push the start of the Tonight Show with new host Conan O’Brien to 12:05. O’Brien rejected NBC’s offer, arguing that The Tonight Show has been a staple at 11:35 and should not be pushed to the next day. The move effectively ended his short stint as Tonight Show host and long stead in network late-night programming. Conan’s hosting duties went on for another two weeks or so, resulting in some of the most unhinged and inspired material in the host’s career. His endless departing shots at soon-to-be ex-employer were seemingly spontaneous and passionate, providing a nice contrast with Conan’s normally facetious brand of comedy. Conan even spun the drama into a kind of sympathy cause with his fans, while being careful not to overplay the “poor me” act. The national media was abuzz over the events, following Conan’s show and others each night to see what was said. Even Jimmy Kimmel got in on the act with scathing criticisms of Jay Leno and NBC. And for the first time in years, late-night television had a pulse. However, after Conan’s last show aired and the dust settled, late night TV would return to business as usual and the nation would again stop watching.

This where the documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop picks up, right after O’Brien’s untimely exit (and subsequent huge payoff) from NBC. The film charts the formation of O’Brien’s nationwide comedy tour and follows the comedian from dim hotel rooms to cramped plane cabins, as he kept busy to avoid dwelling on his anger. This is a real “backstage” film — very close to its subject but at enough of a distance for honest observation. But it is also a piercing look at both the activity and loneliness that epitomize the life of the performer. For a work sanctioned by the man under examination, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is rather frank in its dealings. Director Rodman Flender tries to both study and penetrate O’Brien in an off-the-cuff manner, which lends an initially strained “rock-star rebel” quality to the proceedings. Given Conan’s fierce allegiance to the corporate suits that kept him on a major network for more than a decade, it might at first seem misguided to frame the comedian in an anti-establishment mold. But that is partly what makes this film so worthwhile, because we’re seeing deeper variations of the comedic lunacy that has so long been kept in check within the controlled surroundings of studio audiences and timed commercial breaks. To see how O’Brien spins his frantic energy sometimes in unpleasant ways gives the proceedings an unpredictable and fascinating aura. This coupled with O’Brien’s candid reflections helps Flender foster sharp insights on life on the road and also draw an honest portrait of a fragile comedian.

Immediately O’Brien comes across less guarded than I would have expected, especially given his background in TV, in which nearly every utterance and expression is rehearsed. Early-on Flender interviews Conan one-on-one in his car and home, asking him simply about how he feels and what he is going through. Conan answers directly and honestly. He talks about the good fortune he has had through his life but also acknowledging the intense anger he feels. O’Brien channels this into his interaction with staff, which jibes between mean-spirited and playful. He seemingly cannot resist creating uncomfortable situations at the expense of everyone around him. His reflexivity about the absurdity of his position makes his act even more compelling, particularly when he bosses around members of his staff or shields off crowds when getting off a plane on an empty runway.

As the tour kicks off the film takes us further into the bowels of the show’s production. These scenes of auditions and band prep lend the film a sense of authenticity, especially given that they don’t always cast a positive light on O’Brien and his collaborators. These behind-the-scenes elements aren’t as engaging as the one-on-one’s with O’Brien, but they give a stronger sense of how he harnesses the energy of those around him along with his own. Along the way we are shown bits and pieces of Conan’s family life —playing with his kids, talking with his wife, etc. These moments mostly steer clear of mawkishness, due to O’Brien’s consistent demeanor throughout the proceedings. But there are also moments that are less expected in a film of this nature, such as the tedious processes that accompany road-acts, like pre-show interviews and post-show signings. While O’Brien is appreciative of the fans, he is also tired and frustrated with having to deal with it on a continuous basis. Nothing earth-shattering here, but it’s nice to actually see the a performer's exhaustion and relief once it's over.

For someone who has spent his career in front of a camera, O’Brien does a respectable job of treating the camera like it isn’t in the room. This allows the filmmakers to capture revealing moments in everyday circumstances, which are ultimately what elevate this film from just another tour documentary. Baring the comedian’s flaws plainly, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop peers into the mind of a vulnerable person in constant conflict between calculating his every move and riding his impulses. It’s the chronicling of a man trying to figure out who he is, which should at least be clear after hearing him say “fuck”—gloriously—that he can do much better than late-night TV.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On chaos and classicism

I know I'm behind on the ever-growing discussion of chaos cinema, but this is a topic worth expanding, as it has already in so many directions. It started with Matthias Stork's video essay at IndieWire's Press Play. The two videos encase a movement in commercial filmmaking over the past two decades, in which a sense of spatial unity has been displaced by a deliberately less coherent (and sometimes incoherent) aesthetic. Shaky camerawork and quick-cut editing are the base markers of chaos cinema, but lighting, film speed, and zoom are also exploited in the distortion of the "clear" image.

Stork notes that film scholar David Bordwell has already identified this trend and given it a name: intensified continuity. Bordwell has argued that many of these techniques ultimately service a classical agenda but in modified manner. Given that viewers have grown so accustomed to classical techniques of cinematography and editing, the idea is that they can fill in the blanks when a particular sequence removes some of visual clarity. This technique can serve a variety of purposes. In the classic narrative sense, it can mirror a character's disoriented state or it can signal the chaotic environment of war or panic. But Stork looks at this trend as usurping traditional concepts of visual cohesiveness and becoming a new base aesthetic of popular cinema (and action films in particular). He propels Bordwell's notion beyond a matter film aesthetics and addresses the implications of this increasingly prevalent aesthetic.

Stork explains:

"In many post-millennial releases, we're not just seeing an intensification of classical technique, but a perversion. Contemporary blockbusters, particularly action movies, trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload. The result is film style marked by excess, exaggeration, and overindulgence: Chaos cinema."

And Stork doesn't stop there. He adds that chaos cinema is "a never-ending crescendo of flare and spectacle," as well as "an audiovisual war zone." As for the "art" of chaos cinema, Stork notes, "the only art here is the art of confusion." Stork dishes these charges during a montage of film clips from various contemporary action films, including Quantum of Solace, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Dark Knight, Domino, Battle: Los Angeles, and others.

Given the inflammatory nature of the charges, Stork's essay provoked wide-ranging response. Ian Grey, also of Press Play, mounted a bold defense of chaos cinema by going on the offensive. In it, he targets Stork's ostensibly pro-classical tone, which (although Stork never explicitly endorses it) seems to inform his nearly wholesale dismissal of chaos cinema. (Stork briefly addresses the possibility of chaos cinema to achieve something more than empty spectacle with his analysis of The Hurt Locker, but not without noting that the exception proves the rule.)

Says Grey:

"It’s depressing that the ultra-conservative pro-classicists will not even consider that there might be something valuable occurring through these “chaos” films, planting the seeds of a new movement and establishing a new, valid way of seeing things for a new generation."

Grey's impassioned rebuttal highlights the glaring flaw of many accounts of chaos aesthetics, which is to focus almost exclusively on the mechanics of the film image in service of a more rigid ideological agenda. The notion that chaos cinema matters —no matter your opinion of its worth— tends to be glossed over by those launching assaults on it. While Stork briefly mentions music video aesthetics and shortened attention spans in attempt to explain the origins of chaos cinema, he fails to make a convincing connection between chaos cinema and the broader cultural tendencies and transactions on which the broad basis of his argument rests.

