Monday, December 29, 2008

Orwellian Glasses and Spiritual Jeans in Midtown NYC

Advertising: the art of pitching to a generic audience in a way that makes them feel unique, and uniquely suited to purchase a particular product. Excellent example: CRUNCH, the New York gym, whose marketing pitch is that people need a place to work out that's flexible and doesn't expect them to turn into jocks. However, BAD marketing, based loosely on the afore-cited principle but applying it in all the wrong ways, isn't just unconvincing... it's actually a little scary.

Case in point: my.Vu

These ads popped up all over the 34th Street subway station one day, and I've had to endure them ever since. Each one has a stock-photo-esque portrait of a young model-esque adult wearing the product being advertised... a tiny pair of pseudo-sleek goggles with a video screen on the inside of the lens, so you can watch TV from a centimeter away. Each of these models has a practiced look of enjoyment, generally slightly flirtatious (especially when they're looking at you over the tops of the lenses). Each one also has some sort of "preference" listed at the bottom, like "retro punk," or "cooking shows." Each model's genre seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with their personality in the photo, and this is where the trouble starts.

Two problems here. One: the models and their poses are brutally generic, as if they were all taken from a modeling agency's B-Roll and outfitted by the mannquins at the Gap. Two: the posters, which would otherwise be blessedly forgettable, seem to be selling their product based on "individuality" implied by the genre preferences. Even to someone who's willing to give credit to the most crass advertising, this is offensive, a veritable insult to my gullibility. This is generic advertising gone mad.

In fact, it's ultimately rather Orwellian. We're given characters who are attractive, but in the most generic way possible... a standardization of an ideal, made placidly predictable in a series of fashion portraits... and in order to assuage our fears that we all might become the same person, we're provided with token "preferences" that we can check off on our personality forms, assuring us that we're individuals, I promise, I swear it. Of course, the fact that these models are depicted encased in personal video screens, a la 1984 meets Videodrome... that doesn't do anything to help the cause.

Bad advertising.

But once I saw this, and discerned the source of my distaste, I ran across yet another sign of our dystopian corporate future. This, outside a Lincoln Center adorned with a pulsating Christmas phantasmagoria, was a large poster for "True Religion brand Jeans." This is truly a statement about what's really important during the Christmas season.

As a young, avant-garde progressive nihilist hipster, I must celebrate. Now that we've gotten through our enlightenment skepticism phase, pioneered by such skeptics as Leo Tolstoy and Karl Marx, we can move on to find some postmodern replacement for a genuinely spiritual deity... and who better to provide such an idol of complacency than Fashion Avenue? We know people like Richard Dawkins won't let us look to anything metaphysical for solace, what with all the breathing down our necks about "science," so we may as well look to the physical, social, commercial world for transcendance ("brandscendance?")

We are living in strange times, my friends. Pretty soon I'll need a prescription for my TV and a confessional for my fashion guilt.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A long reflection on movie-watching

When I initiated my current project of experiencing film history by watching all the essential pictures, I expected it to be one of the many endeavors to fall victim to my short attention span. A few friends’ lists of films, perhaps twenty movies in total, provided a list that seemed overwhelming at the time. How often could I sacrifice an evening for a film that I might find obtuse, dated, and almost unwatchable? At the time, it seemed like a mere flight of fancy, easy to pursue because it was just a long list and an impotent plan.

How surprised I am, even now, to find that the quest has endured. In the last four months, I’ve watched around thirty films and tripled the size of my NetFlix queue, and I’ve seen my curiosity grow into something like an obsession. I’m hesitant to add too many more films to my queue (the purview of film is starting to lose its shape), and I can only watch a couple movies a week, so I find myself simply milling over the ones I’ve seen and impotently searching for “essentials” that I’ve managed to miss. Of course, there can’t be many more “essentials,” because the word loses its meaning when it's applied to such a vast range of films, so looking for more additions can be a frustrating pastime.

I’ve found that there are a number of possible approaches to the idea of “essential cinema.” My first approach to this topic was through a few friends, all very different, but all passionate about movies. I asked each of them for a list of five movies that everybody should see, and I got five completely different angles on the art and history of the medium. One list was a cluster of “influential films,” the experimental and artistic pieces that have inspired other directors to expand their visions… people like Bergman, Herzog, and Antonioni, who are essential for the uniqueness of their visions. Another list was a group of key blockbusters, including Star Wars, the Godfather, and three other films that have become inescapable references in pop culture. A third friend offered an historical list, a survey of silver screen and golden-age masterpieces that have served as Hollywood’s perennial prototypes.

I’ve discovered two inescapable names in this process. These are Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa… these two auteurs are the definitive artists of cinema history, having produced an almost endless filmography of apparent masterpieces according to their respective unique visions. Bergman’s best-known films are Persona, The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries, but if you dig into his work, you find that virtually every film he produced is considered a masterpiece in some way. Kurosawa’s films have a similar power over his audiences… beyond Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, you’ll find a wealth of films that demonstrate a vast range of talent, from epic Samurai films to surreal film noir. It seems like every one of Kurosawa’s films is “perhaps his best,” or “enormously influential.”

You may notice: they’re not Steven Spielberg or James Cameron. They didn’t have a whole lot of budget for pyrotechnics, and they certainly didn’t have computer animation. In fact, going back into the history of cinema, you discover a much simpler art form. I’m not going to argue that these visionaries were better than our blockbuster purveyors, or even that they made better films. However, I’m going to point out that they had more control, back in the day. For Bergman in Persona, or for Warner Herzog in Stroszek, filmmaking was still related to theater and photography, and the camera was still a manual tool, a distant cousin of the paintbrush.

And though there have always been massive, big-budget motion pictures, going as far back as Intolerance, that silent epic, it was still an art form for individual creators for most of the twentieth century. Realizing this fact is part of the key to enjoying the older "classic" films, the ones that seem impossibly dated if you're mostly watching Guy Ritchie these days. When you get past the strange feeling that old films aren't managing to cue your emotions with obvious signals (sad music, close-ups of a single tear), you may discover a certain complex personality in the older pieces of cinema. There may be no twisted, angular plot to follow, and nobody to root for, so you have to start getting to know film like you get to a human being... strange, with emotional pieces that fit together messily, the product of a whole mass of conflicting influences and human history, wanting to speak but rarely knowing quite what it wants to say. So many old films are sullen, possibly because they're explorations of difficult psychic spaces. Some are over-masculine and callous, but undercut by gawky self-consciousness (Sergio Leone), and some use buoyancy and escapism to distract from the fact that they're wrestling with crippling uncertainty (Federico Fellini).

I've made a point to watch films in related groups, but to make sure I'm not watching all of one type of film at any particular time. Thus, I'll be poking around Poetic Realism, and mixing in a few 80's and 90's suspense and sci-fi essentials while I'm at it. The intention, in part, has been for me to avoid getting lost in one genre or period, and to get a broad purview of cinema history. It's apparent that film, as it stands today, has been shaped in some way by every major genre and movement, from the early silent films, which established all the basic camera conventions (the Soviet montage, for instance) to the Golden era of film, which brought the celebrity actor to Hollywood, to film noir, which brought us face to face with the cynical, self-preserving hero of late modernism.

Though film is a constant elaboration on its entire history, it seems that perhaps the current world of popular movies was born around the 1980's, with directors like Lucas, Cameron, and Ridley Scott. For years, film was disposed to be realist, simply by the limitations of budget and economy... with Star Wars, THX, Blade Runner, Alien(s), and The Terminator, directors were able to start creating their own worlds, and these visionaries became the godfathers of new American fiction. Since that time, set design, costuming, and post-production have matched cinematography and acting as the decisive factors in the cinema arts, and the vast majority of large-volume blockbusters, from Sin City to The Lord of the Rings to Gladiator, have drawn from this tendency, born in a molten pitch of 80's sci-fi.

It's taken some time for this project to bear any strong opinions, and though I've discovered some favorite movies, and traced some of my old favorites back to their historical influences, I haven't really formed much in the way of preferences for certain eras, styles, or movements. The one deeply personal conclusion I have arrived at is a pretty simple, broad reinforcement of something that I've actually known for a long time: I LOVE cinema, from the old silent pictures to the new Oscar winners, and from the most inane romances to the most obtuse art films.

I wish I had something better to tell you, at the end of this rambling post, but this is all I have for you. Movies are awesome. Thank you. Good night.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Victory for Barack Obama

I know I haven't posted in a while, but I just wanted to say congratulations to my fellow leftists and centrists, my fellow students and young voters, and the whole mass of a nation that needed to see politics take a fresh turn. As with Hegel and my enlightenment forefathers, I believe history has a trajectory that will become clear in time, and this election has reassured me that it's a direction I can understand and appreciate.

