Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar: Some Possible Alternate Endings


The reviews have come in. It’s groundbreaking – a masterpiece of motion capture, a triumph of space jungle world-building. Record numbers of people didn't feel like they were just watching James Cameron play a very expensive video game. And I have to give it props for the pacing and cinematic technique, which made the story stick... Cameron has a knack for making a narrative seem interesting and profound.

Still, my opinion of the film in general is strongly in the camp of Elisabeth from Cinematical and Annalee Newitz from io9. I had fun, and cheered at the big hits, but my troublesome critical brain couldn’t stop saying things like, "Why are the aliens so much like African/Native American/Aboriginal people?"

But as they say, don't criticize if you can't come up with an alternative. In that spirit, I hereby offer some suggestions on other ways Avatar could have played out… maybe with fewer clich├ęs, or less obvious about its white guilt fantasies, or even just less predictably. When I see the movie again, I'll be hoping the ending magically transforms into one of these. So without further ado, wouldn’t it be awesome if:

(WARNING: SOME OF THESE MAY CAUSE "SPOILAGE" OF THE ACTUAL ENDING A LITTLE)

1) The humans drop a nuke on Home Tree, and Sully, having foreknowledge of this plan, is the only one able to escape. He becomes the sole bearer of the Nav’i legacy, and through his influence, the Earth eventually learns of its crimes. However, failing to find solace in his own lifetime, he dies destitute and frustrated.

2) The Nav'i do what makes the most sense when they find out Jake was always with the humans: they cut off his head, eviscerate his body, and send the remains back to his comrades. They then disappear into the forest, abandoning Home Tree, and use their planet’s neural network to mount a grueling, two-hundred year guerilla defense against the human invaders, which is ultimately successful in driving them away.

3) The Nav'i reveal to Jake that they not only invented their own modern weaponry… they’ve fully evolved past needing it. When the invaders arrive with ships and tanks, the tribal elders simply dismantle the metal with their secret psycho-kinetic powers, and the human invaders are left naked in the woods to be eaten by giant cats.

4) The Nav'i and Jake Sully escape, and the humans occupy Home Tree and the Ancestor Tree (or whatever it is), only to discover that the Nav'i aren’t the dominant species on Pandora after all... the trees are actually the most intelligent species, and they use the non-sentient animals as appendages. The "animal assault" from the actual movie then ensues, but without the Nav'i even bothering to help; the planet just uses its various indigenous animals to pound the human invaders into tapioca pudding.

5) With Jake's help, the humans destroy the Nav'i, and then discover that their psychic connection with the surrounding plant-life was generating a centripedal force that was keeping the planet in orbit. Within hours, Pandora drifts off its orbit and crashes into the nearby planet, killing everybody there.

6) When Jake tames his Banshee and becomes initiated, Neytiri realizes that humans are, in fact, superior to her own race (after all, he did in months what it takes them their whole lives to accomplish). She asks him to bring her back to the military base, where she informs him that she’s defecting, and together they help the humans crush and enslave the Nav'i. She then has an affair with Colonel Quaritch. When Sully finds out, he challenges the Colonel in single combat, and kills him using the skills he learned as a Nav'i. Neytiri sees her old lover, now a Nav'i warrior, murder her new lover, the human champion; she subsequently realizes she contributed to the genocide of her own race, and commits suicide by jumping off the back of her Banshee a thousand feet above the ruins of the Ancestor Tree.

7) When Jake enters his Avatar and attempts to lead the Nav'i to war, the simulation suddenly ends. A human military psychologist informs him that Pandora is actually a training facility, and the "Avatar" experience was a virtual reality evaluation of his conviction and patriotism; as he followed the call of nature on an alien planet and the glory of being a champion to the locals, he has obviously failed. He has to return home with a dishonorable discharge.

8) After the destruction of Home Tree, Jake becomes an advocate for the Nav’i, but he’s written off as a fanatical hippy with PTSD. The humans start second-guessing their militaristic approach and regretting their cruelty to the natives, but only after they’ve killed most of the Nav’i, or shuttered them into small encampments and denied them any good education or representation. Eventually, all that remains of Nav'i culture is cheap stereotypes, cottage industry hand-crafts, and casinos. Two hundred years later, one of Sully's great grandsons makes a movie about their plight, but reimagines it with a human leading them to victory and freedom.

1] Orson Scott Card ending
2] Battle of Algiers ending
3] Ian Banks ending
4] Gaia Theory ending
5] I don’t know where I got this idea.
6] Greek Tragedy ending
7] Wizard of Oz ending
8] Just completing the implicit analogy here

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A quick reflection on David Cronenberg's The Brood


I just saw The Brood, a Cronenberg film from 1979, just preceding his much-lauded Scanners and Videodrome. What a movie... what issues. This body horror opus is a tangle of neuroses about motherhood, psychotherapy, parents, parenting, and physical wholeness. It doesn't provide a particularly fair representation of either mental illness or the mental health profession, and its climatic scene does what Cronenberg is famous for: it uses sickening effects to express deep psychological anxieties about flesh... creating an aversive bridge between body and mind, which are so brutally separated in Western society.

In this way, Cronenberg's work could be read as a critique of Cartesian dualism and the longstanding mind-body difference that infects Western culture. Dr. Raglan's techniques are based on an essential opposition to dualism, asserting that we can't get the body out of the mind, or vice versa. In a practice that was fixated for some time on the idea of unearthing hidden memories and experiences, what could be a more complete method of exposing those repressed feelings than by manifesting them on the body itself? Psychoplasmics seems to be based, at least in part, on the idea that psychological damage can be treated more easily as physical damage.

If this is true, then Dr. Raglan's biggest problem is that he assumes "expressing" these anxieties automatically solves them... that by creating welts on his body, Mikey is fixing the underlying damage that those welts are expressing. The film makes it clear that this is simply not the case: expressed anger and anxiety, left untreated, are just as damaging as repressed anxiety. Again, this could be read as a critique... in this case, a critique of psychoanalysis itself.

Psychological trauma aside, there's something about this movie that makes it relentlessly uncomfortable, and I think it's 70's aesthetic. The Shining benefited from the same effect... the grainy film, the earth tones that seem to suggest mud and soil, the red and yellow accents that suggest body fluids, and the shadows that seem ready to swallow you whole... there's something creepy about that decade, isn't there? In my opinion, it beats the hell out of a lot of our highly-saturated horror movies, shot through blue filters with conspicuous red bursts here and there. The houses in The Ring and Drag Me To Hell feel like they were build ten minutes before the movie was made, and the space feels too scripted. The woods and wooden shacks and attic apartments of the 70's... these are spontaneous, empty spaces, quietly genuine in their loneliness.

For a bit of a longer reminiscence on this topic, mentioning a few of the same concepts that I mention, but with more information on the actual technical qualities of the film: Q Branch on The Brood. Also, this is where I stole the picture.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Month of Music Videos (Flaming Lips, Lady Gaga, Rihanna)

Monthly music video roundup! I bet it sounds like this is something I do regularly, doesn't it? Well, it isn't, and I doubt it will ever happen again.

Enjoy!

As a man who did a thesis on music videos, I was excited to find that November 2009 was a month of buzz about some new work in the field... specifically, there are three new videos creating buzz, and I'm pretty impressed with them. They are, in no particular order, Lady Gaga's Bad Romance, Rihanna's Russian Roulette, and The Flaming Lips' Watching the Planets (warning: definitely definitely NSFW).

I give at least one award to every competitor. Here they are.

The winner for MOST EXPLOSIVE TREATMENT OF A FAIRLY SIMPLE IDEA:
Lady Gaga's Bad Romance

This award goes to the video that takes a story that can be summed up in one sentence ("I'm drugged and abducted, sold for sex, and turn out to be too much for my buyer to handle") and makes it into a platform for epic deconstruction of fashion, sexuality, and the body, among a number of other things. And I have to hand it to Gaga... nobody does "explosive" quite like she does. Each successive image in this video is striking, from the erotic to the disturbing, and the central themes -- fashion, spectacle, and subliminal violence -- hold them all together.

The winner for MOST SUBVERSIVE USE OF GENITALIA:
The Flaming Lips' Watching the Planets

The Flaming Lips' use of nudity has come up a lot in the buzz, but that's definitely not the most harrowing part of this video, which is so in-your-face that it's almost gruesome. The most intense part of the video is the main "prop," with its yonic orifice, and the general implication of the narrative, which portrays a reverse birthing of that lead singer guy. This is an idea worthy of Cronenberg (in fact, I'm gonna watch the Brood some time this week! Maybe I'll expand on this blog post)... we may use the womb as an image of warmth and comfort at times, but I think we all ultimately cringe at the idea of being forced back into it. There's a lot of anxiety buried under this music video concept, and I think it makes for one of the scarier images of the year, an image of profound unbeing, as the gift of life is revoked.

