Monday, January 26, 2009

Golden Globes Down, Oscars to Go

The big awards shows come and go around this time of year, and it generally makes me pause and wonder: have I been too hung up on outdated culture (classic movies, old books) to keep up with current cultural developments? And from there, I usually go on to a different question: why should I bother keeping up with current culture, when 99% of it... even the greatest, most memorable, award-winning movies... will slip out of cultural consciousness in about five months? I really don't think ANY of the acclaimed films will be worth talking about after a few months have gone by.

Still, this year is exceptional. I've seen most of them -- I saw Dark Knight a number of times, I saw The Wrestler and Revolutionary Road and Doubt, and just recently I managed to see Slumdog Millionaire. I've seen Wall-e a couple times, too. The big winners I've missed are The Curious Case of Benajmin Button, Rachel Getting Married, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, and Defiance.

Here, as you can see, we have our usual round-up of Oscar contenders. There are a few historical epics, one of which deals with World War II. There was bound to be a holocaust movie in there, with the likes of Valkyrie, The Reader, and Defiance all floating around. There are also two emotional dramas, the type of movie that involves a lot of yelling and leads to a restrained but tragic conclusion. I was lucky enough to see both of these character dramas, and they are both more than worth a trip to the cinema. I'll discuss them in a little more detail below. Aside from these, there was an off-the-beaten-path character study by Aaronofsky, and a Forrest Gump -esque piece of magical realism by David Fincher. Except for the enormous acclaim given to a comic book movie, there weren't too many surprises in store for the Hollywood enthusiast.

My own take on these Oscar contenders involves the question: which ones will resonate? In ten years, which ones will you be proud to remember seeing in theaters? Which ones will you heard mentioned in conversation, or referenced in a classroom? It's sort of a standard lineup of genres and directors... will any of the big winners this year really be remembered by cinema history?

The character dramas, Doubt and Revolutionary Road, and the historical epics, The Reader, Frost/Nixon, and Defiance, are probably the least likely to last. These are annual Oscar stuffing, films that follow our expectations for "good movies," and there have been a LOT of these types of films that have come and gone. Fincher's entry is probably the same -- it draws on certain magical realist genre conventions, along with Forrest Gump and Big Fish, and even though I'm sure it's luminant and gorgeous, I don't think it will be remembered above these predecessors. I think Fincher will have to be a lot more radical with his style and approach if he's ever going to top what he did with Seven.

The Wrestler may make a more lasting impression. Aaronofsky is being accorded an auteur's status in Hollywood, so his films will be regarded as more than mere flashes in the vanishing slipstream of Hollywood... they'll be evaluated as part of an ouvere. This particular film will be seen as a turning point for Aaronofsky, and will be remembered, just as history remembers OK Computer as Radiohead's stylistic defining moment.

The Dark Knight is the other 2008 film that history will certainly remember, for a number of reasons. Its association with Christopher Nolan, a director in his prime, and Heath Ledger's shocking death before its premiere, have created a perfect storm for the film's cultural legacy. The fact that it lived up to fans' expectations will cement its longevity. There's also something more subtle in The Dark Knight's success, and that's the fact that it's a comic-book/action movie that's made a serious impression on audiences, reviewers, and even the Academy. Culture is increasingly answering to the tastes of the mass audience, with the ubiquity of snide bloggers (ahem), mash-ups, leaked gossip, and YouTube clips. The Academy won't be able to continue ignoring popular film -- action, comedy, science fiction, and comic book movies -- when they look for Best Picture nominees. The Dark Knight is an early harbinger of a trend that's inevitably going to continue.

For me, Slumdog Millionaire is a big wildcard. It had a number of qualities to set it apart, both from the 2008 films and within the scope of cinema history. It's the most popular, acclaimed Hollywood/Bollywood crossover (though there have been others, like Bend It Like Beckham) and, again, it's associated with an up-and-coming director (Danny Boyle). However, it depended heavily on a pop culture aesthetic, and this fact -- which is an asset in The Dark Knight, whose purpose was grave and whose historical circumstances were striking -- may turn out to work against Slumdog Millionaire, whose stylistic playfulness may prevent it from being taken seriously in the long term.