Benefit of the Doubt believes in the power of public discourse, but more importantly, I believe that this discourse isn't empty -- the words of a public figure, whether spoken in private or from behind a podium, are a window into that figure's consciousness. Each of us has been forced, over the last year, to turn our ears toward these candidates, and I believe that we, as a collective culture, have heard the truth in them, and we have made a sound judgement.

So most of all, congratulations to Barack Obama, our new President... may he bring a new voice to our nation, and may its echo endure in history.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Highest Praise: Vertov's Man With the Movie Camera

Since I'm not really interested in deconstructing the body language of presidential candidates, or celebrating the stupidity of an opposing party, I'm going to keep away from overtly political commentary for the moment. It's a sad day when reasoned analysis seems like folly in the face of strategic absurdity, which is currently having an undue influence over public opinion, and I think, for the moment, I'd rather talk about something from 1920 than I would about what's going on right now.

So I saw The Man With The Movie Camera, which is one of the greatest films you've never heard of. It clocked in at number 95 on the 1000 greatest films ever made, which I think shortchanges it a bit... among the silent films I've seen, it's been by far the most interesting. Battleship Potemkin was ranked at number 49, a full fifty places ahead, and it seems to me that Potemkin, made only four years earlier, had hardly an iota of the formal and artistic complexity of Man With the Movie Camera.

Part of the reason Man With the Movie Camera is such an artistic feat is that it seems formally and semantically deliberate, right down to the core. Its complexity never seems like the accident of experimentation, perhaps because it was created within a very clear conceptual framework. This framework is what you might call the theory of pure montage, the attempt to use juxtaposition and parallel alone to create meaning, rather than using narrative continuity and the invisible cut. Battleship Potemkin's experiments with montage were within a framework of telling a story, which was itself in service to reinforcing an ideology. Eisenstein's montage was conceived as a means to an end, and thus it wasn't able to reach its full potential as a craft in itself.

Vertov's stated mission, to purge film of the conventions of literature and theater, is evident in practice in Man With the Movie Camera, and this allows the film to act as a complex, 75-minute wireframe that can in turn be analyzed in parts, as a series of sub-montages, and together, as a meta-montage. The levels of parallelism are almost limitless... the parallel between the mechanisms of the city and the engineering of the human body, the association between the window, the eye, and the lens, the parallel drawn between narrative fiction and slumber (i.e. bourgeousie laziness), the references to the substructure of labor and the superstructure of urban life, the stories of awareness of the camera, both ours as the audience and the citizens' as the subject of the lens, the flocking and unfolding of urban populations, including both birds and humans, and the comparison of sewing of clothes and sealing of fingernails to the stitiching and developing of the director's film. These are just the first observations I can think of, a few isolated cases in a wellspring of concepts.

It's strange that this film came so long before those theories that seem to describe it. Postmodernism is so often cited as a post-World War II phenomenon, but this film is a shining predecessor to the postmodern obsession with spectacle and representation. Man With the Movie Camera makes a compelling attempt to contain and represent itself, and in its tentative success, it prefigures all those partial successes of postmodern ideas to bring recursive framing to culture. This is an ideologically-specific film depicting the construction of its own substance, which is a pseudo-narrative of a cameraman making a film whose subject is an ideological culture struggling to free itself from the anesthetisizing conventions of narrative... the signifiers can be drawn out almost ad infinitum. Why hasn't Derrida written about this? He's much better at creating clever grammatical sequences than I am.

This film also predates Marshall McLuhan by about a lifetime and a half, and yet it seems to speak directly to McLuhan's ideas about the power of media and the nature of content. The sequence with the seamstresses, carrying out their craft on the human body, is shown in parallel with a sequence on the film developing and editing process, which shows the craft behind the scenes of film, preparing images for mass consumption. Vertov seems to realize that a cosmetic procedure, carried out on the body, is no less a "medium" than a film, whose content is those unrefined images captured on journeys through Soviet Russia. At the same time, he seems to be making the reverse connection, as well: just as clothing and cosmetic services are forms of production, so the information-refining processes of capturing and editing images are forms of intellectual production, and this film, contained within its metafilm, is the product whose value is to be found in its refinement.

I have the urge to claim that the film is about man and his relationship with technology, which defines his culture and his ideology from the bottom up. However, that would be an unfair reduction of an infinitely complex, ambiguous film. The hypnotic rhythm, and intuitive order, and the deceptively complex conceptual framework... these all fit together to create one of the most important films in history, and one of my favorites among all the cinema I've seen.

So you should check it out.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hitchcock: Theories on The Birds and Psycho

Since my last list of films, I've seen a few others... Renoir's Rules of the Game, Port of Shadows, Fellini's 8 1/2, Murnau's Nosferatu, and most recently, two essential Hitchcock films that I'd never seen: The Birds and Psycho. I've focused my viewing habits a bit more in order to attend to seminal works of European and American popular film, and I've discovered some interesting trends. For instance, it seems to me that European film naturally groups itself into movements, often nationalistic and stylistic (Italian Neorealism, Poetic Realism, German Expressionism, etc) whereas American cinema organizes itself into genres that are specifically semantic and topical in nature (film noir, Western, horror). This is probably worthy of another blog post in the future; however, for today, I'd like to reflect on those Hitchcock films.

Hitchcock's experimentation with sound is among the most cosmetic, but the most striking, of the innovations appearing in these two films. I've seen three wildly different approaches to music in Hitchcock: in Psycho, the music was essential to the mood, and some extended scenes... like Marion's long drive to the Bates Motel... were entirely dependent upon the soundtrack. The music goes far beyond the famous screeching violins, and sets the unbalanced, trembling tone for the whole film. In The Birds, there is no music, which is one of the most unsettling aspects. This is not a movie about humans and their need for order and aesthetics, after all, and the lack of a soundtrack highlights the alien character of the natural world which envelopes them and threatens them with its tempraments. In Rear Window, which I saw a year or so ago, there is a soundtrack, but it's always created within the scene (i.e. diegetic music). I'm not going to focus on this film, but I thought it worth mentioning, since it's a third example of an experiment in audio-visual synergy.

The soundtrack for Psycho is perfectly suited to the tone of the film. In the key scenes, Hitchcock spends his time bringing us into the psychological space where Norman Bates resides, and the film's interiors represent this. Apparently Zizek hypothesized that the three levels of Bates' home represented his superego, ego, and id, respectively. This draws attention more generally to the fact that this was a film of interiors, and especially of the interior of Bates' mind. We spend some of the early scenes in Marion's head, where she hears the voices of her acquaintances as they decide how to pursue her. However, through most of the film, we're so close to Bates, and so involved with his anxiety and his complexes, that we're essentially seeing through his eyes, albiet with some contextual omnipresence added for effect.

What does this have to do with the soundtrack? Simply that the jarring violins and cellos were well-suited to representing an unbalanced mental space. The presence of music sets a mood and an atmosphere, and even a personality, within the space of the film, and this particular soundtrack played as a struggle to bring order to world that's ultimately drowned in anxiety and fear. This is Norman's soundtrack: his world is always at a slight tilt, jarring and uneven, and Bernard Herrmann's music is maddeningly effective.

The Birds feels a lot different, and represents something very different, and the difference in soundtracks indicates one of the basic contrasts between the films. In The Birds, there is no overriding consciousness to bring order to the strange events of the world, so there is no predictability and no explanation... no shrink detective appears at the end, explaining the phenomenon that made the birds attack the residents of the Bay. The clientelle of the diner offer a few tentative explanations, but these all seem woefully inadequate in the face of the simple physical facts of the attack. There is no solution, because there isn't even a plausible explanation, whether from science, or from religion, or from paranoia.

In this world, the human mind is no longer central, but peripheral to the unfolding events of the film. Music is no longer appropriate, because music is an ordering of the biological -- rhythm, harmonic melody, and atmosphere -- according to the patterns of consciousness, and in the hostile natural world that's overtaken Bodega Bay, there is no place for the metanarrative of the human mind. The characters are left to improvise and flounder, and their attempts to attribute any rationality to their environment are always in vain.

In fact, even the audience is left to struggle in vain with the problem of explanation. John McCombe points this out in the Spring 2005 Cinema Journal in his article on The Birds and English Romanticism... he says, "the viewer attempts to construct a cause for the violent attacks by these normally passive birds." This was true, at least for me, through the whole film -- though I didn't hope to find a clear, scientific/symbolic/rational explanation for the attacks, I kept searching for a running theme that could drive an interpretation. Was there a certain time, a certain symbol, or a certain object that united the attacks? Like the characters, I was left looking for some transcendental motive in nature's hostility, and like the characters, I was unsuccessful.

