Monday, December 3, 2012


(Evan Glodell, USA, 2011)

When Bellflower dropped back in 2011, it elicited both enthusiastic praise and rather harsh condemnation, with neither reaction coming from the quarters you might expect.  Richard Brody was all mushy over the film, while Glenn Kenny was appalled.  Kenny (and a few others) felt that the film was guilty of misogyny, and that its representation of male-female relationships was fraught with double standards.  Brody and company pushed back, defending the film as a perfectly acceptable and honest treatment of heartbreak and despair.

After seeing the film myself, I find myself coming down mostly in favor of the film; at the very least, I don't think that it's guilty of woman-hating. The male characters are immature and mostly bewildered by women, but they don't exhibit anything like a concerted hatred for the opposite sex.  The movie itself plays deliberately with the notion of reality and fantasy being willfully, and then not so willfully, entwined.  This allows for the climatic violence to be somewhat blunted in terms of its effects, but as a close female connection related to me, the particulars of the violence do seem to be female-specific in an especially unsettling way.  The best I can do is to call this all very unsettling, which, political correctness aside, is part-and-parcel with the kind of apocalyptic shadings that the film trades in.  Glodell, who in addition to co-writing and directing also plays Woodrow, is by most appearances a class-A dork, but he's also something of a self-styled macho man.   Lovelorn anguish is the engine that drives the film, but it's the historical framing that gives it any relevance.  Rather than just another story of male arrested development and heartbreak, it rather brilliantly incorporates various postindustrial anxieties.

All of that aside, it could be a much better film.  The only reason the characters are remotely watchable is that their obnoxiousness and cluelessness is so exaggerated that you kind of stop noticing.  This could be a clever gambit on the part of Glodell, because when things begin to get really weird, and you realize that the reality/fantasy line is being fudged, the utter outlandishness of some of the characters' behavior doesn't register as all that outlandish.  For these kind of unforced felicities, you can't help but admire the filmmakers.  On many levels, Bellflower is preposterous.  Glodell falls right into just about every pitfall involved in the fantasy/reality-blender film, but he does so with such gusto and apparent earnestness that it winds up being weirdly forgivable.  And yes, the flamethrower/car/gadgetry is pretty cool, if for no other reason than it represents a kind of dark perversion of the creative energy exhibited by these protagonists, an eerie premonition of the kind of harsh world that is an ever-increasing threat.

Holy Motors

(Leos Carax, France/Germany, 2012)

M. Carax, it has been too long.  After the operatic but turbid Pola X, which approached a cinematic self-immolation and served as a kind of fuck-off to his career as filmmaker, Leos Carax has made only a few paltry shorts since 1999, the longest of which came packaged with the 2008 omnibus Tokyo!  Finally, after a long stint in the wilderness (when asked what he's been doing all that time, he usually offers some Gallic, stoic rumination on trying and failing to get films made, living life, reading, traveling, etc.) he is back at large, and the  firmament of cinema is suddenly brighter.  Holy Motors is best described as a trip - fast, funny, moving, formally audacious and not without moments of dizziness, the omnipresent risk of a catastrophic crash.   It's subject is cinema itself, but we have to keep in mind that this is Carax we're talking about, who is more than any other filmmaker heir to the Godardian lemma of Cinema=Life=Cinema.  Following that equation in one direction, it can be seen that Carax views cinema as a kind of skeleton key to life; a tool, almost holy in its powers, for examining and expressing all that life has (and doesn't have) to offer.  Looking through the other end of the camera, we see Life captured and fixed on film (or, in this case, stored as data on a hard drive), subject to the limits of the machine, imprisoned in the glass eye of the lens.  Carax's film astounds with its ambition; his frequently goofy, occasionally sublime, and usually caustic deployment of humor obscures this somewhat, but it needs to be stated he is interested in nothing less than the Alpha and Omega of modern life, in all of its opacity and ambiguity.  Which is not to say that he manages to squeeze all that stuff in there, although not for lack of trying.  In it's darker moments, there is a sense of desperation, a liminal madness that hints at some lingering despair, even as he exults in the joy of the artform.