The winner for BEST DAMN VIDEO, DAMMIT:
Rihanna's Russian Roulette

I think Rihanna really gets what makes a good music video. You don't have time to tell an elaborate story, or make a nuanced political statement... you may be able to challenge some authoritative ideas (Like a Prayer), or evoke some powerful emotions (Closer), but what a good video comes down to is the striking power of a cinematic image. The images in Russian Roulette strike all the right chords... they're vastly suggestive without being too complex, hiding a narrative behind each composition, but never frustrating us with the lack of further exposition. They're evocative, rather than being "symbolic" per se (over-reliance on symbolism may be an issue in videos such as Estranged, although I absolutely love it anyway).

Most importantly, Rihanna's images are mysterious and beautiful and powerful, reiterating the themes of the song: frustration, lack of control, and the desperation and anxiety of living on the edge of a knife.

I like Rihanna's video the best, but as you can see from the three worthy contenders above, the music video is absolutely a living art form. It's an art form that's designed to create buzz, and as buzz becomes a more powerful force (via the blogosphere, YouTube, etc), I think the music video will undergo some serious development and revolution. Blogs like Motionographer and Shape + Colour are providing the buzz required for new creators to break into the traditionally corporate genre, and a lot of these young directors seem to be crowding onto Vimeo, where authorship is strongly emphasized.

One thing I notice about these three videos is that none of them has a "performance" section that's broken away from the main narrative/conceptual footage. This is a major tradition among video direction... even apart from videos that are completely performance-based (Bjork's Big Time Sensuality), we find performance sections even in heavily narrative pieces like November Rain, Janie's Got a Gun, and... uhhh... Behind These Hazel Eyes. Is it because the live performance aspect of music-making is being deemphasized, as remix culture and audio post-production take stronger roles in the creative process?

I don't know. I just know the art form seems to be continuing to blossom, and I continue to be excited about it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Fantastic Mr Fox: Good Job, Wes and Raold


Raold Dahl and Wes Anderson are people who have created very personal, stylized worlds over the course of their storytelling careers. Raold Dahl's world is whimsical and exaggerated, acting according to a sort of unfamiliar logic (unfamiliar to us adults, perhaps, because it's a magical and childlike logic). His logic straddles the line of the non-sequitor at times, and his characters are painted in such clumsy splashes of personality that they can be grotesque and almost aversive. Wes Anderson is the complimentary opposite, creating emotional landscapes that are subdued and formal, sometimes clinical, like we're watching them interact in an emotional locked box (represented, in part, by the closed locations where his stories unfold: the Royal manor, Steve Zisou's submarine, Rushmore Academy). However, even in their dissimilarity, these two storytellers reach a similar place: both create worlds that are so spontaneous that they seem naked, bare and overexposed in their quirky internal logics.

It's interesting to see what happens when you cross-pollinate such different personalities. In the case of these two, the result is The Fantastic Mister Fox, which I can attest is a great movie.

The adaptation of Dahl's story moves quickly, but its over-arching themes -- confidence, the need for approval, and the larger commitment to marriage and community -- bring the frenetic plot together into a strong story. The pacing is fun, but the plot doesn't scream "fascinating" or "experimental" (or "pretentious," luckily). The film's true hook is its timing and comedic effect, and in this regard, Anderson hereby proves himself an adept. He gives his wry humor a dose of silliness, and a pinch of punchline, and it makes for a great experience.

I left this film feeling genuinely charmed. George Clooney helped in this regard, but he wasn't the only factor, because in the wrong hands, he comes off as a guy who tries too hard and ends up being off-putting. No, it was truly the whole film that charmed me... I came out feeling like I'd just spent these two hours having a conversation with a really friendly, interesting person in a bar, and they'd taken a personal interest in me and told me I was a really cool guy.

So three cheers for Wes Anderson. I'm a sucker for directors who can adapt to another effect (comedy) or another genre (childrens' stories) or another tone (whimsical), and Anderson does all three of these beautifully. Perhaps, given a sense of purpose and mission, his true strengths as a director come out. I've had mixed feelings about him before, but in this case, I can't find much of anything to criticize. Anderson and Dahl made it work just right.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Well-Resolved Movie Endings: An Ambiguity Intervention


There's been some talk of ambiguous endings over at CollegeHumor and Cinematical. The CollegeHumor video is good fun... the Cinematical article? Probably a bit divisive, since writer Jette criticizes the iconic open-ended conclusions of some truly canonical films. I mean, I know as well as the next guy... unless you're a Tai Chi master, sitting through 2001 is going to require some patience. However, if you're meditating along with 3 hours of Kubrick, or puzzling over all the cryptic cynicism of No Country for Old Men, or especially (and this one simply baffles me) going along with all the absurdity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then your mind should probably be a little loose and pliable by the end of the movie... enough that you can accept some unanswered questions.

Or maybe we're thinking about this backwards. Maybe it's not that they're inflicting ambiguity upon us (as Jette seems to assume) -- maybe we need to look at resolution itself, that polished up, nicely-packaged cereal box prize that comes with every popcorn flick, every childrens' movie, and everything involving Ron Howard. You know what that nugget is, and why studios are so intent on writing it into their pictures? It's because it's an addiction, and they need to keep feeding it to us so we keep the taste in our mouths.

Resolution as an addiction: here's the rationale. A widely-abused drug, generally speaking, is a way of evoking or enhancing something that we occasionally get anyway, just by being human... brain chemicals like dopamine, or stimulation of reward centers, or what have you. The drug is just something that's manufactured artificially, made to trigger those little pleasure-spots.

Now, in real life, there's something else we're always looking for... meaning, fairness, and resolution. Those things are surprisingly scarce in the real world, where things like cynicism, illogicality, and uncertainty are pretty much rampant. So most movies are filled with artifically-produced nuggets of meaning, like "good" and "evil," "karma," "justice," and "retribution." It's not that these things don't exist in real life... it's just that they're not very plentiful, and it sure feels good to get an extra hit once every week or two.

Addiction is just what happens when we condition ourselves to have more of these things than is naturally available. And "annoyance" is what results when we're looking for that weekly fix, and we end up with this movie where things are left up-in-the-air... a movie that pursues some less obvious intention, perhaps offering some sort of slower-acting analytical or thematic payoff, but that doesn't put out the goods we're always looking for.

When I see a truly unresolved movie... The Last Wave, or Blowup, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind... I get a pang of frustration at first. I didn't get to see anyone get rewarded, or punished, or targeted by divine justice. So it's a lot like real life, except maybe with better dialogue. However, once I have time to start reflecting on a film, I end up with this gradual-onset positive feeling, like you might get from successfully resisting a dependency, and feeling its grip on you loosen slightly.

I end up feeling like maybe there's stuff that's as messy and uncertain and pedestrian as the things that happen to me every day, but that it's still worth paying attention to, and even telling a story about.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Steve Tyler's new drama has reminded me how much I love Aerosmith

Did you ever have a favorite desk lamp that sat unused in a corner of the closet, and then one day, you jostled it and knocked it over, and it broke, and you were struck with a rush of sadness, even though you hadn't even plugged it in for, like, six years?

Or a favorite ice cream store that you hadn't been to since you were a small child, but one day you drove past it and happened to notice that it was closed because of the recession, and some small part of you was crushed by its disappearance, even though you're a vegan now and it was under new ownership anyway?

Or maybe you had a porno mag that you hid under a floorboard, and one day, many years later, you realized that you forgot about it when you moved, and you know it wasn't even that great, but you were like, "Oooh... but that was my very first Juggs."

Or maybe somebody assassinates Dan Quayle, and it's like, who cares? He's not even a public personality any more. But secretly, you mourn him, because you actually really liked him back when he was in office.

No?

Well, I had an experience kind of like all four of those when I found out Steven Tyler left Aerosmith. Apparently, he fell off stage during a concert at Abu Dhabi, and declared himself pretty much dissociated from the band. They tried to pull it back together and start looking for a new singer, but there's something a little grotesque about the idea of Aerosmith getting a new vocalist at this point in the band's career. Steven Tyler was a true front-man, the face and body of the band, and even with him in place, they were already well on their way into obscurity. Even in the best of circumstances, a revival would have been difficult, and without Steve, it's pretty dead in the water, I think.