I felt that among the three explanations offered by the diner customers, the most plausible was the one offered by the paranoid mother, who suggested that Melanie was cursed. I wouldn't say that she was evil, per se... but she seemed cursed, almost from the outset of the film. The first on-record bird attacks were both in her vicinity, and toward the end of the film, when the attacks had started to make the news, the announcer noted that they were still centered around Bodega Bay. This isn't the whole world of nature going insane -- this is one small part of California, reacting negatively to bad energy, and some indicators point to Melanie as the source.

What could Melanie have done to earn the wrath of the natural world? Perhaps it has to do with her interest in overturning established orders, pulling pranks, invading a small town, and disrupting a tense maternal relationship. Maybe Lydia is a witch, or her anxiety is resonating through the natural world. Maybe, because she imprisoned the love birds, and because her own disposition is light and avian, Melanie has been chosen as nature's Pariah, a sacrifice to make up for humanity's petty fascist crimes.

It's worth further investigating the relationship between Psycho and The Birds, and I suspect that some theorist may have done this already. Mitch is no Norman Bates, but in a sense, his relationship with his real mother is reflective of Norman's relationship with his moralizing, internalized "mother" personality. If we continue along this line of logic, we discover that Melanie is like Marion, or like one of the girls who Norman murdered: a threat to a strained, controlling maternal relationship, an instigator throwing off the family's Oedipal balance. If this is truly her role, and if (as the previous paragraphs suggest) Melanie is actually the birds' target, then their wrath could be read as the reincarnated anger of Bates' mother, embodied in the same birds that preoccupy her son Norman.

And when this anger leaves Norman's head and enters the world, it's no longer contained in the jarring, pathological order of the violins and cellos... instead, it becomes a force that's disembodied, unstoppable, and unsettlingly silent.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona as a fable of stability

I've never really seen any classic Woody Allen. There's a specific reason for that: given what I've heard of the director, and the few clips of his movies that I've seen, I felt like I'd already gotten the point. Woody Allen is a neurotic, effete New York intellectual who spends his movies meditating on love's confusions, usually in the form of an autobiographical monologue and a few anecdotal incidents. This is a fair project for an artist with a vision, but it's not something I feel the need to attend to.

Even so, I caught Match Point not too long ago, and I definitely enjoyed it. Woody Allen really knows the aesthetic he's working with, and he knows the subtlety of intimacy and attachment. The touch of crime drama, with its uncertainty and suspense, was enough to keep me engaged in the narrative. I've recently seen Vicky Christina Barcelona, and I have a sense that I've experienced all that stuff I was missing.

Vicky Christina Barcelona is a film about a pair of friends who spend a summer in Barcelona, exploring and negotiating their very different approaches to romance. The two title characters, and all the characters they encounter, are molded to fairly common stereotypes, and this may be one of the first weaknesses of the film. Vicky is the stable skeptic, prudent and attached, and Christina is the fickle lover, obsessed with her freedom and her self-image. These two may both fit archetypal roles, but at the very least, their archetypes are explored in the course of the film.

Vicky and Christina's counterparts... the latin lovers Juan Antonio and Maria Elena... are carved from pure stereotype. They're the idealized, romanticized Spaniards, poetic and sensitive, confident, artistically gifted and sexually free. They come across as basically flawless, though in two very different ways. Was Woody Allen conscious of his lack of subtlety? Was he using them as icons of an American stereotype, instead of trying to develop them as characters?

I guess, in terms of the story, there's actually something to this role-affirming characterization. Like so many films, Vicky Christina Barcelona is about personalities striving to evolve and individuals trying to transgress their own limits. Like Shrek trying to break out of his cynicism, or Harold Crick struggling to break free of his predetermined lifestyle, Vicky and Christina are both facing the possibility of breaking through their own limits. Vicky finds her commitment shaken by a new infatuation, and Christina finds herself in a romantic situation that might convince her to finally settle down.

The difference between Shrek and Stranger Than Fiction, referenced above, and Vicky Christina Barcelona, is that in the latter, these transgressions fail miserably. Essentially, this film is about two identities that are challenged, but ultimately confirmed by those challenges. The latin couple's erotic allure almost overturns both Vicky's and Christina's self-appointed roles, but ultimately, they're too volatile for Vicky and too stable for Christina. The two protagonists finally return to themselves and go on living their self-images. Presumably, these roles are enough for them, and both go on to live happily.

You may have noticed that at the end of Vicky Christina Barcelona, nothing has changed. Nobody has gone through a great self-discovery, except to reaffirm their previous decisions, and nobody's life has drastically changed course. Vicky's relationship with the lovable Doug is saved, and even the capricious Christina seems stable in her transience. Juan Antonio and Maria Elena are still the same violent, creative couple, vascillating between love and hate, but we never expected them to change in the first place... they were just a sounding-board for the identities of the other two characters.

Anthony Burgess actually commented on this in his introduction to A Clockwork Orange, wherein he explained the significance of his final chapter: "When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or allegory." In this sense, then, Vicky Christina Barcelona is a fable, rather than a "novel" (still comparing it to literature). This makes it an interesting exercise, but perhaps less interesting as a film... a fable of romantic and sexual self-affirmation, where we may find the characters compelling, but where the opening monologue tells us all we need to know about them.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Amelie and Eternal Sunshine: Deconstructing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

I'm excited whenever I see smart, useful film criticism emerge from the orgy of popular commentary, and when it comes to film, The Onion AV Club is one of the more reliable sources for good ideas. In a recent article on Elizabethtown, Nathan Rabin coined the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," which he describes thusly:

"Dunst embodies a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example). The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family."

This is good, solid criticism, the type of thoughtful generalization that can be applied across a broad range of films (as the AV Club does again later). The MPDG archetype is a lot like the Magical Negro archetype, which I've written about before. She embodies something that our culture subconsciously idolizes and holds sacred, and just as the Magical Negro gives us some insight into our racial stereotypes, so the MPDG gives us some insight into our gender stereotypes.

I want to touch on the MPDG in two movies... not to criticize them for their stereotypes, but to praise them for their deconstruction. These are Amelie and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both films are widely praised as thoughtful, well-written films, but it's hard to say what exactly works about them. I think their unconventional treatment of the MPDG is at least one thing that both have going for them.

In Eternal Sunshine, Clementine starts the film as the essential MPDG. When Joel, reserved self-hating male, feels inspired to do something spontaneous and go to Montauk, she appears magically on a train, beckoning to him. They share an inexplicably intense afternoon (the traces of their former relationship, it turns out) and Joel finds himself beginning to loosen. Clementine is the inspiration for the blossoming of his personality in the Long Island winter snow.

However, as we dig into the chronology of the story, we start to see glimpses of this MPDG-driven relationship, and where it's taken them before. The second key scene, developing their emotional dynamic, is their fight in early 2004. In this scene, Clementine's absence and irreverence prompt Joel to air his grievances with the relationship, and we discover, to our surprise, that those free-spirited qualities that drew Joel to Clementine in the first place have started to wear on him. For Joel, her attractive sexual confidence has started to seem like lust and manipulation, and her spontaneity has threatened his own sense of stability.

This is, in a sense, a critique of the male investment in the MPDG. She may fulfill the male's fantasy of sex and happiness for a short time, but eventually the idealization will fade away, and the disillusioned man will be left with a real person, whose quirks may occasionally become less than endearing. By putting Clementine on a pedestal, Joel has doomed himself to disappointment and resentment... all she wants is to be treated like a real person, flawed and uncertain.

Amelie takes the stereotype and places it at yet another angle. Jeunet's 2001 film is about a girl who undertakes the mission of disrupting the lives of everyone around her, always in innocent ways, in order to make them reevaluate their lives. In some cases it works, and in some it doesn't.

Amelie Poulain is the perfect MPDG. She is friendly, lovable, and spontaneous, looking for intimacy, and bringing a sense of playful disorder to her surroundings. She only breaks the MPDG stereotype in one way: the MPDG is always a secondary character with a one-dimensional inner life, whereas Amelie is the primary protagonist, living out a personal history and chasing her desires. She is the MPDG of so many other movies, but in this little masterpiece, we are seeing the world through her eyes.

Is Nino the reserved male pseudo-protagonist to Amelie's MPDG? Perhaps... he spends a good deal of the film enduring a job he doesn't like and pursuing an introverted hobby to the ends of the earth. When Amelie starts leaving him clues as to her whereabouts and identity, he is eager to engage in her game. However, he doesn't have Jeunet's spotlight. In this spotlight, we find Amelie, and we discover certain intricacies of character that we wouldn't see in a conventional MPDG film.

In particular, Jeunet's camera shows us that Amelie loves to bring disorder to the world around her, but that her quirky hobbies are actually almost a form of self-sacrifice. She spends so much time trying to disrupt the lives of her friends that she hasn't taken the time to look for a love of her own. Her mysterious romance with Nino is her first attempt to take control of her own life, rather than disrupting others' control of theirs. In a sense, this is what every MPDG does: she sacrifices her own desires in order to be a vehicle in others' stories. She has positive influence, but she has no motive.

