Wednesday, October 27, 2010


(Michael Mann, USA, 1986)

The latest stop on my Mann retrospective. A thoroughly engrossing serial killer film, as well as a well-wrought story about obsession and identity. It's also incredibly visually rich. You can see a lot of the tropes of serial killer films getting their start with this picture - the psychological profiling, the arch-mastermind villain of Hannibal Lecktor, the evil misfit of Francis Dollarhyde - who is offered a near-miss shot at redemption. It's far more impressionistic and analytic than most of Mann's oeuvre, playing with subjectivity in a way that feels totally unique and comes across as pretty damn unsettling. As usual, Mann has a tendency to overplay his hand in the atmosphere department, pushing some of the scenes too far into the stylistic and emotional stratosphere. But the overall impression is deeply affecting - a very scary and suspenseful movie. Philosophically, it doesn't delve as deeply as it could - another Mann limitation, but it does successfully toy with the opposition between the American ideals of Normal and Aberrant. This time, the criminal archetype is beyond the pale; we're talking pre-De Niro existential sexiness. Noonan's Dollarhyde is a portrayed as a monster, but due care is given to his potential for redemption, even if he never achieves it. This is in keeping with Mann's social and legal outsiders, who share a commonly tragic fate. The tragic paradox, for Mann's characters, is that they only feel truly alive while outside the trappings of the social contract, but they are always tempted to return to it, and this is the impulse that inevitably leads to their undoing. Mann's temptation is to Romanticize his characters, but ultimately he finds their fate tragic, not heroic. Here, the protagonist is the hero and the villain, with Dollarhyde being a kind of stand-in for the darker impulses he keeps well hidden when he's not chasing serial killers.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Social Network

(David Fincher, USA, 2010)

- Fundamentally, not about Facebook: well, yes and no. It isn't about Facebook per se, but about the implications of Facebook re. our culture - a mirror, and not a very flattering one.

- Zuckerberg's motivation being prestige, most importantly. Power. Which leads to money, which he never wanted - he wanted something money can't buy.

- Facebook as being, structurally, hierarchical. Whether or not Z was ever interested in money (as the movie emphasizes, more than once, he was not) is immaterial; the very institutional logic of the corporation means that power will be concentrated overwhelmingly at the very top. As Slaverin says, it's like a Final Club, except they're the president.

- Again, a repeated trope is the nebulousness of Facebook - "all we know is that it's cool;" and the subsequent resistance to monetize it through advertising. A) this raises all sorts of fascinating questions about how we assign value in contemporary (late-capitalist) culture, the ambivalence toward advertising, and the final truth that Facebook now does have ads. It was - again, looking at the institutional structure of Facebook, as a for-profit, hierarchical organization, inevitable that it incorporate ads at some point.

- Exclusivity: Perhaps the most central point. It isn't about Z as a jilted lover, or even as a social climber; but the entire culture's obsession with exclusivity; again, reflected in Facebook, the way in which value must be assigned according to what is left out, cast aside. That's what makes Facebook cool - the fact that only certain people make the big decisions about who's in and who's out. This is, in some ways, the one aspect that has changed most about Facebook - it is no longer so exclusive, but it really is, it has just changed forms - it is Z's dream that Facebook will be indispensable to all.

- Roll of the Winkelvi - competition (the rowing race sequence); their apology to their father - the divided face of the Elite: naive "we're all gentlemen here" affectations of honor, and cut-throat, mercenary viciousness, but also a terrible sense of pride, a woundedness coming from the inevitable reckoning of a game they helped engineer, in which the winner takes all, and all that matters is the first one to the finish line.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Men With Guns

(John Sayles, US, 1997)

I'm a big booster of Sayles's movies, but this one was something of a disappointment. It's a well-made film by any objective standard, but it doesn't feel particularly vital or urgent, which has at least something to do with the urgency of the subject matter. Rather than making the world of the film come alive, it feels too often like Sayles was conducting an academic exercise, scrupulously reporting the tragic woes of South and Central America; it brims with solemnity but mostly feels inert. Flat-footed pacing and an arid tone aren't new features of the Sayles canon, but when he's really cooking, he makes his simplicity and earnestness work for him, slyly evoking emotion from unpredictability even as he seems to be the picture of classicist storytelling.

Some of the blame could probably be leveled at the premise; John Sayles, the indie-man's indie director, makes a film in South America (the locale is never specified exactly), with a South American cast, and with an almost exclusively Spanish script. There's a whiff of do-it-because-you-can attitude to such a proposition, and in the end, it doesn't deliver on the gambit. The scenes are often plodding and disconnected from each other, the flashbacks feel forced and superfluous, and the overall impact is one of weary respect, but for me, lacked admiration. The strongest element by far is the acting, which gives rise to some flashes of beauty and lyricism that are otherwise largely absent. In Sayles quietly epic folktale, he stumbles in his attempt to meld quiet gravity with the inevitable enormity of Latin American hardship, but I can't bring myself to fault him for trying.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


(Ermanno Olmi - Abbas Kiarostami - Ken Loach, Italy/UK, 2005)

Not bad for an omnibus flick. That's a bit of a lame qualifier, I'll admit, since the omnibus enterprise is pretty much always compromised, or at least is always regarded as being necessarily Less Than, according to the doyens of cinema taste. And such a qualifier is, therefore, a truism; the episodic structure will always be less than the sum of its parts, and inevitably invites comparisons between the parts, which tend to be inflected with matters of personal taste - certain directors will be given a pass, while others will be pooh-poohed in light of what some may consider the company of their betters. On top of all of that, the efforts to tack the separate pieces together almost invariably come across as either hopelessly contrived or annoyingly whimsical at best. So it's a fallen form. So what? Despite all of that, it can be fun, and it has the tendency to take on a kind of quasi-democratic flavor; it might not be the sexiest idea in existence, but it has a way of revealing things that might otherwise remain hidden.

So here goes: the integration isn't ostentatious, it's functional, and that's point one in favor of Tickets working at all. The stories all take place on, you guessed it, a train, during a single trip to Rome. They start in the terminal, and although the majority of the action is confined to the train cars (an inherently cinematic form, with all sorts of nice synecdoches that needn't be too deeply elaborated on here; suffice it to note the shutter-like whirring of the outside world through the windows, the opportunities for chance encounters, the linear structure, which gives a clear sense of space and propulsive motion, as well as a neat metaphor for the inexorable and sometimes blindingly rapid passage of time, which of course is mitigated by fantasy and memory, hallmarks of cinema, etc. etc. - you get the point) there is plenty of the outside world that the stories refer to, be it temporal or spatial, these are all people only partially living in their surroundings.

As should probably be expected, there's a fair amount of political content to the piece, again using, in a way that doesn't quite always prevent cloying emotional cues, the structure of the train: some people ride first class, some second, and the necessary tensions that arise in such a compressed, laboratory version of society. Plus we've got Ken Loach on board, so a certain volume of social rabble-rousing is safe thing to bet on.

And Loach's segment, the last chronologically, is the best by a hair; Kiarostami, ever the enigmatic formal trickster, has great fun and shows his chops without ostentation, but doesn't quite get the same mileage from the medium as Loach. Olmi, whose work I'm not familiar with, proves to be easily the weakest link, and the most glaring example of the futility of overall cohesion when embarking on, yes, the omnibus film. Olmi's piece, which opens the film, is pleasant but overplays its sentimentality. It's not a bad concept, centering around a lonely pharmaceutical chemist on his way to a grandchild's birthday, and who is stirred by a sudden crush on a gorgeous woman who arranges his fare. But the execution is middling at best - its basically a whimsical romance that turns into a humanist pat on the head, and the attempt a depicting autumnal longing feels labored and even a bit bloated.

When the masters come to take their turn, its about as good in both cases as would be expected. An interesting side effect is that both Loach's and Kiarostami's pieces seem to hint at the greatness of the respective filmmakers, but actually do more to highlight their shortcomings. Kiarostami's oblique segment, with its slow reveal of character and circumstances, has some brilliant moments, but leans too heavily on what is unspoken and un-shown. As usual, he creates tension by what he withholds, only here, it seems as if he's teasing us rather than hinting at something truly substantial; as far as I can tell, it's a clever rumination on sexual politics, but it feels minor and overly clipped. It might be that, absent the long stretches of time K is used to having to let his poetic scenes really ferment, the substance winds up feeling a bit weak. This is really a quibble, as I feel there's something I'm missing about this segment, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Which is typical for Kiarostami, the only difference being that usually you know you've seen something profound, even if it's impossible to articulate - here, it's like you've just seen the trailer.

