Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dreamlike Films: Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999), with additional notes on Inception

Yesterday was Stanley Kubrick's birthday. In his honor, I'm gonna take a moment away from Inception and talk about his own dream odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut, although there will be a touch of convergence between the two discussions.

What an interesting film, right? So many of Kubrick’s great films (The Shining, 2001, Full Metal Jacket) take place in universes that are wholly divorced from our own – hermetically sealed mansions and space craft, barracks and war zones – even Clockwork Orange’s future-verse seemed to have its own alien logic – that it’s striking to see a film that takes place right here on Earth, in the bowels of New York City. But STILL, it doesn’t feel like our New York City, our Present Day, our Planet Earth, because it’s not a realist film. It’s still a hermetically-sealed universe, but in a deft deconstruction of his own style, Kubrick gives us a real-world that’s sealed up inside a character’s head, shaped and influenced by that character’s jealousies and obsessions.

In Eyes Wide Shut, Bill escapes into a hypnotic New York City that’s hyper-sexualized, with every remark and casual encounter having an erotic component (except, arguably, passing the frat boys, whose comment is less erotic than emasculating). Read this however you want, but I have no doubt that Bill is experiencing his world this way because of his recent conversation with Alice, which has forced him to confront their respective romantic and sexual roles in their relationship. In the course of the film’s central narrative – which I would suggest is brought on by marijuana and the experience in the presence of death, signaling implosion and descent – there’s something simply off-kilter about the way things happen. This is an alternate-universe New York City, and I believe that it’s Bill’s dream-city.

Some of the best commentary on the film -- like this Film Quarterly article by Tim Kreider -- argue that the psychoanalytical reading of Eyes Wide Shut is a red herring, and that it should really be looked at sociologically, in terms of class, wealth, and human commodification. I'd agree that this is an important pillar of the film's framework, but I don't think it's a dead-end to consider the film on an atmospheric and aesthetic level. The film may include real-world subtexts, but they're all placed within a very cerebral world. I can't read Eyes Wide Shut in a purely realist-symbolic-allegorical way, because there's so much stylization, and because the experience is so distinctly disconnected and hypnotic. So even if I don't go for a strict ego-superego-id reading of the film, I do believe it speaks with an oneiric voice, and that the dynamic of sex and desire is one of its definitive registers.

[EDIT -- on re-reading, I realized I had pretty seriously misrepresented the FIlm Quarterly article. I insinuated that Tim had rejected all psychological and subjective readings entirely, which he absolutely did not do... if anything, he did the opposite. So I edited that part. Sorry about the original misrepresentation.]

There are a couple things that lead me to believe that even if Bill isn’t literally dreaming, he’s at least entered a sort of fugue. It fits with a couple of my first-post principles: the film certainly makes use of an intensely heightened reality, a veritable painting of crimsons and golds, reds and blues injected at key moments, and expressive spaces that sharply influence the mood of the moment. There is also a dramatic emotional disconnect between Bill, the audience's avatar, and the events that he's falling into. At his wife's dramatic confession, he seems to go numb, and at each key emotional moment -- his departure from the prostitute's apartment, his revelatory conversation with Nick Nightingale, his jarring tour through the orgiastic celebration -- his reaction seems blunt and detached, like a man watching the world through a pane of glass. This is because the film is less about Bill himself, and more about the alternate reality he's entered, which now bears his imprint.

Bill’s downtown NYC seems alien, but navigable. At the very least, he manages to find Nick Nightingale, and to acquire a mask and a robe. However, after passing a series of gateways (most notably giving the password to the doorman), he finds himself in a deeper level of his subconscious: a clandestine party where primal urges are given free reign. Here the bystanders are truly faceless, and they’re openly hostile to outsiders. It turns out that Bill’s biggest problem is that he stands out, and almost as soon as he enters the revelers’ sanctum, he starts feeling like he’s being monitored, and forces are rallying against him. Unfortunately, no amount of warning from a sympathetic spirit can dissuade him from exploring this new space that’s opened up.