Amelie is the MPDG who decides to do something for herself, and by doing so, she discovers that she is a genuine agent in her own story, rather than simply a device in somebody else's.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Riding the Rumor Mill: Four Johnny Depp characters as The Riddler

So people are talking about casting choices for the next Batman, and there have been three noted... but there's only one I really feel like talking about. Here's a hint: he's not blond-haired, and he's not 62 years old.

The answer: Johnny Depp as The Riddler, the casting choice that tha Intarwebs seem most certain about. Do Depp's qualifications... his flirtations with Tim Burton and Disney, his hybrid status as a mainstream indie actor... give him the clout he'll need to play the Riddler? To answer this question, we'll have to look past the tabloid hype and explore more fruitful venues: the characters who have defined Depp as an actor.

There are four.

1. Sweeny Todd as The Riddler

This anti-hero might be the first character that comes to mind when you think of Depp as the Riddler, but I personally wouldn't be too interested in seeing Nolan take this direction. Sweeny's Riddler would be sentimental and sociopathic, vengeful, and overall, too measured and balanced. Tortured super-intelligence that overwhelms sympathy and leads to a callous disregard for human life? Yawn. Already been done.

2. Jack Sparrow as The Riddler

Jack: spritely, charismatic, unpredictable, and clever in unexpected ways. If you could pull this one off, you could make The Riddler seem more like a hero than a villain... a rogue vigilante wannabe whose only evil is that he's got a personal (or even professional) vendetta against Batman, who's simply getting too much attention. I doubt it will happen, and I'm not even sure I'd like it, but why not make your villain loveable for once? It would be a neat trick.

3. Willy Wonka as The Riddler

This Depp seems most pertinent to The Riddler. We can easily see Depp turning the character into a giddy recluse who has vast resources and complete control over whatever he can draw into his domain. The strange pedophile streak, the utter lack of simple social skills, and the glaring, unsettling eccentricity... if there's any way to convince the fans that Depp is the right choice, it's by pointing them towards Depp's creepy, sad, patriarchal Willy Wonka. Unfortunately, this character already resembles the Joker a little too much. We need something besides manic violence to allow The Dark Knight to grow.

4. Edward Scissorhands as The Riddler

This is the key role, my friends. It may sound unlikely, but what better way to evoke both sad sympathy and disgusted fear than to bring back the pathetic slouch of Depp's most tortured role? If The Riddler was actually an idiot savant... a pitiful and pitiable dog at society's heel, whose capacity for calculated, violent retribution is the only thing keeping his personality together... a character who geniunely fails to fully understand the damage he causes to Gotham City... then we'd really have something interesting.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Jesse's Survey of Great Films: No BotD Required

Remember I mentioned my desire to fill out my film background? That quest is still underway, and I'd like to pause with the topical posts for the moment and reflect on my progress. In the interest of this blog, I'm going to list all the iconic movies I've seen, and I'm going to try to tell you, in as few words as possible, why each of them is great, and why I feel its place in this quest is justified.

Fistful of Dollars (1964) - How's it feel to sit through a film where a corrupt city totally destroys itself because of one lonely outlaw, and finally to see that main character walk off into the sunset, still a mystery to us? I think it's a good way to experience the transience and instability of the savage, mythical Old West.

The Philadelphia Story (1940) - A true showcase of personalities, framed, contrasted with one another, and revealed in the complexity that makes them so poignant. There's no way to do this except with the present combination of brilliant writing and flawless delivery.

Casablanca (1942) - The atmosphere of Casablance brought volume to the sense of time and place, giving a presence to the historical politics... moreso, however, the characters made the story seem eternally topical, and they showed that history is lived, rather than simply remembered and represented.

LA Story (1991) - LA Story was nice as a RomCom, but more than anything, it's the story of its director's creative genesis: in Steve Martin's strange plotting and jarring pacing, you can feel the quirkiness of a new director, but in his unpredictable characters and convergences, you can feel the spontaneity and passion of a young artist's hands just touching the clay.

Basic Instinct (1992) - Basic Instinct was an intense film because it drew me into the obsessions of its characters: when Nick finally decided to play Catherine's game, I was scared for him, but I was also genuinely excited to see if he could meet her challenge. It helped that the film refused, from the first scene, to make any promises to us.

The Hunger (1983) - Any time you get bored with the slow, ambiguous gravity of this film's emotions, you should just stop for a second and appreciate the lush beauty of its set and atmosphere.

The Searchers (1956) - This film was basically a jewelry case for John Wayne. The rest of the characters were pleasant set-pieces, over-acting and complimentary. Wayne was a frightening, awe-inspiring mythical hero, complete with the flaws and alienation required to get the job done.

Intolerance (1916) - I have trouble seeing past the production quirks of old movies, but I simply couldn't help stopping every so often during Intolerance and appreciating the light, the geometry, the flawless aesthetic perfection of its key shots.

The Wild Bunch (1969) - This was one of my favorites. On the surface Peckinpah's movie is all brooding savagery, but underneath, you can find all the brotherhood and nostalgia of the mythical Old West (and presumably of the military life that Peckinpah came from).

Escape from New York (1981) - Snake Plisskin was a one-of-a-kind antihero, and after following him through his journey into danger and redemption, we still never connect with him enough to predict him. Again, the rest of the characters are set-pieces, right along with the insane sets themselves.

Blue Velvet (1986) - David Lynch has a strange way of making the bizarre seem mundane. His bright, flat key lights and primary colors distract us for a while, and then, all of a sudden, Lynch's bizarre sexual and emotional revelations pull us back into the visceral world of flesh.

Gone With The Wind (1939) - Gone With The Wind was a beautifully-plotted film about a cast of fascinating characters building lives together without ever really recognizing or finding one another... like leaves circling on a blustery day (note the parallelism). Also, I saw three or four scenes in this film that have been referenced DOZENS of times in more recent movies and television shows.

Stroszek (1977) - I finished this movie thinking I didn't get it, but it stayed on my mind for days afterwards, and I eventually realized that all of the surreal and meaningless details had come together to create a weird, compelling world of beautiful but tragic confusion.

Fast, Cheap and Out Of Control (1997) - I'm still not sure I could tell you what this documentary was about, but I think that was part of its genius: it was a uniquely empty space for an intertwining set of motifs and explorations that were channeled through the obsessions of its four protagonists. Brilliant in a very micronarrative kind of way.

Pretty Woman (1990) - Was this an amazing film for the romantic plot, or was it great because of all its subconscious complexes and wish-fulfillment brilliance? It's really a good movie, for serious, among the better rom-coms, but it doesn't really become fascinating until you mobilize your psychoanalysis and gender studies to eviscerate it.

Say Anything (1989) - I'm actually watching the commentary track for this as we speak. I'm a big fan, as it turns out... it was a film full of good people, confused about their own relationships and emotions, and improvising their ways through the consequences of their decisions. This is very much how I remember my suburban adolescence.

Lost In Translation (2003) - Coppola encapsulates a short, fiery, hopeless relationship and frames the themes that should by all accounts make her famous: loneliness and alienation in an artificial world, and the glimpse of hope provided by fragments of understanding discovered in total strangers.

Marie Antoinette (2006) - Like Lost In Translation, this is a film that explored its themes deeply, without ever bringing them above the level of atmosphere and aesthetic. We could tell from the direction that Marie Antoinette was a normal girl who had an artificial world erected around her, intended to protect her, but ultimately isolating her from the world that was bearing down on her.

So I've seen all of Sofia Coppola's body of work, and I've touched a whole range of genres, directors, and eras. Coming up next, I've got a couple more Sergio Leone films, another David Lynch, and Fellini's 8 1/2. Down along the line, there's a ton of Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman, because those two seem to have produced about a thousand "classics" each. So many films, so little time... stay tuned for further journal-style records of cinematic experience.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Dark Knight in Gotham Part III: City, System, Character

WARNING: more spoilers, and also considerably more random and rambling than the previous two posts on this film.

At the outset of The Dark Knight, we flash from an enigmatic burning texture to an elevated agoraphobic helicopter shot, descending into the city through the rooftop of a mob bank. This is one of the most sweeping, open shots of Gotham we're going to get in Nolan's film. Through the course of the story, we will explore the pits and tunnels of Gotham’s urban wasteland, and ultimately, in the final scene of the film, Batman will emerge from these tunnels into daylight. Here, in the finale, he is exposing himself and leaving his native element, shedding the shadows for the harsh light of public ridicule. This formal device -- beginning the film with an entrance into Gotham, and then ending it with the exit from beneath the streets -- goes a long way toward showing how critical this urban landscape is to Christopher Nolan's vision, and how integral the city is to the characters who inhabit it.