And so Loach also shows some of his limitations; the tendency towards sentimentality is seen quite clearly here, and is especially prominent in one scene. Basically, Loach is a realist who often wears his Lefty sentiments prominently on his sleeve, and to the casual or inattentive viewer, it might seem like that's all that's going on here. But Loach is a deeply empathetic humanist, and his best work achieves a transcendent poetic sparkle that's something akin to an English cousin of Whitman - his deeper subject has always been the empathetic possibilities of the human heart, and the way in which power structures tend to complicate that facet of our character. Here, we see the closest thing to a classical narrative, excellently structured and with plenty of suspense. But once the story's dilemma has been confronted and solved, there's a scene of beautiful and riotous release that seems to string together all the themes of the segment, and even the whole film; people helping other people, and the way in which the human spirit can circumvent and overcome oppression, be it bureaucratic, emotional, or physical.

So not bad for, y'know, one of those films.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Messenger

(Oren Moverman, USA, 2009)

Unfortunately, a string of well-crafted vignettes that never fully cohere. Taken separately, many of the individual pieces deserve admiration. Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are fantastic, deftly playing off each others' bravado and vulnerability. Samantha Morton is, as usual, spot-on, although her character doesn't get the same kind of care the script gives to the two male roles. It's well-shot, evenly paced, and avoids the kind of easy emotional notes that are endemic to the wounded-warrior film, in which characters are given fifty-yard stares and sudden bouts of violence, but not actual development. The Messenger manages, for the most part, to address the emotional toll of combat without reverting to cliche - mostly through its attention to the quotidian details of the protagonists' duties. Unfortunately, these elements, even when combined, don't contribute to a memorable story.

And that speaks directly to the problem - a marked lack of narrative urgency, and a setting that feels far too familiar. We've been here before, heard the stories about guns and bombs and guilt-wracked soldiers, some of whom manage to get by, and some of whom break down. Even if Moverman manages to imbue the genre with appreciated subtlety, it doesn't change the overall sense of exhaustion that an audience encounters when faced with this well-worn territory. Because as well-executed as the film is, it isn't adding up all that well. There's a feint towards an ethical dilemma, where Foster's character becomes attracted to Morton's bereaved wife, but this is treated, like the rest of the scenes, as an episodic interlude, and doesn't significantly contribute to the development of either character. Morton confesses to Foster that she's relieved her husband is gone - that he had become, in her eyes, irredeemably warped by war. But this is revealed in a lengthy monologue that feels theatrical and belabored, for all of its striving towards pathos. I'm aware that this could very well be part of the point - that the story is relating the repetitive drudgery of the death-notifiers work, and the general pointlessness of the war when confronted with the tragic toll in human life, the lack of direction, no end in sight, and all that. And it is effective at generating a sense of outrage over the state of perpetual war that we're currently in. But that's a losing proposition, from the perspective of the audience's emotional engagement. You just wind up feeling spent and bitter. There are genuinely moving moments, but they are counterbalanced by a refusal to show the kind of change of character that would generate some sustained interest.

In the end, it's a frustrating disappointment - one of those films whose heart is in the right place, but one that can't seem to see beyond the benevolence of its intentions and its own carefully-constructed sense of sympathy. It is remarkably well-constructed, but unfocused and redundant feeling. Rather than add up to a vital, multi-layered whole, it remains a series of scenes, like a high-level workshop for writing and acting; related, but not finally essential to, each other .

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Taste of Cherry

(Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

Another stop on the long journey through the classics that I've passed over, and an immensely satisfying one. What can I say? Kiarostami is a master, and this film only further solidifies my admiration for his work, which started with (and which may never be surpassed) the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of Close-Up. Here, we see a relatively straightforward narrative of a man on a mission - he's determined to die, but he needs assistance with the burial, and on the sliver of a chance that he survives the night with a bellyful of sleeping pills, someone to help him out of the grave. Kiarostami keeps the camera set-ups simple, and the action is repetitive in a poetic way - Mr. Badii has meandering conversations with a few individuals before finding one who will help him, and there are long sequences of dialogue that take place in Badii's Land Rover, which we see wending its way through the dusty hills outside of Tehran. The pace is slow, but there's an intensity produced by the performances, which are consistently excellent. Homayoun Ershadi's Mr. Badii is a model of simmering anguish, a portrayal that projects determination, despair, exhaustion and urgency all at once, without a single instant of excess technique. His would-be accomplices, most of whom appear to be non-actors, are similarly excellent, and the movie deserves gushy accolades just for containing such top-notch and affecting performances.

Kiarostami's MO is fascinating, and seems to work through the combination of parable-like simplicity with a realist, almost documentarian taste for detail and patient observation. How he manages to get such excellent performances without making them distracting, and frame the action so simply yet so profoundly, is a delicious mystery. Amid the current international turmoil and recent focus on the pitfalls of artistic expression in contemporary Iran, its interesting to see a film that plays its political cards so close to the vest, but the effect is invigorating and further underscores Kiarostami's genius. There's a subtle commentary at work here on the economic separations between different classes in Iran, but the main focus is on the metaphysical conditions of the characters - a free-floating loneliness that they deal with in varying ways, but which seems to be a common thread in their lives.

Of course, there's the bemusing ending, which defies all the inevitable speculations on what will happen, and relieves the considerable suspense that's been generated at that point. I'm not sure I get it - my first response was that it was tacked-on, a po-mo flourish to avoid the obvious creative decisions, none of which would have been easy: does he live? Does he die? Do we get to find out one way or the other? Kiarostami opts for something like the third choice, leaving us some uncertainty but allowing a mood of redemption and a potential solution to the crisis that has befallen Mr. Badii. We may never know what he found so unbearable in life, but Kiarostami seems to be suggesting that in relating his story, and some of the apparatus used in re-creating it, there is another way to live. Art might hold the answer, or an answer, even if it isn't the one we think we are seeking.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


(Christian Petzold, Germany, 2007)

After having seen the excellent Jerichow, I promptly added the other available Petzold films to my Netflix queue, and this was the first to arrive. Overall, it's a strong film with several good cinematic ideas, but it doesn't create a lasting emotional resonance, and its ambiguity ends up feeling a bit on the forced side.

Petzold does a number of things very well - he knows how to shoot and cut, he has a flair for using diagetic music in an immersive way, and he works exceptionally well with actors. The two female leads in Ghosts are tremendous, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of their performances. But he keeps things so hermetically tight that the story never really engages, and it ends up seeming like a squandered opportunity. Petzold's structural ideas are fascinating, but he doesn' t seem willing to fully commit to them, and the film ends up caught in a weird emotional limbo between the Dardenne brothers and Michael Haneke. This probably sounds more interesting than it really is, and winds up dwelling in the weaker areas of both of those respective styles.

It could be a mood thing. Lately, the razor-sharp construction and tonal restraint of certain European directors has been wearing thin for me. For all of their clean lines and perfectly modulated rhythm, I can't help but be irked by their misplaced sense of economy. What exactly is gained by all of the mood they forgo? It isn't some kind of new angle on realism, since there generally is a favoring of structure over depicted behavior. Usually, these films play out in semi-parable mode, relating a crisp little distillation of key events, but the set-pieces contain plenty of, as it were, negative space - mini-meditations on the characters in quiet rooms, driving, etc., which will occasionally be interrupted by some emotionally jarring moment. I can't say exactly what it's all in aid of, but I can say that it's not to my current taste, as much as I once admired it (probably for what it wasn't.)

But such meta-concerns aren't really fair critiques of Ghosts, which, like I said, contains some very cool stuff, such as the sequence where the two girls go shoplifting, and Petzold cuts from the security cameras to the hand of the wacky mother character at exactly the moment we expect to see a guard descend upon poor hapless Nina. The beginning of the two girls relationship is likewise very well-handled; it manages to be delicate and volatile at once. But elsewhere in the film - especially the travails of the older married couple, things stall out and get wearisome. It's good to know that Petzold got his act together for Jerichow, but things here aren't quite up to snuff.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


(Noah Baumbach, US, 2010)

A relatively low-key and meandering effort from Baumbach, who uses Ben Stiller to great effect and some amount of irritation. Unlike the laser-guided nastiness exhibited by the characters in his previous film, Margot at the Wedding, here the barbs are more haphazard and even seem at times to be halfhearted, as if Stiller's Greenberg really can't bother too much with anything, even being an asshole.