For my part, several of Stork's points seemed dead-on. I have always been partial to clarity and geography. Nevertheless I was uncomfortable with the ease of which he dismisses the majority of chaos cinema for not upholding a certain tacit vision of cinema long perpetrated by classical auteurs and formalist critics. Grey hits on this point effectively, but in doing so he makes sweeping generalizations that somewhat diminish the impact of his mostly well-argued response. He observes:

"It’s already a tired remark but it’s no less true: in the pulsing sensorium of multimedia, the sit-down, stand-alone feature film becomes kind of quaint, unless somebody does something to jack it into the world as it is now. And that’s what “chaos cinema” aims to accomplish. The style that many of you hate is probably the only thing (aside from that other thing you probably hate, 3D) persuading people to endure an increasingly god-awful cinematic experience."

Grey goes on to provide an anecdote of sitting through 35 minutes of commercials at a screening in New York to illustrate that viewers today are tired of old models and seek a more strongly visceral response to cinema, which now has to compete with various other modes of aesthetic pleasure in order to stay relevant. This notion warrants more exploration, for sure, but Grey's attempt to connect a movement in film form to something outside the isolation of film analysis is badly needed in film criticism. Too often it is filtered through the same "form/content" lens that it seems to have little relevance. Nevertheless, as part of the pro-chaos/anti-classical argument, Grey's remarks about generation politics leaves his argument vulnerable to criticism, as evidenced by Steven Boone's recent piece over at Big Media Vandalism calling out Grey and other defenders of chaos cinema. Boone concisely streamlines the evolution of our media technologies and senses as a means of explaining how chaos cinema was given to rise. Here's an excerpt (though I encourage you to head over and read the whole piece at least once, if not several times):

"The kids didn't create--or ask for--Chaos Cinema, no more than little Johnny asked for the neighborhood pusher to move onto his block and offer him some new sneakers. Kids just want to escape boredom. They want to feel alive. Chaos Cinema came along at a time when young people and adults alike had learned to expect instant gratification from their DVD players and cable boxes. The kind of spontaneous montage I created as a child couch potato of the '80s, armed only with a cable dial and a slothful VCR, acquired exponentially greater firepower by the late '90s, with thousands of satellite channels and the random-access of DVD chapter stops to draw from.

Concurrently, AVID (and later, Final Cut Pro) non-linear editing systems gave professional film editors the same freedom to make instant selections from their pools of footage.

Meanwhile, the Internet went from a convenient tool for interpersonal and business correspondence to a direct telecommunication and commerce channel. This quickened the pace of everything. Once digital video became widely accessible, it was even easier to feed the beast, 24/7. Finally, cheap portable media devices and Internet screens of varying diminution reduced the amount of information we could be expected to retain in a single image, lending shots the quality of flash cards. Car. Man. Smile. Pile of shit.

In the movie business, this quickening became an opportunity: Storytelling in mainstream movies would get faster and more furious with each year of the last decade, in the style of product upgrades. Let's think of the movies in the aughts as Dell desktops. Each new movie packed more RAM (more footage to draw from, and from a wider variety of camera angles), faster processors (editing that obeys fight-or-flight impulses like a channel surfer) and bigger hard drives (more screen time devoted to densely-packed expository dialogue, like Wikipedia clippings in an undergrad's netbook). Except that, unlike computers, these increasingly tricked-out flicks narrowed our selection of applications (visual styles) to ones with cluttered, user-unfriendly interfaces. This phenomenon was sold as a sign of the times by Ho'wood's de facto publicity outlets and happily/resignedly indulged by consumers who came to think of movies as perishable items. Slurp, burp, next."

Boone's piece is a grand statement against contemporary editing techniques and other staples of chaos cinema. These permeate hyper-masculinized action fare, like Battle: Los Angeles and The Expendables, but also and perhaps more importantly the work of popular cinema's new batch of auteurs, notably Christopher Nolan. Boone's takedown is a good companion piece to Stork's video essays, which were more focused on demonstrating and denouncing chaos cinema. It provides a convincing cultural and ideological context for arguments against chaos cinema. Perhaps most significant about Boone's argument is how it explodes the simple notion of form and content as somehow being internal to filmmaking or film viewing. While Boone stands in support of Stork, the overarching principle I pull from his essay is that how we watch, interpret, and derive enjoyment from cinema is a complex negotiation of innumerable processes both inside and outside of a frame. His narrative of the media state is both beautiful and horrifying to me. No matter how hard we try, we cannot anticipate or even begin to understand the extent to which our minds and brains are being rewired and projected through the increasing number and capacity of transaction in our current media age.

In light of Steven Boone's staggering reflection on the state of affairs in contemporary film standards, I see a number of ways in which the dialogue can continue, grow, and give us more insights into film images and how they continue to hold relevance. With respect to the notion of chaos cinema, I would spin the discussion by first considering that both Stork and Grey have legitimate points to make about the state of the movies. Their opposition may be more the result of ideological and rhetorical posturing than truly repelling concepts. There is more than a kernel of wisdom (as Steven Boone elaborates) to Stork's underlying argument that chaos cinema both reflects and informs a larger cultural movement that is quite honestly concerning. This deserves to be explored as chaos cinema becomes more pervasive in contemporary filmmaking techniques.

While Stork outlines the broad parameters of chaos cinema, we should first try to understand what chaos cinema actually is and how it operates. Stork provides an excellent start (particularly with his analysis of sound), but I am wary of accounts with an established negative outlook of this new aesthetic. While I would not directly refute anything Stork concludes, there are a number of opportunities to explore how and why a destabilized image is significant. Ian Grey broaches this issue with his assault on classical cinema, but this likely stemmed more from Stork's reflexively pro-classical tone. Nevertheless his observations on the beauties of chaos (such as his unashamed love of Resident Evil: Extinction) represent a solid foundation for a pro-chaos approach.

In light of these differing sensibilities toward contemporary visual styles, it might be interesting to look at how classicism and chaos cinema can be melded together. Instead of merely only looking at the work of leading practitioners of chaos cinema such as Paul Greengrass, I might suggest we have a look at films that are more classically influenced but have been inevitably shaped by the increased presence of chaos cinema in film today. Jim Emerson recently did something like this with his response to Stork's video essay (and in countless other pieces over the years, particularly his entries on The Dark Knight). He looks at Philip Noyce's Salt as an example of how the elements of chaos cinema can be assembled in a way that has intelligibility while still conveying the velocity of chaos aesthetics.