So I guess I lied in that last post. Gotham isn't only shown from beneath in The Dark Knight. Like so many critical assertions, this one buckles under scrutiny, and I have to account for a few key scenes where Gotham is envisioned from above, rather than from below. One of these is the final showdown with the Joker, which takes place in a skyscraper overlooking the harbor. This scene may be elevated, but it's still labyrinthine and tangled in shadows, and almost subterranean in this way. Whereas Tokyo involved bright sunlight, flight, and lots of exterior shots, the skyscraper showdown in Gotham was played out on the ground and in the construction rubble between floors, and the height never seemed to matter much.

The other elevated scenes in Gotham were rather different. These are not Batman's territory... we only see Gotham from above, in open spaces and bright lights, when we're watching Bruce Wayne, looking unresolved and anxious from his penthouse windows. The scenes where Bruce is most himself, in all his tortured uncertainty, are the ones at the tops of buildings, in open spaces and bright lights. Such is the scene where he is escorted by two women into his apartment, such is his helpless moment in an apartment building overlooking the Commissioner's funeral... and such is the long pause where he overlooks Gotham through his penthouse windows and ponders love and responsibility.

The difference between Gotham from above and Gotham from within is an apt analogy for the difference between Bruce Wayne as an alienated playboy, kept at a distance from the world he cares so much about, and Batman as the bad temper lurking in the back alleys of the urban environment. The fragmented setting foregrounds the main character’s fragmented existence, his need -- as Gotham’s self-proclaimed adjudicator -- to have both a wide perspective in framing the law, and a strong fist for enforcing it.

Of course, Gotham isn't simply an analogy for Batman's struggle to uphold the law. It’s also the keystone at the heart of this struggle, and as such, it has a pronounced role in the battle between Batman and The Joker.

By the middle of the film, The Joker begins to foresee that he and Batman will become locked in struggle that can’t be resolved. The Joker calls himself and Batman "an unstoppable force hitting an immovable object," and this observation demonstrates his intuitive understanding of the eternal struggle between them. In fact, by the time he utters this line, The Joker no longer even cares to kill Batman, even going so far as to protect his adversary's identity. In the interrogation room, when The Joker informs Batman that he depends upon him to be his foil and his mortal foe, the dynamic of their relationship changes immensely.

Okay, so Batman refuses to kill the Joker, and the Joker has decided not to kill Batman. They're not technically "mortal" enemies any longer... what's left for them to fight over? When two opposing forces reach equilibrium, a third element needs to complete the system and mediate between them, and in Nolan's The Dark Knight, this third element is Gotham itself. The Joker wants to rule Gotham’s streets, and as his social engineering games attest, he also wants to rule its soul and its psychology. Batman’s sworn role -- to protect Gotham's citizens from crime -- implies a pledge of loyalty to Gotham, and a pledge of faith in its humanity. When their conflict can no longer be resolved directly through death or defeat, The Joker and Batman turn Gotham into the rope in their tug of war.

Batman's writers don’t always make this three-part "eternal struggle" structure explicit, but we all understand it intuitively, as part of our knowledge of Batman himself. As long as the Dark Knight is out there, he needs the Joker as his essential adversary, and these two personalities need a system within which to carry out their exchanges. This system is Gotham, and it will always be Gotham... just as they fight over order, and hope, and humanity within the city limits, so Batman and The Joker are also permanent features of Gotham’s landscape. They could never join Spiderman in New York. They just wouldn't work here, in these provincial neighborhoods -- and could Gotham City ever exist without Batman and the Joker wrestling over it?

Christopher Nolan captured something about Batman and the Joker that could have slipped by another director, but that’s indispensable to the mythology that he was building upon. He built not two, but three strong personalities -- Batman, the Joker, and Gotham City -- and by leveraging these personalities, he did due justice to the legend of the Dark Knight.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Dark Knight in Gotham Part II: Gotham as a Landscape

WARNING: I will spoil some shit. There will be extensive discussion of the plot. I am bad at keeping secrets when I engage in close readings. Just sayin'.

So we move on to Nolan's Gotham City, first in terms of portrayal, and then in terms of its relationship to the stories of Batman and the Joker, Harvey, Bruce, and Rachel. The last post mentioned the importance of shooting Gotham in a real city, a creative decision that gave the environment its believability. Christopher Nolan chose Chicago to represent this dangerous metropolis, which makes sense, since Chicago has long been an icon of urban blight and faceless concrete. The use of Chicago is especially fitting because the backbone of The Dark Knight is a story about crime and politics, and Chicago is the greatest mob city in the United States. Chicago's personality has a lot to do with Gotham's grittiness; however, Nolan's unique perspective on the environment makes it a city of its own, the same way his direction, combined with Heath Ledger's brilliant acting, gave us a Joker we'd never seen before.

As an access point, let's contrast Nolan's Gotham with his Hong Kong, where Batman goes to retrieve the smuggler Lau. Considering the viewer only inhabits Hong Kong for a few scenes, it's striking how vivid a treatment the city is given, and how effective a foil it is for Gotham. Hong Kong feels like it was bled out of a completely different imagination, as though Nolan hired a new production designer and cinematographer for that city. It's a city in the clouds, where Bruce and Batman aren't even seen on the ground. The tall buildings allow for sweeping shots of Batman in flight, and the extensive glass facades give an acrophobic anxiety to the fight scenes. Batman is a beautiful sight in such a pristine environment, but it only serves to remind us how alien he is to that city.

Gotham, by contrast, is shot almost entirely in low shots, looking up at bridges and buildings. In scene after scene, we peer toward the buildings from the streets and the sidewalks, and the camera is constantly caught between walls of brick and concrete. It's a petrified tunnel system that Lucien Fox's sonar device temporarily converts into a visual swamp, and even in the daylight, it always seems cramped. This city is defined by two visual motifs that I'd like to draw attention to: the tunnel/underpass, and the ravine of unbroken buildings.

The tunnel/underpass is by far the most prominent visual motif of Nolan's Gotham City. We first see Batman in a parking garage, facing the mob, the Scarecrow, and a small gang of Batman impersonators. This low-ceilinged horizontal expanse is where Batman seems to be most at home, and this might be part of the reason that it feels spatially similar to the Bat Cave, though it's not as well-lit. However, later scenes draw him deeper into the tunnels of Gotham. Two-Face's final scene takes place in what looks like a cavern, carved out in Gotham's concrete flesh. Batman also emerges from these labyrinthine shadows into Gotham sunlight in the film's closing moments – this is a key scene, and it's one that I'll return to later in this reading.

The other important motif in The Dark Knight is the canyon formed by the building faces, which extend the claustrophobia of the tunnels into the daylight above the earth. This formation was essential to the attempted assassination of the Mayor – as a sniper on a fire escape points out, the police seem useless and vulnerable when faced with the surrounding walls of windows.

These two motifs converge in the long chase sequence, when Harvey Dent is being transported by a SWAT team beset by the Joker, and Batman emerges to confront him. This scene represents the struggle over Dent's life... a conflict that eventually sublimates into the struggle for Gotham's soul... and in order to gain the advantage, The Joker draws Harvey and Batman into the concrete underworld beneath Gotham. This is the descent into Hell, the stage for the confrontation that determines the course of The Dark Knight. After they endure The Joker's escalating trials, the chase re-emerges into the shadow of the Gotham buildings, and again, the canyon formation asserts itself. In this canyon, air support is useless, and The Joker is confident in facing Batman directly, in the middle of the street, without flinching.

Of course, it's Gordon, returning from the dead, who traps The Joker at the end of the confrontation. There's certainly more symbolic significance wrapped up in this emergence from the underworld, but I don't think I have the time to fully analyze it. However, if you want another interesting portrayal of a city, rendered as a labyrinthine Stygia and shadowy home to the restless dead, check out Venice in Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. It's surreal and haunting, and if you've seen The Dark Knight, it may remind you of a more magical Gotham City.

Actually, for the time being, forget Venice. Christopher Nolan is building on a complex, very American history when he renders this gritty, noir Gotham City. Dennis O'Neil, a writer and editor of the Batman comics, said that "Batman's Gotham City is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November" (see the Wikipedia article for the citation). It's worth noting that this remark was published in 1994, just before Rudy Guiliani became Mayor of New York and started cracking down on petty crimes and reducing urban decay. O'Neil is talking about the bohemian New York City of twenty years ago, and he's talking about the parts of the city where students and working-class residents were living. Gotham's business district is the cramped, cynical Wall Street of the 1980's; its residential areas are the East Village and Lower East Side apartments, the downtown church steps where panhandlers spent (and still spend) their nights. New York and Gotham have always been a bit enigmatic and intimidating.

