Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Solitary Man (2009): at least the company's good

A Solitary Man is a new film from directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien, following a middle-aged businessman for whom a worrisome diagnosis prompts a shameful decade-long midlife crisis. We, the audience, enter the film toward the end of this crisis, when bad behavior has become a committed lifestyle. And though you may feel like you're watching a slow-motion car crash, it's actually ripe with humanity... not in our protagonist, who seems intent on abandoning every shred of self-respect, but rather in the people who surround him, who make something salvageable out of his sad life.

A quintessential train wreck, Ben Kalman (Michael Douglas) shows us the reality of self-sabotage, which, for those going through it, never really exists, because you have to be in denial to stay on such a collision course with disaster. Does Ben make this kind of self-annihilation look good? Obviously it doesn’t look good to all the people around him, and obviously its reverberations upset the ground of his loved ones’ lives, but still, in casting Douglas and making him so successful at his particular addiction, don’t we kind of romanticize this form of behavior? And by making him a human being with a chance of recovery, do we perhaps suggest something even more sinister: that only through a crash-course toward suicide can we really be saved, redeemed, and ultimately fulfilled?

Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg) is an answer to this question, but he doesn’t quite resolve it. He's the foil for Ben, having the untwisted, uncorrupted mind of a liberal teenage optimist. However, he also provides additional validation for Ben’s behavior, creating an opportunity for him to become a mentor and channel his carefully-honed bad habits. Cheston may show us that honesty and innocence are their own rewards, but in his transparency, he's rather simplistic, like a team we root for in a particular game because they're the underdog, but don't bother following through the rest of the season.

Obviously, Cheston isn't the focus... Ben Kalman is the focus, and we the audience are positioned in relation to him. Ben Kalman induces a rare emotional response: a sort of sympathetic contempt, as we're led to see him embodying the worst parts of tragically flawed people. He's a recognizable, well-acted, almost archetypal slimy businessman who's nasty to people as a way of protecting his own soft underbelly. In seeing this, we, the audience, are put in a very specific place with regards to Ben. We understand him, we see that he's human, and we can be frustrated with him to the point of hopelessness, but we still want him to recognize his own flaws and redeem himself.

This brings out the massive importance of his daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer), whose point of view is closest to our own. She's lived with her father for years, and has tried to help him, offer him second chances, and see him compassionately but honestly. We, as the audience, only know him for a couple hours, but we get enough insight into his past and the trajectory of his personal life that we develop an emotional stake in his health and well-being. In terms of familiarity, we may be closer to Jimmy Merino (Danny DeVito), who seems to want to help him simply because he's a human being deserving of mercy, but in terms of investment, Susan is our true stand-in.

Despite the film's downbeat tone, this point of view is a fairly safe and optimistic one. Think what a film would be like if it empathized more with Gary (David Costabile) or Jordan (Mary Louise Parker), both of whom see Ben as utterly unredeemable. They may be part of the same life story, but their position is totally different -- instead of compassion and redemption, which are basically spiritual outcomes, they seek containment and retribution, which are more like judicial outcomes. If we'd been placed in this position as an audience, we would truly be alienated from our protagonist, and it would be a very audacious thematic move, akin to Anton Corbijn's 2007 Ian Curtis biopic Control.

It seems like it would be simplest to tell this tale through the eyes of Kalman himself. This would put us in a world where young women are tokens of heroism and success, where the enemies are unsympathetic investors and disloyal bankers and shrewd girlfriends, and where ultimate success is an elusive sort of male dominance in the midst of a maelstrom of misfortune. But this point of view, assuming such a point of view is possible, would have meant abandoning one of the film's central insights: that every character is a product of all those judgments and opinions surrounding and affecting them.