The revelers in Eyes Wide Shut treat Bill as a pathogen, an outside agent that has to be destroyed, or at least rejected. This is closely paralleled by the behavior of the projections in Inception, and if you read the structure of the latter film retroactively onto the former, you can easily interpret the party as a stage for Bill’s subconscious, an inner layer where his conscious mind isn’t welcome. The Inception protagonists infiltrate this part of the mind in order to achieve a mercenary objective; Bill gets down inside there not knowing what he’ll find, and unprepared for the consequences of digging too deep (eek! Was that a Lord of the Rings reference?).

And so Kubrick’s story shifts fluidly from a fable of descent to a chronicle of unforeseen reversals, apparently the ramifications of his dangerous curiosity. When he emerges from the Dionysian underworld, Bill discovers that everything in his sexually-charged universe is broken, spent, disturbed, and overturned: his friends and admirers have moved away, or they’ve been “disappeared,” or (in the most unsettling developments) they’ve submitted to macabre breakdowns and perversions (I’m referring specifically to the shop owner who’s suddenly become his daughter’s pimp, and to the prostitute who’s been diagnosed with HIV). Bill’s friend Victor is finally there to wrap up Bill’s loose ends – he provides the necessary guilt (“What were you thinking?”) and the rationalization required to move on, and though he doesn’t actually answer our questions, he at least paves the way for Bill to return to the appropriate private spaces of his own life. There, he can go through a cathartic release, and complete the movement of “waking up” in his own bedroom, with his own wife.

My Inception parallels are still thin, but there are probably a lot more to work through. After all, both films rely on opulence and commodification as a subtext, whether it's prostitution and objectification of the body in Eyes Wide Shut, or mercenary ethics and territorialization of the mind in Inception. Both create multi-tiered spaces that provide an allegory for different cognitive functions, with an "inner sanctum" as the final, dangerous, and unstable destination for the unscrupulous explorations of the main character(s). And both of these main characters embark on these explorations in order to come to terms with their marriage issues.

I'm always fascinated by these kinds of shared structures in unrelated films. Both Inception and Eyes Wide Shut play with the concept of oneiric interiority and infiltration of the subconscious -- the padlocked bank vaults and sacred spaces of the protected mind.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Inception: the elusive architecture of the mind

Okay, I think Inception warrants a series of blog posts. I'm doing my best to resist blind fandom, but I thought it was a brilliant movie, rival to The Prestige, Nolan's other personal masterpiece. Still, I have to make a number of remarks that don't have much to do with each other, and unless I split this endeavor into a few different critical exercises, my thoughts will end up sounding as fragmented as these films I've been reviewing lately.

On that point -- I've been watching films that replicate the dreamlike experience, and writing about them, over the past week or two. Originally, that was because I wanted to see some films by Terrence Malick, and "dreamlike" seemed like a good access-point for his work. However, after seeing Badlands, Days of Heaven, Inland Empire (Lynch), and Heart of Glass (Herzog), it seemed appropriate that the series would culminate in a discussion of Inception, which leans heavily on dreaming as a plot device. It didn't hurt that I've been excited about Inception since the first trailer hit.

Now, having seen Inception, I've realized (drumroll) it is NOT a dream-film in the way those other films are. Lots of reviewers mention this in the course of their reviews. It's true... directors like Lynch and Malick recreate the hazy, loopy experience of oneiric unreality, and Nolan simply doesn't do it, probably because he's not really interested in it. He's less a poet than a crypto-mathematician engineer of narrative architecture, a speculative baroque fabulist whose aesthetic is becoming more focused with every film. There's nothing deeply intuitive or organic about Nolan's worlds. It's all lucid, logical, and aestheticized, without the murky inscrutability of images from the subconscious. Indeed, in Nolan's world, the subconscious is embodied as generic bystanders or militarized Agents (*coughmatrixcough*), prone to hostility if anything breaks the glassy surface of the world they've been placed in.