This is the city Nolan has sketched for us, a vortex for Batman's vengeance and retribution, an underworld so overwhelming that it makes his heroism seem futile. In Nolan's lucid portrayal, however, Gotham isn't just a setting. It's also a theater for mythical characters and a lynchpin in their relationships. This relationship between the city and its inhabitants is what I'll be addressing in my final post on this topic. Tune in next week, kiddies, because we're coming into the home stretch.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Dark Knight in Gotham Part I: Comic Book Film Cities

I think we can generally agree that Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger have created a goddamn masterpiece, and even though Christian Bale and Maggie Gyllenhaal didn’t really provide the magic that made it happen, they certainly pulled their weight. Everybody’s been talking about The Dark Knight, and there’s a reason for that… it’s an unmatched piece of cinema work, not just a great comic book film, but a great film in general. Disguised under the action, this is a film driven by the psychological confrontations, and it takes on the power of an epic suspense thriller, a la The Game or Primal Fear. It matches, and even surpasses these movies, because the villain is so powerful and terrifying, and because it develops its psychological relationships throughout a whole host of characters, rather than simply between two or three. I hope it’s the first comic book / action movie to win a really important Academy Award.

There’s going to be a lot of talk about it, though, so I’m going to try to look at it through a specific lens. Rather than replicate the many orgasming movie critics and drooling bloggers, I’m going to try to analyze Nolan’s fine piece of work by way of an implicit “Other,” an almost Godlike character who appears in every scene, but who isn’t acted by anyone famous, and who doesn’t even appear in the credits. This character is Gotham City itself, and in the next three blog entries, I’m going to discuss its portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Note: there may be spoilers in the next couple blog posts. There aren't really any in this one, though.


Gotham, as geography and community, plays a critical role in The Dark Knight. The character of the city is at stake in all of the major conflicts – Harvey Dent as a political hero who loses his faith, Batman and The Joker gambling for the city’s soul – and its geography provides the murky character of Nolan’s raw noir vision. The Joker’s fragmented nihilism may warrant a postmodern psychoanalysis, and the Dark Knight’s vigilantism may beg for a moral and ethical debate on justice and authority in a chaotic world, but a comprehensive analysis of The Dark Knight has to start with a look at Gotham City, the stage where these characters are developing, and (as I’ll explain later) a keystone in their strained relationships.

Fictional cities as the central figures in comic book films: however rare and quirky this sounds, it’s actually something that’s already come up, and something that’s going to be coming back up again soon. Give me a moment on a tangent, please… I’d like to talk about Frank Miller.

Frank Miller actually wrote the comic book The Dark Knight Returns, which is the landmark use of that nickname. His comic, published in 1986, was Batman’s ticket out of the blue suit and bad effects of the old Batman comics and television show. It was about Bruce Wayne returning from retirement to fight crime as an old man, and the psychological and ethical demons he had to face in a new era of crime and cruelty. Miller’s series established the gritty, violent image that Nolan is now working with. Within Nolan’s plot, the copycat Batmen may even be an homage to the imitators in Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. However, aside from this homage and the similarity in tone, the plot of Miller’s 1986 comic has nothing to do with Nolan’s film.

Miller created another comic title, independent of the DC mythology, entitled Sin City. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve seen the movie. It’s notable in this discussion because out of all the comics in the history of the medium, Sin City might be the most concerned with representing a city’s soul. Miller’s Sin City comic books were all about the urban environment, its decay and madness and corruption, and the characters who flourish within it… the narrative itself was fragmentary, and almost incidental, alongside the city that gave it its unity.

I bring up Sin City in order to discuss the film, rather than the comic book itself. The approach to production in Miller’s Sin City film was innovative, but ultimately flawed, and Nolan’s Gotham City immensely surpassed it. As much as it’s an interesting concept to create an imaginary city from scratch, you can’t find the city’s soul on a green-screen sound stage. This represents a fundamental failure of Sin City: whereas Nolan’s Gotham is labyrinthine and claustrophobic, Miller’s Sin City is flat and small. Where Nolan’s Gotham is dark and gritty, Miller’s Sin City is textureless and artificial. This was an unacceptable side-effect… if your book is about the soul of the city, you won’t get what you’re looking for in a composited environment.

I fear the same problem from Miller’s upcoming film, The Spirit. Again, The Spirit is about the character of a city… the tagline for the movie is, “My city screams. She is my lover. I am her spirit.” The trailers and promotional material give the sense of a city that’s defined by an anonymous hero and a twisted maze of sexual tension. Unfortunately, they also give the sense of a city that’s created in Adobe Illustrator, rather than discovered on the urban streets.

Nolan’s Gotham, by contrast, is a place of texture and atmosphere. It’s the inky black urban sideshow that we look for in all our post-industrial gothic punk settings, from Vampire: The Masquerade to Crime and Punishment. It’s the perfect stage for a confrontation over ideals and humanity, a Nietzschian abyss where even a mythical hero can see his faith slip away. This city has character… and I’ll be discussing it in my next entry.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wall-e and Authorship: Pixar's Career as an Auteur

So Wall-e is the... what... ninth Pixar film? If you read my last post, you'll know my opinion of it... that it's a new level of craftsmanship on Pixar's part. Now, we've all seen artists who developed their skills to transcendent levels over the course of their careers -- Picasso's periods, Shakespeare's writings -- now we have a new artist (if you can call it that), the animation studio that's going to define the cinematic experiences of a whole generation, and it seems as though they've yet to peak.

Before this, Pixar's filmography was probably defined by Toy Story, Monsters Inc, and Finding Nemo. Toy Story made them famous and put them squarely ahead of their competition, and Monsters Inc. was their introduction to big-time at the Oscars, being nominated for Best Animated Feature, as well as three other awards, and winning Best Original Song (beating out all the live-action soundtracks that year). Finding Nemo was Pixar's clincher, the film whose characters and storytelling defied all the expectations of the critics. The Best Animated Feature award was the crown on Pixar's ascending head.

Pixar's other films, movies that everybody adored but that didn't quite change the landscape of media, include The Incredibles and Ratatouille... both of these could have taken that coveted Best Animated Feature award, but Finding Nemo just happened to be the earlier project. Wall-e might indeed be the next definitive movie in Pixar's oeuvre, not only because it had the immaculate craftsmanship of Finding Nemo, but also because it experimented with style and boundaries in such a way that it seemed to be a new experience, even for the seasoned Pixar fan.

Has anyone else noticed the strangeness of treating an animation studio -- Pixar -- as if it's a single human being, an author with a unified creative vision that sculpts the animated masterpieces we see each year? Nobody seems to have taken notice of this phenomenon, but it's definitely something new. In the past, any noteworthy film was attached to a director's name, and that film's artistic vision was credited to that director. This is the essence of auteur theory, and a cornerstone of Hollywood's celebrity marketing pitch: see the new Hitchcock / Kurosawa / Cronenburg / Woody Allen / Cohen Brothers film this summer, and return to the world of an artist you've fallen in love with.

The problem with this approach is that every film is a collision of hundreds of different talented people. The film industry is massive and evenly distributed over too many disciplines to count, and in every film, you can find the hand of a director, a cinematographer, a production designer, an effects supervisor, and a thousand consultants and lackeys. Maybe you don't actually like David Fincher... maybe you just happened to like Zodiac because he worked with Harris Savides, and so the photography direction was exceptionally brilliant.

In this sense, as strange as it sounds to treat Pixar as an individual auteur when it's actually a whole collective, it might actually be a more honest way to look at authorship in cinema. After all, even though the staff changes, there's a good chance that most of the principal personalities... concept artists, production designers, photography supervisors, and head writers... are carrying across from movie to movie. We can see the development of a company, and the streamlining of its vision, as we watch each successive triumph on the movie screen. We can stop pretending it's just one guy with a camera and some friends from acting school, and we can see that these things are the product of a vast, synchronized creative/corporate process.

As long as I trust that there is still room for the auteur in film... for people like Werner Herzog, who really do involve themselves deeply in every step of the process... then I'm also happy to treat a great company with the same respect I would give to a great artist. Artist, company, single, multiple... we're so over those binaries! This is the future!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Silence and the Lens: Innovations in wall-e

First of all, I will join the chorus of voices praising Wall-e, Pixar's newest offering. Those of you who watched Cars may have thought the company was finally in its decline (I had no such thought, because I haven't seen any Pixar film since The Incredibles). Wall-e should have proven you wrong -- the studio is still at the top of its game.

Even the best Pixar films... The Incredibles, Monsters Inc, and Finding Nemo... were simply excellent films. Since they revolutionized 3D animation with Toy Story, Pixar hasn't really managed any kind of true innovation. Like any good artist, they've simply been developing their motifs and honing their craft, building a body of work that demonstrates a commitment to their art. Wall-e, however, may actually represent a break with this trend. It doesn't just feel like an excellent film... it feels like a groundbreaking piece of work, maximizing and ultimately transcending the style that Pixar has been developing.