So you could take the film's title, A Solitary Man, as an ironic one. As much as he tries to isolate himself, perhaps in pursuit of an unattainable sense of manly wholeness, Ben Kalman remains a product of the frustration, compassion, and contempt he inspires. And though he may not find redemption for himself, he attains it at a few key moments, through his daughter, who offers him a hand at his most difficult moment, and through us, his audience, who are human enough to hope he can eventually redeem himself.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

At The House Next Door: Day of the Dead (1985)

Proud to contribute to the Summer of '85 series at Slant Magazine's The House Next Door:

Day of the Dead, unleashed in July of 1985, was the third in George Romero's Dead trilogy (not to be confused with Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy), which has created a foundation for a whole horror subgenre and its attendant culture of obsessives. It wasn't as blithely satirical as its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead, and it was far more technically sophisticated than either of its forerunners. Owing to these improvements, Day of the Dead is the most direct reference point for all subsequent “serious” treatments of the zombie archetype. Despite its landmark status, it’s accorded far less acclaim than Dawn of the Dead, which is often heralded as the pinnacle of the trilogy. This is unfair to Day of the Dead, which seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, so much so that its iconic contribution to the genre has been overlooked.

Read the rest over at The House Next Door.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Gaga's new video for Alejandro: an unfulfilled cultural event

Seeing Gaga’s video for Alejandro, and reading some blog reactions, has gotten me thinking about Media again. Specifically, it’s gotten me thinking about how the transition to on-demand, easy-access, Internet-based mass media has changed the way we relate to artists and their products. Because I think Gaga’s approach to video-making is struggling against a climate that’s not favorable to it, even though she seems to embrace the very paradigm that’s oppressing her.

Gaga’s approach is epic, sensational, landmark-seeking, and stage-stealing. Alejandro was preceded by a lot of hype and anticipation, and the payoff is there: the video is shameless, sensational, and totally committed to its vision. Lady Gaga is constructing herself as the purveyor of the big premiere, the major media event, with all the attendant decadence of insane staging and lighting, outlandish costumes, spectacle, glamour, and publicity. Her premieres and awards show appearances are things that want to be noteworthy, given a chance to attract crowds and incite editorial reaction, and they deserve a date and time, a “first showing,” if you will, when the whole world gets to see something authentic at the moment it actually happens. This isn’t about Live or Pre-Recorded… it’s about having a true premiere, where her work is pinned to a particular historical moment.

In the age of YouTube, this is getting very difficult to do.

I think there’s a demonstrable progression from movies to television to Internet media. It’s a progression of accessibility (the carrot at the end of the stick, keeping the change going) and of specificity, a slide from the historical to the immediate; it’s about having your content whenever you need it, and about making every place “the right place” and every time “the right time.” Meanwhile, it’s rapidly taking the bite out of the concept of the “big event.” This is a progression that’s good for talent and bad for cultural gatekeeping; it’s a transition from market-based flow control to truly conversational, democratic media.

Film inherited something from the world of live entertainment: the idea of the “premiere,” which was dependent on a time (the release date) and a place (the theater or auditorium). Mystique still surrounds the big Hollywood premieres, which is why Cannes totally dominated film blogging last month, but the red carpet romance feels a bit nostalgic these days. Those beautiful dresses and photo sessions are Hollywood’s tribute to its own golden age, but it’s being infiltrated: important filmmakers are claiming they’re not going to do press screenings, and films are appearing illegally online before they can muster up a big opening. Hollywood used to be desperate to start conversations; now, conversation is so ubiquitous, they’re struggling for control in the face of it.

Television was the first step back from this “opening night” paradigm. With broadcast TV, there’s still a “big night,” but there’s no special place to go… you can get the premiere dropped right into your living room. Nonetheless, the premiere is still an event on television, because it’s still a one-to-many information flow, from the distributors to the consumers. Nielsen Ratings have replaced the Box Office Take, but the role still gets to be filled, because everyone who wants to see the premiere gets to do so at the same time. There’s still a long-lasting ripple that radiates from an on-screen premiere, reaching entertainment magazines and water cooler conversations the next day. The importance of the event is still absolutely apparent: how long are people talking about it? Will they remember the date and time? Can they say they were there, in their living rooms, at the moment the first episode was shown?