The cast is strong across the board. It's the best work Stiller has done in a while, even besting his amusing turn in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums. Rhy Ifans deserves special note for his marvelously low-key depiction of Greenburg's closest, and therefore most harried, friend. Greta Gerwig shows promise, but she's poorly served by the script (and the director), who reduce her character to a series of shleppy tics. Harris Savides, one of the best DPs working today, again produces exemplary work which fits the mood of the piece perfectly and yet has a subtle, stylish flair with light. Basically, all of the elements are strong to very strong, with the only notable exception being the writing. It's been said before that a director's number one job is the management of tone - the maintaining of an emotional through-line that grows organically out of the story, rather than being imposed in an arbitrary or sloppy way. This is something Baumbach does very well, even in his less successful films. It's difficult to talk about tone with great precision, but it's closely related to that mysterious extra element that makes art more than the sum of it's parts. Because it can't be reduced, it's hard to tell exactly how it's done - it's an effect produced in the aggregate, the combination of things that only appear more complex the closer you look. This isn't some kind of dodge - tone can be discussed, but when discussing the contribution of the director to this, is usually where the term "instinct" gains the most relevance.

And Baumbach has good instincts. He knows how to keep Greenberg from becoming too shrill and repulsive - understands how to keep the audience interested in this jerk, but still aware of the fact that he is, by any measure, a jerk. But of course, viewers invest because it's clear that Greenberg himself is aware of his jerkitude, even if his awareness is merely nascent. He's a rebel without a cause, or, if you like, without a clue - the protagonist in what can be interpreted as a vaguely po-mo riff on the Brando's role in movie of the same title. It's just that Greenberg knows he's not a nice guy, and it bothers him, as does his general fecklessness, even if he occasionally gets away with suppressing that knowledge. At one point, a character asks him "what are you fighting against," to which Greenberg responds "what have you got?" This little nod comes in the midst of one of the film's weaker scenes, in which Greenberg hangs out and does drugs with young college-types - basically, kids half his age, and it doesn't really do much more than remind people how much things have changed, and also how little. There are still misfits, but the major exeption seems to be that they are now of all ages, and that we seem to be living in a culture in which its possible to get older without ever growing up. This isn't all that new, society-wise, but maybe the fact that this can be seen as admirable or attractive is.

And to plenty of people, it isn't attractive. Nor should it be, necessarily. But its to Baumbach and Stiller's credit that Greenberg the character receives any sympathy from the audience, or at least our interest, however prurient. That interest varies, and it's in the variance that Baumbach's limits as a writer are evident. He's very good at writing quip-filled, psuedo-naturalistic dialogue that contains jokes and character material without being too obvious or showy, except when he isn't. Greenberg contains too many of these moments, where the characters are a little too on point, or not enough - moments like the previously mentioned post-teen party, as well as Greenberg's impulsive decision to accompany two of the party-goers to Australia. It's silly, and its unnecessary, and it makes the filmmaking seem lazy and unfocused. Because at the end of the day, Greenburg isn't really saying all that much - it's quite straightforward in its thematic concern with the weary-but-still-beating heart of the bitter hack. It has neither the entrenched satire and quiet redemption of Alexander Payne's best stuff, nor the parallel-universe impressionism of Wes Anderson. It's a clever movie, and an often entertaining one, but it seems as if Baumbach wanted it to be something more, and he didn't quite bring it there.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


(Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2009)

Having seen and enjoyed The Host, I was eagerly looking forward to Bong's latest effort, and Mother didn't disappoint. Filmmakers like Bong hold a certain fascination for me because they are contemporary examples of popular artists - they bring gravity and depth to what could be considered, at a glace, to be genre exercises - and in doing so they invest the term "popular artist" with real meaning. Straddling that line, especially in cinema, has lately seemed rather difficult, with most offerings being evenly split between pretentious awards-bait and pandering, droolingly stupid spectacles. There are plenty of exceptions, and I believe Bong is one of them, but in the current firmament of world cinema they remain exceptions, and they deserve special attention when they emerge. (It should be noted that TV is one area where the aesthetically and philosophically high-minded mingle with the grit and grime of the pulp sensibility. Cinema, I believe, still has some catching up to do.)

Mother is a solid amalgamation of the potboiler and the serious art film, and it works marvelously about 90% of the time. In following the increasingly desperate misadventures of the titular character, Bong exposes the gray area between protectiveness and suffocation, between familial love and near-psychotic codependency. As a crafted story, its exemplary. Perfectly paced and visually dexterous, it shows Bong's impressive range as a filmmaker. Emotionally, too, there are moments of resonating sadness and desperation - the lead actress' performance is particularly fascinating as it alternates between evoking fear, pity, and lurid fascination.

There's a thematic undercurrent to Mother as well, and its here that Bong doesn't quite deliver all the goods. Other discussions of the film (as well as discussions of The Host) have revolved around the perceived political subtext in the film, and the extent to which Bong can be said to be offering a semi-furtive critique of South Korean society, which appears, on the evidence of his films, to be plagued with political oppression of a subtle but devastating variety. There's no doubt that that exists in Mother, but what fascinated me, and what I believe is an ambition worthy of consideration as serious art, was the near-Shakespearean tragedy of the central character. Bereft of anyone in the world to count on besides her son, she ends up creating something of a monster, and in the process of discovering the truth about his potential for brutality, realizes her own monstrosity. This is classic, heady, high-tragic stuff, but it doesn't quite all make it off the page. It may be that Boon spends just a bit too much time on the procedural aspect of the plot, in which there are various digressions and the obligatory twists of the policier (some of which serve comedic purposes), or it may be that he's not quite ready to go all the way in reducing the story down to its essence. Either way, there are moments along the way, and especially towards the end, where things became too on-the-nose for my taste. There are however many more moments of glory, and when Bong and his accomplices are in the zone, they can really make magic happen. The final moments of the film are pure examples of that magic - cinema at its emotional and philosophical best, and its for moments like those that I'll keep coming back to this filmmaker's work.

Monday, March 15, 2010


(Steve McQueen, U.K./Ireland, 2008)

A beautiful, troubling, and entirely refreshing film. McQueen, a well-known video artist, has successfully navigated a daunting project, maintaining a perfect balance between the narrative and the poetic, the lyrical and the cerebral, and bringing conceptual rigor to a story steeped in pathos and fraught politics. As has been noted elsewhere, the film functions as a kind of triptych. Part one sets the stage, but in an elliptical (and highly methodical) fashion, immersing the audience in the physical environment of the Maze, and remarking on the way the human lives are shaped by the environment. Part two is the theoretic exegesis on the morality & effectiveness of the hunger strike as a strategy, an audacious sequence that succeeds in simultaneously revealing thematic content and character. It might be more accurate to say that this section begins as a didactic, somewhat abstract dialogue and becomes a portrait of the individuals engaged in the dialogue. And there's part three, where the film becomes most lyrical and most harrowing. The physical decay is difficult to watch, but it draws all of the disparate elements we've seen before together, and the uniting is an aesthetic accomplishment of stunning subtlety and grace. All of the film's many oppositions - Catholic and Protestant, inside and outside, cleanliness and filth, violence and tenderness, are drawn together, or maybe it would be more accurate to say they are simply erased. All that's left is the absolute inviolability of a human being, and the tragedy of its demise, whatever one may feel about the political conditions that determine the circumstances of the death. (The lack of controversy surrounding the film's release confirms this, at least in part.) McQueen manages to exhibit the palpable physicality of politics, while at the same time providing a visceral statement on the human condition, here expressed by the title, which is both literal and metaphorical. How much do we need to sustain us - in flesh and spirit - and how long can we go without the sustenance we seek?

*A corollary to this final question, and a hint at the answer, lies in the question of: how much do we get to choose about what we consume, in the way of ideas, food, emotions, experience, and what bearing does that have on how are lives are lived? I would say McQueen seems to be suggesting that a certain aspect of living a meaningful life (or dying a meaningful death) is deciding just what kind of things we "hunger" for, and under what conditions we are willing to give them up.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Last Days

(Gus Van Sant, USA, 2005)

An intermittently interesting film, but mostly a frustrating one. It's hard to tell exactly what Van Sant is after, and where he went wrong - did he aim too high and miss, or not aim high enough? I'd like to think it's the former, but that would only be giving him the benefit of the doubt. The subject matter is serious enough: it's the final film in Van Sant's informal "death trilogy" - but the film doesn't have much to say on the topic of mortality, instead offering a series of moody sketches that alternate between the staid and the vaguely comic.