It's hard to identify exactly why this is true. After all, the film follows certain Pixar formulas to the letter. It's a journey of self-discovery undertaken by personified non-humans endowed with exaggerated but deeply sympathetic personalities, created with computer animation, and appealing to a wide age range by way of simple emotional cues. What makes it such a fantastic movie?

Perhaps the reason Wall-e is such a brilliant piece of cinema is that it wrestles with a number of formal and narrative boundaries at the same time. Though it might go unnoticed by the casual viewer, the actual technical treatment of the film is actually rather groundbreaking... aside from the obvious adoption of live action video, the film also introduces certain tropes of camera-work, like depth of field and real-world positioning, to simulate the actual craft of cinematography. They discuss this in the fourth section of this article, and in the middle of this video.

This seems subtle, but it has a profound effect. The use of realistic angles and tropes from the perspective of cinematography makes the world seem more present, and more evocative, than the previous primary-colored universes of Pixar have been. Roger Deakins, the cinematographer that Pixar consulted, has turned the virtual camera into something closer to a real one, and just as his shots through the reeds made us feel like we were actually on the prairie in The Assassination of Jesse James, so they made us feel the reality of a deserted, post-apocalyptic Big Apple in Wall-e. Don't mistake this for a novelty... deferral to a real-world cinematographer is a powerful new idea in computer animation.

Of course, just as it pushed this formal convention, so Wall-e expanded its narrative dimension, as well. Forsaking dialogue, the storytellers gave us characters that communicated almost entirely in gesture, so all their semantic messages were pared down to the simplest possible sentiments. This probably has something to do with the earth-shaking effectiveness of the pathos and sentimentality in Wall-e. This is not a lazy love story -- just as the world shines through Deakins' camera lens, so the characters' emotions pour out of their rudimentary movements and gestures, and the audience is able to appreciate Wall-e as an iconic sentimentalist, the most childish, desperate kind of romantic, whose love can drive a whole sequence of universe-spanning events.

In my rush to show how Wall-e was a unique moment in cinema, I've picked it apart for innovations, and I'm in danger of losing sight of the work of art itself. The political message of the film -- something that apparently has conservatives all tweaked out -- is below remark, doing little beyond supplying a premise and giving the film some topicality. It's not a film about humans destroying their world, nor is it about the heroic merit of rediscovering your humanity and returning to your home. The film is really a simple love story (rendered in brilliant non-verbal storytelling) set in an empty, hopeful world beyond the reach of human trivialities (rendered with the help of a visionary virtual lens). The innovations do what innovations must do in order to avoid becoming gimmicks: they vanish into the texture of a story whose power becomes the defining feature of the work of art.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Indiana Fall Panda Hulk: Movies I've Seen Recently

I have been seeing SO many movies... I'm sorry I've been so thin on the blogging, but I've hardly had time to breathe and develop a coherent thought about any of them. I'll take a moment now and summarize my recent experiences, even if I'm unable to furnish any detailed critique. Hopefully this will get me started reflecting on some parts of my recent cinema journey.

The last few movies I blogged about were My Blueberry Nights, The Forbidden Kingdom, and The Hunger. Since then, I've seen the following, and had the following thoughts about them:

1 - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

As much as I enjoyed some of the good lines from Harrison Ford (he can still deliver dialogue), and as much as I approved of Shia LaBouf as Indy's obnoxious protege, the lack of continuity and subtlety in KotCS definitely annoyed me. All the Indy movies are fantasy on some level, but they all take place within the mythological space established by their subject matter... within the religious, tribal, and ritual narrative domains. The whole Space Odyssey alien thing came out of nowhere, and it ran violently counter to the spirit of the series. It makes no sense for an archaeologist to be dealing with aliens... the point of Anthropology and Archeology (always Indy's great quest and motivation) is the knowledge of premodern HUMAN cultures. Aliens just don't fit into the narrative boundaries of the series.

Can I forgive it? Yes, but barely. Kids these days need to be overstimulated, and UFO's and huge apocalyptic explosions are probably essential to getting them interested in Archeology.

2 - The Fall

The critics gave The Fall a lukewarm reception, but I thought it was an excellent little piece of vanity cinema. The relationship that developed between Roy and Alexandria was laden with subtexts of fatherhood, desire, and emasculation, and they played out in Roy's improvised fantasy world in a compelling way. The gravitational center of the story... the ownership of the narrative that provided a shared space where Roy and Alexandria were able to communicate... was a great place for Tarsem to show off his conceptual cinematic style. Sure, it looks a little like a music video, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work for storytelling.

3 - Kung Fu Panda

I have to say, I was a big fan. Jack Black works very well as an animated character... he's not automatically typecast as the goofy, overbearing bumbling best friend, so he has a chance to play a real role. In this case, he was brilliant as a young, dorky, enthusiastic but insecure "chosen one" in a kingdom full of badass animals. This was a film of personalities, including the wavering leader, the sagely master, the good-hearted but overbearing second son, and the epic adversary. Ultimately, it was an ideal showcase for action, good-natured humor, and some classic moral and emotional insights.

4 - The Incredible Hulk

Well-executed and thoroughly enjoyable. I'd give Iron Man a 95%, and I'd give The Increduble Hulk about an 87%. There are a few key elements that made it good, and I'll summarize them. First, the Hulk's actual fight scenes were fairly awe-inspiring... his capacities were pushed further with each successive battle, and he was give the screen time to eventually reveal himself as the epic force of nature that needed so badly to impress the audience. The key moment... his confrontation with the sonic cannons and the gunship... was executed perfectly to make us cheer for the monster, and to give us a sense of his scale and scope. Second -- Edward Norton makes a fantastically nerdy Bruce Banner, a pale academic who's had to become a slippery, quick-witted fugitive to escape from the government. The contrast between Norton's Banner and the momentous force of The Hulk is a key to the authenticity of the film.

And I've watched a couple classics, as well...

1 - The Philadelphia Story

This is an excellent film that shows us how naturally a great actor can deliver sharp, fast-moving dialogue. With Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart on-screen together, we have a study of uniquely American personalities, and the emotional dynamic that develops between them... the shifting psychology and self-awareness of Tracy Lord, in particular... makes for an engaging experience. I'd recommend, however, that you sit down with this movie and give it 150% of your attention, because plot points and character subtleties are slipped into the witty dialogue with very few cues. You have to be quick to keep a handle on these characters.

2 - The Wild Bunch

A powerful movie, mixing the sentimentality of the lost Western consciousness with some really raw, violent conflict. Some research on the director -- Sam Peckinpah -- gives valuable insight into the logic of the film. This is the perfect final product from the mind of a tortured soldier, making films in a time of war and unrest, and reflecting on the turmoil of the world around him. I really dug it.

I've seen a few others... the remake of THX 1138, and Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, in particular. I'll try to check back as I have more experiences. For now, Benefit of the Doubt, signing off.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Hunger: 80's Lost Boy Blade Running vampire sex

I’m tapping a NetFlix account, ladies and gentlemen, in order to wander through the neighborhoods of film canon that I haven’t managed to visit. I mean, I’ve seen many of the essentials, from Persona to Star Wars, but there’s quite a block of work that I’ve missed. I’m trying to get a grasp on film canon, from early classics ("M") to Silver Screen ("Casablanca") to Western ("Fistfull of Dollars") to Noir ("Double Indemnity") to contemporary classics ("Pretty Woman"). If anyone can give me a few suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Drop them in the comments section.

One of the first ones I’ve seen – and, admittedly, it’s not really an essential – was The Hunger, an erotic 80’s Vampire movie directed by Tony Scott. "But Jesse," you might ask, "Why, if you’re trying to see the great films, did you start with an obscure cult vampire movie?" Well, let me furnish you with a few different answers. They will come in a cluster, like grapes fresh off the vine.

First: it was available On-Demand from NetFlix, so I didn’t have to wait around for it.

Second: It starts fucking David Bowie and Susan Sarandon. What a cast! They’re perfect for the atmosphere, too... a lush, depraved vampiric world where Bowie’s gender ambiguity and Sarandon’s reserved strength make for a fascinating dynamic between the three main characters.

Third: It’s actually a fairly well-critiqued piece of postmodern cinema. Apparently Diane Fuss wrote an article on the film called "Inside Out." I haven’t read it, but I’d like to check it out... between the gender subversion and the obsession with death, images, and the gaze, this movie is a breeding ground for postmodern interpretation.

But superficial reasons aside, I think it was really worth sticking with it. I’ll give you a couple readings, and perhaps they’ll convince you to watch it, too, and maybe allow you to really appreciate it. The merits I see in this slow, decadent masterpiece may not be the first ones that most viewers notice, and they’re certainly nothing that Roger Ebert was prepared to appreciate, but they make the movie worth its screen time and its DVD space.