Before I sign off on this little award show rumination, I need to give a shout-out to Doubt and Revolutionary Road. Doubt won't be remembered in history, except as a good film, but it's a phenomenal piece of character drama. The strength of the film may be due largely to the strength of the source material, and honestly, the film even felt like a play. The settings were small and generic enough that it seemed like they could have been set up in a small theater and rotated to create a space for exposition. Within this cramped, intimate format, Phillip Seymore Hoffman and Meryl Streep depict flawed heroic personalities that continue to resonate with me, and their clash -- charisma versus conviction -- is like the real-world version of Hector and Achylles. The strength of Streep's character will leave you in awe.

Revolutionary Road resonated with me, as well, though its appeal may be less universal in this regard. Though this is undeniably a tale of the insecurities and social pressures that hovered over the heads of families in the 50's, it also uses those sensibilities to tap a more universal theme. For me, this was the theme of hope and fear that goes along with defying the expectations of those around you. For anyone who sees themselves reaching for a dream (welcome to New York), but who knows they may have to give up everything for it, and to reconsider every role they've been conditioned to fill, the anxiety and powerlessness of Frank and April will seem brutally timeless. The film taps our natural fears of failure and need to conform, and it asks a tough question: did society destroy Frank and April by denying them their dreams? Did they destroy themselves by reaching for those dreams? Or did they destroy themselves by not reaching far enough for them?

Those are my many and varied thoughts on the Oscar and Globe movies of 2008. I think it's time for me to go back to my classics... Hollywood, I'll see you in a year or so.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

No Country for Old Men and Pascal's Wager

It's been a long time since No Country for Old Men passed through theaters, earned widespread acclaim, won an Academy Award, and took its place in the Cohen Brothers' filmography. Aside from some thoughts on muscular minimalism in prose and film, and maybe some musings on open narrative and thwarted expectations, I didn't have much to say about it. However, I've considered the movie some more recently while musing over philosophy in relation to film narrative, and now I think I should go back and give this film a little bit of commentary.

The underpinning of this film was its distillation of old Western archetypes into brutal central characters who seem so rugged and iconic... so intent on survival... that watching them come to blows is an epic experience. Llewelyn was a perfect rugged hero, salvaging blood money from the scene of a crime and struggling to keep him family safe from its pursuers. Tommy Lee Jones made a compelling weathered country Sheriff, driven out of his field by the injustice he has to face. However, I think most viewers will agree that it was Javier Bardem's character, the chilling, soulless hitman Anton Chigurh, who was most inspiring in the eye of the camera. He was a ghastly presence who moved through the narrative like a silent steam engine, and though he wasn't the narrator nor the protagonist, he was probably the true central character of the film.

At the time, Anton's gimmick... asking each of his victims to bet their life on a coin toss... seemed a bit trite, a little too much like Two Face's games with a two-headed silver dollar. However, on some reflection, it occurs to me that Anton's coin tosses were framed very much in terms of choice and agency, and so they took on a more philosophical edge than Two Face's little sadisms.

It is Llewelyn's wife, Carla Ann Moss (played by Kelly MacDonald), who brings this philosophical edge to light. At the last moment, before he kills her (a promise he made to Llewelyn), Anton gives Carla the choice to bet her life on a coin toss. This is her one chance to save her own life, and in an act of suicidal defiance, she gives it up, telling Anton that she doesn't believe she's really choosing... that he is the one with the gun, and he is the one who will decide whether to shoot her. In a certain way, she is entrusting herself to Anton, rather than to fate, and we, as the audience, know this isn't a particularly good idea.

It strikes me how much this game of Anton's is like Pascal's Wager. You may or may not have heard of it... it's the rationalist Pascal's idea that we can't know whether God exists, but we know that if He DOES exist, He will reward our belief in him. Thus, Pascal says, we should bet on belief, rather than submitting to uncertainty. By refusing to believe, our only possible futures are nothingness (if there's no God), or damnation (if there is a God). By contrast, if we gamble on God's existence, our possible outcomes are nothingness (again, in the case of God's non-existence) or eternal bliss (if God does actually exist).

This is a game theory decision. As rational actors, we're expected to weigh all possible options, recognize the one with the greatest strategic advantage, and follow that path. This may seem like a very cold, calculating reason to adopt Jesus as your personal Savior, but for Pascal, the point isn't the game. The point is that we all have the option to choose, and God has given us something to gamble on. If we refuse to believe, we're resigning ourselves to uncertainty and refusing to take agency over our own beliefs. It's sort of a precursor to Kierkegaard's existentialist "leap of faith."