Another film that fits this billing is Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. I thought of the film when I read Ian Grey's essay, in which he uses the it as an example of how classicism can bring down an otherwise good film. Grey notes the frustrating extent to which each composition is precisely assembled and positioned. Indeed, Minority Report is largely consistent with Spielberg's self-described geographical aesthetic, but a closer look reveals a strange interplay of classical form and destabilized images typical of chaos cinema. For example, in the film's lone extended action set piece, Spielberg's camera is noticeably more frenetic and busy than in most other action sequences in his catalog. From the jetpack chase in the alley to the car manufacturing plant, the camera is imprecise in its ability to frame the details of the chase and yet there is clarity in how all of the shots and images connect. For example, in the second portion of the chase, John Anderton (Tom Cruise) encounters his pursuer, Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) on the street outside the manufacturing plant and the two race to the building.

The foot chase is executed with a single hand-held shot, but when we cut inside the sterile hallways of the factory, Anderton is shown from a distance in a stable shot down a long, white hallway. He sprints past the camera, which shakes when he runs past it.

While all of the action until this point is discernible, Spielberg keeps the proceedings off balance with gritty camerawork that counterbalances the cleanly mechanical atmosphere of the factory.

A few bursts of light distort some of the images and even in longer shots the camera never stays still.

As the chase continues, Anderton and Witwer find themselves facing one another on a mobile platform maneuvering above the ground.

Here Spielberg incorporates an even stronger chaos sensibility by jumping between extreme shaky closeups and wide angle shots, which seem to compliment and clarify each other.

When the two plummet off of the platform, notice how the shifting camera denies us a feel of gravity, as the two barrel sideways through the air at the camera (but really down into a car under construction). When we cut to another angle, the transition is both seamless (due to the spatial economy) and jarring (due to the pronounced velocity from the shaky camera work and chaos touches).

This set piece is thoroughly Spielbergian in that we can clearly see what's happening from shot to shot, but it is also a subtly distinctive sequence for how it incorporates several characteristics of the chaos style. In my view, Minority Report exhibits a hyper-classical aesthetic that is difficult to situate within the chaos/classical mold emerging in critical dialogues. What's interesting to me is how this shaky-cam aesthetic joins with the classical stylings of the film's sleek visual palette. It is classical chaos.

In my next entry, I will demonstrate a few more examples of how the principles of chaos cinema have been incorporated in other recent popular films. Specifically, I hope to examine how these elements can alter and/or enhance the effect of classical style in some cases, or establish a brand new aesthetic and emotional spectrum in one particular case of genre filmmaking.

In the mean time, I open the forum to you: Are there any other movies that blend the line between chaos and classicism?

Friday, August 12, 2011

"Film for film's sake"

Variations of this phrase have flowed through critical discussions for some time. Though I lack a solid grasp of what it means for something to be "for its own sake," I think of the phrase as essentially another way of putting the cliche, "All style and no substance," albeit with a less negative connotation. But what does it mean to suggest that a film doesn't have substance (whatever that is), or that it is an exercise in "form over content"? Many critics have pondered this over the years. The question seems to express of the most basic curiosities about cinema, specifically how a film works and what the relationship is between story and image.

Recently I watched Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985), and I started to think about this question after reading commentaries about the film. I suppose I shouldn't hold it against critics for not knowing how to situate something like After Hours within the director's filmography (especially during the 1980's, when it hadn't yet emerged fully into focus). Nevertheless, the general narrative that emerged about the film was that it represented Scorsese's attempt to blow off some steam without any clear intent or guiding principle. From what I've read, Scorsese made the film to prove to himself and others that great filmmaking was inert to him, like a language through which he required only its most basic tools. There are a number of recurring motifs and visual cues in the film, but they seem to operate without the goal of offering a statement or even an underlying idea. After Hours is not simply the story of a man who has a bad night, or who has that bad night because of a particular bad choice he made. Nor does the movie seem to be the alternative, i.e. a random chain of unfortunate events for this one gentleman who simply wants to go home but encounters resistance with every step he takes toward doing so. That's why the movie seems to exist for its own sake.

Yet, even though After Hours does not seem to have "substance" in the traditional sense, its "style," or narration, is with clear purpose and meticulous design. This is evident from the opening shot swinging fast through the office of New York high rise, to the frequent juxtapositions of festishized close-ups and long-shots of street alleys or stairwells. There are mysteries to this film that work beautifully in the context of the film's visual palette and equally well as evocative images in their own right. And often the same images are alluded to and re-emphasized in obscure ways over and over again. Paper mache figures, beams of light cutting through empty city streets, long stairwells, keys, huge windows, and a curious Mister Softee truck. It's like Scorsese layered these images with only visual unity in mind, even though the images themselves have no relation to each other.

Scorsese spins this seemingly directionless film into a virtuoso work that begs to be interpreted and given some kind of greater meaning. Each scene presents a new vignette of a person, a place, an interaction, each which is as connected to another vignette as it is disconnected. And although I kept searching for some kind of meaning or idea to which I could attach the feelings I experienced watching the film, After Hours works so well because it eschews broader concepts and themes. Maybe that's the strongest statement to emerge from the film.

It's worth noting that After Hours so often is displaced in the conversation about Martin Scorsese and his films. Within his filmography, it doesn't seem to have a place. Yes, it contains signatures that can be identified as staples in the filmmaker's work, but there is little evidence in this film of the preoccupations that guide so many other of his movies. (Scorsese himself has helped facilitate the narrative of his own legend, frequently noting his connection to mob movies, or, as he calls them, gangster pictures. Thus, it somehow seemed as fitting as it was hollow that his industry validation would arrive with the 2006 Best Director/Picture winner, The Departed.) While Scorsese's historical and cultural interests are bared more clearly through the easily connected narrative similarities across the films he has made, his real talents as a filmmaker have always been capturing subtle eccentricities in performances and creating images of urgent beauty. Nowhere in his long career is this more on open display than in After Hours. More than most other movies that proudly lay claim to providing an "exercise in style," or an experimental assembling of disparate images and sounds, After Hours leaves you to wonder just what it is about cinema that is so affecting and how you are so enamored by it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The evolution of Woody Allen

Woody Allen once said something to the effect that if one of his films performed well at the box office, he must have done something wrong. Few of Allen's films have achieved the financial success of which he has been so skeptical. Even Annie Hall, despite it going on to tackle Star Wars at the Academy Awards, fared only modestly in its box office returns. Allen's latest, Midnight in Paris, recently became the director's top-grossing effort and —at roughly $50 million in box office returns— must be considered one of the big surprises of the summer movie season. Some pundits may attribute this to the cast of Hollywood heavyweights, including Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams. But Woody Allen has always managed to attract big name actors, and Midnight in Paris is no different in this regard. So what do high box office number say about a filmmaker who has famously rejected the corporate side of his industry?

This question got me thinking about Woody Allen and his films, particularly his most recent work. Much has been written about the director, from his penchant for psychoanalysis and existential questions, as well as his emulating of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. But very little attention has been paid to the filmmaker's recent work and how how it reflects on the his career and sensibilities as a filmmaker. In light of Midnight in Paris's unexpected run this audiences this summer, now is as good a time as any to take a closer look at Allen's directorial sensibilities through the prism of his recent output.