The Hunger actually reminded me of Blade Runner, which is another 80’s film commonly considered a "cult classic." Blade Runner was a cool sci-fi, but it wasn’t its science or its action that really made it worth watching. The film was really about finding something sentimental in a cynical, post-sentimental world. That dystopian landscape, a credit to authors like Gibson, was a critical part of this voyage, and the film was the product of its creative and production design as much as it was a product of a script or a director’s instructions.

Pure aesthetic value was a big part of The Hunger, too... a truly lush experience. The sets were gauzy and Victorian, filled in by light through windows, across curtains, and through dusty air. This erotic atmosphere was occasionally broken by the manic sterility of the hospital, or by the morbid anger of a gothic-looking nightclub, but by-and-large, the film took place in Miriam’s apartment, the dwelling place of the matriarch. The key scenes of the film weren’t violent, shocking, or morbid, like you’d expect from vampire and horror films... even John’s final scene was strangely intimate and melancholy. In fact, most of the emotional dynamic in The Hunger manifested in sexual encounters, including Mirian’s sex scenes with both John and Sarah.

No doubt, The Hunger is grown up, and especially so when compared to the other great 80’s Vampire movie, which we should all know and love. I speak, of course, of The Lost Boys, starring Keifer Sutherland and Corey Feldman, among other actor-types. The Lost Boys has the desperate savagery and loneliness of misspent youth, and it uses Vampire mythology to fully rewrite and re-envision deviant teenagehood. This includes a lot of rage, sacrifice, hostility, and ultimately, struggle and violence.

The Hunger, lesser known than its adolescent sibling, can be seen in parallel, but represents a much different aspect of the American Vampire myth. Where David and his gang were explosive, Miriam and John are sensual, and these are two complimentary sides of the gothic sin. Some vampires will kill you, but others will seduce you and offer you things you’re not prepared to accept, and this is itself a sort of suicide.

It’s telling, then, that Miriam’s victims are never seen in death. The beach party scene of murder and sacrifice, so central to The Lost Boys, is displaced in The Hunger with a scene of ritual confinement, a counterpoint to death that’s probably even more terrifying. Even Miriam’s final moments aren’t as violent as we might like them to be.

And as a youngen who wasn’t really there to experience the 80’s, I feel like I’ve unearthed some essential truth about the decade in comparing these two 80’s vampire movies. First, we see the aristocracy of capitalism and hegemony, the opportunistic Wall Street grandeur, that Miriam represents in The Hunger. Alongside this, we see the blossoming experimental energy of New Wave and Heavy Metal, the youth culture that found expression in David (The Lost Boys) and in David Bowie. In these vampire movies, the spirit of the times finds expression, polished off with a dose of gothic cynicism and postmodern consciousness.

This has been a rambling entry, but The Hunger led me through my retrospective experiences of the 80’s, the sourceless nostalgia that makes me such a fan of the culture I was too young to appreciate. It’s a reflection on the pure aesthetic of the setting, on the erotic undertones of vampire mythology, and on the 80’s as a time of both stagnation and innovation. I’d count those as at least three good reasons to go rent it.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Forbidden Kingdom: We're All Coming of Age

Mark Rahner of the Seattle Times says of Forbidden Kingdom, "It might take a Zen master to explain exactly what audience this is aimed at." I left the Tibetan temple behind long ago, like any worthy Bhoddisatva bringing Nirvana to the world, and my koans might be a bit rusty at this point, but I’m going to give it a shot. Sit, my son, before the peace of Benefit of the Doubt, and be enlightened by the Tao of Media Commentary.

Like tiger with face of Easter Bunny, Forbidden Kingdom presented itself in a way that may have confused some critics and audiences. The original trailer showed fascinatingly-costumed, exotic martial arts characters, slow-motion martial arts, beautiful settings, and enigmatic effects. The unknowning trailer-surfer may anticipate a slow, beautiful, well-shot kung-fu opera, in the style of (if not the scope of) Hero, or Curse of the Golden Flower. These expectations are waves that have been dashed against the rocks of popular cinema.

Perhaps this confusion was at work in Mark Rahner’s mind. Seeing Forbidden Kingdom as a work of authentic kung-fu, he may not have been prepared to accept it for what it was. When the tiger’s fluffy pink visage fell away, it revealed itself not as an updated kung-fu epic, but as another update, and another kind of epic. The audience looking for beautiful wire-fu may have been disappointed, but those of us who saw the truth were pleased with its revelation.

The movie was actually a return to the coming-of-age fantasy movies of our youth. I personally didn’t get wind of this until I was about to go see the movie, and the synopsis said something about an American teenager who loves kung-fu movies, and who finds an old staff that takes him to ancient China. Many of us may have wanted a grand, semi-artistic kung-fu adventure to frame the combined talent of Jet Li and Jackie Chan, and in this we may have been severely disappointed. Fortunately, many of us were also raised in the 80’s and early 90’s, where the true thematic inspiration for Forbidden Kingdom was born.

If you remember Neverending Story, Last Action Hero, and Labyrinth, and even before these, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz, then you may have been able to appreciate this movie for what it really offered. The cheesy dialogue, the absurdly liberal rendering of ancient China and traditional folklore, and the comically implausible training sequences and montages... these were all in keeping with that well-established mythology that we grew up on.

There are a lot of interesting precedents here, too. The earliest of the examples I’ve mentioned above are Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and you could also class the Narnia Series with these. These examples are "coming of age" stories that involve a temporary flight into a dream world, whether it’s the hallucinatory, disturbing, and politically-relevant Wonderland of Alice, or whether it’s the whimsical, profoundly psychological Neverland of Wendy and Peter.

The "worlds of our imagination" have changed in recent years, though. Starting with Neverending Story, the storytellers have started to acknowledge the mediated, represented component of our dreams and fantasies. In Neverending Story, Bastian finds his inner universe in the pages of an old book, and he enters it through the mind of Atreyu, its main character. This brilliant film was a staple in many of our childhoods, and it set some profound precedents for honest, sensitive, and troubling portrayals of adolescence and fantasy.

Last Action Hero pulled the fantasy-world coming-of-age story further into the present. This was one of The Governator’s less popular films, a thoroughly light-hearted but deceptively self-conscious popcorn flick about a kid who gets pulled into the unrealistic world of action movies. In that short space between Neverending Story (1984) and Last Action Hero (1993), we watched our cultural imagination move from the world of books to the world of movies. The troubled child building his life around reading became the irresponsible kid obsessed with action flicks. Even so, we were still following the same track: growing up within the space of our imagination, whether that space was built from words or film clips.

The Forbidden Kingdom follows this formula a step further, showing us the inner world of a teenager who can’t get his head out of kung-fu flicks. He ends up facing his fears and building his personality in an alternate-reality Orientalist China, filled with mysterious maidens, silent monks (what a badass character), and Drunken Masters. This is the kind of place where a kid can become a kung-fu guru in about three days worth of training, and where henchmen are available at dime-store prices, but only if you’re evil. It’s also a world well-populated with self-conscious kung fu movie references, many of which I’m sure I don’t understand in the slightest.

The coming-of-age fantasy tropes were EVERYWHERE in this movie, and that's part of what made it both lighthearted and interesting. The bullies at the beginning were right out of Neverending Story, and one of the most charming elements was the appearance of Lu Yan and Golden Sparrow in the real world, a technique right out of Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy's fantasy companions turned out to be dream-versions of the people in her real life. It was also an endearing, and brilliant, casting decision to cast Michael Angarano as the main character... Angarano isn't the tricked out pretty-boy we're used to seeing in every action movie these days. He has the quirky facial features of an awkward high-schooler, and this is a noble concession to make to those original 80's and 90's movies, where we could really believe that the main character was a normal kid.

Many of our parents will roll their eyes at the idea that our imaginations are being built on Hong Kong cinema, just as (with Last Action Hero) they may have been dismayed that their kids’ fantasy world were being built around violent, unrealistic action movies. We may look back fondly on Bastian, whose inner universe came from old books and fairy tales, and we may be nostalgic for Neverending Story’s innocence. The point, though, and the lesson that this whole genre has for us, is that no matter how we form our flights of fancy, they will always allow us to pass safely through childhood and face the real world on the other side. A personality formed through kung-fu is no less authentic than one formed in the pages of a young-adult fantasy novel read in a school attic.

And aside from the ADHD-ridden 13-year-olds that Mark Rahner mentions, I think I know who Forbidden Kingdom was aimed at. It was aimed at those of us who grew up through the media, reading fantasy novels, acting out kung-fu movies and ninja cartoons, and ultimately entering our adulthood through those scraps of fantasy. When we saw those other "coming of age" movies, like Neverending Story and Last Action Hero, we understood that we were those adolescent characters (Bastian, Danny, and now Jason Tripitikas), growing into whole people by embracing our fantasy worlds. This movie was aimed at us... in particular, it was aimed at me.