This was also the birthplace of the music video, which was able to participate in some of the cultural conventions of the television premiere. The great music videos – Video Killed the Radio Star, Michael Jackson’s Remember the Time – were able to reach the status of cultural events with their first screenings, and they’re still remembered for “rocking the world” (or whatever). But it seems that music videos have abandoned this prime-time philosophy in favor of the higher volumes of the Internet. They probably reach a LOT more people at once, and they can create a massive, albeit very short-lived, amount of buzz. However, they’ve lost something in the process: they’ve lost the historicity that television premieres gave them, the ability to be marked as cultural events that people related to certain times, places, and moments in their lives.

Music videos moved their premieres to the Internet, and this has had a profound effect. With some exceptions, streaming videos are viewed at small resolutions (standard or less) on high-resolution screens, which makes them look very small. They can be accessed whenever, in any free scheduling gap, and easily forgotten about. Further, they’re now tied to a hyper-accelerated news cycle driven by the manic world of blogging and reposting and status messages. As Joe Reid points out, they now create a flash of discourse that spends all its energy and gets old almost immediately. And for such a small video, watched over a lunch break, why would you expend any more effort than that anyway?

I think Gaga’s sense of spectacle deserves a much bigger space than YouTube provides. I mean, don’t get me wrong… you can get a ton of buzz out of an Internet premiere. That recent Mortal Kombat video did a pretty fantastic job of generating conversation. Even so, it’s such a saturated medium that it’s hard to stay relevant for more than five seconds – and a video like Alejandro isn’t just an isolated meme. The Lady Gaga groove was already carved out by Bad Romance and Telephone, and a video like Alejandro will drain away much quicker because of these precursors.

This “size of the screen” thing may seem pretty silly, because the digital world seems to have decided that it can watch movies on its computer, or its iPod, or whatever. But don’t underestimate how much this affects our perception of the media. On a larger screen, any work of media will seem to go slower and take on greater importance, even aside from the fact that it’ll be less disrupted by distractions. And Alejandro was made for a big screen, even more so than its predecessors… it takes place in a vast, empty, black interior, defined by its scale, and the dance sequences have fewer jarring close-ups than the previous videos, so the video ends up depending on the on-screen gesture and movement itself. The stomping boots and isolated noises within the empty, echoing space really beg for an immersive viewing environment. At least the player on YouTube has a black background… it’s a small step in the right direction.

But wouldn't this look better on a television screen in a living room, at the very least? I know those old TV's weren't HD, back in the time of Thriller and Black or White, but they certainly got the job done, and "premiere" really meant something. As much as the Internet has tried to undercut Broadcast television, TV is still capable of turning something into a cultural event, as evidenced by final episodes like Lost and American Idol, and major awards shows like those MTV Movie Awards. Premieres themselves may be flagging, but it's been a while since I knew of anything that generated the buzz of that final Lost episode. Seeing Alejandro on the television screen for the first time ever, with its intense stomping and graphic, shocking sexual dance moves -- it would bring out the real power of the video, its power to inspire shock and awe, at least for the duration of the next commercial break. It could be attached to another cultural event, like an awards show... at this point, that might be required for it to seem relevant.

But even better, wouldn't it be great if Alejandro could premiere on a HUGE screen, in a dark theater, before a major film release? Pixar has done a decent job of premiering awesome shorts before its motion pictures, but these are never really promoted... I think Gaga's media apparatus could make a music video premiere seem almost as important as the movie it was attached to, and sometimes more so, if they picked the right film studio to work with. Where would it have been appropriate? Maybe before a movie like Inception, or before Tarantino's next film; maybe before Splice, or a uniquely buzzworthy flick like Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity. If it premiered in this context, Alejandro could have made a truly resounding cultural impact, with that goose-stepping, BDSM insanity, that lengthy Madonna tribute, and those elements of concept and narrative hiding in the cracks of all the sensationalism.

This all leaves the question that I can't answer: does this make Lady Gaga an anachronism of a previous media generation, when the cultural event was truly alive? Or is she the artist of a future that needs this kind of epic spectacle to return? We'll have to wait and see, I guess.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Splice: A discussion of parenthood in horror

This is a meditation on Vincenzo Natali's new film Splice. For a more succinct evaluation, read my review at BlogCritics.