In the late 1970's and 1980's, Woody Allen was on the forefront of American auteurs, along with Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, and Martin Scorsese. His public persona was that of a New York intellectual with a biting sense of humor and a neurotic screen persona. Some would argue that Allen regards the characters in his films with a disdainful eye. This is channeled through the main protagonist (often played by Allen) or in how the filmmaker writes and frames characters. However, despite what appears to be a cynical outlook, many of his films offer a distinct kind of lyricism to which little attention has been paid in writing about Allen. While he has long been preoccupied with existential questions and the illogical nature of life and love, Allen has balanced this outlook of humanity with a sense of hope and wish fulfillment in spite of his own persistent acknowledgement of the absurdity of such things. The Purple Rose of Cairo, for example, melds artifice and romanticism in what is essential a love letter to the magic of movies and to the fleeting innocence into which the movies invite us. Allen also delves headfirst into explicitly romantic and nostalgic imagery in Radio Days and Manhattan. Even in darker films is embedded a benevolence and longing for happiness and meaning. For example, Hannah and Her Sisters, despite offering its share of harsh observations on family dysfunction and communications, delivers an unexpectedly beautiful moment, when Allen's character, after a failed suicide attempt, goes to see the Marx Brothers film, Duck Soup. Upon seeing the elaborate set pieces of dancing and singing, Mickey has a profound realization of why life is worth living. These kinds of moments in Allen's films assert the filmmaker's belief that through all the struggles and illogical components, life offers joys and allows each of us to infuse it with the the meaning we wish for it.

In the past 20 years, Allen's public image changed dramatically and his relevance as a leading voice in American cinema has since waned. Despite his personal scandal involving Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, Allen kept to his rigorous filmmaking schedule, averaging about one movie per year as he had done his whole career. After a few critical darlings in the mid-90's, like Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, and Everyone Says I Love You, and a couple of overwhelmingly dark works, such as Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry, Allen settled into a mold of predictable, harmless comedy that has cemented the general perception toward his recent work. This stretch roughly spanned 1998 to 2004 and included works such as Small Time Crooks, Hollywood Ending, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Anything Else, and Melinda and Melinda. These films seemed like a step back for Woody Allen, as if was tired of making serious or ambitious films. They seemed almost like 90-minute versions of one of the director's comedic short stories or stand-up jokes. Tonally consistent with Allen's established visual and narrative style, these works are largely anemic and absent of the humor and observation that characterized so many of his previous works. I must admit I find a few of these works to be moderately enjoyable, such as Jade Scorpion and Melinda and Melinda, but this period cemented Allen's new image as withered, aged man still pumping out movie after movie just to keep busy.

Allen regained the attention of both his critics and critics at large with Match Point, which was considered something of a departure from his recent lighter fare and a return to old thematic threads in the director's oeuvre. Set in Great Britain and featuring a young cast, the film doesn't look like your typical Allen film. But those familiar with the filmmaker's sensibilities had little trouble identifying traits that were undeniably Allen. Match Point is an examination of class structures, chance, and sexual desire, among other things. Allen's aesthetic and narrative preoccupations have been more akin to those of Alfred Hitchcock in more ways than is typically acknowledged, and Match Point revitalizes these preoccupations with clarity. Woodyphiles often jokingly refer to it as a remake of Crimes and Misdemeanors, in that it tells the story of a man having an affair, who, upon faced with losing his status, arranges for the murder of his mistress. But this assessment is somewhat unfair, particularly in light of how differently the films deal with their similar plots. Where Crimes and Misdemeanors dealt more directly with Judah Rosenthal's (Martin Landau) guilt and his realization that he needed to protect his privileged status, Match Point depicts a young man, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Myers), inches away from marrying into the protected British upper class who then meets and begins an affair with lower-class American woman, Nola (Scarlett Johansson). Both men are eventually faced with unstable women who threaten reveal their respective affairs.

Despite these similarities, the differences between these two films are more notable. Crimes and Misdemeanors focuses on guilt and allows Judah to maintain distance from the murder of his mistress. In his exchange with Allen's character at the end of the film, Judah goes on to explain how the guilt is eventually lifted when he realizes he has a family and a life of wealth and privalage that make him happy. He moves on from the past, but he never appears to be at peace with it, despite recognizing that the eyes of God may not be watching him. Match Point, however, more explicitly probes the raw sexuality and violence of its proceedings. Social class is important to both films, but Match Point is not only more raw but more cynical, as it weaves this narrative around the basic thematic notion of chance. Chris kills Nola as well as an elderly neighbor in ugly fashion. And he gets away with it because he didn't properly dispose of all of the evidence. Thus, where Crimes and Misdemeanors acknowledges the ugliness of the world and of some people in it, the film is searching for some kind of answer. It asks questions about how a man can live with himself who has committed such heinous acts. And Match Point, with its analogy to tennis early in the film, uses this to serve up a punchline. It's not asking how a man can do this, but instead makes a point about the the absurdity of reason and the silliness of morality.

Examining Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point side by side represents a good starting point for understanding how Woody Allen has changed in both his storytelling and filmmaking interests. Some more signs of both his evolution and repeated tendencies are evident in his latest entry, which also piqued the interests of audiences. Allen makes no such grand statements regarding the absurdity of life or the triviality of rigid morals with Midnight in Paris. Instead, he tells a simple story a struggling writer who retreats into a fantasy world of literary past. Like in Match Point, the central character, Gil (Owen Wilson) is detached from his lover and her family, except rather than being tempted by the sexual prowess of a woman he is entranced by a world populated with famous literary figures and icons of art. The more he slips into this world —Paris circa 1920's— Gil becomes more estranged from the established structures of his life. Eventually, he comes to the realization that romanticism can be a corrupting force and that to focus on the great works of the past blinds one's ability to live in the present. By the end, he breaks off his engagement and takes to the streets of Paris in a move of bold romanticism that never quite feels genuine given how the film fosters suspiciousness for it.

Structurally and thematically, Match Point and Midnight in Paris serve as decent recapitulations of Allen's evolved style, which departs from some of his established tropes. Allen's most significant evolution (most significantly on display in Match Point) is that his films are more about the punchline. If you look at the endings of films Allen has directed in the last 10 to 12 years, most of cut to black after some kind of clever punchline mean to sum up the proceedings. Melinda and Melinda, Match Point, Cassandra's Dream, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger; they all end on a similarly dark humorous edge. In terms of his broader approach, Allen still jumps from serious dramas of murder and betrayal (such as Cassandra's Dream) to farcical absurdist comedies (like Scoop). In these works the subtle differences in Allen's sensibilities become more clear when comparing them to his older films. His sense of structuring remains consistent in that he frequently provides closure or some kind of grand statement. Late Allen, however is less searching and more concise, and arguably more cynical. He is clearly still preoccupied with many of the same questions as he has been his entire career, but the sense of benevolence and romanticism that marked earlier films is largely absent in his recent fare. Allen is much more skeptical of such things now, which is bluntly stated in Midnight in Paris. And Even Whatever Works, which adopts a more positive approach toward the meaninglessness of life, does so rather half-heartedly.