But one never gets the sense that Carax, for all of his risk-taking, is not in complete control of his craft.  It's perhaps surprising that after being out of the game for so long, his instincts as a filmmaker are as sharp as ever; all I can say is, I'm glad he's been taking his vitamins.  Holy Motors is a mature work by a seasoned director.  He is no longer the incandescent upstart, but it is a relief and a joy that he has lost none of his edge, even as he has moved beyond the novelty of youth.   It's funny; there are even moments when Carax actually seems to be showing off.  Just when you think he's gone and thrown it out the window for a dose of gleeful irreverence (and often, there is a slight unwillingness on Carax's part to sit with the more sincere and self-serious moments; he has a tendency to undercut his more tender moments with little exclamations of slapstick or absurd humor) he comes back and drops some wonderfully moving dramatic gravitas on you.  He seems to be saying:  yes, I can show off with the camera as well as anybody, but I can also tug your heartstrings as hard as any Hollywood melodrama.   It would be churlish, I think, to begrudge Carax any of this, mostly because he's so fucking good; besides, there's nothing extraneous about any of these scenes.  They are part of the fabric of the film, seen as brief asides, over too quickly, beautiful and resonant but quickly fading, like a high string on a harp.

There's an argument that Carax plays a bit too fast and loose with his premises, that he doesn't quite earn the narrative and formal liberties he takes, but I don't buy it.  Holy Motors is as deeply felt and ingeniously conceived as anything Carax has ever made, and a strong contender for that coveted mantle of A Great Film.  It's true that Carax seems to steal a bit more than he earns; rather than be limited by the episodic structure he's chosen, he makes it work in his favor, tightening the action and shifting to the next scene before anything - an idea, a character, an image - overstays its welcome.  This velocity, if that's what it is, has long been a crucial weapon in Carax's arsenal.  If it makes things buzz by a little too quickly, it also contributes to a sense of exhaustion, a world-weariness that lies at the heart of the movie.  For all of its joys and exaltations of the seemingly limitless possibilities of cinema, it never fully transcends the sense of loss that seeps into the corners of the film.  But, if I read the film right, Carax is far from finished.  Here's hoping the next trip comes soon.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Melvin and Howard

(Jonathan Demme, USA, 1980)

Jonathan Demme, whose 20+ year long career is hopefully far from over, has never quite attained the American Cinema Hero status of the Scorsese-Coppola caliber, but he's well known for his handful of smart, idiosyncratic films, of which Melvin and Howard is an example par excellence.  Demme is frequently praised for his eclecticism, which praise can be seen as subtly backhanded; if there's one thing you don't want to be as a film director in the age of the Auteur, it is eclectic.   Not to delve into that kettle of fish, but the Theory has its faults as well as its virtues, and it's entirely possible that Demme, through no greater vice than following his own particularly fickle muse, has been given short shrift by the critical consensus (such as it is.)  In any case, Melvin and Howard is a fine film indeed.

Probably the most remarkable formal aspect of M&H is its loose, episodic nature.  I wasn't initially aware of the true story that is the film's basis, but once learning this, it made Demme's pseudo-doc approach all the more admirable.  Demme wisely eschews the the expedience we're accustomed to in much narrative storytelling, and the result is something of a ramble, even a picaresque, and the details that emerge along the way, take on the gem-like quality of effortlessly constructed authenticity.  The scenes involving Melvin and his family, while brief, are acutely observed, slice-of-life stuff that doesn't feel precious or forced.  There are some mightily satisfying set pieces - the game show and the impromptu concert are particularly lovely in their plainly weird Americana. 

This isn't a movie of wildness and mania; those films, for Demme, would come later.  Here, things are quirky, not really crazy, and there's an admiration for the kind of perennial fuck-ups that America seems particularly good at producing.   Melvin is one, but so is Howard, in his own way; perhaps Demme's most insightful stroke is to suggest that at the end of the day, the two titular characters are separated by much less than it might seem initially; it could be that only a bit of luck distinguishes the fuck-up from the American Hero.   Certainly, they are both ambitious souls; Hughes Icarus-like aspirations are the stuff of modern legend, but Melvin is no less dogged in his pursuit of the dream, however hokey it might seem in comparison.  But of the two models, Demme readily embraces the latter.  Hughes, after all, wound up crazy and alone.  Melvin, it is strongly suggested (even extra-textually, as the real Melvin appears in a bit role) gets the better result for his trouble.  He might not be rich or even all that famous, but he has friends (and, perhaps more importantly, family), and he emerges with his own particularly skewed combination of ingenuity and pluck intact.   All the same, there's an undercurrent of somberness that suffuses the film, grounding the quirks and mishaps with a sense of something lost.  In their groping for the American dream, nobody in Melvin and Howard seems to know exactly what it is they're groping for. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Dark Knight Also Rises

(Christopher Nolan, USA, 2012)

If you ever want to know what it's like to be in a cement mixer for just under three hours, then go see The Dark Knight Rises.  You won't be disappointed.  