Blake - the Kobain character played by Pitt - doesn't seem so much tormented as bored and even autistic; there's no interest in his character as anything other than the mythic late-century American grunge artist. He is alone, isolated, misunderstood, practically a ghost. Even when the other characters - a wispy cadre of junkie hangers-on - notice him and attempt to communicate, it's as if they're talking through him. There's plenty of room for speculation, especially on the symbolic level - is Blake's mumbling meant to suggest his inability to properly convey his pain, or the world's inability to listen? Or is it just a literal depiction of someone who's too stoned to speak up? Is he in pain at all, or just grouchy and passive, cooling his heels in solitude and casting lazily about for some transcendent kicks? Last Days winds up feeling like a pastiche of an art film, a dabbling in structuralism, with some moments of humor and irony thrown in for good measure. I don't think of Van Sant as cynical - it's a sincere picture, but it doesn't feel committed. Certain scenes and shots are very good - mostly where the mood lightens, as when the Yellow Pages salesman comes calling - but the overall effect is one of irritation. There's no lasting coherence, and the finished product feels like the work of someone who is trading on a moment of cultural infamy without anything significant to say - about the culture, the art, or the people.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nights of Cabiria

(Federico Fellini, Italy, 1957)

I approached this film with a fair amount of anticipation - besides my long-standing admiration for Fellini, it came with the imprimatur of James Gray, who spoke highly of, among other things, the deftness of Nights' finale. The idea, per Maestro Gray, is to achieve an ending which is isn't definitively up or down - that avoids being both emptily bleak and falsely consoling. The one drawback to this anticipation was that I spent the last twenty minutes of the film on the edge of my seat, my mind racing (despite my best efforts) to figure out just how this film could manage to conclude in that sweet spot.

True to the hype, the conclusion was pitched perfectly between exaltation and despair - a remarkable feat of tonal dexterity that extends to the whole story. I don't feel I can do much beyond fawn over the film's many triumphs - as a work of storytelling, as an acute psychological portrait, and as a deeply humane/spiritual picture with overtones of Christianity that aren't overbearing. The Chrisitanity issue is perhaps the oddest - it was a contentious production; in particular, the scenes comprising the pilgrimmage - in which Cabiria and several of her prostitute confederates (and a local pimp) seek salvation from God - were repeatedly interrupted by various reactionary groups. But the film went on to be a major success, and a surprisingly uncontroversial one - people were calling it a Christian film from the get-go.

It's not difficult to see why - Cabiria is a classic savior figure - downtrodden but pure of heart, embittered but possessing a soul that seems incapable of ever completely hardening despite being repeatedly burned. If she's a more than a bit saintly, though, she's also deeply human, and Fellini wisely eschews the supernatural elements that might have been included to underscore this point. In 1957, he hadn't yet gotten rolling with the fanciful techniques that have since come to define his legacy - this was Fellini before his movies became Felliniesque. Instead, his formal technique is relaxed but assured, and the story works marvelously.

This was always Fellini's secret strength: the heart of his work that keeps it "real" even as the style became more baroque and sensational. His subsequent characters would live in worlds that were increasingly surreal, but their primary concerns remained distinctly human - fear and desire, love and loss, exaltation and disappointment, hope and regret. In NIGHTS, these elements are distilled to their essence, dramatized through the misadventures of poor, adorable Cabiria, who is portrayed with stunning and brilliant nuance by the great Guilieta Masina, Fellini's wife. This is the first time I've had the pleasure, and I'm grateful to have made such a discovery. The performance is tremendous, right down to her feisty little strut of her walk. I'm very much looking forward to seeing her other collaborations with her husband.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cape Fear

(Martin Scorsese, USA, 1991)

The best film Hitchcock never made. Okay, that's overstating the case; Marty is definitely indebted to Hitch, and this film is an ostensible homage to the Master of Suspense, but Scorsese makes it undeniably his own. It's a film that, both despite and because of its southern-fried mix of pathos and terror and pure wackiness, is truly sui generis.

Which isn't to say that Cape Fear is perfect. Relative to the rest of the Scorsese oeuvre, it would probably have to be considered one of his "lesser" films, but that really isn't saying much. It's an annoying side effect of the auteur theory that every film from a particular filmmaker (worse so if he's lauded - the more praise, the bigger problem this generally is) must be counted, even perfunctorily, in relation to what came before and after.

Putting that aside, and taking Fear on its own merits, I'm impressed that it works at all, and surprised at how much I enjoyed it. At first, it feels as though it's going to be a train wreck - an experiment that's bound to fail. Two minutes into the film and the parameters are blatant and dispiriting - this is Marty doing Hitchcock, down to the last detail; a contemporary thriller that looks and sounds like Psycho. The lighting, the color, the music - all too obvious, too artificial to take seriously - and that's before De Niro opens his mouth.

Stick with the film through its silliness, though, and a curious thing happens. It begins to seem less silly and more scary. The projected menace of De Niro, so deliberate at first, begins to feel credible. Even his mangled southern accent eventually recedes into the background. The mood becomes organic, not a forced product of the stagy lighting and elaborate camerawork. And then there's the humor, which I submit is the saving virtue of the film, and the glue that holds together its chaotic molecules. When Scorsese keeps at least one eye trained on the twisted comedy of the story, the film is wicked fun. Only when it crashes overboard into the swirling waters of self-seriousness does it feel like a mishap.

It's tempting to look at this film as a formal exercise above all - the chance for Scorsese to play with a new set of toys - the toolbox of Hitchcock, as it were. The plot is focused, brisk, and efficient, and this enables all sorts of stylistic discursiveness, which in the hands of any other director wouldn't be nearly so exhilarating. But beneath the elements of "exercise" there's actually a fair amount of thematic red meat: an intense portrait of a family in crisis, and an alarming reminder of the limits of the Law. The family dynamic Cape Fear is familiar enough at the outset; like a good 99% of all families, there are already currents of discontent. Husband and wife (Notle and Lange) are nominally happy, but we soon find that they live in a barely-suppressed state of mutual resentment, which only makes their adolescent daughter (Lewis) even more eager to flee the nest. When the catalyst of Max Cady is added to the mix, all hell breaks loose, and we are given a harrowing look at the limits of our social constructs - at what point to love, loyalty, trust, and the law break down?

These questions are taken seriously by the film, and it's the precise method in which they're taken seriously which reveals the seams in this otherwise sound vessel. Hitchcock's genius was his ability to create dazzlingly suspenseful movies with rich psychological subtext - he built his stories on a solid foundation of lust, obsession, betrayal, etc - all the sordid things we don't like to think about unless we're in certain environments - the movie house being one of them. The artificiality of the films made for a safe place to explore the dark territory of the subconscious. Modern filmmaking, in which realism has become naturalism and the high-artifice of the films of yore has become passé, goes more directly for what used to be only hinted at. Scorsese, in a gambit that I laud for its ambition, attempts a kind of fusion of the two traditions - the stylistic tropes of 50s and 60s cinema combined with a level of explicitness and postmodern self-awareness that didn't exist back then (at least not in mainstream cinema), and this produces some tonal dissonance. The most obvious example is the tempestuous final sequence of the film, wherein Leigh (Jessica Lange) makes her desperate appeal to Cady (a brilliant performance by Lange), Cady soliloquizes about the Law and quotes reams of Scripture - all of which is a deeply odd combination of pathos and psychosis - and all of which is repeatedly interrupted by fire, floods, waves, thunder, lightning, and fist fights. And it goes on for what feels like hours. There's compelling, heady stuff in these scenes (and others), but when its tossed in a blender with all the other noise, the subtext loses much of its effectiveness.

Plenty of the film does work. The exchanges of dialogue are top-flight noir; alternating nicely between funny and disturbing. Scorsese does manage at least one sequence of suspense that would have done ol' Hitch proud - when Cady infiltrates the house and kills the private detective by dressing up as the housekeeper. The reveal of this moment is shocking and delightful, and it's too bad the rest of the movie couldn't maintain such a careful balance. But that's okay - even after the climatic storm on the titular cape, it winds down to a satisfyingly uneasy conclusion, and feels as though it has been worth the ride.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

(Alex Gibney, US, 2005)

If there's a film that serves as a better indictment of late-modern capitalism's particular brand of perversity, I'm unaware of it. As a journalistic-style documentary, E:TSGITR is tight and incisive; it covers the salient points of Enron's rise and fall, and it keeps the narrative grounded in the stories of the people who were involved (for the most part, the perpetrators and not the thousands of victims, but such is the focus here). While the film is by no means comprehensive - several gaps of detail and exposition exist in the story - at no point did I feel that it was lacking any crucial detail; after all, it's basically an adaptation of the book, and any additional info is available at the local library. What makes the film truly exemplary is its focus on ideology - a recognition that Enron was not an anomaly, a bad-apple case. Gibney, taking more than one cue from his source material, sketches Enron as an avatar of contemporary capitalism - the black heart at the center of a diseased system. It's to his credit that the film doesn't devolve into proselytizing, and is instead framed as a human tragedy. And like any grand-scale human tragedy, it's compulsively watchable, even when it enrages you or makes you queasy: The raw hubris and greed on display gradually mounts, and as an audience member, to see behind the curtain is simultaneously fascinating and bizarre. How could they be so greedy? How could they be so mendacious? How could they be, finally, so freaking stupid?