Where Allen's earlier films offered a more probing and longing for meaning (despite their acknowledgement that the universe inherently contains none). His earlier films were more in search of something. The time period drom Annie Hall to Crimes and Misdemeanors, in particular, Allen often told stories with many characters and packaged themes through network narratives. This afforded him much opportunity for the big ending, often through montage of images over dialogue or music that thematically weaves the many threads of a given film together. Allen's observations mostly represented his own sense of searching and desire for meaning and/or happiness.

In recent years, Allen has stayed within the same structural and thematic frameworks, but examination of his recent films shows how he has modified these elements over time. This has resulted in films that are more direct with their messages, less ambitious, and by turn more cynical. Also, Allen attempts to assume less of a role of master narrator and more intimately observes a smaller group of characters. He is most effective when he is in neither a specifically dramatic or comedic mode, but hovering somewhere in the middle. In these works, underneath Allen's predictable stylistic tendencies are intimate portraits of aching souls looking for direction and trying to grasp their own identities. The two recent films most emblematic of this trend are Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris. The characters in these films gain some kind of clarity through their experiences in eccentrism (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) or fantasy (Midnight in Paris). They are searching for something that they don't quite understand. Yes, many of the same markers are still there (such as a the character trapped in a loveless marriage), but Allen appears more interested in the yearning of these characters, most of whom gain understanding of who they are not rather than who they are. Allen's tendency to wrap things up tidy is still present in his later works, along with a penchant for quick punchlines. But these are counterbalanced by a sense of closure that opens up more pathways and questions that the characters may not be ready to face. Thus, the best of these films achieve a level of subtle reflexivity with the interplay of more complex characters and the typical structural elements that have long defined Allen's films.

In addition, these films indicate Allen's evolution in bridging his aesthetic style with the characters. A good example of this is the heightened sense of sexuality in his newer films. Historically, Allen hadn't dealt with sex very well. Despite being preoccupied with it, Allen's visual senses have always been better suited for framing environments and locations rather than depicting the interaction of individual characters. But films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point deftly visualize passionate, forbidden sense of sexuality. Allen shoots the sex scenes in sumptuous colors and lighting and forges an intimacy with the characters that he has never approached in the past. This heightened sense of intimacy is not just between characters but in how the characters are framed and presented to the viewer. This is a development in Allen's career that nary warrants a mention from critics but gives his films the feeling of being less distant and observational.

Allen may always be a slave to his old traditions and sensibilities, but he has played with them and developed them in ways that has allowed him to achieve a more intimacy with his characters. He will likely never put out a film that radically rewrites our knowledge and grasp of his work. The steadfast (and some would say stubborn) consistency in Allen's work leaves the filmmaker open for criticism, but it also has fostered a legacy that few filmmakers will can ever achieve, especially when considering the range of narrative and filmmaking genres with which he was experimented. Some viewers have no doubt tired of his visual approach and talky characters, but a closer consideration of the underlying themes, concerns, and inquiries into life that characterize Allen's work reveal a director who is more interesting for how he tweaked and advanced these elements in various ways. Despite owing much to the writers, artists, and filmmakers he often cites in his work, Woody Allen has nonetheless crafted a style that is uniquely his own and that continues to evolve both in spite of and through the very consistencies that define his work.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Up and running again

In a conversation about three months ago with a few close friends over the final Harry Potter film, we mutually decided to embark on a long project. We would convene once a week to watch the seven previous entries in the Potter film series in succession until the release of Deathly Hallows Part 2. We are all fans of the books and movies in various capacities, though I am probably in the minority for aligning more with the movies than the books. I've read maybe half of the novels and reasonably enjoyed them, but my interest was more with the movies. In attempting to articulate my positions on the films —like, for instance, why Prisoner of Azkaban, is the most evocative entry and a great film in its own right— I found myself thinking more about them and the surprisingly affecting mosaic they form. Perhaps realizing that very little serious reflection had been committed to these films, I had idea to write a series of essays. I don't know when exactly it came to me. Nor did I give it much thought. I just began penning reflections on the first film a day or two after watching it.

Turns out that a two-year-plus hiatus from writing about movies left me with a good deal of rust. But thanks to Keith Uhlich, who helped me gain clarity of the project and find a confident voice, I authored eight articles over roughly six weeks. They were posted at The House Next Door in the week following the release of Deathly Hallows Part 2. The series represents my first writing on movies in well over two years. I say, "on movies" because I do a fair amount of writing in my day job as an editor for a monthly medical magazine. Between this, completing my graduate school thesis (which took in excess of one year), and various other personal ventures from home projects to fatherhood in that span, I found little time to update this here blog. As the distance widened from my last update, my desire to return to film writing —even in a more limited capacity— was waning. I've attempted to keep up to speed with movies, still seeing roughly 50 to 60 theatrical releases in a given calendar year. (As usual, I've seen some very good ones and a few great ones. As for 2010, put me among the crop of critics who found The Social Network the only real masterpiece from last year.) I have been content to watch, feel, and reflect without the strain and effort of translating those feelings and reflections into text. To keep slightly abreast of the goings on of film criticism, I would rely on Roger Ebert, Manohla Dargis, and a handful of other critics whose work I have made part of my regular weekly reading for years now.

I never expected to return to this blog. But the unforeseen chain of events that has led to my Potter series has reinvigorated my interest in thinking critically about cinema of many stylings and rejoining this online community again. I should note that I have never had any delusions about the greater significance of this site. As I observed in my last published piece, back in March of 2009, my aim for the site was "to explore the interconnections of film, criticism, and cinephilia in an open forum." However flawed, I feel that in some ways The Cinematic Art achieved that despite my readership never achieving great heights. But as much as I've enjoyed lending my own small voice to the critical discussion, the real joy of it was exploring the work of so many others who are passionate about cinema and writing. In the spirit of the late Manny Farber, Andy Horbal once referred to the ever-expanding plane of film commentary on the web as a kind of "termite criticism." And after years of removal from the film blogging circuit and returning to discover it is as vibrant as ever, I feel that Andy's terming for it is spot-on and very relevant. We are a unique collection of voices. The flaws in our writing and logic are often openly on display, but so is the immediacy of our insights and perspectives. With styles ranging from scholarly prose to fanboy cinephilia (sometimes at the same time!), and everything in between, online film writers are slowly molding new pathways in the discussion of cinema; one that straddles the established structures but that also collapses them. Yes, the old pillars of journalistic and academic criticism will remain the authority on film canon and the officially sanctioned discourse about cinema for a long time to come. But I remain of the belief that a digital discussion of cinema is ubiquitous and can potentially guide dialogues that allow us new ways of engaging cinema, criticism, and cinephilia, by melding them all together. It will not usurp other modalities, but rather deepens the scope of criticism to encompass wider perspectives, styles, and reflections.