Although I'd love to be proven wrong. For serious. And now I'm hearing that he's not out of the band... it's just a little personal drama, he's mad, people aren't talking, he might take a few years off, but maybe he's sad that Aerosmith didn't call him after he left, and he's wondering, is Joe sad that he left? Do they even care? But he can't hang out with them again right away, cause things are still weird. But if he happens to be at one of their New York concerts, he'll stop by their dressing room and say hi, at least.

Anyway, I'd hardly have noticed that stuff... like, I wouldn't have noticed if Mick Jagger left the Stones... except that Aerosmith was probably my first musical loyalty. I fell in love with Get a Grip when I was young enough that my parents thought the lyrics were inappropriate for me. I then grew with the band, and I listened a little to Nine Lives and Big Ones, but I still remember the band by their 90's epics: Pump, Get a Grip, and Permanent Vacation. I have to say, Pump is my favorite album, and The Other Side is my favorite song. Janie's Got a Gun is by far my favorite video.

I eventually fell in love with the younger spirit of punk rock, but I always held onto Aerosmith as my vision of real rock and roll, with its lewd combination of cheap glamour and grizzly cynicism. Tyler was a fresh face in entertainment for a little while, but he was never a spritely youth... he's always had this weathered, self-destructive, crinkled old man inside his body, so much so that he seems like he's always been dying, but will never fully expire. Maybe you could say the same about the band, too, although it's easier to see it when you've got the howling banshee face and the skeleton body for reference.

I know this post has been a bit self-serving, but sometimes I just want to write a tribute, instead of an analysis. So here's to you, Aerosmith-as-Tyler-and-Perry, whether you're dying or just acting out some old-man drama. Thanks for making some news again.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

NYMag's David Edelstein and 'Precious': How to write a controversial review

As much as we'd like to think we can draw a line between racists and non-racists, most of us know, at this point in history, that racism is endemic to many of our basic perceptions and assumptions, and that racial tension and difference infects even well-intentioned communicative action and civil public relationships. Precious, Lee Daniels' recent massively-grossing film, makes some strong statements on racism, classism, sexism, and general normative judgment, and it was only natural that it would be the spark that ignited some heated public discourse on these topics.

I haven't seen the movie, but I've followed a little of the public discourse, and that's what I'm going to talk about right now. I'm going to try to keep this post brief and unassuming, because I'm fully aware that seeing the movie and reading the book it's based on are imperative to really diving into a discussion of representational identity politics. Please bear with me... I'm going to work hard to keep my commentary confined to the discourse itself, which is all I'm qualified to discuss right now.

A little outburst of controversy has sprung up around one particular review: David Edelstein's review of the film in New York Magazine, which prompted a firestorm of criticism in the comments, and which prompted him to follow up with the kind of blog post that reads as both an apology and a self-defense. A lot of the controversy seems to be rooted in the fact that Edelstein used some very provocative language to describe the film:

"She’s also sexually molested by her jealous, welfare-cheating, gross, and sedentary mother, although the genital fingering might seem preferable to the verbal and physical abuse. The book gives you quite a bludgeoning. I started to pull back from it in a flashback when the 12-year-old girl is in labor on the kitchen floor and her mother is kicking her in the face. "

"I’m not judging girls who look like Sidibe in life, but her image onscreen is jarring to the point of being transgressive, its only equivalent to be seen in John Waters’s pointedly outrageous carnivals. Her head is a balloon on the body of a zeppelin, her cheeks so inflated they squash her eyes into slits. Her expression is either surly or unreadable. Even with her voice-over narration, you’re meant to stare at her ebony face and see nothing. The movie is saying that she’s not an object, but the way that Sidibe is directed she becomes one."

The anger at Edelstein's review goes in all sorts of directions... detractors call him racist and prejudiced, they say that he sees the negatives in such relief only because he's sheltered from real hardships, and they think his lukewarm review of the film is inaccurate, because he fails to understand it on any deeper level. Edelstein retorts: the film was intended to make this negative impression, so he can't be blamed for describing it. And he does understand these issues, because he's dealt with them in his own background and experience. He spends a good deal of his response defending his opinion of the film.

However, this is missing the point, and failing to speak to the issue, which isn't the content of his discussion, but its form.

What Edelstein was trying to do in his review is clear... he was trying to evoke the movie's emotional and tonal content, to reproduce the ugliness that the film represents and critiques. That's the only reason to use such descriptive, provocative language to describe body type, appearance, and sexual abuse. However, Mr. Edelstein needs to realize that this isn't the role of a reviewer. The movie is carefully crafted to evoke these negative reactions, but with two hours of running time, it has the time to critique them and give the audience space to think about them.

You can't do that in a review, so you don't have the license to play on readers' emotions. Your job is to acknowledge and critique the spectacle: warn the audience that they'll be shocked at times, tell them that the images can be too heavy-handed, etc. It's a reviewer's job to have some critical distance, and to address multiple levels of merit and criticism... not to capture and reproduce the same emotions that the movie did. When you do this, your criticism will sound impulsive and ill-considered.

And this is what happened here, of course. A large part of the audience (and a bunch of readers of Jezebel) sensed Mr. Edelstein's negative reactions, but they didn't sense the necessary self-criticism that goes along with them, and that the film is trying to evoke. His sin is that he wrote a knee-jerk reaction, rather than an articulate critical assessment... not as bad as the sin of being racist, but still, a faux pas.

There were certain very measured, insightful critical points here: the observation that Sidibe's appearance is transgressive, and that the film may be too harsh in its Manichean portrayals of pure good and pure evil. When I see the film, I'm going to look for those things. If the whole review had kept that tone, it probably would have been better-received, even if the final opinion was the same.

There are other minor breaks in Mr. Edelstein's logic. For instance, he seemed to be saying that it was the abuse that really took him out of the movie ("I started to pull back from it in a flashback when the 12-year-old girl is in labor on the kitchen floor...") but his most graphic description is a description of the main character's appearance. His conscious emphasis is on the film's cruelty to its characters, but his subconscious emphasis seems to be on his aesthetic reactions to Sidibe's body. I'm not going to start attacking a reviewer's character without knowing them personally, but this point is at least worth thinking about.

The reaction was sudden and vicious, and I'm never one to take Internet forum posts at face value... but there's always a reason for it.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Chris Smith's 'Collapse': Finding the issues in the character you found in the issues


The American capitalist world is a highly specialized, systematic, profit-driven place. There's a structure, and we're expected to support it, along with all its assumptions and implications. Culture, religion, identity, history, innovation, and subversion are all accorded their roles, and there are cracks and bubbles for the outliers, where they can be confined without becoming dangerous enough to threaten anything essential.

Chris Smith is an emerging independent filmmaker, and he's taken an inadvertent interest in these outliers. His second feature documentary, Collapse, was just screened in New York, and it's moving around the country on a tour of a number of major cities. You should absolutely see it when it comes along. It's a an obsessively focused portrait of a man proposing a self-taught ideology that swims upstream against the status quo, and whether you read it as a document on pressing current issues, or a study of a man who lives more drama than most scripted characters, it's a compelling piece of film.

Smith was actually planning on making a fictional film about drug trafficking when he ran across Michael Ruppert, former police officer and self-described prophet of the collapsing capitalist paradigm. Ruppert sidetracked him, and he decided to capture two days worth of footage of Ruppert exposing the vast tapestry of political and economic interactions he had woven in his head. This mostly has to do with consumption, energy use, and natural resources as the dwindling substructure for a global economy of surplus. The footage, shot in the basement of an abandoned warehouse under bare interrogation-style light, makes up the substance of Collapse.

Collapse shares certain approaches with Smith's breakthrough 1999 feature. The film, entitled American Movie, is about Mark Borchardt, a Midwestern salt-of-the-earth filmmaker desperate to produce his first feature-length masterpiece. Boracht is another character right out of a script-writer's imagination... if Billy Bob Thornton and Wes Anderson had a love-child, it might look like Mark. However, Boracht's endearing commonness is the texture upon which his passion stands, and his honest, flawed humanness... worries about money, confusion about the opposite sex, managing relationships with his family and his best friend... is what makes it so incredible when he takes on the passionate filmmaker role that American Movie puts into relief.

Not so with Michael Ruppert. Ruppert always walks the line between prophet and crackpot, and our perspective on him consists almost entirely of his own face and words, the direct window into his obsessive beliefs. He never looks pedestrian... whether by Smith's effort or his own, he keeps an air of mystery and self-confidence throughout the portrayal. When Ruppert plucks his cigarette from his mouth, he becomes Chow Yun Fat in The Killer, a lingering adept who has made this warehouse cellar his domain.