That's my blurb, because (not to be too old-fogeyish about it) my strongest reactions to TDKR were almost entirely physical; it's an audiovisual barrage of a film, and the near-constant fusillade of images and sounds nearly led me to upchuck my brunch.  I left the theater as if in the throes of a bad caffeine experience, shaky and disoriented.

I don't mind admitting that I have very little stake in the contemporary Superhero Franchise Pic.  Mostly, these movies are by adolescents for adolescents, and while they can be fascinating in what they reveal about our culture's collective Id, they rarely contain much else that's worth talking about.  Films of this stripe are mostly just silly, and TDKR is no exception, although it tries very hard to be one. 

Nolan does have chops; let's not deny him that.  As evinced by such pulpy gems as Memento and The Prestige, what makes him tick is deception, and his best stuff resembles the hokum of the magic show.  He favors the quick surprise, the shocking reveal, the elaborate ceremony of misdirection.  In TDKR, it's no different - Nolan works at least two steps ahead of the audience, keeping us guessing as to what the hell's going on, and then - because his hands are faster than our eyes - out pops the hidden card.  All of this doesn't add up to much in the way of story or characters, but it has a certain gee-whiz appeal.  TDKR is a grab-bag of set pieces that range from the risible to the bewildering to the pleasantly satisfying, and that's just fine, if that's what you're into.

I like a little more substance, story-and-character-wise, and if a film has some ideas behind it - visual, psychological, moral -  well, that's just icing on the cake.  TDKR offers almost none of the above, really, but it does make for a pretty fascinating lens through which to view the culture.  The movie has caught a fair amount of flack (and not insignificant praise) for it's alleged political stripes.   While the consensus among smart people seems to be that the film's politics are incoherent at best, my impression is that they capture rather perfectly the current level of mainstream cognitive dissonance.   It's the same thing you'd get from Time magazine, roughly (or, really, any other mainstream publication, whether ostensibly liberal or conservative):  the pageant of democracy, with a tacit reinforcement of oligarchic values.

It's all there:  you've got your billionaire playboy, flawed yet ultimately triumphant.  He's the only one, finally, who is capable of saving the day, of cleaning up the messes left by lesser mortals. Throughout the film there is much talk about how badly the rich have been behaving, but any popular or democratic corrective is imagined as doomed to lurid catastrophe - hence the kangaroo courts, the looting of the Park Ave apartments - all within hours of Bane taking Gotham hostage with the less-than-wholly-original device of a thermonuclear warhead.  You've got the laundry list of Good Causes - Sustainable Energy, Justice, Transparency, etc: noble, lofty goals that seem always to be just out of reach, and perhaps that's for the best, since in the end, the People don't quite appear to be deserving of them.

I don't think any of this is particularly thought-out or deliberate on the part of Nolan or anybody else.  Like most large-scale entertainments, it emerges from and reinforces the same ideological stew that we all swim in.  Nolan, like an unfortunate number of popular artists, doesn't have much of a political sensibility - which is to say that he is mostly unaware of the politics that he tacitly endorses.  His ideas, such as they are, reflect the mainstream, which is shaped by the same PR/Advertising industry that sells Swiffers, Reality TV, and political campaigns.