The answer, made simply and directly, is that it was actually quite easy. Enron was not a case of high-flying, predatory villains who somehow snuck into the ranks of High Capitalism unnoticed and set about wreaking havoc. It is the logical eventuality of a system that is desperately, fundamentally flawed, and it is only the tip of the iceberg. The antagonists of Enron are portrayed not as monsters, but as people who became grotesque and monstrous when given enormous amounts of money and power. That's not to say that they weren't flawed to begin with; certainly, if one were inclined, one could concoct all manner of psychological explanations for their behavior (Skilling was a picked-on nerd out for revenge, Lay was a deeply insecure ninny who was blinded by a vapid religiosity, etc.) These details aren't elided, but neither are they given emphasis that's out of proportion with their actual relevance to the case. The main point is that the Problem is bigger than Enron, bigger than Skilling, bigger than Lay, and even bigger than Cheney and Bush. It's woven into the fabric of our economic system, and it will happen again and again unless the system is changed.

It's tempting to make this film something it isn't, and I could go on at length about all the juicy ideological complexity undergirding the film's subject. Principally, it is straightforward journalism, a polished version of the kind of thing you'd see on TV as a true crime show. And as far as that goes, I mean it as a compliment; its an exemplary investigative document, portraying in detail how Enron rose and fell. This isn't a mean feat; as has become the norm, the financial shenanigans were recondite and surrounded by secrecy, and the filmmakers are adept at breaking it down into a somewhat straightforward narrative. Basically, Enron's big idea was to building a trading exchange for securities made up of energy "products"; in effect, they were building a virtual casino. The worth of the company was a fiction, based on posited future prices of energy that were backed up with little actual infrastructure and all kinds of mind-blisteringly abstruse mathematics. In covering all of these details, there are plenty of blank spots. It's a minor fault, though, and a more thorough treatment of the nuts-and-bolts of Enron's devious schemes would surely require a mini-series. The information that is on display is presented directly enough to make it clear that this tendency toward reckless gambling and make-believe profits wasn't just the product of one or two disordered minds. It was an integral part of the overall system.

In case all of this is sounding familiar, it is: this is exactly the kind of thing that occurred with mortgage-backed securities and credit-default swaps. What struck me so deeply about the material in E:TSGITR is that (if we're to trust the filmmakers and journalists) Enron can be looked at as a canary-in-the-coal-mine of the present woes. All the raw materials are there: deregulation, securitization, reckless betting and speculation, a blinkered optimism in the continued growth of the market, and the complete disconnect from physical products and process by the financial institutions. As has been repeated ad nauseam, the United States doesn't manufacture things any more. We make financial products, and we show the rest of the world how to bet on them. Enron was the first instance of that exact ethos in all of its potential danger, and the collapse of the housing bubble is only the most recent.

This isn't what the movie is about, exactly. But it is the heart of the movie's message, and it's the most important thing to take away from watching it. Five years ago, it would have been just another sharp little doc about corporate malfeasance. Seen today, it seems uncannily prescient.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


So why not?

Why not not, then, if that's the best reason you can come up with?

Why not not not, then if that's the best reason why not you can come up with?

Thus, we cast aside logic and expand the purpose, nature, and function of this blog. Nothing too big for the moment, but I've lately thought that rather than starting up another blog for other interests, fascinations, trivialities, etc., it would be better to loosen things up around these here parts and incorporate images, videos, and what have you, at the Noisy Tree.

Photo Op

Early January, Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Battle in Heaven

(Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Germany/Belgium, 2005)

*2nd Viewing* - - I missed the boat on this one the first time around, and I think now that I'm about ready to board the SS Reygadas. Basically, my beef was that Reygadas was playing fast and loose with lots of formal tropes and devices that other filmmakers had shown much more care and nuance while employing. The hairy, sweaty, corporeal focus of Dumont, combined with mystical intimations of grace, redemption, (Dumont again), a preference for longish, meditative takes (yes, Dumont, yet again) and the use of non-actors (guess who?) were all there, but felt mishandled and slipshod. I'm exaggerating the proximity to Dumont's films - there are plenty of other filmmakers who employ these techniques, and the tearless gaze at the affect-free faces of nonprofessional performers has its greatest precedent in the work of Bresson.

The fact is, I've never been fully convinced of Bresson's techniques, and the way they have been employed by his aesthetic and spiritual descendants. Partly, its a matter of predisposition - for me, a generous and well-crafted performance is one of the signal joys of movie watching, so when a filmmaker disposes with this I always feel just a bit out of sorts. It all goes back to the Brechtian thing, as private Joker would say. How much are we willing to believe in this artificial world? Remove the emotional lives of the characters, and it's a significant impediment to the suspension of disbelief. In the case of Reygadas and others like him, secondary questions of self-consiousness arise. It's not the kind of non-acting and fourth-wall busting we see in Godard, where part of the pleasure is from the theatrical irreverence. We're kept on the exterior of the film's world, but drawn into the experience through a kind of intellectual kinship, like being privy to an inside joke - thus clearing the way for a possible emotional reaction as well. Brecht, and Godard after him, weren't anti-emotion, but they were very interested (concerned may be a better word) with the terms under which the audience gave its collective emotions. They wanted an experience that combined a critical attitude with a sense of feeling, and believed this wasn't a contradictory proposal. I don't think it is, either, but I don't think the devices that were used are always successful - Godard's films can be smug and overly blithe about engaging the audience, and his analytical gamesmanship can get pretty damn tiresome.

But Reygadas is after something different, I think, something like a middle ground between emotional indulgence and critical distance. His films are more intuitive, more lyrical, more openly ingenuous about the characters and their predicaments. His formal shagginess isn't to draw attention to the process of filmmaking itself, to the physical relationship between the audience and the film. He's not interested in meta-questions or theories about fantasy, detachment, etc, and he certainly isn't the playful intellectual riffster that Godard has been for so long. It is, rather, an aesthetic device to establish and work through the thematic underpinnings of his films. This all sounds overly schematic, I know, but it's a crucial distinction. Reygadas wants us to see the film - the artifice, the camera flares, the grain of the film, the awkward stiffness of the non-actors - but he also wants us to see through the film, to a posited realm of Truth. This is heady stuff, and it can easily lapse into self-important junk. Reygadas has a better grip than I previously thought, though, and I think he achieves a great amount of success for all of the risks he takes.

Here's another crucial distinction - Reygadas has more in common with Apitchatpong than he does with Lisandro Alonso. He uses long takes, yes, but he isn't a minimalist, and he isn't interested in the same kind of hyper-formal approach. Again - the self-evidence of the film - grain, lens flares, shakiness, characters who stare into the lens and then away, deliver their lines flatly - this is all in aid of a very specific effect - not the creation of a critical distance from the situation of the characters, but to elevate the situation to an almost mythical level, and to create awe in the minds of the viewer.

It's a difficult proposition, and it doesn't always work. There are times when it's difficult to tell if Reygadas is just being absurd, and just how seriously he wants us to take Marcos' plight. The other chief obstacle is the nature of film itself - certain genre tropes, the occasional echoes to melodrama, film noir, and the like, create a dissonance that isn't entirely productive. This is why stepping outside of genre is tricky - so deeply is it entrenched in our collective consciousness that adequately transcending it (if that is indeed your intention) is a very tricky high-wire act. I'm thinking of Anna's dalliance as a prostitute, her sudden murder at the hands of Marcos, and the occasional nods to interior struggle suggested by the dialogue - these things aren't as jarring as they were the first time around. That's largely due to taking the film on its own terms, which is tough at first viewing, especially for a film like this.