I'd venture that this confidence... coming from a man who at times seems totally defeated and paranoid... is the result of years of hardening one's identity against ridicule and criticism. This is what comes about when your heart has dictated your direction, and no matter how difficult it's been, you can't be turned from that path by skeptics and nay-sayers. The confidence is also Ruppert's greatest asset... his ideas about the future of humanity are cataclysmic, and if they were given to me in a pamphlet, I'd make fun of it and then throw it out. However, from Ruppert's mouth, "the truth" takes on a certain gravity, and it compels people to listen.

According to Chris, the compulsion is strong enough that the vice-president of the Toronto film festival reversed the decision not to show the film, saying (in effect) I didn't like it at first, but I couldn't get the guy out of my head. This film acts on the principle that confidence can be convincing, entirely independent of its specific content.

Chris says that these outliers... idealists, unemployed ideologues, artistic and political dreamers... aren't a project for him. I'm excited to follow his vision, when he starts releasing narrative films, but I also wouldn't object to some more films that occupy this space, where the real American identity is at its fringes. I think he's a filmmaker to watch, and I think the subtle vision he's shown us in his films thus far is worth pursuing to the end of the earth and back.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The New York / Paris / Moscow triad in New York, I Love You


Saw a film this weekend called New York, I Love You... younger cousin to Paris, je t'aime, a 2006 all-star amalgamation of short film vignettes. New York, I Love You featured shorts from a bunch of important directors, most of whom I don't know that well (though I think there are people who would say I should). They were a mixed bag, ranging from overly sentimental to very witty and concise. In any case, it felt fairly New Yorky, by and large... sometimes trying too hard, full of people you recognize, but sincere and accomodating enough that it's hard to begrudge it its flaws.

There's a little theory I've had floating around in my head for a while now, which is a theory on kinship of cities. It's the type of thing that I could turn into a thesis, if I was a very broad generalist of certain types of classical culture, and if I spent a few years hunting down the right studies, explorations, and travelogues. The theory is that there is an old Western world and a new Western world, and these are each represented by a triad of world cities. For the New Western World, I'd say it's Los Angeles, Tokyo, and London. I'll talk more about that some other time.

For the Old Western World, which I'm personally more attracted to, I'd say the triad consists of New York, Paris, and Moscow. And one of these vignettes is a clear illustration of this kinship.

The short piece called "Hotel Suite" on the film's website is about an aging opera singer who's clearly feeling spent and exhausted and lost in her nostalgia. She asks for a room on a higher floor (allegedly to escape the sounds of traffic) and is led there by a bellboy straight from the 40's. This bellboy clearly has a Russian accent, and he continuously discusses the singer's performances in Paris. This luminous setting is where three cities meet, connected by the thread of opera, one of the definitive art forms of classical Europe.

Along with opera, classic European culture is tied together by theater, haute couture fashion, and the romantic/melodramatic philosophy of art and culture. It's about the novelist, the New York and Moscow ballets, the Harlem Rennaissance, the symphony orchestra, the New York studio, the Paris loft, the Moscow Plaza... it's about New York and Moscow having the most distinctive public transportation systems in the world. It's about the culture of the University, Columbia, the Sorbonne, and Moscow State University. It's about two movies, both about finding love in the Old World.

There are other details that connect these cities in New York, I Love You... a film composer reading Dostoyevsky. A young Americanized Russian (Anton Yelchin) playing one of the key roles. Producer Emmanuel Benbihy was educated in Paris, where he learned the business of art. However, I'm not a film conspiracy theorist, and I acknowledge that these fade against the background of a fully international movie... a movie populated by Buddhists, Hasidic Jews, Chinese, and many others of uncertain ethnic origin.

At any rate, feel free to take a look at this little pastiche of a film. A lot of the reviewers may have gotten hung up on its claim to artistic merit, so they judged it a bit harshly, when it's actually more of a pop construction of cute little self-contained characterizations. For someone whose life is saturated with complex two-hour filmic odysseys, this kind of assemblage is refreshing and justifies $12.50 and a couple hours out of the weekend.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The three poles of TERROR: Have a structural Halloween

I was thinking a lot about horror and scary stories tonight, and it occurred to me that fear-inducing entities in storytelling typically have three essential sources. These are very abstract, of course, and they probably leave some outliers that I'm not thinking about, but still, it was an interesting little exercise to look at how they relate, and plot all the major studio monsters I could think of onto a field of horror concept.

I broke it down to three categories:

1) NATURAL: this includes anything with an explanation in plausible, real-world terms. Head-cases and psychological abominations... anything that represents an abberration of nature or humanity... that goes in this category. This category is driven by fear of disorder and lack of control.

2) SUPERNATURAL: supernatural is anything that completely refuses to be explained or justified in terms of physical or psychological laws. Supernatural forces come from other worlds, and the reason these worlds are "other" is that we don't have any way of understanding them. This is driven by fear of otherness and the unknown.

3) THE DEAD: A necessary third category, because it represents so much fiction. Apparently we're in constant fear of having to face an incarnation of mortality, which is where the unknown looms in all our lives. This is driven by fear of death (duh).

All objects of anxiety in horror and "tales of the strange" represent some combination of these essential anxieties. I put them all into a cool little graph, so we can discuss their various roles. Here it is... click for a huge version:



By the way, congratulations to Freddy Krueger, who gets the central spot. He's an insane child molester, murdered by an angry mob, who now inhabits the "other world" of dreams, a common focal point for myths of the supernatural. He's pretty much the best of all three horror worlds, which is why I'll never watch a Nightmare On Elm Street (revision LOL) movie by myself, or after dark, or without being physically forced to do so.

Also, it's worth noting some other little insights here. Dracula is clearly down on the line between "dead" and "supernatural," because he traded his humanity for his immortality, and died a symbolic death in the process. However, other vampires may inhabit other locations on this little graph. Some are the products of science, or a blood disease, like the crazy beasties in I Am Legend. Some don't really die in order to become Vampires, like the gothy teenagers in Vampire: The Masquerade.

It's worth contrasting Dracula with the Zombie myth... zombies are embodiments of death, much like vampires, but unlike vampires, they're usually explained scientifically, rather than supernaturally.

I've placed all "demonic" presences down by "supernatural," with a little nudge toward "dead," because even though they themselves were never human, and therefore never died human deaths, they still preside over the land of the dead, and death is their explicit domain. Lovecraft's Great Old Ones are the only creatures I can think of that are absolutely, completely otherworldly, in a non-scientific way, and aren't somehow related to human mortality.

So that's today's structuralist musing on horror, and a new addition to my list of cute little graphical gestures in this bloggy-blog. I wonder if you'd get more out of it by adding another variable, like original release/appearance date for each villain? You could code that into colors for the dots, and maybe you'd discover that horror has been moving from more supernatural to more natural over time.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN EVERYBODY

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Revisionist Western and the loss of the father: Sam Peckinpah and Cormac McCarthy, among others


I’ve been swimming in manly media lately – I’ve read two Cormac McCarthy novels almost consecutively, and I’ve watched an old Sam Peckinpah operetta called Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. Peckinpah also directed one of my favorite Westerns, The Wild Bunch. I also read Native Son, the Richard Wright novel about being a black youth in America. It’s been a streak of manhood-themed narratives, and I thought maybe it wouldn’t be a bad time to write something on the topic.

Reading McCarthy’s novels (in my case, No Country for Old Men and The Road) is an experience to be had. I was severely skeptical going in… I read a little critique of his writing some time ago called A Readers’ Manifesto, and it primed me to expect his writing to be rather gimmicky and contrived. This would almost be a valid criticism, as he writes with a conspicuously “muscular” prose that comes across as trying very hard sometimes. However, the pace and rhythm of his narratives carry the reader along with them, so you don’t have to think too hard about individual passages… as it turns out, you hardly have time to linger over them. Finally, what gives his novels the compelling personality that has made him famous is the combination of brutality and sentimentality woven into his writing. I think he’s perfected a certain style of sensitivity-by-counterpoint, writing stories where themes of love and nostalgia are made more poignant by the hostility of the foreground events.

McCarthy and Sam Packinpah share a lot in this regard. Both work with themes of the loss of the old world (the old world of the American West, in particular) and seem to mourn the mechanization and specialization of death. Anton Chigurh and the dope-runners (No Country) are analogues to the gattling gun, the motor car, and the Mexican army (The Wild Bunch). There’s a haunting resonance between Pike Bishop and Tom Bell, both of whom are old-world patriarchs taking up the task of fatherhood for somebody who’s destined to get themselves into trouble. Angel and Llewellyn are strikingly similar, as well… violent, young, sharply instinctive but reckless and doomed young heroes who love too hard to keep themselves safe.

