Saturday, January 27, 2007

Children of Men - Dipping a Finger Into Reality

I frankly don’t understand a lot of the negative reaction to Children of Men. I mean, it didn’t get all that much openly negative reaction - it has a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes - but a significant number of the positive reviews are laced with vague caveats, and I can’t understand what criticisms they’re trying to level. I saw the film, and I found it almost flawless, provided it’s taken on its own terms. A lot of these reviews were looking for something extra that they’re used to finding in movies.

The most obvious, and (in my opinion) the silliest, of these is the case of blogger violet., who was clearly looking for an opportunity to watch the book. Her instrumental sentence is, "So many things wrong, so many things missed. It could have been a great film, having had such rich material to work with.”

So you missed the in-depth reflections that the book brought to the story, in a one-and-a-half hour film, produced with a no-bullshit aesthetic that made its point by refusing to lean on cinematic clichés like flashbacks and contrived dialogue? I’m happy that most bloggers aren’t filmmakers.

A little more confusing is an opinion like James Berardinelli’s, on Reelviews. To James’ credit, he gave the movie a pretty good score (three out of four) and he didn’t fall into the same trap that violet. fell into; he makes it clear that he can distance the cinematic version from the book version, and that he appreciates it for what it is: “The script underwent several revisions, and each one took it further from the source material. This isn't necessarily a bad thing.”

Berardinelli goes on to mention a number of the features that made Children of Men so impressive: the frank, unflinching portrayal of violence, the unbelievable camera work, and the themes of moral ambiguity. So why does he give the film three stars, instead of four? He never actually explains this decision. In his last paragraph, he suggests that he wanted less action and more reflection (“Stripped bare, this is essentially a chase movie”), but when, in the last sentence, he calls it “imperfect,” I don’t really understand what he's talking about.

As for me, I’m going to discuss this film on its strong points. I concur, it wasn’t exactly meditative, and the character backgrounds were just there to frame the central “escape from LA”-style storyline, but these weren’t accidental oversights — they were smart stylistic decisions. The film clearly focused its energies on the escape from London, which was the central action of the plot, and the accompanying atmosphere of repression, desperation, and social cynicism. In this regard, it was an absolute triumph.

The camera work might be the deciding factor that made Children of Men one of the best, most suspenseful films of the decade, even though it wasn’t classed specifically as an action film. Most on-screen editing these days is made up of quick cuts with no more than ten seconds between them. Emmanuel Lubezki, director Alphonso Cuarón’s cinematographer, kept his camera running for significant lengths of time, from thirty seconds to as long as five minutes, even through high-intensity action sequences. Most film students are discouraged from using lengthy shots, because they can get boring (thirty seconds of a medium shot during a conversation — who would ever want to watch that?) but Cuarón and Lubezki keep it interesting by creating long sequences of hand-held shots, approaching the subject, withdrawing, panning, following, and generally keeping up with the actors.

This isn’t just a minor stylistic detail — the camera work ends up creating the sensation that informs the whole movie. In effect, the unbroken shots mimic the perspective of a live observer, someone who can’t arbitrarily change position, and who’s so transfixed by the action that they can’t look away. Other films' quick cuts and sequences of shots are stimulating in themselves, but they distance us from the actual action going on on-screen. The camera work in Children of Men, by contrast, was so immersive that I felt uneasy during the high-intensity scenes. Most broad generalizations are complete exaggerations, but in this case, I’m being absolutely sincere when I say I’ve never seen a movie that made me feel so personally, physically in danger as I did during Children of Men.

This camera work was part of a whole package that emphasized the plausibility of such a bleak future. Flawless environments and stark, straightforward performances added to the realism of this dystopia — a place much more immediate and tangible than the futures of Mad Max or V for Vendetta. This cinéma vérité philosophy extends to the plot, as well, and that left some of the critics disappointed with the story: in some reviews, it’s been called simplistic, predictable, and flat.

However, again, the straightforward plot wasn’t due to neglect on the part of the filmmakers. The writing and plotting of Cuarón’s film is parallel to its cinematic style, unadorned and intuitive. We all might like to see our lives in terms of destiny and higher consciousness, but in the real world, things are either predictable, or they’re entirely random. The events in Children of Men reflected this reality, which isn’t governed by any preordained orderliness. Decisions of the characters had to be reactive and spontaneous; their escape had to be desperate and unplanned, and characters who influenced this destiny (like Jasper, Syd, and Marichka) had to do it at a moment’s notice, because they were faced with a situation that they had to figure out how to deal with.

