Monday, March 01, 2010

Gritty February: Shutter Island, Ghost Dog, and wrap-up

The most recent post that fits into "Gritty February" actually never got cross-posted here at Benefit of the Doubt, because I kept wanting to write something more elaborate, but just didn't get around to it. That was my review of Shutter Island, here: Shutter Island Review at BlogCritics

The film was less a rugged concrete block than a twisting, tight-gripping puzzle box of deceptions and hallucinations. I'd love to see it again, but I won't get that chance right away. Specifically, I want to review some of the loose ends: who was the first patient Teddy interviewed, and was he a piece of the larger picture? What were George Noyce, and the disembodied Rachel, trying to tell Teddy? Was each of them, respectively, urging him to escape the cell of his insanity? Or were they trying to draw him deeper into it? Rachel tells Teddy to "find Laeddis, and kill him"... does he do this by discovering the truth? Or by finally retreating from it? I can't spin out any real meaningful commentary on this cat's cradle of a film, but see tomorrow's post for at least a little more discussion.

Grittiness: 3
Scorsese has abandoned the American realism of his gangster movies in favor of broad strokes and rich stylization. It makes for a deep and involving film, rich in twists and hidden meanings. This doesn't make it gritty, though... in a gritty movie, the meaning is superficial and accidental, rather than semantic and significant and hidden, as it is in Shutter Island. Also, it loses points for breaking with the gritty work of a classically realist director. But make no mistake... it's still an awesome movie.

Also, I saw Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai last night, the last night of Gritty February (and, incidentally, the last night of the Olympics). I can't give you an overview of every reaction I had, but I can at least present a capsule review of my reactions. Jarmusch, a man who does amazing things with a limited range of tools and technical tricks, is so shameless that he's almost quaint... but this belies the passion he has for interesting lifestyles, cultural differences, and amazing snatches of dialogue and behavior. Ray Vargo's line, coming out of left field, that Ghost Dog speaks in "poetry – the poetry of war"... this is a perfect example of Jarmusch's ability to craft a cinematic moment.

Grittiness: 8.5
Though there's the New York intellectual baggage of quotations and literature parallels and theatrical wordsmithery, Ghost Dog is held up as a gritty film by its setting alone. This is the dirtiest and emptiest Jersey City I've seen in a while, full of characters you'd expect to find if you just talked to the random people who hang out on New York street corners. It evokes both the crudeness and needless cruelty of street crime, and the beautiful and strange halo of street spirituality that surrounds the New York metro area.

So here's a chronicle of the month:

THE SHINJUKU INCIDENT – Grittiness rating: 7.5
THE SALTON SEA – Grittiness rating: 8.0
ELECTION – Grittiness rating: 8.0 (adjusted)
WOLFMAN – Grittiness rating: 6.5 (adjusted)
KING OF NEW YORK – Grittiness rating: 9.0
LA FEMME NIKITA – Grittiness rating: 7.0 (adjusted)
SHUTTER ISLAND – Grittiness rating: 3.0
GHOST DOG: WAY OF THE SAMURAI – Grittiness rating: 8.5

I think I did pretty well here. It's surprising how many of these neo-noir urban tales are cut through with symbolism, stylization, and literary-style self-reference. Sometimes (as in the case of The Salton Sea) they seem to cheapen the truth value of the affair. In other cases (La Femme Nikita) they seem to heighten it, in a strange way, by evoking the sentimentality that we actually experience in our day-to-day emotional lives.

As a certain classic school of American filmmakers, represented by people like Abel Ferrara and Martin Scorsese, move away from movies about real-life humanity and the cruelty of circumstance, so new filmmakers from overseas may be moving in to take their places. The Japanese and Chinese approaches to crime are still mysterious and complicated (at least to us Americans), and even in this century, they've been obscured by the hyper-stylized and romanticized cinema of the samurai and handgun ballet. Only now, with auteurs like Johnny To, the reality of Triads and crime family politics are being reimagined and represented. Election may not have been crusty, but it felt palpably real, and for that, I actually adjusted the original grittiness rating I gave it.

Suspense and horror? Not so gritty. The metamorphic dreams of The Wolfman and Shutter Island were certainly solid and imposing, but they were channeling too much dualistic emotional content and symbolic sensibility, with too much second-level meaning and scripted self-awareness, to really be counted among the rock-hard tradition inherited from noir and fetishized by Taxi Driver.

At any rate, it's been a beautiful month of hard times and unflinching experiences, and I hope next month is just as fascinating. Check in tomorrow to see what our next theme is going to be.

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