All of which is to say that by my lights, TDKR is a mightily naive film.  What it says about contemporary USA culture isn't very flattering, but it's nothing new or unexpected.   But why leave things on a down note?  It's possible, even probable, that one can walk away from TDKR with a sense of optimism, if considered one way.  The fact that the 1% - 99% divide is discussed at all is a  very recent development in mainstream entertainment, and yet another sign that OWS has had a lasting and positive effect on public discourse.  Of course, as previously mentioned, in the film it doesn't amount to much more than issue-checking; all of the "concern" that is drummed up over very real societal problems is mostly there to add a veneer of real-world gravity to the ludicrously trumped-up plot and cardboard characters.  But the fact that it's there at all, an expression of genuine elite anxiety, is heartening to me, as I think it should be to anyone who hopes that things will get better in the Gotham we are all now living in. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012


Last night I finally got around to watching the debut episode of GIRLS on HBO.  I found that I enjoyed the show more than I thought I would, which is not really all that surprising, given that I had pretty much the same reaction to TINY FURNITURE, Lena Dunham's accomplished feature from 2010.  For me, TINY FURNITURE was an inspired entry in what's loosely known as the Mumblecore style, which has been kicking around the independent film world since at least the early aughts.  Unlike much of the mumblecore canon (an amorphous designation in the first place) Dunham's movie was tightly wrought and well-shot.  It's relative polish is part of what got it noticed (including by Judd Apatow, who is one of the executive producers on GIRLS), but it was also clearly the work of a unique creative sensibility.

As I feel obliged to note, there's stuff about it that irks me. Dunham's deadpan schtick can get a little grating at times (especially in the way it spills over into the other characters; there is an appeal to this kind of staginess, but it's limited)  and some of the writing is flat and self-conscious, like lines from a stand-up routine (it's easy to see what Apatow liked so much about Dunham's comedic style, which is similar to his: confessional, domestic, wry and self-effacing.) Partly, that's simply a stylistic choice, and it works well for the world she's describing: hyperself-conscious twentysomethings who live in an overcrowded and expensive city.  New York City is central to the show; teeming with possibility, but overwhelming and intimidating.  Making it, for these girls, is about more than just getting by, but about self-creation, (and, yes, self-validation) and part of that project is the need to discover a reasonable set of parameters by which to "create" themselves.  This is the special sauce that makes GIRLS a unique, and, I daresay, even an "important" show.  People who've slung mud at Dunham for her apparently cloistered world are missing the simple truth of American culture - elites exist, like it or not, and they are a useful lens through which to view Contemporary US society. 

 --- Which is not to say that Dunham's project is a vivisection of circa-2012 American Culture.  But what is most significant about the scope of the show is it's dramatization of the contemporary need for self-creation, especially with the younger generations.  Not long ago, I might have said that this need was another example of the "too much freedom" concept that has seemed to carry some water in cultural-critical circles for some time.  But that idea seems to me now as more of a canard, even the obverse of the actual "problem", if we're going to go full-didactic and call it such.  Anyway, that's a familiar trope going back at least as far as Gatsby, and I think that the contemporary iteration is something different.  As Dunham notes in the first episode, she believes that she could be "a voice...of a generation."  What we're seeing - the truth that the joke tells - is a calling into question of such grandiose ideas of "the voice of the generation."  Make no mistake, there is burning ambition in Dunham's character, but it's mixed up with all kinds of ambivalence about the generation(s) in question, and the need for them to have any one voice, or the need to speak for anyone other than herself.  She's still living, like all of us, in the culture of American achievement, fame, and celebrity.  She's still learning about the terrible loneliness at the heart of the cult of individualism, the great price paid for the building-up of the self.  But the contemporary scope of celebrity is skewed toward the small-scale; the minor details, the inconsistencies, the pettiness of it all.  To be great is to now be worthy of self-deprecation, or deprecation by the culture at large. 

So there's more to say about this one, and in truth, I've only seen a couple of the episodes.  So far, it does seem as though Dunham is offering a refreshing and contemporary take on the Bildungsroman, accessing fairly common ideas of growing up through a narrow but revealing range of experience.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


(Nicolas Winding Refn, USA, 2011)

Refn's movie prompts an important question: is there a point at which style, raised to some critical temperature, transforms into substance?  Based solely on the evidence of DRIVE, the answer would have to be no.  Refn's visual panache is hard to fault, but the film suffers from a fatal kind of formal incoherence.  With all of its long stretches of impeccably composed, dialogue free, music heavy (and frequently slo-mo) action, it would be easy to mistake this film for some detached "meditation" on violence, chaos, or some other such Serious Concept, and indeed, several critics have done exactly that.  But DRIVE isn't some highfalutin think piece - it's a good old fashioned morality play.   To be fair, several critics do seem to have understood this, but also seem to have missed the fact that it's an incredibly poorly done morality play.