If you were looking for a review, here it is: you should go see Children of Men. If you have any appetite for thoughtful, confrontational filmmaking, it will leave you shaken and thoroughly impressed. In terms of a broader critical perspective, I’d like to suggest that Children of Men is an ideal model for new filmmakers who are looking for a way to negotiate narrative and stylistic convention with brute-force realism. Cuarón continues to be a director to watch for in the world of cinema.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Robert Anton Wilson: When you get there, tell us how the weather is

A friend of mine had the following quote up as her away message tonight:

"'Smash, smash the old laws' habitual beauty becomes narcotic eventually; it can be rediscovered, but only dialectically, by contrast, by the creation of new, brutally shocking beauty, beauty that seems barbarism at first. And the creation of such new beauty is the first step for anyone who would a god, and not a slave of dead gods. It is in the war between great seeking and great boredom that new beauty is born."

It's a sharp little aphorism by the inestimable Robert Anton Wilson. What made my friend's use of the quote even more interesting is that she used it without realizing that RAW had just died two days prior, expiring of natural causes in his Santa Cruz County home.

I took a couple short walks tonight, and the conditions around my apartment were a little eerie... I'd even say "desolate." There was a killer wind blowing down fourth avenue, and it was making the kinds of creakings and hollow arias you're likely to hear on a farm in the middle of winter... a strange sound indeed to a sheltered city-dweller. It was also the most deserted I've ever seen Bay Ridge (Brooklyn being, incidentally, the home of the young R. A. W.). There were no footsteps and few cars, so the wind had free reign before the faceless New York masses.

Wilson's last recorded writings, accessible in his newly-created blog, include the reflection,

"Various medical authorities swarm in and out of here predicting I have between two days and two months to live. I think they are guessing. I remain cheerful and unimpressed. I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying.

Please pardon my levity, I don't see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd. "

So Nature seems to be taking Wilson's death harder than Wilson himself. It's not just the fringe weirdos, the cognitive libertarians, and the street-corner mystics who are mourning the loss of a prophet tonight... it's also Eris, speaking in the voice of a chill wind in this city, and who is taking a moment of liberty to fuck with our hyper-rationalized lives. Normally, I'd chalk the chill wind up to coincidence.

But tonight, we're talking about Robert Anton Wilson. There are no coincidences.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth: del Toro, Cronenberg, violence and reality

I'm only really familiar with the big-budget, low-brainwave subset of Guillermo Del Toro's work, like Hellboy and Blade, so I was pretty shocked by the beautiful, challenging ideas presented in Pan's Labyrinth, his praise-winning film currently in the theaters. I was expecting a dark fairy-tale, something like The Dark Crystal or The Neverending Story... hells no. Pan's Labyrinth is a visceral political horror movie with a fairy tale theme. It hit an alarming minor note in me, vibrating between beautiful and nauseating, partly because I don't watch many horror movies.

And for the same reason, I'm prompted to ask: why do we watch things like this? In particular, the mutilation themes, the torture, the facial trauma... is it truly the product of a desensitized, obsessive society? Is this what it takes to entertain us?

I'm not willing to go that far, or sound that much like an old academic curmudgeon. As much as it gives a shock to our systems and keeps us engaged, movie violence isn't just a plea for attention... in the hands of the best directors, it's also part of the statement. This doesn't justify depravity, hatred, or misbehavior, but it puts the whole arrangement - the artistic vision and the entertainment value - into perspective, bringing meaning to the pure spectacle.

Take, foremost, the work of David Cronenberg, another horror director. The gruesome scenes in Pan's Labyrinth (especially the torture and the facial mutilation) reminded me of the visuals in Cronenberg's work, and as a director whose work has come under criticism (in every sense of the word), Cronenberg serves as a meaningful point of departure for a discussion of meaning. For a head start on this blog entry, read Cronenberg's Wikipedia entry.