And so, we see the old west becoming a metaphor for the father figure, majestic but ineffective, shuffling into its twilight. The old west is changing into a hostile new war zone driven by crime and accelerating ruthlessness, no place for honor or dignity (or Old Men), and with this death of an old world comes the death of the idealistic father, serving his principles until his last breath. In this new world, the son is on his own to bear the stings of cruelty and hopelessness.

If No Country for Old Men and The Wild Bunch overlap so precisely, The Road and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia are thematically adjacent, offset in either direction. In The Road, a novel which embodies Sheriff Bell’s final dream of his father, we see the final struggles of the true father figure in a hopeless world, and we come to respect him, even in defeat (this is actually notably similar to 3:10 to Yuma, another revisionist Western). Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia sits on the opposite side of death: Alfredo Garcia himself was the father figure, albeit a young, dashing example, the first and truest object of the female’s affection; unfortunately, the movie finds him already dead. In the wake of his demise, which is essentially meaningless, Bennie takes on the role of the upstart son. He hijacks the mother’s love, as a son is wont to do (both in the Oedipal and the basic familial sense). He confronts the world that destroyed his father, and in so doing, he takes up the father’s cause. And as in all the other works referenced above, he is facing a ruthless, nihilistic world where raw power and violence trump those fallen ideals of virtue and heroism. So, finally, his only choice is to rage against this world, and essentially self-destruct in its face. This resonated even more with me because I read Native Son, which is about a similar effect... the self-destruction of black youth upon being deprived of a father figure, both literal and sociocultural.

If you want a study of the loss of the father figure, I’d recommend adding one more to the list: Michael Douglass’s Falling Down, which is a sad, hopeless, and fantastic movie, one of the most compelling depictions of claustrophobic modern rage that you’ll ever see. If it’s comparable to any of the films discussed above, it’s most analogous to The Road – these are both stories of the father’s journey and his struggle with hope in a hopeless world, and with the need to take on the role of the father in a world where the father is an outdated mode. They’re very different takes on the theme… for instance, where The Road is very introspective, Falling Down is explosively hostile. However, it’s a worthy final edition to the realm of study hinted at above.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Scorcese: prospects for horror from the director of Goodfellas


I've been seeing trailers and buzz for a new Martin Scorcese pic called Shutter Island. Odd, since it's not coming out til February 19, 2010, but whatever -- it's never too early to start publicity. For my own part, I finally saw Goodfellas this past week. This is in addition to the other fare I've seen from the director: Taxi Driver, The Departed, The Last Temptation of Christ, Raging Bull, and (back before I was much of a movie-watcher) Casino.

There's something fundamentally unfair about making a list like that, because when you see all those titles side-by-side, they just become a list of "essentials." However, when you have to think about any particular Scorcese film, or study one, or choose a favorite, you may notice that each of those films is a monolithic masterpiece, an iconic moment in contemporary cinema. This is how a great director like Scorcese should be defined... not by his near-misses, as cynics are likely to claim, but by the scale of his combined masterpieces.

I mentioned in a previous post that Quentin Tarantino's filmography seems to be packed with "career-defining" movies, little opuses that fans like to cite as his greatest masterwork. In Tarantino's case, he feeds into this public perception, often talking about how his next movie is "a love letter to cinema" or the film he's been "waiting his whole life to make." Scorcese exhibits a similar effect, but unlike Tarantino, he doesn't have to push it... it's a function of his filmmaking style that so many of his movies seem like epic, career-defining cinema masterpieces. From Last Temptation, whose subject matter distinguishes it as a genuinely brave literary achievement, to Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, both of which are psychological portraits unsurpassed in intimacy, Scorcese keeps making movies that push the limits of storytelling as far as they'll go.

Goodfellas was an opus, as much as any of the other movies mentioned above. It was a highly subjective film, told almost entirely through Henry's eyes, but from this vantage point, it told a sweeping story of organized crime as it went through a key turning point in the 1970's. If I saw Scorcese as a mob-movie director, I'd see this as the pinnacle of his career. If I saw him as an essentially Italian-American director, I'd see Last Temptation as his high point... if I saw him as a directorial vehicle for his iconic actors, I'd see Raging Bull as his greatest achievement... and if I saw him as a representative director of the city of New York, I might see Taxi Driver as his greatest film. It's hard to see him as all of these at once, but I think it's the only way to do him justice.

Shutter Island looks like a departure for Scorcese, perhaps a surprising turn, if you haven't realized how versatile he's been. From the trailer, it looks like a horror film (or a "supernatural thriller," if you want to distinguish it from Hostel). It has jump-out scares, deranged faces and whispery voices, cryptic messages, and frantic breathing and movement through dark environments. In this aspect, Shutter Island looks like much more of a genre entry than Scorcese's previous films, and this may be a concern. Is it going to ruin the sense of universality and scale that's been such an asset to Scorcese's films? Is it going to slide too easily into a niche, and end up squandering the director's talents for complexity and ambiguity?

I hope it doesn't. There are certain skills Scorcese has in his filmmaking -- the ability to make us sympathize with a lost and desperate soul, the ability to make us feel threatened and alarmed without using cheap scare tactics -- that could work beautifully for portraying madness and claustrophobia. These skills have been at work in scenes like Henry's drug-induced paranoia and arrest, or inside Travis Bickle's head as he's become fixated on violence. However, Scorcese's never really turned these skills into the kind of rabid fear that horror movies tend to go for. If anything, he's turned them into suspense, discomfort, and intimidation. Whether those work for him in the kind of film that Shutter Island seems to be identifying as... or whether Shutter Island decides to be something totally unexpected and misrepresented by the trailer... those will be the key determining factors in whether Scorcese's next film is successful.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Wes Anderson and Peter Greenaway: Discovering a strong influence

Wes Anderson has a unique vision. His aesthetic is one of banality, and yet it's severely aesthetic, emphasizing composition and symmetry. His characters are markedly underdramatic, but his films still have a strong undercurrent of sentimentality. He emanates a sense of detachedness and sterility, but his films are about messy, confused family and romantic relationships. His aesthetic seems such an island unto itself that it can be hard to form a sensible reaction to him. However, this past week, I've discovered that Mr. Anderson DOES have precursors in cinema... I found one of them, and I sensed an overwhelming kinship. This kindred movie was Drowning By Numbers, a twisted little opus by celluloid artiste Peter Greenaway.

You should really see Drowning By Numbers. I can't pretend it isn't weird, and it's bleakly pessimistic, but it's also such a fascinating mental puzzle of a film, full of interlocking curiousities and remarkable characters. It has the stamp of British humor upon it -- the witticisms that simply slip past, the exchanges of understated mockery and absurdity -- but its real appeal is thoroughly universal.

The film revolves around three women, all named Sissy, who undertake the murders of their respective husbands. They have an unsettling sense of solidarity, and though they seem motivated by sexual frustration at first, it eventually starts to seem like they commit murder simply because they were tired of not committing murder. During this cynical and subversive process, they manipulate the local coroner into covering up their evidence. The story is the coroner's, as much as the womens'... he is a goofy and susceptible man who spends most of the film explaining the rules of strange, folkish games he has invented, and taking care of his son Smut, who has a similar fascination with games, but whose preoccupation is noticably more morbid. The film is a cracked unity, a fragmented braid of woven themes.

Does this sound like Wes Anderson? Not really. Murder and morbidity aren't themes central to his work, and his plots don't have the complex opacity of Drowning By Numbers. However, if you go and watch Drowning By Numbers right now, you'll sense the influence it's had on Anderson. I'll go ahead and try to articulate this influence, real quick like.

The camerawork and composition of shots in Greenaway's film are a direct precursor to Anderson's unconventional style. Greenaway likes long takes and a stable camera; any motion is usually slow pans, following a character's movement through a landscape. His frames are decidedly distant and minimally expressive, with a range of medium and occasional long shots, but few close-ups. The effect of his compositions is often to flatten the background and present the action in another flat plane in front of it, and he'll remain in this position and let a series of events or a conversation unfold in front of the lens. Like Anderson, Greenaway favors symmetry in his frames, and strong foreground/background gestalt. There's another shot of Greenaway's that Anderson shares: the unadorned, straight-on shot of a face showing understated signs of emotion (a single tear, a twitch of the cheek).

I've included a bunch of frames to compare the two styles. They're a pretty good illustration of the similarities I'm talking about... you can find them at the bottom of the post.

Add to this a penchant for quirky characters whose quirks are represented simply as the texture of everyday life... and a portrayal of family relationships that suggest underlying affection, even though they're caught up in a world of awkwardness and disconnection... and you start to see why these two filmmakers are so similar.