Gosling's character, the not-quite-titular Driver, is a classic Nameless Hero; a taciturn man who lives by a code.  He's honorable, extremely competent, and his cool facade is meant to hide a heart that yearns for love. But his life is thrown off-kilter by the introduction of Carey Mulligan as the cute girl who lives down the hall.  In attempting to help out the woman for whom he's fallen, he sets into motion a string of events that ends in disaster.  Because our hero isn't just nameless: he's also tragic.  Violence follows him like a bad odor, and how could it not?  It's stamped on the back of his signature driving jacket; the totemic scorpion, a born predator, compelled to strike even if it means self-destruction.  All the scorpion knows is how to sting; all the Driver knows is how to use force, whether it be with a car, a hammer, or a shotgun.

Taken on their own, these are compelling ideas, and it's to Refn's credit that he attempts to bring them alive in the movie.  But he buries their human dimension under a thick layer of superfluous stylization, and all we're left with is a limp pseudo-tragedy.  The ending is meant to feel both tragic and redemptive - the Driver may not have found a connection to human society, but he did manage to save his beloved and her child.  The problem is that we're never given enough information to care very much.  The most interesting characters - really, the only people in the movie worthy of such designation - are the gangsters.  Brooks' performance, despite being given little to work with in the script, is perfectly pitched between menacing swagger and mournful regret.  In a few keys scenes involving him and his associate, play by Ron Perelman, there is more emotion and sympathy than in any of the multiple shots that linger on Gosling's worried eyes.

And we know what Zizek would say - something along the lines of DRIVE being about the frustrated libido, the explosion of violence that results from the stifling of sexual urges.  And he'd have plenty to back it up - DRIVE, for all of it's sensuous colors and sultry camera movements, depicts nothing more sexual than a kiss, and even that is used as a prelude to a sudden outburst of brutal violence.  Gosling is weirdly asexual, or even pre-sexual, in his depiction of the Driver.   Carey Mulligan's character is blandly wholesome, and it's telling that she is saved, and Christina Hendricks' sexy gun moll meets a rather different, and much more gory, end.  There is a scene with some nudity, but it's mostly decoration - a frozen tableaux of fake tits and blank stares that watch helplessly as Gosling threatens to bash a man's head in with a hammer.  All of which seems to suggest that sexuality, in this film, is something just outside the frame - a marker of human messiness that threatens at any moment to disrupt the crisp, squared-off images.  It's an interpretation that makes the movie a little more fun to watch, but not as much fun as if Refn had stuck to his guns and concentrated more on good old-fashioned drama.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


And so it goes. After airing its ninth episode, LUCK will conclude its run on HBO this Sunday, having been swiftly cancelled after a third horse was fatally injured during production. The news came as a disappointment, and a bit of a shock, but there's little question that they did the right thing. Less surprising was the sudden rash of cynical posturing on the internet: commentators and "industry insiders" who wasted no time in claiming that this was really all about ratings, that if the show had been a Sopranos (or even True Blood) -sized hit, they would have just kept on trucking, dead horses be damned. Glib speculation, especially in the internet age, is nothing new, and it's important to remember that even an artist-friendly shop like HBO is still driven by profits. Still and all, to suppose that the creative powers behind LUCK would have permitted the risk of injuring more horses to continue for the sake of viewership is to miss the show's main subject. For above all, LUCK was about (and created by) people who love horses.

Among the horse lovers is David Milch, for whom LUCK was clearly a passion project. Through Milch's writing, the horses emerged as a central motif and unifying symbol. They represented something real amidst the shell-games of late capitalism. They were something onto which the characters - being Milch-world, these people were vibrantly flawed and broken - could project their hopes and dreams. They brought joy and exaltation; as Milch has often remarked, the substance and purpose of art, a raising of the spirit from all that weighs it down.