The Wikipeople call Cronenberg's work "body horror," which makes a lot of sense. Across a whole variety of genres, his films show sudden, jarring scenes of bodily mutilation and the sickening effects of the violence he portrays. This stuff is NOT to make people excited... it's to bring a sense of immediate, visceral reality to the violence that's rendered nonthreatening in so much of cinema. In most action movies, gunfights end with an extra lying on the ground with a red spot on his/her shirt. In A History of Violence, the gunfights end in shattered faces and trauma-induced seizures. It's not just target practice.

As the criticism suggests, Cronenberg is dealing with real themes here, in particular the themes of penetration, invasion, and the psychological issues of physical integrity. His visuals remind us that physical violence is painful and disturbing, and that we don't want to get caught on either end of a gun (whether to have our heads blown up, or to become part of the weapons we wield). Is this desensitizing, or is it, in a sense, resensitizing in a society where the violence of physical trauma is packaged for general consumption?

Pan's Labyrinth is dealing with a cross-section of the same themes - the psychological implications of torture, violence, birth, and escapism - and if we look at Cronenberg as a director who shows the reality of horror, then del Toro is a director who has shown us the horror of reality. In Pan's Labyrinth, there's a Cronenbergian depiction of violence, but it's placed in contrast with a strange, physically indeterminate fantasy world where Ofelia goes to fulfill her personal destiny.

It's striking, in fact, that a majority of the violence in Pan's Labyrinth takes place in the real world, rather than in the fairy-tale world where the faun dominates. The notable exception is the Pale Man, who Guillermo says represents the violence of faceless institutions like the church. But where the alternate dimension includes faeries, bugs, giant reversible frogs, and a shuffling mythological creature, the "real" world is chock-full of torture, obstetric complications, and execution by shooting (at least four) and stabbing (one, very viciously, and one unsuccessfully).

Why do we watch this shit? And why, in general, is death and brutality such an important part of the fairy-tale mindset?

If we're to take del Toro's own ideas at face value, and perhaps extend them a little further, then we start to see: it's to show that there's a world of real, intense, and unbearable violence (as per Cronenberg), and that in this world, innocence may be impossible, but it's the only virtue worth preserving.

For some more interesting information on Guillermo del Toro, check out this explanation of his themes, and this review of Pan's Labyrinth by Christianity Today.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Casino Royale II: Special Face Cards

I love it when rhetorical devices sneak into big-budget Hollywood films. We've all seen in-depth analysis of art films and classic literature, so we're not surprised to hear about coded complexities of space and gender and difference in Madame Bovary, or whatever (insert literary tropes and important modernist novel as necessary). But we rarely expect to find such coded themes and subtle structural devices in Hollywood blockbusters, so a lot of people stop searching.

But there are a few reasons for us to keep looking. First, Hollywood is smarter than we give it credit for. When you start paying attention to directors' names, you realize that sometimes the people making popcorn flicks (i.e. Hellboy, Blade) are the same people making the psychological mind-benders (Cronos, Pan's Labyrinth). Second, when we manage to find the rhetorical devices in our favorite B-movies, it makes the movies that much more enjoyable. A lot of the pleasure we take in repeated movie-watching is due to expectation and recognition, and the more we have to connect, recognize, look for, and think about, the more it makes sense to keep watching the films and making the connections. Third, finding the smart subtexts in badass films makes us feel smarter, and it vindicates our watching cheesy cinema, even if we're in graduate programs that expect us to spend all our time watching political documentaries and Mulholland Dr.

The new Bond film, Casino Royale, is a sick movie, no doubt, but there's something more there than free-running and hot dialogue (She: "I don't think I'm cruel enough for that." Bond: "Maybe you're just out of practice.") If you try to connect coincidences, you start discovering the subliminal construction of the film, the way it links its characters and its plot to its premise and structure. I'll give you an example, and I'll mention a few other places where you could look for a deeper coded meaning in this film.


I started figuring this out when I noticed that there were two guys with eye-problems. For the first half of the film, Bond is dealing with Le Chiffre, a slick card-counting gambler who always wears black. He happens to have a glandular problem with his left eye, so it's bleached white, and (get this shit) it cries blood. Later: Bond and Vesper are tailed by a man with an eye-patch, whose name (according to my research) is Gettler. This has actually generated some confusion... a lot of people get these two villains mixed up, assuming Le Chiffre didn't die, but rather returned as Gettler to reclaim the money.