It seems that many new technologies and social platforms remove much of the spontaneity from life and our interactions with people, films, and various other things we engage regularly. But they also provide critical potential to harness the nuances and peculiarities of our individual experiences and project them into text and images. That is partly why cinema is so special and maybe why so many of us actively take part in this great experiment of termite criticism and cinephilia. For my part, I am happy to have rediscovered the desire for writing and film, which I hope in some capacity to channel into prose here on this site. In the past I've probably engaged in too much reflexivity for my own good. Going forward, I will try less to provide commentaries about the relationships of cinema, criticism, and cinephilia and focus more on doing my part to create it. I don't know where it will take me just yet. I have a few larger ideas in mind (such as a long-gestating Werner Herzog project that will hopefully unfold in coming weeks and months), but my general attitude is to write about things that mean something to me, to not engage in too much reflexive rumination, and to simply write. Whether it amounts to anything useful in the broader critical dialogue is not for me to decide. It will certainly not have the polish of many published forms of criticism. And there is obviously no guarantee that it will have consistency and structure (as evidenced by my long hiatus from writing). However, the broader canvas it affords me to perform the commentaries I wish will hopefully make it worthwhile. And one thing for sure is that mine will just be one voice amongst many that make this platform so enjoyable to participate in, both as a writer and reader.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Week With a Wizard, Day 8: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]

Amid the apocalyptic overtones of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, a moment of real magic and rare levity occurs when Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), after summoning an army of knight statues to protect Hogwarts from impending attack, excitedly admits, “I’ve always wanted to do that spell!” Yes, professor, and we’ve always wanted to see you perform it; or, at least those of us who have slogged through seven books and seven movies. To see Maggie Smith deliver these words with the wonderment of a child fittingly captures the sentiments many viewers will have about seeing this long film journey reach its end. Most of the characters shown in the moments to follow—as an orb-like shield slowly forms around the castle—have either played a key role in one entry in the series or have been in the background through many of them. But that hardly matters; because after so many films these faces become embedded in a world we have seen unfold across a decade’s worth of cinema.

The aforementioned scene is a microcosm for Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Director David Yates seems to want this final installment in the series to capture the excitement of the moment but also to strike up nostalgia for all that has gone before. It achieves both of these in various moments throughout, but it doesn’t quite sync with what has building in the previous two or three films, somewhat to my disappointment. To try to make sense of this requires some back-pedaling, if you will indulge me. I have written these commentaries from the perspective of knowing many of the ins and outs of author J.K. Rowling’s opus. I have argued that as the films have grown more confusing to those who have not pored over the novels, they have grown more interesting filmically on a roughly parallel track. Despite the often-clunky writing and plotting, each of the films (perhaps with the exception of Goblet of Fire) dating back to Prisoner of Azkaban has developed its own beat and affective state. I have noted previously that Alfonso Cuarón's Azkaban will likely be recalled as the film that allowed much of this to happen.

When Yates took over the series, he imbued it with a serious, unsentimental approach that at first (in Order of the Phoenix) mimicked Cuarón's style but then developed into something more his own. Yates’ films each have their own personality while still upholding a broadly low-key, expressive visual approach that reached its apex with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. For the most part, these later entries have been light on action, while heavy on drama, mood and characterization, allowing for Yates’ aesthetic to evolve. (Much to the chagrin of a good deal of fans, screenwriter Steve Kloves and Yates opted to jettison the battle Rowling penned for the climax of Half-Blood Prince in favor of giving more prominence to the loss of Dumbledore.) As the stakes have increased with regards to the narrative arc, the films have turned more inward, giving us aching images and forming melancholy states the likes of which few commercial films aspire to. If you cast narrative aside, the later entries in particular are intricate, even beautiful works.

Deathly Hallows: Part 2, although a direct continuation of the story, represents a shift in an approach that seemed carefully constructed in previous efforts. It finally delivers the bloodshed and warfare long foreshadowed, and it doesn’t skimp on either. A great early shot of Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) blood-covered feet as he gingerly walks about the countless goblins he’s just murdered sells this point effectively. Not surprisingly, this final installment of the series contains no less exposition than its predecessors and is equally confusing in story details. In this manner, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 falls in line with previous efforts. (To better understand this phenomenon, see Matt Zoller Seitz’s dialogue with his daughter Hannah over at Edward Copeland On Film.) But in living up to its marketing aphorism of “It All Ends,” and hurling as many familiar images and faces at us that it can muster, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 feels very self-aware as to its role as the conclusion of an eight-film journey. Its overt acknowledgment of this fact interrupts the subtle, somber state the series was moving towards. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is an orgy of activity and nostalgia, with Fiennes’ gleefully demonic impression of Voldemort at its center. And while Fiennes is great fun to watch in the role, we realize that Voldemort isn’t a terribly interesting character, which is a good analogy for the film. The battles are indeed impressive, but they tend to throw off the narrative and aesthetic shades that have grown over the course of the more recent entries.

Deathly Hallows: Part 2 starts with a brief excursion in the caverns beneath London, but soon directs its focus to Hogwarts, where professors and students prepare for the last stand against Voldemort and his army. The stretched-out action set piece that takes up a majority of the middle section is a work of fine filmmaking craft and design, and it is seen mostly through the eyes of the central characters. Yates generally avoids elongated shots of devastation and instead navigates the activity and carnage from the ground level but without forgetting the scale of the proceedings. Save for its slower start, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 moves with such certitude that one can easily excuse the writing/plotting problems that have marred previous installments and are again on display here. The aura of urgency building with each passing scene is palpable given that Yates guides the action so assuredly. Questions of horcruxes and wand ownership dominate the film, again, as they did the previous two installments, so it is a credit to Yates that he manages to steer these entries away from drowning in their own exposition.

The soul of the film concerns not horcruxes or Harry’s showdown with Voldemort, but a character whose significance to the overall narrative was thought to be secondary. Regrettably, I have made only passing mention of Alan Rickman's portrait of the character of Snape over the course of these articles. Snape has been one of the very few secondary roles to take on a life beyond his short appearances in the films. Rickman’s stunted inflections and cold stares manage to be both menacing and humorous. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 finally provides Rickman the opportunity to stretch his acting muscles and show the vulnerable man beneath the façade. The most affecting moments in the film involve Snape, from his grisly death—which is obscured visually, but powerfully conveyed with sound—to a montage of memories that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) witnesses showing the deep love Snape had for Harry’s mother. Yates recognizes that Snape’s story is the core of this film, as well as the broader story, which in part explains why the opening shots are devoted to him. However, because these scenes are so moving, the tale of Snape’s tragedy tends to amplify the weaknesses of the main conflict between Voldemort and Harry. When their wands finally connect in the final act, the effect is surprisingly mute. That’s because the recent movies have not been about the eventual showdown between good and evil. They have instead focused on the pain, suffering, and remorse of the people who must fight the war.

For Harry’s part, a few moments before his final confrontation with Voldemort offer a bookend to the interweaving themes of memory and death evident in the later entries. “Does it hurt?” Harry Potter asks his godfather, Sirius (Gary Oldman), who, along with Harry’s parents, has been resurrected to accompany Harry in his last moments of life. Harry has witnessed the deaths of so many loved ones in his young years and has likely felt the pain of death more than anyone else. Now resigned to it, Harry’s matter-of-fact question as to the sensation of life escaping the body is a reflection of Yates' quietly understated approach both aesthetically and affectively over his four films. It is one of the subtle, but shattering moments that permeates the later entries, amounting to a moving rumination on death. Aside from these calmer moments, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 expends much of its energy on battles and spells. Interspersed with these are a handful of nice character moments serving to boost the nostalgia factor, and perhaps deservedly so. While Yates doesn’t do anything shockingly out of turn with the film, I found myself struggling to connect with the epic, symbolic conflict and was more interested in the smaller moments.