All in all, though, I'm very glad I had the occasion to revisit and reasses Battle in Heaven. The next step, which I'm looking forward to, will be a re-viewing of Silent Light - a film of less corporeal provocation but even more aesthetic provocation that left me similarly befuddled. I'm counting on an eye-opener.

***I should also remark on the other elements I liked - his grounding the story in a political context, which we need more of in cinema (something that Dumont largely eschews), his excellent taste in music (even if it is occasionally a bit too much), and his commitment to the blood, sweat, and tears - what Cornel West would call the "funkiness" that is integral to a spiritual work of art. I'm not sure about this at present, but it seems to me that Dumont is occasionally too severe in his treatment of the body, perhaps a bit too bleak in his focus on the torment of the flesh. Another lyrical filmmaker who could use more of the funkiness is Terrence Malick - adore his work though I do, I am receptive to the criticisms that occasionally he is a bit too austere, chaste, and blissed-out, which can result in an aesthetic remoteness. He could learn a thing or two from the ugly, smelly, dirty, torrid quality that Reygadas work includes. I also think that while it is a source of some internal dissonance, the working from a foundation in genre is a good instinct - at it's most basic level, Battle in Heaven is noir; a botched kidnapping and the resultant disorder - and then Reygadas builds this into a mythical, spiritual work of cinematic expressionism. Overheated on occasion, but evincing very strong instincts. Another cue perhaps taken from Dumont's use of the policier as a framework for L'Humanite.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Boxer

(Jim Sheridan, Ireland/US, 1997)

Let me hurry to get on the record that I'm madly in love with Emily Watson. And Daniel Day-Lewis ain't bad either. The best thing about this movie is the cast, and the second-best thing is everything else. I'm not super-familiar with Sheridan's work (previously I'd only seen In America, which I recall as being solid but mawkishly tainted) but I feel familiar enough now to assert that he is a mightily talented director who works wonders with actors (as in all cases, the cardinal rule being though shalt know how to cast) and is a dyed-in-the-wool storyteller, and that he has a lapidary eye for movement and color.

As wonderful and soulful and sexy as the film's first couple are, it would be a dire mistake indeed to overlook the enormous contributions of the rest of the cast - it really is an ensemble affair. This is exactly the kind of highwire act that seems woefully rare in contemporary cinema - it's a classical story about love, loyalty, family - in other words, a classic expansive melodrama, with a political subtext that's neither overbearing or defanged (although it comes close to defanging, on the latter side of the spectrum) featuring strong, three-dimensional characters and with just enough suspense. This is something that Hollywood should be able to crank out with some regularity, but it doesn't. Don't get me wrong - I'm not getting all goopily nostaligic about the Golden Era, but simply making the observation that the talent exists in writers, directors, DPs, editors, all the way down the line - but instead, we get bullshit like The Blind Side and Righteous Kill. This is the exit for a lengthy digression, which I'll avoid, but the point is crucial - The Boxer isn't a mindblowingly awesome film. It's just a very, very good film - it's sincere, it's stylish, it's smart it is perhaps best described as being very, very solid. Why don't these come down the pike with more regularity?

***The politics are well-handled, I think, but I really don't know enough about "The Troubles" to say how risky or not-risky that element of the story is. It is a bit on the feel-good side, in that it focuses on the "why can't we all get along" entreaty of the naive a bit too ingenuously, and elides many of the relevant facts (again, I'm aware of only the most basic of these facts) but I think it basically has its heart in the right place***

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Last Winter

(Larry Fessenden, US, 2006)

A decent, spooky, supernatural eco-thriller. Fessenden has a keen eye and a knack for suspense, and the film's greatest asset is its atmosphere of gradually mounting dread. Unfortunately, there isn't as much care given to the characters, who are typically (for the genre) pretty thin, prone to utterances that range from passable to obvious to seriously clunky. This is frustrating, because Fessenden seems to be one of the only American filmmakers interested in the unrealized potential of thriller/horror as a genre - the problem being he only goes so far. The ecological slant is relevant without being too heavy-handed, and the Arctic setting is mined for all sorts of nifty freakiness, but it doesn't end up having the gravity that it could. It feels like a near-miss; Fessenden's fusion of the familiar thrills-and-chills with an elegaic sense of impending doom is provocative but not fully realized. In any case, it's a fun film to watch, even if it repeatedly reminds you of how it could be better. Perhaps a great, genre-busting masterpiece is in the works - doubtful, but I wouldn't put it past ol' Larry. Bonus points for the creature effects - a little obviously low-fi, but they're also original and genuinely scary.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Extraneous Thoughts on the Great Blue Thing

Since first viewing Avatar a few weeks ago, I've had a few leftover thoughts beyond my initial review, both on the film and on the inevitable tempest of opinions re. the film. So I figure now's as good a time as any to, er, purge them.

First: Avatar is an allegorical fable, and this permits a certain amount of simplicity and bluntness that I think has been unfairly maligned. The broadsides against imperialism, and American imperialism in specific, should be taken seriously. They aren't subtle or well-developed, but they aren't inaccurate, either. It would have been just peachy keen if Cameron had seen fit to produce a deft polemic about our current crimes in Iraq, one that took into consideration both the mendacity of the power base and the press' complicity (not to mention the complicity of the intelligensia), but let's be real: That ain't Jim Cameron. His first priority is to rock our socks off, and he does this with aplomb. The inclusion of certain unmistakable signifiers ("shock and awe", "fight terror with terror") isn't a cheap or cyncial ploy, it's a serious comment - simple, but serious.

The key distinction is that between simplistic and simple (this has been noted elsewhere w/r/t Avatar) - Cameron's movie is absolutely the latter. Again, it's a formal thing - Avatar never presents itself as anything more than a fable. This allows the film to retain a level of integrity that several ostensibly realist projects end up missing. The allegory to aggression against indigenous populations (Native American, Iraqi, Afghani) can be broad, touching on the major points of evil without going into the socio-political context that a more historically minded piece would require.

While it might seem like having his cake and eating it too, it's actually just a case of playing it smart as an entertainer and a thinker. Film, being strictly bound by temporal constraints, makes this kind of context difficult. I'm not saying improssible - just difficult. For an example of just how badly one can err when treading on such thin ice, see Lions for Lambs, which was fusty, didactic, and smug. But Cameron doesn't have to worry about this, because his criticisms are more general. When he has a character say "we're gonna shock and awe 'em" or something like that, he's giving that phrase exactly as much consideration as it deserves - a jingoism uttered by a corporate thug.

If you're under the illusion that Iraq is a "mistake" and that the our actions there exist in some kind of ethical gray area (and this is ostentibly the case for most of the mainstream media) then it's easy to see why you'd be rankled, if not offended, by Avatar's politics. If, however, you've got anything like a clear perspective on the issue, there's no reason to complain. The quibble that Cameron "didn't go far enough" is valid, but not as related to the film. Cameron himself may have a long way to go in his evolution as a progressive filmmaker, but the film has to be taken for what it is, not what it isn't.

The other big area of critique, though, is a bit more thorny, although I remain willing to let Cameron off the hook. Basically, this line of attack centers around the issue of racism - that of the Na'vi and that of the humans, and it breaks down into two main points: one, that Avatar is another case of enlighted-white-man's-burden. The main precendent is Dances With Wolves, and everybody knows why its politics are queasy; white man hero undergoes a spiritual transformation by learning the ways of the natives and then becomes their savior, defending them against his own race. The other critique is that the film basically sets up a moral preference between two races: the Na'vi are just intrinsically better than the humans, and therefore they deserve our sympathy. This assessment is usually followed by a corollary, noting that the Na'vi aren't all that admirable by our standards - they're a martial, stratified culture without much apparent variation or heterogeniousness.

This is a significant caveat, and I think it does partially compromise the ethical high ground that Cameron siezes at the outset. More than one commentator has called this a kind of typically Western arrested-development fantasy, in which the white man-child returns to an idealized edenic bliss. But a) I think this problem has to be considered as separate from the allegory of imperialism and b) I still think it's not as serious an issue as some have made it out to be.