But the oracular issues aren't just part of a random preoccupation Ian Fleming had when he wrote this novel. In a deck of playing cards, there are two Jacks whose faces are in full profile, so you can only see one eye. There two characters represent the two one-eyed jacks in a deck of cards. I'd even go so far as to conjecture that Le Chiffre represents the Jack of Hearts, because of his association with blood. That would leave Gettler as the Jack of Spades.

This could have been a coincidence. It's an unlikely one, but it could have been a random stylistic decision that I'm reading too deeply. But if I can trace it even further, and it turns out to be even more elaborate, it becomes more likely that it's an ingtentional embedded semiotic code (as per classic paranoid schizophrenic logic). So as soon as I recognized the presence of the one-eyed jacks, I started watching for one more special face card that's present in playing card decks: the Suicide King.

And there, before my eyes, Vesper Lynd, Bond's true love (the hearts theme) locks herself into a sinking elevator chamber (the suicide theme) while wearing a red dress (just in case it wasn't clear enough). Don't let the gender inversion fool you... the coding is clear. The three most common special face cards appear in Casino Royale, clear as day, thus informing a semiotic understanding of the characters. There's never any attention drawn to it, but when you start to look, it's almost unmistakable. And if we can find this theme, embedded so cleverly in the design of the narrative, who knows what else we could find?

I'll give some more ideas for future analysis. If anybody has theories, let me know; I might follow up on some of these myself, if I get a bunch of extra free time.

  1. What cards might other characters represent? Is Bond an ace and/or a Joker? Is M one of the queens? Are there any other parallels, clearly evidenced, that I'm overlooking?
  2. What's the role of luck and/or the bluff in Bond's political actions? If certain characters resemble certain cards, is it possible (or rewarding) to see this whole movie as a macrocosmic poker game?
  3. This is based on Flemming's first Bond novel... do the relationships with Vesper and Solange establish the dynamic that informs the rest of Bond's doomed loves? Is the rest of his life dictated by the relationship, established in this book, between love, betrayal, and abandonment?
  4. When did Vesper decide to betray Bond? This isn't so much a thematic interest as something that just wasn't clear to me - was she always an agent of Mr. White, helping influence the poker game and playing both sides? Or was she truly devoted to the treasury until Le Chiffre's tortue scene, when she made the deal with Mr. White in order to same Bond?
  5. As a sub-question to the above: What were the implications of Vesper's betrayal? Did she betray Bond, or did she save him, and how can both be true at the same time? Is there evidence of a fatal love triangle between Vesper, Bond, and the political institutions that they serve?
This has been a long and enjoyable entry to write... as I reflect further on Casino Royale, I find I like it more and more... it was surprisingly well-endowed with complexities and ambiguities, and like any really good movie, it rewards further analysis and examination. Art meets action, my friends - it's the future of a franchise and the future of a medium.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Video Game Violence: Joe Lieberman is a goddamn comedian

I'm going to have to interrupt my gushing about Casino Royale to draw attention to an absurd example of propagandistic political cinema. I'm drawing attention to it because of my social libertarian tendencies, but more importantly, I want to bring it up because it's so under-argued and overdramatic that it's laughable.

It's a trailer for a new movie, I guess along the lines of new political-issue documentaries, like Inconvenient Truth, Who Killed the Electric Car?, and The U.S. Versus John Lennon. This one is positioned to attack video games as the pivotal gateway for violence to enter our culture. The video in question can be found here.

For the sake of rational argument (I put that concept in italics so you can wave goodbye to it for the duration of the clip), I'm going to look at this trailer on a point-by-point basis. They have four, maybe five soundbites, and not ONE of them stands up to the least scrutiny.

Let's take a few. I'm paraphrasing... the quotes are just to make it clear that I'm pulling a point from the video. My commentary is going to be minimal, because you're all individually capable of thinking about these points and recognizing them as farcical.

1 - "In the past, violence has been seen as a vice, rather than a virtue."
Every society in the history of civilization has valued its warriors over its lay-people. Samurais, Knights, army generals, kids play-fighting since the beginning of time... if anything, we live in perhaps the LEAST violent global culture in history.