Anton offers his victims a similar option... Carla in particular. Confronting her in her own home, he clearly intends to kill her. However, in her hands he places at least one final option -- the option to call a coin toss, and possibly save herself. Anton is saying to her, "you can choose to play the game, and entrust your life to something you truly can't predict, if you can overcome your fears of the unknown."

By this reading, Carla remains the staunch atheist, telling Anton that he, rather than she, is the one who must choose. This is not the right answer, as the film subsequently suggests. Anton was offering her a leap of faith -- giving her a 50/50 chance to save her own life, just as we may look into the face of a 50/50 chance for eternal salvation. And by this reading, perhaps Anton, by all accounts a force of nature, was trying to give Carla the chance she needed to escape. Perhaps the final moral infraction is the denial of one's own agency, and perhaps it's Carla's sin to bear after all.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Aronofsky's The Wrestler: accolade with a touch of feminist critique

Darren Aronofsky is a filmmaker right on the border between avant-garde and well-recognized. It's a nice place to inhabit, as an artist... a space where you'll find most of the "hip" stuff in this day and age. There's some status associated with being edgy and non-formulaic, but your name is also easy to drop and sounds good in all the trendsetting circles. Having thus pigeonholed DA, I'd like to discuss his newest film, The Wrestler, which came to New York in December 08.

The Wrestler is refreshing. Aronofsky has spent the last ten years making unhinged films about madness, addiction, and desperation. Whether in Pi's paranoid delusion, Requiem's claustrophobic dependency, or The Fountain's densely symbolic story of epic self-denial, we're always in a gratingly alien head-space in Aaronofsky's films. We're put through paces that are so intense, we can barely relate to them, and we're left with nothing to talk about at the end of the picture. The Wrestler contrasts starkly with these previous films. It's a sympathetic, restrained story with a lot of authentic pathos. For the first time, we have an Aronofsky film about character, rather than concept, and though it's less twisted, it may be a lot more interesting.

For a "hip" director (I'll put that in scare quotes to show that I actually really admire Aronofsky, and have no interest in trivializing his work), making a film about professional wrestling can be a touchy endeavor. When you're a serious director and you put your hands on something many people take very un-seriously, it can come across as satirical, or obnoxiously ironic. Aronofsky does an excellent job, though. He doesn't approach wrestling as a curiosity or a carnival side-show... he approaches it as a fan would approach it. It's obvious why people would want to cheer for Randy, not just because we feel his pain backstage, but also because we see his trials as an athlete, and the importance that pro wrestling has for him.

With my opinion well-established, I'll go ahead and offer one critical perspective on the film. Considered as a character tragedy, or as a realist narrative, it's truly an achievement. However, from a feminist perspective, The Wrestler may warrant some critique. After all, there are essentially three main characters -- Randy, Cassidy (his love interest), and Stephanie (his daughter) -- and two are female. Ultimately, it is these central characters who bring about Randy's downfall. They are no more flawed than he is, but they are the ones who complicate his real life to such a degree that he loses control over it.

In fact, Randy's downfall can be attributed to three characters, and each of these characters fills certain traditional/literary sexist roles. Cassidy, his love interest, is the ice queen, so committed to her own aspirations that she can't make room in her heart for Randy, and she has to turn him away when he tries to open up to her. Stephanie, his daughter, is the hysteric, the female character so overcome by emotion that she rages at the people who love her, and ultimately drives them away. The third instrumental female, who only has one scene, is the girl at the bar who asks Randy if he wants to "party," and ultimately prevents him from making it to dinner. She's the temptress... the opposite role from Cassidy, offering Randy something to undermine him when he's at his weakest.

Aronofsky's film wasn't about the perils of the female sex... it was about Randy trying to sort out a life of emotional neglect, and naturally, these emotional commitments are the ones that cross the gender gap. It's a film about a wrestler, and it's a moving portrayal. So take the above feminist perspective into consideration, but don't forget what a fantastic piece of cinema this was, all told. I hope Aronofsky, Rourke, and Marissa Tomei are all remembered for this film, which will be a unique badge of honor on their careers.