While my reservations for Yates’ final chapter stem from its positioning in relation to his previous efforts, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is a notable achievement in commercial moviemaking and a pretty solid rebuke to the current Hollywood system of assembly-line blockbusters. In her review of Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Manohla Dargis observes that the Harry Potter series has “affirmed that the relationship between mass art and its consumers is at times incredibly rich.” And what makes this series especially interesting and worthwhile is how it has progressed through the hands of several filmmakers and a steady cast of young and veteran actors. Unlike its modern equivalent, The Lord of the Rings, which were assembled by the same creative team over a much shorter time period, the Harry Potter series has evolved on-screen, maintaining several consistencies and curious inconsistencies. I wish that the films were not as beholden to Rowling’s twisting (albeit compelling) novels. Nevertheless, despite the frequent confusion that accompanies the watching of these films, the long view reveals a series that has remained focused on characters, feeling and filmmaking craft, while often telling this classically inspired story with wit and nuance. That the imperfections are on such naked display only adds to the richness of the mosaic.

Week With a Wizard, Day 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) is the first film in the series not to be based on a full novel. It is instead rigorously adapted from roughly the first three-fifths of J.K. Rowling’s final tome. Both the studio and filmmakers took heat when they announced that the book would be split into two movies. To categorize this decision as anything other than a ploy to generate more revenues would be difficult; suffice to say that it was perhaps inevitable for reasons of storytelling, as well. For starters, Rowling’s exposition-heavy approach in the later novels veers on exhausting. This, coupled with the strict established approach of Steve Kloves’ adaptations, dictated that the film follow the novel closely and all but demanded that the adaptation be cut down the middle. Given the circumstances, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 inescapably feels truncated. As such, it lacks concrete structure and is more episodic than other installments. These might be considered flaws if we’re measuring by a certain standard. But as an experiment in stuttering and disrupting the narrative flow established and honored over the six previous entries, the movie is a curiously compelling beast.

Narrative structure is one of the steadiest elements of the Potter films. Each tale picks up at the end of the summer with Harry and company preparing to return to Hogwarts. After some rudimentary setup they arrive at school, where the story generally stays put. Here, Hogwarts has no presence. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) dodge their final year to journey across Britain in pursuit of horcruxes that hold pieces of Voldemort’s soul. The urgency to find the horcruxes is counteracted by the trio's lack of leads as to how to acquire them. Throughout their journey, Harry, Ron and Hermione return to places they have visited in films past—such as the Weasley home and the Ministry of Magic—before ending up in the wilderness, away from most of civilization but not from danger.

One of the more arresting elements here is the manner in which Harry, Ron and Hermione bounce from location to location by apparating (which is a fancy word for simply disappearing in one location and arriving in another). The asperity of these transitions interrupts the rhythm of a scene or a particular section of the film. We are left feeling as though we can never trust the surroundings, no matter how quiet or desolate they may be. Moreover, these apparations made me hyperaware to details of a given locale than I would have been otherwise. Two transitions stand out: The first occurs during the dangerous escape from the Ministry of Magic, where director David Yates cuts to a Malick-esque shot of swaying treetops from the ground up. The second is when Harry and Hermione depart a rocky area on a cliff and arrive in a small village where the snow absorbs all sound.

The abruptness and unpredictability of so many sequences is a running motif in the film. Despite extensive stretches of quiet, Yates rarely allows a single scene or moment to last very long. Some sequences even seem to emulate Peter Jackson’s penultimate "Lord of the Rings" movie, The Return of the King, by cutting across various locations to show different events and characters that will soon clash. This approach starkly contrasts with the last film, Half-Blood Prince, arguably the most deliberate of the episodes. With Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Yates never allows you to feel at ease despite the fleeting comfort afforded by returning faces and occasional nostalgia for a less threatening time.

The mix of comfort, anxiety and urgency is evident in the sprawling opening title sequence, which cuts between the three characters in their respective homes. Ron gazes to the horizon with his family buzzing about in the house behind him while Harry looks from his bedroom as the Dursleys prepare to permanently vacate their home. The portrait of Hermione is significantly more affecting, as she casts a spell on her parents to wipe away their memories of her. The memory-wipe scene moreover establishes Hermione, rather than Harry, as the emotional focus of the film. From the standpoint of narrative Harry is of course still the most visible of the three, but most of the events filter directly through Hermione. This might seem like a risky move if you consider that in the near-decade long history of the series, Emma Watson has been the weakest link among the three actors. Her unremitting brow and jaw movements have likely caused more than a few viewers to cringe at various points during the previous six films. But in Deathly Hallows: Part 1 Watson is luminous as the anchor of the group. She creates a mature portrait of anguish that cuts through Ron and Harry’s brooding states. And in one single instance, Watson propels the film to places no other installment in the series has gone. The moment is awkward at first. Harry’s impromptu invitation to dance takes her by surprise, but she reservedly accepts. As Nick Cave’s “O Children” becomes clearer on the soundtrack, the two share a moment that is joyous yet devastating. Through a range of movements and expressions Watson garners the most emotionally vulnerable sequence in the series. And keeping with the film’s tone of abrupt comings and goings, it halts swiftly. Harry and Hermione simply remain in the room as the space between them is once again blanketed in the sorrow they temporarily escaped.

Another unexpectedly moving sequence is the death of a relatively minor character. In fact, of all of the deaths that have occurred in the films so far, the demise of Dobby the elf has the most weight. This is unusual considering that the deaths of Sirius Black and Dumbledore are more personally meaningful to Harry and more important to the story. But the sight of a cradled Dobby becoming still in Harry’s arms is one of the great images in all the Potter films.

Deathly Hallows: Part 1 tests the mettle of any Potter fan with 147 minutes of dense exposition and disconnected moments. It plainly wears many of the weaker elements of the series, such as its preponderance of explanations and paucity of narrative information. But its lack of structure and abrupt shifts give it a unique quality that is a welcome in the series before it bows to the battle-heavy action of the last film. More importantly, there are some unexpectedly moving moments that speak to the resonance of the broader narrative. Such instances make the film more than the sum of its parts. The story can go from meandering exposition to unbridled emotion with the same speed as its characters can apparate from place to place. Spun at a rapid pace but also slow-brewing, building momentously yet abounding in quiet moments, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is an amalgam of the various elements and styles, strengths and weaknesses that have characterized the series.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Week With a Wizard, Day 6: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]