Parenthood is complicated. Any parent of a teenager will tell you that. But for Elsa and Clive, the characters in Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, this complexity is intensified to dangerous levels, as they become the surrogate parents for a hybrid semi-human creature of their own ill-advised creation. As this creature, Dren, develops, the three form a clandestine family hiding out in back rooms and abandoned barns, and their struggles bring into relief the other parental relationships in whose orbits they fall.

The life cycle is a common theme in horror, developed in countless films that include pregnancy, birth, and childhood, all of which provide some flesh for the genre’s claws. Rosemary’s Baby, Dawn of the Dead, The Fly, The Brood, Inside (À l'intérieur), Orphan, The Exorcist, Children of the Corn, Pet Semetary, The Others, The Innocents, and dozens of others have appeared to reinforce the “creepy child” cliché and haunt us with veiled faces of young faces with dead eyes. Perhaps this is because pregnancy and birth are bridges to another world, or that they’ve got such deeply-rooted psychological implications for us; perhaps it’s actually rather easy to see children as “other,” since their minds are so opaque to us conditioned adults.

There’s something unsettling about the way we’re so accustomed to casting children as ghosts, monsters, and abominations. Surely it’s worth the shock value, but it also seems exploitative at times (one of the essential threads through horror, I guess). Splice is a refreshing exception to that tendency: Dren is certainly strange to us, an unidentifiable creature developing into an experimental analog to a human teenager, but she’s more recognizable than incomprehensible, and Natali focuses more on her humanity than on her monstrosity. She comes alive as a character in intoxicating sequences of self-actualization: when she strokes a Barbie doll, when she puts on makeup in the mirror, and when she dances with Clive, her Cassandratic fixation.

That’s why Splice, despite its insistence on being about physical biology, is much more a film about the complexities and responsibilities of parenting, which is the source of the real narrative drive and the palpable suspense that builds in Elsa and Clive’s lives. This theme is introduced early, in Elsa and Clive’s discussion about having children, and it infuses their relationship from that point forward, as they struggle against one another to decide whether they’ve created a “she” or an “it” (a conversation that becomes much more complicated toward the end of the film). Both Clive and Elsa seem to oscillate back and forth between these two positions, which provide the emotional riverbed for the downhill rush of narrative.

This theme is comfortably transparent, addressed as it is in a number of expository dialogues between Clive and Elsa. Most telling is their argument, late in the film, where Clive exposes Elsa’s willingness to use Dren as a surrogate child without the attendant stakes and responsibilities. The relationship between this conversation and Elsa’s murky family history is suggested; Clive obviously thinks that Elsa’s hesitation stems from her own mistreatment by her mother. Whether he thinks she’s reacting against this phantom matriarch, or subconsciously imitating her, is left an open question. What’s far more important – and more interesting – is Clive’s assertion that Elsa is “afraid of losing control,” which is probably the most apt description of Splice’s actual narrative trajectory.

After all, the tension in Splice, for at least the first two-third of the movie, isn’t due to the stalking of a dangerous monster, as it was in Species and Alien. The suspense stems from Clive and Elsa’s knowledge that they committed their scientific sin in the face of every warning and injunction, and that they’ve taken on an impossible task: the task of protecting a living creature from discovery and harm, and of protecting themselves from institutional punishment. Of course, this dovetails with the theme of paternity… Clive and Elsa’s lives would get MUCH easier if they killed Dren (as Clive attempts in an early scene) and destroyed the body, but they can’t, because they’ve taken on the role of parents to the growing creature. Thus, before our eyes, they inevitably drift into their dilemma, and as early as Clive’s evasive conversations with his brother, we can see disaster looming on the horizon.