Again, keeping in mind the fable or pageant formal context is essential. Literally, the Na'vi are a biologically distinct race, with blue skin, displaced genetalia, and nerve-endings in their ponytails. But this is science fiction, and the best science fiction functions by literalizing (in the imagined techno-biological realm of the future) basicly human ideas. Thus, the human crisis of identity and mortality is literalized, in Blade Runner, by the conceit of a race of artificial humans. This is an old trick but a good one, and its everywhere in world literature - fantasy, surrealism, gothic horror - pretty much everything that isn't straight realism, incorporates the same technique (This is, incidentally, such a favored method in film because film deals with the abstract directly throgh the concrete, which makes strong - ie, visual - metaphors so useful). Which is, of course, a long way of saying that the Na'vi are humans, too, on a metaphorical level - a different race, sure, but still human, and their radical difference is contextual, not intrinsic. There's no facet to the Na'vi that doesn't have an analogue in human culture. Their connection to the land is literalized, but again, this is merely the logical extension of the Gaia ethic, imaginatively transferred into the realm of fiction. The other major comparison that Avatar gets saddled with is that of the Pocahontas story, and this one is far more accurate than DWW. And in both Avatar and Pocahontas, what is it that ultimately breaks through the bonds of culture? Why, only the universal panacea of love, the one true Magic Bullet. So Avatar basically boils down to the old saw about love conquering all - that elusive and exalted human trait that permits us to overcome even the most entrenched and vile of prejudices. It's love that turns Sully around, love that gets him to give up his former "humanity" and cast his lot with the Na'vi. Now, the way this story is told certainly lacks the requisite dexterity and nuance that we'd all prefer. But I think it makes it clear that while Cameron might be guilty of mawkishness, he isn't making any serious moral transgressions.

Phew. I wasn't expecting that to take so long, but there you have it. Jim C. is exonerated

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Hurt Locker

(Kathryn Bigelow, US, 2009)

As an action film, THL is ingratiatingly straightforward - the plot is basically a series of bomb-defusing scenes, connected tenuously by a pretty standard tale about the psychic and physical hazards of war. The story isn't particularly insightful or perceptive, but it does offer a modicum of realism - the soldiers exhibit the familiar array of wartime emotions, from scared-shitless to brazen to bored. Subtract the hype, and you've got some passable entertainment, with a few well-executed suspense scenes being the main attraction. THL shouldn't be taken for anything more than that, though, and the attempts to glorify its thematic and psychologial narrowness have only highlighted those limitations. Put it this way - when the film is not only summarized but entirely reducible to its opening epigram (in this case, Chris Hedges' quote that "war is a drug") then you're in trouble.

The actors all acquit themselves competently, although there isn't much for them to do but portray soldiers whose major differentiation is the hardness of their balls: Renner is at the high-carbon steel end of the spectrum, as a stone-cold wire-snipper, with the others less being less nervy but still beyond the norm in terms of stress-endurance. The script is, again, passable. But it's also frustratingly inconsistent - every time the action subsides and the dialogue shifts from the tense bravado of the battlefield, it becomes obvious and rote, e.g. the exchanges between Specialist and the Army Shrink.

The real problem with THL lies in its treatment of the moral and political dimesions intrinsic to any treatment of the Iraq war. My own politics, in their increasing radicalization, make it very difficult to stomach movies about the Iraq war that don't contain the kind of critical perspective that's both obvious and woefully absent from the mainstream: the Iraq war is, in principal, morally wrong and illegal: a war of aggression being carried out against a destitute and mostly unarmed populace. The Hurt Locker, so commonly lauded for it's apparent lack of political posturing, is all the more corrupt for what ultimately amounts to an evasion - of ethics, of morals, and of truth.

(There is, certainly, a dramatic gray area, ripe with the possibility of existential conflict, i.e. the soldiers' attempt to reconcile their need to be soldiers with their need to remain human. That is, the need to simultaneously carry out the mission and not feel like murderers. They are, with some minor exceptions, like anybody else - they don't want to kill people, least of all civilians. But focusing on that solely, without ever casting an eye to the larger evil and injustice that makes such a bind possible, is an unforgivable omission. To use a counterexample - the same kind of institutional vs. human conflict is present in several cop dramas, such as NYPD Blue. But here, the disconnect between the Law and what is Just is a byproduct of a necessary system, or one that's at least provisionally justifiable - we need law enforcement to live in a free society - debatable but generally agreed upon. This isn't true of the Iraq war, which is not only unnecessary but actively malignant. And again, skirting the larger issue, the meta-problem, is not okay.)

And even still - the main conflict doesn't resonate all that deeply. We are reminded that war is hell, but James, the protagonist, never successfully transcends his status as a cipher. There are several indications that James is a decent, empathetic guy beneath the wacky death-wish exterior, but not enough of the story is allocated to his character to make him truly interesting. He's an adrenaline junkie, plain and simple, addicted to the fix of the battlefield and unable (or, more likely, unwilling) to kick the habit. When he rotates back the war at the end of the film, it's meant to be a tragic coda, but at that point I wasn't interested enough in the character to care very much. This is directly related to the parenthetical issue above - the fact that the dice are loaded at all times for these men, their fates costricted by the massive injustice of the war, isn't given enough dramatic weight.

And what about the fact that it seems to have more allegiance to the genre requirements of action movies than that of real human drama? This would be an unfair assessment if the film weren't about Iraq (as in, some movies are action movies, some movies are dramas, and sometimes the twain shall not meet), but it is, and therefore the question is a pressing one: what does it say about the ethical responsibilities of the filmmakers that this presently-unfolding (and entirely changeable) catastrophe is being used as the backdrop for a series of knuckle-biting action set pieces?

I'd venture that one analytical approach to the film would center around it being basically another treatment of the male identity as shaped by the warrior ethos. The film being exclusively male-centered, concerned with rank and relative courage...but I'm too spent to go into that now. And I'm not sure the film warrants it.

To end on a positive note: the most beautiful moments in the film, and the only moments evincing any cinematic sense of poetry (besides the terrible beauty of the sniper scene, which for me was undone by a sense of unreality that I'm not sure was well-founded: would the bomb-squad guys really be such adept snipers? And would even professional snipers be so accurate at that range - doubtful enough with the garngantuan .50 caliber rifle, but really doubtful with an AK-47?) was the film's coda - a striking progression of images, from the supermarket to the leaves falling from the gutter, to the mushrooms in the sink. Where was this gracefulness in the rest of the film?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Girlfriend Experience

(Steven Soderberg, US, 2009)

Formally, very cool. Thematically interesting. Not very emotionally engaging, however, which is increasingly becoming the sole criterion that seems to matter to me. So whattaya gonna do?

Speaking to it, then, as a purely formalist exercise (and there are those who would require any discussion of Soderbergh to incorporate that limit, although I don't think I'm one of them), TGE is mostly solid. There are moments when its hyper-aesthetisized compositions approach installation-caliber video art, which can be exciting, but such fancies aren't served by the screenplay, which is mostly obvious, or the non-actors, who are predictably stiff and vacant.

All of which is not to say that TGE doesn't pack a nasty little emtional wallop. Soderbergh's eye has never been less than sharp, and here he uses it to cast a painfully bleak gaze on a fascinating and super-contemporary phenomenon - the sudden anxiety of the elite. It occurred to me that there's almost a dimension of classical tragedy in this - the fall of the mighty and so on, but with a satirical edge. The mighty are displayed as being uniformly unctuous, vain, ignorant, and shallow. They don't deserve a shred of pity, and yet viewing their plight makes us experience anxiety. This is the flash of brilliance that Soderbergh's movie deserves to be complimented. While it doesn't accomplish much in the way of storytelling (and again, it's doubtful that storytelling was his first priority), it does reveal, in the manner of a good short story, something true and uncomfortable: our secret and abiding lust for wealth. As much as we revile those privileged pricks of Wall street, and as much as we felt a certain satisfaction in their fall, we all still harbor a desire for the success that they once embodied: fast, easy, and all-encompassing. Their failure to become immortal exposes a certain failure of our imagination, I suspect; a twinge of shame for ever believing in such a measure of success, even if we kept our belief hidden.

Honestly, I don't know how much there is to say about, y'know, Sasha Grey. She does as well as the rest of the non-actors, maybe even a hair better. Again, believable performance, or three-dimensional characterization, isn't really Soderbergh's bag in TGE. It's a perceptive and crystalline sketch of a film, which isn't such a bad thing, although I think it represents the iceberg-tip of a much more ominous problem.

I don't have the time or energy to really get into it here, but let me just say this: part of the problem of today's glut of disposable films is that so few of them have anything at stake. Soderbergh doesn't help matters by doing this whole moonlighting-as-an-arthouse-filmmaker thing, in which he produces films that don't reach beyond the realm of clever exercise. That is all for now.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Christmas Tale

(Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008)

I'm hereby naming Desplechin the most infuriating filmmaker currently working, and here's why: Because he displays dazzling ambition and talent, works with some of the finest actors in Europe, seems equally adept at words and images, is pushing all kinds of buttons in the world of cinema, and yet - his films are, finally, complete messes.