How different from Lynch, whose worlds are the product of many significances but no clear connections or translations! Whose language is an organic mass developing on a scene-by-scene basis, rather than a streamlined structure of jargon giving names to the rules of a complicated, unwinnable game! But despite their vast difference in tone, Nolan and Lynch are kindred spirits in some ways -- both love creating puzzles for us to solve, fractal structures of mutually-referential ideas. Both love narrative mobius strips and recursive motifs. Both have an unmistakable style that acts like a signature on their most important films. And some day Nolan, like Lynch, will have an adjective of his own (Nolanesque -- I'll explore this idea more in my next post).

If you'd like an academic-sounding way to describe Nolan in general, and especially Inception, I'd say "Baroque" is your best bet. According to Webmuseum, baroque art and culture is defined by its self-confident aesthetic, its dynamic movement and emotional intensity. It's an inarguably ornate, dramatic, uninhibited style that (like all broad artistic styles) was expressed in painting, music, literature, sculpture, and especially architecture. It's the forerunner to the formalism of neoclassical and modernist styles, more sweeping, less focused, but absolutely distinctive.

Baroque was an unapologetic "stylistic" style, focused on appearance and decoration, on outward displays of opulence and complexity, and on overwhelming sensory effects. Read over the features listed on Wikipedia: it was all about spectacle and display and illusion. Inception follows the same sort of philosophy, presenting dream-space as a series of nested interiors for the display of different sensory experiences: a gritty urban landscape, opening up into a 5-star hotel, whose rooms contain a snow-covered mountain fortress, which contains a vast blank canvas, reconstructed by the protagonist's imagination.

Normally, the building/mind metaphor is articulated in terms of levels, from elevated to subterranean. Zizek's analysis of Psycho using Norman Bates's house as a metaphor for his mind is the perfect example of this kind of reading: the top floor represents the superego, the ground floor the ego, and the basement the id. Inception has a much more explicit treatment of the "mind as building" metaphor, but it doesn't just structure this as a question of elevation. It also structures it as a question of container/contained, of security and vulnerability, and of infiltration. In Inception, the mind is a stage for theater (the theater of con-games), an archive, and a bank vault, something to be deciphered, navigated, and penetrated.

Strange, isn't it, that there's no comfort zone, anywhere in Inception's myriad dreamscapes? If the mind is a building, a space to be penetrated, shouldn't it feel like a place where the dreamer can be at home, at least until the thieves arrive? In the spaces Ariadne designs, there is never a sense of true safety: from the urban landscape to the busy hotel to the mountain fortress, and even in Limbo, which was Cobb's own creation, there is never a place where we, the audience, identifying with one of the dreamers, feels at home. Vigilance is a constant requirement in the dream-worlds of Inception, even though they're in our own heads.

I was tempted, at first, to say this is a side-effect of Nolan's large-scale, high-stress baroque narrative constructions, his drama and stylistic flair getting the best of him. But then I think about it, and realize something that Nolan already seems to know, and that David Lynch certainly realized long ago: there is no safe space in dreams, either. According to my sources (okay, I only really have one source), anxiety is the most common emotion experienced in dreams. And maybe Cobb and his team could steal something from a euphoric dream, but it doesn't seem too likely, when their strategy is clearly to make the mark feel paranoid, off-balance, and intensely aware of the secret that's supposed to be stolen.

By and large, the insides of our heads are actually twisted, hostile, and unknowable places, steeped in uncertainty, the expressions of voices issuing from so deep in our minds that they may feel entirely alien. And these are some of the central motifs of Inception: when so many of our thoughts come forth from beyond our reach, can we really trust them to be our own? How much of ourselves can we access, and how hard should we try to do so?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

David Lynch's Inland Empire: An oneiric language

Studios expect us to pay for movies... theaters expect us to stay quiet for them. Some filmmakers expect us to sit back and enjoy them, or to be moved by them, or to relate to them. These are all worthy expectations for us, the fickle film audience, and by meeting them, we determine the success of the film, artistically, financially, and historically.