I'll go on the record here and say that I didn't love LUCK as much as I wanted to. It's been a long time since DEADWOOD was prematurely axed, and for those of us who had come to love that star-crossed but immensely satisfying show, LUCK seemed full of promise. (For another post is the ill-fated JOHN FROM CINCINNATI, which was unfairly maligned but problematic, burdened with inconsistent performances and pedestrian filmmaking.) LUCK's relatively modest flaws are difficult to nail down, exactly, but I suspect it had something to do with a fundamental creative disconnect between Milch and Mann. This pairing certainly had its benefits, but even from the beginning there was the whiff of over-development - why have just one prestigious mega-producer when you can have two? - being the kind of thing that studio execs tend to go all mushy over. Milch clearly has a long-lasting relationship with HBO, but he's known for his, shall we say, unconventional methods, of which he himself has admitted does not endear him to the bean-counters. It's possible that Mann was brought on for his massive ego as much as for any commercial or aesthetic cachet, with the bosses supposing that this was just the guy to shape the brilliant but disorderly Milch's material into something coherent, marketable, and "iconic." Speculation aside, the arrangement was what it was, with a clean breakdown between writing and everything else, and for me at least, the results were pretty varied.

In a way, the tension between the words and their execution should be no great surprise. Milch, despite his claims to the contrary, is an auteur. You need only view some of the behind-the-scenes footage from the Deadwood DVDs to understand that he was intimately involved with every detail of the show, up to and including the performances, which were shaped and re-shaped through his interaction with the performers.  I've no doubt that Milch is a great collaborator - plenty of actors have spoken to that effect. But usually, there's room for only one creative mastermind on any set, and this is where the aesthetic problems of LUCK might have originated. Mann is himself an auteur of some repute, and one of a very different kind. 

Probably the most direct example of Milch's and Mann's stylistic diversions lies in their treatment of characters. Milch's characters drive the narrative, or rather his stories are driven by the character's development over time.  Mann's characters deal with change too, but their stories aren't driven by it. Put simply, Mann's work is pitched in a mythic register, with archetypes and familiar story arcs.  You could also call Mann's characters existential, as several writers have; in either case, nuanced psychology and an intense focus on behavior is not the main concern.  Milch's approach is on the other hand more novelistic, chock-full of colorful characters of every stripe, who bluster and scheme and bump into each other in all kinds of interesting and unexpected ways. Mann's work is linear and sleek, like a bullet train, while Milch's work is crooked and rambling, like a knotty oak tree. I probably don't need to emphasize that I think Milch's work is in general richer and more rewarding, and feels truer to life. Mann's work is exhilarating on a fantastical level, but it doesn't quite stir me the way Milch's does. And with LUCK, these two different approaches clashed.

Too often, there were directorial flourishes - slow motion, swelling music, fancy shots and cuts - that, while clearly intended to underscore and support the action, just ended up overselling it. Milch's characters are riveting enough without having a synth cue insisting that what's happening is Of Great Importance.  Nothing is less rewarding for an audience than being told how to feel, and too often this was the effect of the filmmaking on LUCK. Part of his has to do with Milch's use of humor, which is generously dispersed throughout his work. Mann, on the other hand, while not humorless, tends to be more consistently serious, and I don't think he always knew what to do with the comic beats in LUCK. It was clear that he was most at home dealing with the existential yearnings and fugue-like mystery of the environment; the grubby details and everyday idiocy of life just didn't engage his imagination as much.

Was there a solution? Milch isn't Oz, and I don't think he can be a cinema-style auteur, with his constant rewriting of the scripts. It is good to have a director with a strong visual sensibility to abet the workings of the text, but perhaps not one as willful and independent as Mann. Still, with all that said, the show was, at least on a creative level, quite successful. I didn't love it, again, the way I wanted to love it, which really means that it wasn't Deadwood, and I should just reconcile myself to the fact that nothing will be Deadwood ever again, and get over it already.  LUCK gave us angles and permutations of Milch's work, and Mann's, that never would have arisen independently of one another, and for that I'm grateful. It was thrilling to watch such a first-rate cast work with such elevated material, as it always is to watch talented professionals enjoy what they are doing; such enjoyment invariably manifests itself in the quality of the performances. As much as LUCK never quite seem to establish itself stylistically, it does build very effectively to a satisfying conclusion. Would it have only improved in another season? Probably. The last few episodes indicated lots of promise, but we won't ever now for sure. That's as much as we'll get, and that's enough for now.