Gross-outs aside, this impossible escalation is where Splice most resembles The Fly, with which it is often associated. Cronenberg's sick tragedy, the chronicle of a man's slow and inexorable transformation into a repulsive monster, is a reverse template for Splice, in which the creature evolves from a half-formed fleshy thing into a blossoming specimen of (modified) human form. Like Splice's Clive and Elsa, there is a human observer named Veronica (Geena Davis) in The Fly... and like Clive and Elsa, Veronica has to decide how personally to take this tragedy, and whether to invest emotionally in an insoluable situation, or find a way to renounce it. Again, though it's not spelled out, the specter of parenthood is present.

In The Fly, there's a double-layer of paternal issues: Veronica's caretaker role with poor Seth Brundle, and her actual pregnancy, which threatens to result in a possible freak-baby from her mutating love interest. And as Seth informs her, these two concerns interlock... as Brundlefly starts to realize his own dire situation, he points out to her that the baby might be all that's left of his humanity. Veronica has to content with compounded responsibilities and anxieties... her love for an unborn child of uncertain origin is bound up with her compassion for a hopeless case.

This subtext -- Veronica's responsibility toward Seth via the unborn baby -- is the only hint in The Fly of a parenting theme that becomes foregrounded in Splice: the perverse tendency of parents to turn children into objects, whether it's a doll (Shutter Island), an experiment (Dren), or a tribute to a lost love (Seth's baby). Elsa offers us a clear picture of a binary neurosis at its finest, shifting between extremes of unconditional motherly love and mechanical, scientific coldness towards Dren. Dren's alarming defiance triggers Elsa's "detached, scientific" self, which is essentially her excuse to be cruel to Dren under the auspices of scientific objectivity. As Elsa shuts off her short-circuiting maternal instinct, she suddenly decides to treat Dren as an object, rather than as a family member. This mode-change is almost as jarring as Aaron's transition into Roy in Primal Fear.

I mentioned a two-tier structure of parenthood themes in The Fly... turns out there are more layers to the paternal metaphor in Splice, as well. In particular, Clive and Elsa's parent relationship to Dren, where they stand on the line between treating her as an experiment and treating her as a family member, is echoed in the investors' treatment of Clive and Elsa themselves. Like Dren, looking for understanding and validation from her surrogate parents, Clive and Elsa are constantly engaged in a relationship of subservience and subversion with respect to NERD's high-level financiers, represented by Joan. Before all the hubbub about Dren's loyalty and family ties, there is an original betrayal that sets the central tragedy in motion, and this is the investors' decision to cut Elsa and Clive off of their important research and force them to work toward a financial bottom line. Their decision to stop their unconditional support of the research, and to turn Clive and Elsa's lab into a tool for profit, is a prelude to Elsa's eventual treatment of her "experiment."

So how does Clive's behavior fit into this? He has to be convinced to treat Dren as a living thing, rather than a dangerous and unfortunate curiosity. However, his relationship with Dren eventually evolves into something totally unlike a parent, even a reluctant one. His sudden sexual interest in Dren could be seen as yet another form of objectification, but it actually reads more like a final bit of humanization after Elsa's mistreatment. Clive is willing to treat her as a viable sexual partner, to gratify her desire and indulge his own, and this validates one of Dren's few expressions of her own agency with regards to her "parents."

However, this conduct reveals a dangerous force within Dren. In the midst of this very vulnerable, very human moment of ecstacy, Dren almost does something very animalistic indeed, if I'm interpreting it right. She raises her stinger above Clive; I have to presume that she intends to kill him after mating with him, and that she's only prevented by the arrival of Elsa. This is where the line between human and animal suddenly blur in Dren, and it seems to blur in Clive, as well; the disruption resulting from this development is the final destabalizing factor that will blur the line between parent and lover, human and animal, and a whole host of Freudian complexes, and it will bring the fragile family crashing to the ground.

Like all good explorations, Splice doesn't have a message it wants to communicate, unless you get hung up on that whole "don't play God" thing. In truth, these characters are playing God in the same way as the majority of humans, who create children in their image, who learn to guide those children into adulthood, and who have to negotiate a complicated space between respecting the personhood of those progeny and treating them as means to an end. What Splice does well is to illustrate the true complexity of that space, and to evoke the real anxiety and uncertainty that comes with parenthood: the high stakes that come with investing your own emotional well-being in somebody else, and the fear of losing control, inherent in the knowledge that you simply don't know how this child is going to turn out.