Interestingly enough, although Greenaway is less recognized than Wes Indie-darling Anderson, Drowning By Numbers could actually be seen as more marketable than something like Life Aquatic. It's certainly a strange movie, but it doesn't have Anderson's ironic tendencies (intentionally bad special effects on the fish, high-intensity spy music during a comically awkward rescue scene). Drowning By Numbers may have been a weird aesthetic and experimental exercise, but it felt dramatized, and the characters and plot were certainly engaging.

Greenaway's work is both more symbolically complex (the counting, the stars, things happening in three's, etc) and more dramatically conventional (it's an honest crime drama, at least) than Anderson's. As postmodern cinephiles looking back at Greenaway, we can see how he developed his experiment, and how Wes Anderson took that detached aesthetic and made it evolve. In a sense, Anderson's movies are a purification of Greenaway's aesthetic banal -- it's the same tone, but Anderson's movies don't have all the opacity and symbolism to get in the way. His stories are purely about the characters, and the plots and dialogue all fit into the quirky, banal, humanistic aesthetic, which he brings into a unity.

So in that sense, seeing Greenaway's work has given me a new appreciation for Wes Anderson's. I hope some of you Anderson fans out there will try to rent Drowning By Numbers. See if you see the influence as clearly as I did.

Frame comparisons, with Drowning By Numbers on top and The Royal Tenenbaums on the bottom:




Faces at despairing moments






Hapless patriarchs






Preoccupation with symmetry






Horizontal movement on a flattened background






Slow pan, following characters in conversation






Fixation on a significant gesture

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Credibility Against Time: who gets the Benefit of the Doubt?

Okay, so this blog I just started reading -- Cinematical -- recently posted a little piece on which filmmakers should get the benefit of the doubt. As you may or may not know, that speaks directly to the purpose of this blog, and to my philosophy on media consumption, as well. So I thought I should provide some sort of response.

It seems like cinematical's talking about our willingness to assume, going in, that a film is going to be good, which will prompt us to work a little harder to validate this expectation. It's amazing how much of film culture is a big mess of unsubstantiated opinions and conjectures... "It's an [insert director], you know it'll be good"... "Man, I can't believe [insert director] would take a project like this"... "He's been so disappointing lately"... "His early stuff was SO good"... etc etc etc. It's a whole cultural preoccupation -- estimating the value of movies, and then measuring each film we see against our expectations for it.

It just so happens that a lot of these expectations are historically accountable, increasing after big Oscar wins or impressive debuts, and decreasing when a director loses his novelty, or takes some bad projects. So I figured, why not give this phenomenon -- which, for convenience sake, I'll call "artistic credibility" -- a graphical treatment? Why not look at a few directors who have gained, maintained, and lost the fickle favor of public opinion, and see how things changed along the length of their career?

I graphed my own totally personal perceptions of a few filmmakers' credibility. I treated each movie as a chronological unit (rather than using years, etc) because I think that's how it works in the heads of fans... we measure periods in terms of "first/second/third movie," unless the director is massively prolific and there isn't a clear shape to their career. In this graph, I cover Michael Moore (a big nexus of credibility issues), the Cohen Brothers (in honor of the article that inspired this post), Oliver Stone (an interesting case of changing assumptions of quality), Ang Lee, and M. Night Shyamalan. Check them out... click for a huge version of the image.



Okay, a couple interesting things. The directors with big debuts (Oliver Stone and M. Night) are the ones whose credibility eventually trailed off (rather quickly in M. Night's case). In contrast, Ang Lee and The Cohen Brothers are still going strong, despite some duds in their movie careers (The Hulk? And yet we still love him!) Their trick seems to be a combination of award-winning features (Fargo, Brokeback Mountain), plus cult hits (Big Lebowski, Crouching Tiger) by which these filmmakers leverage both the broad public perception and the esteem of critics and educated taste-makers.

Also note that the directors who have lost credibility are the ones with very consistent styles (aka gimmicks)... M. Night, who creates end-twisting thrillers, Michael Moore, who creates provocative leftist documentaries, and Oliver Stone, who creates serious, politically-themed dramas. Stone has done a little better, overall, because he leans more on a style than on a gimmick. This contrasts with the enduring credibility darlings, Ang Lee and the Cohen Brothers, both of whom exhibit a wide range of film output.

I think, if I go back to this, I need to add some more. Kevin Smith is an ideal case for this kind of graph, having gone through a sudden complete drop in credibility when he renounced the Askewniverse. I wouldn't mind including the Wachowski brothers, either, since their Matrix movies were met with such volatile public reactions.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Burton-Acker's 9 as a mythology

From the previous post, you can gather that '9' wasn't exactly my favorite animated film (that title still goes to The Emperor's New Groove). However, I have to acknowledge its strengths... it was moody and visually/thematically consistent, and there was something very visceral and compelling about how commited it was to its mythology.

After all, this mythology is truly unique. This is a film that takes place in a truly doomed world... even Mad Max and Al Gore saw hope at the end of the tunnel, assuming the world could be saved in some unforseen sequel. 9 has no such hope. In this strange future, humans are literally extinct, and it's left up to one small group of automatons, formed from one man's soul, to take revenge on the machines, and then to sit tight for as long as possible, until they crumble into dust.

Why do I call this a mythology? In a sense, it contains all the essential biblical elements: an explanation of the beginning of the world, given to the prophet (9 himself) by the lost creator; a provision of moral responsibility, in the form of a commitment to preserve the human soul; and an implicit understanding that the world will be ending before too long, so you just have to bide time until everything dissolves into dust.

I would like to take this opportunity to translate 9's mythology into the language of a biblical text. I'm very sorry for these little animated rag-dolls, having to live in such a tragic post-human world. I really hope we don't consign any poor second-generation creature to this fate when we actually do find ourselves dying out.

Jesse's brief bible of 9:

There was once a single mind in the universe, containing all the thought that would ever exist. In its infinite awareness of the universe it was inhabiting, this mind became a creator, and created many wonderful things. However, it was lonely, and presumed that because it had all the thought that would ever be, it was qualified to create something barely thinkable: it decided to create another mind, equal to itself. Thus, the first mind created a second mind, its brother in the universe.

However, this new mind was not born in loneliness, so it did not see First Mind as an indispensible companion -- it saw him as a competitor for the thought that the universe contained. Knowing it had created an equal, and realizing it had created its counterpart, a destroyer, the first mind protected its infinite content in the only way it could: it fragmented itself into its fundamental components, destroying itself and denying its brother the ability to compete with it.

These components became a new race of 9, left in a world made hostile by the conflict between two great forces of thought. As the sole creative components of an empty universe, containing the fragments of its total conceptual substance, they took up the role of staving off the destruction of the world as long as possible -- a destruction that their own father had initiated by creating a brother who was to become a rival. A destruction that, however valiant the efforts of the 9, would ultimately be inevitable.

Okay, that was fun. I hope it brings a new angle to the movie, or at the very least, somebody out there finds it amusing.

Cut from the Same Cloth: 9 by Shane Acker and MORE by Mark Osbourne


9 looked like it would be pretty amazing, from the well-edited trailer, and from the stamp of approval offered by Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it was far from the final word, either on grim industrial animation (Final Fantasy VII was more innovative by far), or in post-apocalyptic narrative. It was filled with tropes and cliches, and reeked of lazy scriptwriting... you could tell as soon as you heard the main character confront the "clan elder" and accuse him of being a coward.

Okay, so the movie's biggest flaw was the story itself, which was packed with dramatic cliches, such as the following:

  • artificial intelligence has inexplicably turned on its human creators; and by the way, it has a single glowing red eye!

  • the rag dolls seem to form a society of RPG archetypes: the big brute, the stodgy old wizard, the battle maiden, the enigmatic twins (who also fill the role of the lovable scientist), and (one of my favorites) the prophetic madman who draws mysterious scribbles on the walls

  • small characters run across a bridge to get away from a larger character; chasing them turns out to be a bad idea for the larger character

  • messiah character must make a pilgrimage to his place of origin to discover the truth about himself and his anointed task

  • one minion, designated "extra creepy", wears a discarded doll head

  • SPOILER: movie ends with a gathering of the living and the dead, appearing as translucent, glowing green figures (they're like little Jedi's)

This movie obviously wasn't made because Tim Burton was drawn to the originality of the writing. The merit of the film... which the writer may have wanted to focus on a little more... was the atmosphere, the visual style, and stylistic treatment, which went a long way toward setting a mood.