In my previous essay, I noted that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the first work to recognize the limitations that come with functioning as part of a larger mosaic. It provided fewer restatements of common themes and less background for its developments. The irony is that while Phoenix more heavily depended on a keen familiarity with its predecessors, the considerably richer and challenging visual language elevated it to become a distinctive vision unto itself. Its successor, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), furthers this progression in a different fashion. The novel’s central plot device involving Harry’s discovery of an old book belonging to “The Half-Blood Prince,” from which he learns mysterious new spells, is barely a footnote here. However, that the film’s title is rather inconsequential turns out to be a major asset, as director David Yates shirks narrative unity and instead concentrates intensely on the feelings of pain, guilt, and anxiety that underlie the proceedings.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore’s (Michael Gambon) relationship provides the emotional core of the film. Together they seek to understand Voldemort’s power by investigating Dumbledore’s memories of the Dark Lord from when he was a student at Hogwarts. These memories are held in small vials, which, when poured into the Pensieve, enable one to live them out. The visualization of these memories is composed of several conventions of the movie dream sequence, including distorted sound and washed-out colors. Although the memories themselves are not exceptional, the film on the whole has an inimitable dreamlike characteristic. Many scenes and images unfold with little attention toward logical progression. Yates’ assured and sensory aesthetic sets the film apart from previous installments, even his own predecessor. The director revels in the dimensionality of cinematic space, weaving through tighter and more vertical alleyways (such as in Diagon Alley) and around staircases and hallways in Hogwarts. Angles are pronounced, movements are slow, and distances have depth and focus. Bruno Delbonnel’s darker and earthier photography suggests a more human focus and a moody atmosphere, and composer Nicholas Hooper’s score is restrained and (perhaps in a nod to John Williams’ music for the third film) often accentuates a single instrument with a light sound that fills the image.

The opening sequence is a primer for the ethereal ambience of the film and introduces an effective recurring motif. It shows Harry swooned by cameras but numb to their flashing bulbs and screaming operators. He has just lost his godfather and Voldemort’s return now weighs on him considerably. But everything drowns out when Dumbledore—standing next to Harry and perhaps understanding the incredible burden Harry must now bear—extends his arm around Harry to shield him from the scrutiny. The scene is without dialogue and gradually whittles its focus down to Dumbledore’s paternal grasp of Harry’s arm. Throughout the film Yates uses hands to emphasize the transference of emotion, pain, and burdens from person to person. Often there is a tender quality to these instances, such as when the flighty Professor Slughorn, played with ingenious charm by Jim Broadbent, finally submits to Harry’s pressure to give over the memory of a critical encounter of his with a young Tom Riddle (aka Voldemort). For much of the film, Harry has pursued the memory knowing that it contained essential information about Voldemort, but Slughorn has resisted because, as he says, it would ruin him. After quietly recounting his bittersweet memory of Harry’s mother, Slughorn shakily holds out a vial into which to “drop” the memory. Harry’s hand then enters the frame opposite Slughorn’s and clasps his hand, holding the vial steady as the memory is poured in; a simple composition, but potent.

Quiet transactions such the one I’ve just described are a trademark of Half-Blood Prince, which is singularly focused on the difficulties of accepting the pains of both the past and the future. While Slughorn is dogged by past mistakes, Draco Malfoy (Harry’s rival, played by Tom Felton) is burdened by actions he has yet to commit. Malfoy broods for much of the film, isolated from many of his fellow sixth-year students who are more often concerned with love charms. Yates’ observances of Malfoy’s damaged emotional state contrasted with the sexual discoveries of the other students are especially poignant, as suggested by a single composition from outside of the castle glimpsing the various night encounters of the students. We see a party in the Gryffindor house before winding up a stairwell as Ron and his new liaison share an embrace, and then finally we are taken past the school observation tower where, across the way, Malfoy is ominously postured.

Half-Blood Prince is significantly more preoccupied with pain and anxiety than previous outings, but its expressive palate encompasses other feelings as well. These include a passionate encounter Harry enjoys with Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), in which, again, hands play a crucial role, and a most surprising scene late in the film that teeters on a kind of ecstasy, after Harry drinks the luck potion and enters a joyously intoxicated state. The film also ventures into dark territory when Harry casts a spell on Malfoy during a duel they share in one of the bathrooms. In what can only be described as the most ethereal scene in all of the Potter lore, Harry approaches a twitching and surely dying Malfoy, as blood rushes from his many wounds. When Snape arrives on the scene he stands over Malfoy, enshrouded in haze, and, in a protracted shot, stares at a speechless Harry to haunting effect.

The wide range of emotional states reflected in the various transactions between characters may appear aimless in the specific context of this film. However, Yates is intuitive to know that Half-Blood Prince, situated at the end of a long series, must accomplish things both on its own as well as in relation to established characters and themes. With this film he explores the deep undercurrents of many of the relationships that have developed over the years. Wisely, Yates keeps the focus off of the relationship of Ron, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Harry, aware that the next installment would grant him that opportunity. This film belongs to Dumbledore. While Michael Gambon gave the character a presence previously, here he allows us to peer into his soul. Dumbledore is more softly spoken and contemplative this time around. We are unsure throughout of how strongly the character is resigned to his eventual fate. Nevertheless, his desire to protect and guide Harry is subtly offset by what appears to be his acknowledgement that Harry will need to go on without him.

The closing scenes galvanize the many emotional threads that have been building over the course of the movie, beginning with a chilling scene set within a cave. While the zombie-like creatures that eventually threaten Harry are memorable indeed, Gambon’s portrayal of an increasingly feeble old man is piercing. A few moments later, when Harry and Dumbledore return to Hogwarts, time seems to stop altogether as Harry witnesses the death of a beloved mentor and father figure. The film’s depiction of this crucial moment is worth noting for its departures from the novel, much to the chagrin of many viewers. In Rowling’s version, Harry is immobilized and physically unable to stop the events, but in the movie he watches from below after Dumbledore instructs him to stay there. It’s a wonder that the filmmakers opted for a different path here since there appears to be no convincing reason for it, other than the heightened sense of discomfort of seeing the events occur from Harry’s perspective below Dumbledore. It is a representation of the scene’s generally off-kilter sense of space. Unlike in the book, the observation tower here is a closed and confusing area, adding another tantalizing element to an already tense scene.

After a failed pursuit of Dumbledore’s killer, Harry returns to the courtyard for his final encounter with the headmaster. The hands motif is again restated here, bookending the opening sequence with Harry’s hands clutching Dumbledore’s lifeless body. It is one of the few moments of the film in which emotion is on full display as opposed to simmering beneath the surface.

On the whole, I better understand now why Half-Blood Prince is such a divisive film in the series. Its sacrifice of narrative cohesion in favor of pushing aesthetic and expressive boundaries has rubbed some fans the wrong way. And given that fans constitute a majority of viewers, the film’s reputation has suffered. On a personal note, this represents the only chapter of the series that came across to me as a very different movie upon revisiting it. After my first viewing, I was ambivalent. I did not anticipate the slower rhythms, especially after such a fast-moving and exhilarating fifth film. This may speak to the nature of a serial saga such as the Harry Potter movies, in which expectations likely play a greater role in how we make something of a given film. With my recent viewing, I was more taken with the movie's bared expressiveness and ambition. It somewhat made me mourn the fact that this series is trapped within a serial mold, both commercially and narratively. Within this mold, however, Yates stretches the artful and affective scope to a new threshold with Half-Blood Prince.