This is the truth of fear: in every great decision and commitment, there must be a cold core of helpless terror in knowing that we surrender a little bit more control over our own lives. The only thing separating us from Clive and Elsa may be hope and circumstance.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Intimate May Wrap-Up

Intimate May was a month of quirky films. This is probably the natural result of my topic selection... "intimacy" is an abstract enough idea that it doesn't provide a very strong framework for discussing relationships. It's far less strong than my "Chromatic" month of films back in March, and in fact, it didn't even work as well as "Gritty" or "Renegade" in terms of unifying a space for discussion. Nonetheless, it resulted in another month of solid cinema, so it was a worthy critical exercise.

I was hoping to write more about animals in film, but I missed Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo. The only wildlife-oriented film I saw this month was Watership Down, and it was a film built more around adventure and folklore than around the natural world per se. Interestingly, it was also the only "intimate" film that focused on the character of a community, rather than isolating an individual. This was a reversal of the standard gestalt of the intimate film: Billy the Kid, The Red Balloon, and Babies focused on their subjects by extracting them from their lifeworlds and only representing those worlds as a distant context, the negative space against which the individual is scrutinized.

By constructing a community out of its characters, and creating a strong narrative of travel and discovery, Watership Down did the opposite: it followed its subjects into the enigmatic English countryside, and thereby made this outside world seem endlessly deep, rather than shallow and provisional. This accounts for the beauty and strangeness of Watership Down, which, through its carefully-rendered rabbit adventurers, provides us with a glimpse into a complex and deeply-realized, fully spiritual, living natural world.

Children got a little more play this month. Three movies about children filled out the bulk of my Intimate May films, and they represented three different age groups: infancy in Babies, middle childhood in The Red Balloon, and adolescence in Billy the Kid. In these films -- two documentary in nature, one whimsically fictional -- you will see a commitment to looking inward, to examining expressions and gestures and moments of silence and repose. In all three cases, this inward gaze is part of a search for identity: first, on the part of the subjects themselves, and second, for the benefit of the audience members, who are personally invested in the formation of these young, malleable personalities.

Of all the children followed in these films, Pascal, the protagonist of The Red Balloon, seems the most universal... perhaps even to the point of lacking personality. He is a proxy for everyone's middle childhood, a curious, playful schoolboy who's turned a fascinating inanimate object into an imaginary friend. He occupies the world that we all lived in as children: a world where biology wasn't an obstacle to consciousness, and where the whole world was alive, and seemed to gravitate around us alone. He faces trials, but they don't change him or mold his personality, at least during his screen time; when the world becomes really difficult, he is delivered from it.

This mysterious deliverance relates directly to the universality of little Pascal's character. He doesn't represent an individual child so much as he represents childhood itself, a sort of perpetual, untouchable ideal of youth that all of us should recognize easily and inhabit occasionally. When he's threatened by another form of immaturity -- the selfish, undisciplined, barbaric type -- he can't suddenly become a strong, fully-formed adult. He simply needs to drift away from the fray, protected by the imaginary world he's created, and allowed to continue on as Pascal the eternal little boy.

In the wake of The Red Balloon, Billy the Kid is actually a more difficult movie to watch, because there is no deliverance, no denial, and no recourse to the Platonic ideal of childhood. Our unflinching looks into Billy Price's eyes always serve to remind us that he's insecure, struggling, and grappling directly with all the problems brought on by adolescence. The film is successful precisely because it's difficult to watch, and yet, it's bearable and endearing, a sort of testing ground for the survival of hope and idealism.

And unlike Pascal, Billy changes. You can almost feel the whips and spurs of the lessons he learns about love, success, and frustration, and by the end of the film -- a beautiful sequence taking place at Billy's chorus concert -- you can appreciate that he's a bit more conditioned, a bit more serious, and notably stronger and more aware of himself. Structurally, the concert is a perfect end-point to a film about a boy in flux: we see him from all angles, as a social participant when he's walking with a group of girls, as a solitary walker when he ascends the steps of an empty auditorium, and in all cases, as a purposeful, well-dressed teenager, as close to an adult as we'll see him in the course of the film.