You may or may not know that this distinctive style and atmosphere is actually derived from an older, more compact piece of film. Though it's not really in the same mode, this original version of 9, by the same director, could be compared favorably with its long-form reiteration. It was so compact that it couldn't have fallen prey to the shortcomings snarkily listed above. It left the mystery mysterious, and it offered a simple, utilitarian narrative framework for its gothic treatment. It can be found below:



Okay, so Shane Acker's short film is pretty sweeeet... some gothic, some steampunk, some post-human melancholy, all hung on a nice little story of action and escape. Did it get a little overblown in the feature film? Yeah, maybe. But still, the originality is there in the short, right? And it deserves some praise and attention.

However, to find the real genesis of the most compelling ideas in this video, we have to dig even further back, climbing out of CGI and into, of all things, STOP-MOTION. I sense that the soul of 9, in both its forms, is actually "inspired" (to use a very generous word) by an older short film by Mark Osbourne (no affiliation with Ozzy) called MORE. MORE was a 6-minute narrative short, the first ever filmed on iMax stock, that got famous on the Internet for a while, and was eventually used by the band Kenna for their song "Hell Bent."

Here is the original:



It should be obvious how much of 9 is a reiteration of the style and concepts in MORE. The character design is the most obvious point of convergence, but a lot of the themes are there, as well. The rag-doll characters have hollow insides where they can protect things that are spiritually significant. Both (all three!) films end with a gathering in the shape of a circle, a ritual site of meeting and restitution.

On a broader atmospheric basic (atmosphere is a vehicle for theme, no less than narrative), both of these stories evoke the feeling of living in the aftermath of some great mistake... that something has gone wrong in the world, and these characters are drowning in its consequences, without ever fully understanding the nature of the catastrophe. However, MORE brings this theme out with more power and subtlety -- its weird clay Metropolis is the wrong turn that's taken on the way to utopia, and the main character, in a microcosmic metaphor, shows us that dreams can always lead one far in the wrong direction.

These are beautiful, melancholy, almost Baudrillardian stories of hopelessness, and upon this legacy, "9" builds an interesting mythology, even if it's not necessarily a groundbreaking movie. I'll cover that in my next post on the topic.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Have you heard of the "Beatles"? They're pretty sweet

So the Beatles' White Album was rereleased on September 9th, and Pitchfork actually wrote a detailed review of it... a move that's hard to fully comprehend. Where, exactly, do you get off reviewing one of the most influential albums in history? They gave it a 10/10, at least... they can be pretentious, but they're not dumb enough to alienate a whole generation by giving this a lukewarm review.

Reviews are normally written to help people decide whether or not to buy something. I don't think it's gonna work that way with the White Album... everyone already has an opinion on it, and even if they haven't heard it (it's a fairly common phenomenon these days), they've spent their lives immersed in opinions on it. The whole world of public perception is oriented around esteem for this recording. It's basically assumed that your opinion of it (or of the songs on it) is somewhere between approving and religiously devoted, and if you have a lukewarm or negative opinion on it, you're considered a true outlier. For informational purposes, I doubt anybody really needed Pitchfork's little weigh-in.

Then again, there's a generation coming that will have had no exposure to The Beatles whatsoever. Even my generation... the ones who are now at fully employed age... had most of our experience through our parents' love for the band. Quotes, tributes, radio airplay, parents, and older siblings were really my primary connection to this culture-defining phenomenon, and my younger contemporaries... neices and nephews... will be even further removed from the legend. To us, the Beatles are nostalgia; to them, Michael Jackson and DVDs will be nostalgia. The Beatles will truly be history.

For that reason, I guess it's good that reviews are being written for albums like the White Album, and for games like Super Mario Bros. These reviews read like tributes, rather than actual critiques (although it's annoying that GameSpot only gave Super Mario Bros. an 8.1). Thus, they function less like actual reviews than they do like essays of appreciation... like the "Great Movies" series on Roger Ebert's website, which are there to remind the Christopher-Nolan-Seth-Rogan generation that there's something just as powerful in a more primitive era of film.

So perhaps these post-reviews will remind hipsters and minigamers that for some of us, these old media represent some of the greatest experiences in history. Perhaps it will remind them of their roots; perhaps it will make scholars out of them. Or maybe, at the very least, it'll give us something to relate to them about.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

In honor of Marvel and Disney's unholy union

I struggled to write about Marvel and Disney for a while. I couldn't come up with anything concise... I think I had too much to say, seeing as I wanted to talk about Warner Bros, Nintendo, Capcom, continuity, Kermit the Frog, universe building, multiple authorship, narrative tropes of soap opera, crossover complications, managing histories, economics of fiction, video games, and Natalie Portman.

So instead of composing a messy statement on the consolidation of the key properties of my childhood imagination, I decided to create an elaborate chart.

Here's the gist... this is a diagram of important universes, organized by ownership. That's the organizing principle for fiction, after all... settings, used as organizational nets for intellectual property owners to their manage characters. In honor of Disney's buyout of Marvel, I focused on universes containing multiple franchises, created by multiple authors, under umbrellas of particular media companies. And of course, there's a bit of a Jesse-bias in there. If I'd had more time, I might have included the Star Wars universe, Sesame Street, and the Final Fantasy multiverse. I know there are a thousand million others... but I had to maintain some perspective here.

Enjoy. Click for larger view.



You think creating, collecting, and maintaining universes is difficult... try being a fanboy, amassing universes over a childhood of media exposure, and having to keep them all straight!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Good job advertising to me




I have to take a moment to give props to effective advertising. I've seen this poster twice today, and it's one of the few posters I've seen in Manhattan (where you're basically drowning in visual advertising) that made me LOL. Well, maybe not OL, but at least it made me L on the inside.

By the way, the little "Spades" above his crotch isn't part of the advertising image. It's just standard subway graffiti on the poster I photographed at 23rd Street. Now SPADES can brag that he tagged a blog, too, sort of by proxy.

Anyway, part of the reason it works is that it's doesn't just throw its message at you all at once. That mantra works great for laundry detergents on store shelves, but it's not the most effective way to get people to like your poster. The first time I saw this ad, I was drawn into the center by the white text, cradled by the composition of the photograph, and I was thoroughly unimpressed. I was like, "Is it me? Can't you make his neurosis a little wittier, at least?" I actually found the advertisement itself annoying, right along with its subject.

However, the second time I saw it, I was still drawn to it, simply by virtue of its size and simplicity, but I no longer had any particular reaction to the content in the center, so I sized it up a little longer, and I saw the punchline, which is tucked off at the very edge of the poster. That's when I laughed, and felt vindicated in my annoyance, and happy with the poster, because it had a witty treatment after all!

Anyway, good poster... elements that move you through the image, and the message, in the right order, and at the right pace, so that the whole thing comes across like a boring story with a good punchline. I hear the show's good, too... maybe I'll get around to watching it some time.

Shameless Juvenile Love for Miyazaki's Ponyo


Okay, Ponyo was a freakin’ GREAT film. As an adult, there are a few things I automatically have the urge to do: 1) find a way to see this film as IMPORTANT, conceptually/historically/whatever… 2) find a way to compare this movie to Miyazaki’s other films, which I can smugly identify and characterize… I’m hesitant to fall into these traps right away, as I’m afraid they may misrepresent the profound joy I felt at watching this film.

So, first of all, I wanted to throw this out there: what do kids think of this ridiculous movie? Does it really work for them, with its confused physical laws, painterly backgrounds, and fairy-tale allusions? Its endearing 5 year-old characters are drawn partly from the uncontrollably-manic/inexplicably-wise archetype of children in popular fiction, and part of me suspects that maybe these stock characters are designed to appeal to adults, rather than the kids themselves.

At least one reviewer said her children LOVED it. I’ll take that at face value, and I’ll generally assume that this movie is as fun and charming and engaging for young kids as it was for me. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, though, please let me know, as I understand that I write from a limited point of view.

Roger Ebert said of the film, “It’s wonderful and never even seems to try” (Ebert, 8/13/2009). This has become a standard feature of Miyazaki’s films: they provide an easy transition into their strange narrative worlds, and they always seem to play out with an organic unity, so the viewer feels that they’ve been taken on a journey, not walked through a program. With such an easygoing talent at the helm, a film like Ponyo may be mistaken for something childlike, rather than what it is: a visionary artist harnessing emotional forces that penetrate to the most childlike part of you.

My argument, here, is that Ponyo is a great piece of art (the more I think about it, the more it may be my favorite Miyazaki film), brilliantly executed to act on the most primordial human impulses. I think we can agree that there are certain emotional forces that are rooted more deeply than our daily financial/sexual/social/intellectual concerns. These forces precede even idealized concepts like romantic love, personal politics, jealousy, and revenge. After all, those are all built upon rather mature complexes, like possessiveness and self-image.