But can we really be expected to decipher a film? To be able to put its pieces together, as if it's a jigsaw puzzle or a game of Sudoku, and work out a meaning that sometimes seems intentionally obscured from us? This is an expectation that David Lynch seems to have for us, if you believe his own claims about his work; and whatever you think of his method or his artistry, you'll always be taking this into account: his films aren't just pure stories, self-expressions, or records of experiences. They're puzzles, complete with solutions, and though Lynch himself never deciphers them for us, he generally informs us that we can figure them out, if we look for them.

Mulholland Dr. was defined, if anything, by its shape. Though it was filled out with striking images, it was really the product of a central inversion, the interaction between the narrative threads, and the shifting relationship between the main characters. However, with his more recent Inland Empire, Lynch seems less concerned with sculpting a shape and more concerned with creating a language. He does this in a stream-of-consciousness visual poem, filmed without an overall plan or a well-defined shooting schedule. The result is a fragmented narrative full of significance-laden people and objects, the words and phrases to which the film gives voice.

This has been said before of dreams... Jung says dreams, like poems, have their own language, and in concert with his psychoanalytical brethren, he believes that this language can be heard and understood. And this helps give us a sense of Lynch's mission: he wants to talk about a certain life experience, but he wants to do it in an oneiric language. Among all filmmakers, he may be the most proficient at accomplishing this goal.

So it turns out this puzzle is to be solved through translation (more goal-oriented than "interpretation" in general). David Lynch refuses to tell us the intended meaning, so he removes himself as a source, and it becomes a lot like the act of reading a dream: we know these images have sources, objects of reference, but we have to determine them through context, and trust our determination. It's hermeneutics, returned to its pre-postmodern relativism level... we can stop asking "What did this movie mean to me?" and go back to asking, "What did this movie mean?"

This is Lynch's dream-logic at work. No meaning is readily apparent; reality is heightened to its peak, and you know every object and word and gesture is pregnant with significance, but you're denied direct access to that significance, and even the code that determines them isn't transparent. This paragraph isn't going to add much to the above discussion, so I'll just let it remain an abortive little tribute: nobody can match Lynch in creating meaningful images, ripped out of their explicit structure and allowed to create their own semiotic system within the space of the film.

Of course, if you're going to make a movie like this, you have to do what Lynch has done here: you have to give your audience something to involve themselves in, even if they can't immediately apprehend the overall meaning you're going for. Luckily, Lynch is a master of mysterious and intriguing images, and I have to confess, the shot of Susan running toward the camera was one of the most terrifying moments I remember seeing in cinema. This shit hits you in the visual cortex, where it will always count, even in the midst of the most oblique narrative imaginable.

It's worth noting some other dreamlike aspects of Lynch. His dialogue is dissociative, like everyone in the film is in a trance. It's as if they're not real people, but rather mere projections of the dreamer in their own mind. Further, once we get into the heart of Inland Empire, everything seems to take place in an interior, including the scenes out on Sunset Boulevard (reinforced when we discover that it's actually a film set). After all, the real world, the expansive landscape of California geography, isn't really our setting... how else could it feel, spending three hours inside the mind of a stranger?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dream-state in the cinema of Terrence Malick: Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978)

Terrence Malick's films are simultaneously realistic and hypnotic, both grounded in historical situations and transcendent in their evocativeness. Both Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) seem to rise above the times and places that provide them with such decisive settings; the characters are not archetypes or mythological heroes, but they aren't mere humans, either, with those quirks and textures that are so important to unique personalities. These characters are projections, spiritual avatars of desires and emotions, and the histories they inhabit are luminous stages for their dramatic interplay.

Malick's films are broad, sweeping dreamscapes, where acts take on special significance, and where emotional reactions are blunted. The acts depicted may be chilling, or traumatic, or disheartening, but rather than strong notes, they evoke sustained tones, extended feelings of bliss and preponderance. Ebert makes much of this in his acute reviews of the films. There is narrative logic, and there is emotional content, but the threads binding them together are tenuous at best... the result is an experience like a daydream, or a revery, where our feelings unfold peacefully no matter what's on the screen before us.