In a sense, the "change" we see in Billy is a sort of resignation, an acknowledement that some dreams were never meant to come true in the first place: in the absence of triumph, it's an affirmation of survival, and hope for the future. That's what makes Billy's film sad in comparison to The Red Balloon; it's also what makes it a real saga, instead of a mere fable.

So if The Red Balloon was timeless, and Billy the Kid was a captured cross-section of the part of life called "adolescence" (a "duration," if you want to speak Bergsonian), what was Babies? Like Billy's story, it was a fragment of a life, bracketed by subjective landmarks (birth and first steps). However, within this bracketed space, Babies had no strong continuity... if there was any at all, it was undermined by the technique of showing four stories simultaneously. Thus, Babies spurned the obligation to represent a "process" and opted instead to provide an immersive experience, where we could see a world with new eyes and learn about it through our eyes and ears, removed as it was from the baggage of declared meaning.

After these films about children and animals, there remain two films from Intimate May about adults: Werner Herzog's Nosferatu, and Christopher Nolan's Following. In both of these films, intimacy takes on an entirely different purpose, signaling discomfort, even danger, as the characters draw face-to-face with things they don't understand.

Following and Nosferatu both start out focusing on characters who are simply too curious. Christopher Nolan's Young Man doesn't realize that by following people around his city, he is actually exposing himself, no matter how incognito he tries to be. By giving yourself over to a particular purpose so completely -- and by being nonchalant when his obsession starts to attract interest -- he invites manipulation by people who are simply better at his game than he is. Jonathan Harker's game is equally dangerous: he sets out with a mission on behalf of his firm, and in its pursuit (or, more likely, simply in arrogant pursuit of adventure) he ignores the warnings of man and nature and steps into the darkness. Not only is he enveloped by it... he also inadvertently invites it to return to the civilized world on his heels.

Our closeness with these characters -- the Young Man and Harker on one hand, and Cobb and the Count on the other -- allows us to see that intimacy doesn't always bring clarity. In fact, in getting closer to the villains of these stories, we continually discover greater depths and more complex mysteries. Indeed, the intimacy deepens the enigma. For Cobb, this is clearly intentional... he's just smart enough to always give away only what's useful. For Dracula, it's because understanding simply isn't possible. For whatever human part of him is expressed in his brooding soliloquies, there's another part that keeps us at a distance: the part of him that's a hopeless parasite, an agent of disease that's devouring itself. For every inch we're drawn in, we find ourselves further repelled.

It has been a complex month of movies. All of this month's films come highly recommended (I'm getting more lenient as I analyze more films). I wanted to list my favorites, but it's difficult, even here at the end... they're all such different films, with such different resonances. Whatever one you may decide to watch, come prepared to get very personal with a complex subject. This is a camera's dream: to look so closely at its subject that you can feel its breath on the lens.

I don't think I'm going to continue with the month-long themes... there are so many different, interesting movies coming out in June that I'd rather shorten my movie runs to two, three, or four at a time. Some of my forthcoming interests include creature horror (The Fly, George Romero... leading up to Splice); Spaghetti Western (I have a short list, just because I want to see them; or maybe inspired by the release of Red Dead Redemption); books based on Jim Thompson novels (leading up to The Killer Inside Me); and Terrence Malick films (I have reasons, but they're too random to try to record here). At any rate, stick with me... I'll continue with quality posts, even if I let go of my structure a little bit.

INTIMATE MAY Intimate Moments:

Nosferatu the Vampyre (Herzog, 1979) - Jonathan's fate is sealed
The Red Balloon (Lamorrisse, 1956) - Be a good balloon
Following (Nolan, 1998) - Someone else's stuff
Babies (Balmes, 2010) - Standing up is hard
Billy the Kid (Venditti, 2007) - I'll do whatever I want with my hair
Watership Down (Rosen, 1978) - Farewell to the old warren