I haven't figured out if he's a slob, a loon, a coldly calculating scientist of trends, or just another stupendously insecure artist. He is certainly sincere, and enormously talented. So why does he permit himself to overload his movies with tripe, totally swamping those fleeting moments of absolute brilliance? Why does this director, who is ludicrously, almost autistically focused on the possibilities of cinema, spend half his time (or more) chasing down patently stupid ideas? I would call it an open-and-shut case of throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks, but he's too damn good for that to be true. There's a project here, an almost systematic approach to breaking new ground through restless and radical juxtaposition - one after another after another.

But to what end? I'm more than willing to concede that on a first viewing, plenty of this stuff went over my head. But what I did experience was a freakish mystery - a half-breed of uncompromising art-film and middling melodrama. I don't want to just label Desplechin a smarmy idiot-savant with twice as much formal brilliance as story (and thus, human) sense. But that's the feeling I get. Desultory and silly and finally, with a disregard for truth that feels actually disrespectful - of the actors, of the material, and of the audience.

I get why people are so hot for him. I'm hot for him too - except when I shake myself out of my mesmerized stupor long enough to recognize that he's pulling some seriously jury-rigged bullshit with character and story. It's virtuosity without discipline, and seriously prone to pretentious meandering and self-indulgence. Maybe I need to watch ACT a few more times and then some of it will begin to settle and stop giving me indigestion. But a) that won't happen, and b) I think I've taken all I can from him - lovely ideas, but they found like jewels in a junk store. There's way more useless crap than anyone could ever want, and that just makes me angry.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Passion of Joan of Arc

(Carl Theodor Dreyer, Netherlands, 1929)

Yes, the The Passion of Joan of Arc, the stuff of cinema legend, widely hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, a true visionary work that remains groundbreaking and innovative even today, etc., etc. Here, as always when discussing a film of such repute, I can't help but feel a bit stymied. If I enjoy the movie, then I'm faced with the unenviable task of coming up with something at least marginally new to say about it. If I find that I didn't enjoy it, or even hated it - that I'm totally at odds with critical consensus, then the onus is on me to first express my bewilderment at said consensus (quickly followed by a stoic shrug or two) and then begin the long slog to correct their collective error and thus set the record straight for posterity - which entails lots and lots of defensive, overheated yammering that will not matter one iota in the grand scheme of all things cinema. Except to me, of course - and here we've come full cycle in the inadvertent rehashing of the narcissism and delusion at the heart of this blog project. But does this ultimately matter? Shouldn't I take films as they come, ignoring (to the best of my ability) the influence of history, and concentrating on my own emotional and intellectual reactions?

Okay, so, now that I've indulged my compulsions a bit, I can set about with the task at hand.

I was happy to discover a terrific film, and also a very strange one; it contains that special mix of grand ambition and peculiarity that tends to produce artistic greatness. There's no doubt that Dreyer was a genius - his obsessiveness and ambition are evident in every frame. In retrospect, what is most remarkable about the film that it is a two-person show. To an extent that seems increasingly rare in this post-silent era, The Passion is devoted utterly to its star: built around and focused to an almost insane degree on the performance of Maria Falconetti. She's in nearly every scene and appears in practically every other shot for a good three-quarters of the film, framed almost exclusively in close-up and perpetually on the brink of a colossal nervous breakdown. Falconetti's performance is uncanny and heartbreaking and difficult to watch; just the sheer volume of shed tears is enough to make the mind reel at what an ordeal the shoot must have been for her.

On a formal level, The Passion of Joan of Arc stands out in three areas: a)the heavy reliance on close-ups, b) the vaguely abstract set design, and c) the nuanced use of the moving camera. I'm not sure I'm with Dreyer all the way on the close-ups - they're very effective, but they do eventually begin to feel excessive. The emphasis on the face as the theater of the soul's torment isn't misplaced, but I think he underestimates the poetic (which is to say emotional, expressive) uses of physical space. It helps, in films, to have a spacial context, and the lingering on Joan's long-suffering features can get repetitive. This problem might have been avoided had Dreyer given her whole body, and the rooms in which it was imprisoned, more than an occasional glance.

Which brings us to the set design - curiously abstract, as I said, especially considering Dreyer's insistence on authenticity. I think it works in certain scenes - the spare, white walls help to emphasize Joan's isolation and the severity of her predicament. Otherwise, though, it feels a bit too indebted to theater. Stylization itself isn't the problem - I can dig Dreyer's preference to heighten the imaginative reality of the space - but it has the unfortunate effect of looking flimsy and cheap by modern standards (which it definitely wasn't - as the commentary related, TPOJOA was one of the most expensive films of its day) This is a historically biased opinion, certainly, but its worth noting, I think, if for no other reason than to highlight the extent to which we've come to expect seamless, minutely-detailed representations of reality from cinema.

On the other hand, Dreyer's use of the moving camera is absolutely and completely modern, maybe even post-modern. When the frame isn't super-tight on the face of one of the characters, it is usually moving, and the movement is never less than exciting and beguiling. This is where the movie is at its weirdest, I think: the occasional swoops, rapid pans, repetitive tracking shots and odd angles (e.g. the villagers coursing through the gate, repeated by the shot of the soldiers driving them out) all don't quite jibe with the ice-hard stare of the standard close-up, but the dissonance produced is compelling rather than distracting.

So what about thematically? Well, it pretty convincingly makes a case for Joan as a saint. Not in the canonized, official Catholic sense, but as a person whose story is, in a sense, especially deserving of spiritual consideration. That's to say that it portrays her suffering and devotion as something exalted and deeply tragic, absolutely singular and yet symbolic of all suffering. At the same time, Joan retains a distinctly human sense of self-awareness - she might be, in the modern sense, crazy, but we never get the sense that she's not fully aware of just how serious things are. Joan is, if anything, far more cognizant of her mortality than any of us are at any given moment, and this is what makes her so fascinating and poignant. She seems exactly like a normal person who suddenly begins hearing a God's voice. If you believed it was God (and here things get ontologically dense - if it was really God's voice, than wouldn't a necessary quality of that voice be complete persuasiveness?) what choice would you have but to follow wherever it led? This is where the simplistic divide between belief and nonbelief breaks down, between insanity and sanity, and one of the films greatest strengths is that it manages to illustrate the complexity of just such a situation. How does one know God? Is all belief ultimately blind? Is there any room in faith for reason?

None of these questions are raised explicitly. Like all great art, it effectively resists any reduction. One could concoct any number of valid interpretations: it works as a Christ parable, a polemic against the hypocrisy and oppression of the Catholic church (or really any powerful, stratified organized religion) or even as a straight-up rebuke of political power in general (the specific reference is to England's occupation of France during the Hundred Years' War.) The thing that strikes me the most, though, is that TPOJOA, despite all of its very overt Christian symbolism, feels remarkably and thrillingly like a work of humanism. This goes back to what I was saying about Joan being more than a credulous nut who hears voices and blindly decides to trust them. She was probably insane, at least in the modern, diagnostic sense of the word. Today she's be committed if she was lucky, and a raving bum if she wasn't, whereas in the 1400s she was burned at the stake. But the suffering that she must endure is (and this is very important to note) mainly internal. I don't mean to deny the fact that if she weren't being persecuted (and summarily railroaded by the church officials, practically dripping with corruption) she would still have suffered. There is a clear external pressure, but the dilemma begins and ends within Joan. The great and terrible irony is that while the vicious men of the cloth claim (and likely believe) that they're primary concern is her soul - for them what's really at stake is the secular authority of the church. For Joan, it is her soul that's at stake. It is to Dreyer's (and moreso still to Falconetti's) credit that they manage to convey that interior suffering so lucidly; the suffering of a person who must endure a world in which her most deeply cherished beliefs are not only unwelcome, but threaten to destroy her. That's what makes her dilemma so affecting - we see the terrible stress she's under, the temptation to turn away from God, who has inspired her and given her life meaning. Her death and martyrdom are tragic and entail unthinkable amounts of physical pain, but by the end of the film, the inner conflict has been resolved - she has made her choice, freely and without regret.

This is the kind of paradoxical effect that tragedy is supposed to engender, I believe. Pity and sorrow infused with a sense of peace. And I think this film accomplishes that.

Does this satisfy the requirements of my ego? Have I contributed something lasting? Not, surely, as much as Saint J. But maybe just a smidgen. That ought to be enough for now.