2 - "We didn't want to get into the regulation game; we invited the gaming industry to regulate itself."
Again, nonsensical. The video game industry is regulating itself; it would take some fast talking to claim that software companies, adopting the ESRB ratings voluntarily, aren't heeding the cautions of their critics.

3 - "We blame video games for teaching people how to fly planes into the World Trade Center."
Blaming non-violent video games rather than the CIA? An irrelevant and profoundly misdirective tangent. Mentioning 9/11 is nothing but shameless sensationalism.

4 - "We'll see Columbine etc. etc"
Again, sensationalism. Why can't we blame the alarmist media for glorifying violence by making every American crisis into a political buzzword?

5 - "We literally enter into a world that's so realistic, we forget that it's a make-believe world."
This isn't true for anyone I know, including 3 to 6-year old children. It's an absurdism that equates playing video games with a kind of psychopathic hallucination.

Alarmist is a comedic understatement. If this trailer suggested any kind of cogent argument, I might take an interest in watching the film. Instead, it shows that people who want to regulate our lifestyles can only justify their actions with bizarre misrepresentation of reality.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Casino Royale I: A survey of stunt-work

So I got out to see the new Bond before it disappeared, and I was thoroughly impressed. It's good to see such a strong franchise take a fresh direction, and I'm definitely feeling validated, because I was rooting for this permutation of the Bond legacy since the first trailers appeared. No, seriously, I totally was.

Anyway, it was good enough that it's going to take two blog posts to cover my thoughts about it. Next post, I'll look at a particular (really smart) structural device in Casino Royale, and about how it brought the storytelling together for me. Today, though, I'm not going to talk about why it was smart. I'm going to talk about why it was flippin' sweeet.

There's almost no such thing as believable action in movies any more. I loved The Rundown, but I have to admit, the physical trauma the characters went through made no damn sense. A five-minute fall down a thousand-foot cliff face? And you're ready to go as soon as you hit the bottom? "Camp" (i.e. campiness) has started excusing a lack of concern for reality, and the absurdity of the whole thing is disguised under the camera work: indistinguishable close-ups interspersed with long shots, making it as easy as possible for a mannequin to fulfill the physical demands of the stunt-man.

This isn't just a phenomenon in the American world of big-budget action stars, either. Martial Arts films are watering down their stunt work to a vast degree, replacing it with slow-motion effects, wire acrobatics, and jarring cuts that stimulate the eye without giving it anything to follow. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had beautiful effects design and concept work, with the weightless combat over stunning landscapes, but aren't these guys also champion martial artists? Why do new directors bury their physical capabilities beneath a wash of quick cuts and special effects?

The last few Bonds have been shameful examples of this kind of overdramatized action work, big pyrotechnics and wind machines and effects in place of any real physical exertion. Check out the opening sequence of The World is Not Enough and tell me if you think Brosnan ever had to break a sweat while making this film.

Now compare that to all the stunt work in Casino Royale, and I have faith that the latter will come out on top. Throughout the whole early stunt sequence, Daniel Craig and his stunt-men (I'm considering them as an aggregate for the purposes of this entry) appeared in extended medium shots, sometimes as long as five to ten seconds, balancing, perched in high places, making long jumps, and scrambling around scaffolding. As a nod to the realism of this chase scene, they hired Sebastien Foucan, world-renowned free runner, to play the terrorist being chased through the streets of Madagascar.

Daniel Craig and Sebastian Foucan and the stunt-people in Casino Royale brought me back to better times, when it was a matter of respect to perform real stunts, and in some cases, to perform them without the aid of a trained professional substitute. I'm not usually nostalgic, but it was nice to be reminded of Project A and the spirit of the old Jackie Chan, when combat and pursuit didn't look like a psychadelic trip through a bunch of set pieces.

I'm not here to say that Casino Royale's stunt-work is all firmly rooted in reality, but still... it's as close as any action movie has come in a long time. The tentative pauses, the struggles to find a foot-hold, the split decisions and the minor spills and collisions that would go along with this kind of physical competition... all these things are well-represented in Casino Royale, and it brings the physical trauma to a level that makes it relevant and engaging.

So that's it, the foot is going down. No action heroes allowed unless they can smash through drywall to catch up with extreme sports icons. That's my new criteria... if you're hanging from a wire, all you get from me is contempt. I won't be convinced until you take a hit so hard that I can feel it.