Ponyo goes past these psycho-social glitches and touches the deepest emotional places in our souls. The oceans around Sosuke’s village represent the fear and lure of the unknown, the void that we all associate with depthless, endless bodies of water. In the face of the storms and waves, the tremors of nature’s rage, Sosuke has a shelter, his little house on a cliff, where his mother puts him to sleep at night. Shelter is one of the deepest emotional instincts we have (ask Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space), and the power of the mother-figure is another (ask Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Sigmund Freud).

Finally, Ponyo herself represents an inescapable force for Sosuke… the force of compassion and companionship, which precedes all its mutations (romantic love, sexual love, and friendship), and which ushers in a host of other deep-seated emotions: responsibility (“I know it’s a big responsibility…”), regret (“I wonder if Ponyo is crying, too”), and hope for the future (“I’ll leave this pail for when she comes back”).

In this mission, Miyazaki is following in some very traditional Japanese footsteps. In his art, we can see references to woodblock prints and Sumi-e paintings of cliffs, mountain roads, violent seas, and fish. These paintings capture the full force of the scene in just a few brush strokes, and they resonate in a deep emotional place for the sensitive viewer. Miyazaki’s work should do the same thing, and if you’re open to it, you should feel the same sort of effect.

Miyazaki is an artist of the highest degree, and though his work may not touch all the keys of the intellect, it tugs at the strings of the soul. I hope history comes to remember this film as fondly as I already do.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Quentin Tarantino and Inglorious Basterds: Jesse's Top 8 Random Thoughts


As a filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino is an ideal textbook case for study and analysis. First of all, his filmography is small enough that you could probably watch the whole thing in a weekend or so... Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction on Friday night, Jackie Brown and the Kill Bills on Saturday, and Death Proof on Sunday, before seeing Inglorious Basterds at a matinee on Sunday night. Presumably, you could spend the rest of the following week pondering his development as an auteur: his transition from indie to high-profile figure, his gradual escalation of self-proclaimed "masterpieces," and the growing exposure he’s earned over the course of his career. Second, he’s got a lot of personality, and he wears his influences on his sleeve. This means you can track his themes, comment on the specific innovations he’s brought to his raw material, and relentlessly periodize him as a postmodern director.

I thought of a lot of stuff to talk about, and I made a few attempts to tie it into a neat little essay... but they all sucked. So I'm going to rebel against my own habits and just put down my thoughts as a list.

Some thoughts on Inglorious Basterds, and Quentin Tarantino in general:

  1. QT seems to have become a guy who considers every subsequent movie his "masterwork." How can you not love a guy like that?

  2. QT finds his strengths – smart dialog, explosive violence, and an unpredictable sense of suspense and resolution – and uses them to the utmost in Inglorious Basterds.

  3. Watching Inglorious Basterds, we realize that Tarantino wasn’t making the best use of dialog in his previous films... stylish, inane conversation was just a setpiece in Pulp Fiction, whereas it becomes an instrumental storytelling device in Inglorious Basterds.

  4. In fact, the “veiled interrogation” scenes that make up much of Inglorious Basterds (the immaculate first scene, the verbal confrontations between Aldo and the Nazis, the conversation in the bar) are perhaps the most striking, streamlined use Tarantino’s ever found for his particular directorial strengths.

  5. For all Tarantino’s reference and derivation, he's got something very unique going for him: he knows how to bring a chaotic discontinuity to a storyline. It’s super-effective at keeping the audience alert and slightly off-balance. This is Tarantino's own touch, not present in any of the kung fu or exploitation that he’s so keen on quoting.

  6. Brad Pitt and Tarantino – semi-serious artists who are at their best when they’re adamantly irreverent – definitely belong together.

  7. In terms of visual style, Inglorious Basterds strikes a balance between the outlandish primary-colored hypervisuality of Pulp Fiction / Kill Bill, and the tight-fisted minimalism of Reservoir Dogs. He ends up finding the same palatable middle ground that worked so nicely in Jackie Brown.

  8. Inglorious Basterds isn’t the apex of a career ("his masterpiece")... no more than Kill Bill, and probably even less so. Rather, it’s a clear instance of a director allowing his strengths to mature, and continuing to pursue his own personal filmmaking vision in the face of whatever critical controversy he’s created.

Obviously, I thought it was a great film. It made me thirsty to see where else Tarantino can take his filmmaking talent.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Abrams' Star Trek and Raimi's Drag Me to Hell: Genre films with histories

I'm not a Trekkie. At best, I'm a fan of the series, and its ostensible universe, by proxy. I've known some people who grew up with the series, and I've watched it with my own family from time to time, in its various forms... I feel deeply familiar with the characters and settings of The Next Generation, even though I couldn't recount even a single episode. So I was excited for Abrams' reboot of the original Star Trek. At the very least, I was enthusiastic about a robust, immersive universe, placed in the hands of a really talented director.

As a disclaimer, I often find myself on the negative end of debates over this new Star Trek movie. After hearing the initial rush of enthusiasm, I grew some vastly inflated expectations, and I ended up looking for a masterpiece with a coating of mass-market sugar. I spent a week or two after seeing it arguing largely against my own unrealistic expectations for it, and I often heard myself saying, "I mean, it was okay, but I didn't think it was anything special."

I think it's time I stepped back and reframed my experience a little, in the spirit of this blog. If somebody asked me if they should see it, I would tell them they definitely should. I'll take a moment now to tell you why.

It might help (strange as it sounds) that I also saw Sam Raimi's new film, Drag Me to Hell. I'm familiar enough with the Evil Dead series to understand why it's so iconic, and this new addition to Raimi's repertoire got tons of good reviews. Despite my general lack of enthusiasm for horror, I couldn't resist checking it out. Incidentally, although it was in stark contrast with Star Trek, I think the two films shared some particular advantages that made them both popular with their audiences... and made them successful films for other reasons, as well.

The key might be that both films were fashioned for general audiences, but that they also understood and respected their peculiar roots. In fact, almost all of the reviews of Star Trek were about how the film gave the series a fresh face, but still provided enough references and fidelity to the original that it kept its serious fans happy. I rolled my eyes a little when I first saw this... I said to myself, "Demographic pandering doesn't make a movie good. It just helps ward away the complaints." In retrospect, I think I was wrong about that.

Of course, I brought up Raimi's movie because it shared the same quality. The film wasn't a throwback B-movie or a spectacle of kitsch... it had the right camera angles, the production values, and the pacing and continuity necessary to appeal to a 21st-century movie-watcher. It had Justin Long, for Chrissakes, using a Macintosh and being his charming 20-something self.

(as a side-note, this movie could have been a very well-disguised Mac commercial... in a chaotic world of degenerating sanity, crossed wires, and bugs, both literal and metaphorical, the mac guy is the one steady force, offering solace and love when everyone else has gone haywire. Allison is the business woman, trying to be highly functional but ultimately just confused and self-sabotaging, opposite Justin's hip, lovably nerdy demeanor.)

Anyway, despite the postmodern polish, Drag Me to Hell definitely had elements beneath the surface that smelled distinctly of vintage Raimi. Its scares were cheap, sudden flashes and loud noises after long, obvious build-ups, and the film comes out as bad horror that makes a mockery of its viewers. Raimi's horror style dictactes that the movie is self-conscious shock schlock that turns the audience into a comedy show. Indeed, in our theater, the only thing that rivaled the on-screen screams and crashes was the howling of the audience.

Likewise, Star Trek had an obsessive loyalty to its fan-base, a vein of faithfulness beneath its beautiful young stars, its intense CG, and its abundance of saturated color and lens flares. Bones was the perfect casting job, a pinpoint match to his older Original Series self. Chekov may have been reimagined, but he was reimagined as the kind of guy we WANTED him to be as a young man. There was even a joke about Enterprise, that short-lived prequel series starring Scott Bakula. Star Trek was "reimagined" (with the help of some time travel gimmickery), but it was firmly rooted in a universe that my dad knew better than I did. I think it would have stood up to his critique.

So what am I saying? Just that these were good popcorn films with the added bonus of being able to fool the fanboys into enjoying themselves? No, I think I'm saying more than that... it's that any work of art is better (deeply, aesthetically) when it can stand upon a history. I think part of the reason that these are genuinely good films is that they were conscious of their roots, and they integrated those roots into the fabric of the films. It may be crazy, but I think you would have been able to appreciate the histories of these stories even if you weren't remotely familiar with the originals that they reference. I think the foundations that hold up these stories show through the slick modernity of their production, and I think that's the real way to build on a tradition... make it part of the present, rather than just a memory.

That's enough turn of phrase for now. Next time, I go back to talking about old movies again. Peace out.