Yet, despite the lack of strong emotional involvement, there is movement and momentum in Malick's narratives. From the very beginning, Badlands is a desire-fulfillment fantasy, chronicling two impulses: first, Holly's romantic desire, her infatuation with and idealization of Kit; second, Kit's violent tendencies, those sudden "heroic" rage issues mixed with paranoia and self-preservation, the emergence of the suppressed death drive. Holly's voiceover and Kit's mean streak are remote from each other, the signs of parallel desires bubbling up from the subconscious and overflowing into everyday life.

Badlands takes place in a messy world, smoothed over by the bright sunlight and deadpan direction. It may be a place of oneiric nostalgia, but it's infused with the mundane. Days of Heaven takes Malick's dreamlike aesthetic one step further, giving us a world that's focused, illuminated, and deliberate, a heightened reality if ever I've experienced one. The film is shot in color, but the golden wheat fields and late afternoon sunlight evoke sepia-toned photographs. The endless emptiness of the Great Plains provides a canvas for the placement of objects, people, faces, bodies, and landmarks. Every element becomes a focal point: the plow, the farm workers scattered along a pathway, the master's house, the gazebo, the airplane; later, the locusts, the fire, the gun, the automobile. There is a sense of isolation that pervades this lonely landscape and filters down into everything, from the objects and locations to the people themselves.

According to some commentators, it's the material nature of the camera itself that brings about this effect. Consider, from Kinema Journal's article LIKE A DREAM. A CRITICAL HISTORY OF THE ONEIRIC METAPHOR IN FILM THEORY:

"The cinematic apparatus, in fact, presents the spectator with representations, which offer themselves as perceptions. Even more, it creates an impression of reality which has no comparison with the one provided by normal perception; in front of a film, one has the sensation of seeing something 'more than real'. For Baudry, it is not the film's imitation of reality, of varying precision, which creates the illusion, but the functioning of the apparatus itself. Spectators are like the prisoners in Plato's cave: they see only shadows which, moreover, are projected by statues, that is to say not by reality, but by a reproduction of reality. Analogously, by projecting shadows cinema creates the same 'more than real' effect that is experienced in dreams."

Whether or not the camera is the primary agent, it's undeniable that Malick's direction heightens this sense of hyper-reality, through his flawless control over mis en scene in these earlier films. This is a large part of what replicates the dream-world: each object in each scene transcends its physical referent and becomes a mental image, representing an abstraction of something below the level of awareness.

In Days of Heaven, Malick strengthens this effect by bringing the general mood on the farm into alignment with the emotional states of the characters. Part of the reason emotions flow so naturally through the film is that they're prompted and prefigured by changes in setting. This is true of the dusty and exhausting train ride that begins the film, and it's true of the luminous, idyllic beauty of the Farmer's estate. The correlation becomes even more acute late in the film, as the Farmer starts to feel a loss of rationality and control, and the biblical advance of locusts and fire heralds the tempest of his anger. His anger doesn't shock, because it's been foretold by the apocalyptic changes in the environment. This identifies Days of Heaven as a work of Romanticism, a movement that treats nature as a corollary to man's emotional life.

And after all this discussion, we return to an important observation: Malick's films are not irrational or random, nor full of non-sequitors, nor chaotic and unresolved. They're journeys through a sensory world that's tinted by the imagination, and though they maintain emotional distance, they're strikingly lucid. This is notable different from the other dream auteurs I'll be covering in the next few posts, who surrender their continuity in favor of elliptical causal relationships. What Malick achieves, uniquely among his contemporaries, is a world that's hazy and cerebral, and yet fully plausible, an acceptable surrogate for everyday life. And this is what dreams do: they become our lives when we're sleeping and confined to our own minds, so they're eminently believable, even though they're nothing but the manifest expressions of our restless thoughts.

Malick's style is hard to encapsulate in a description, even if it's a rather long one. However, his affinity with the dream-state should offer some insight into what makes his direction so compelling, timeless, and universal.

Next entries: David Lynch, and Warner Herzog's Heart of Glass.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dreamlike Films 1 - Definitions and Exclusions

I don't know about ya'll, but I'm super-excited for Inception. I love Christopher Nolan's piercing intelligence and twisted imagination, and I'm a fan of the cast, an ensemble of new-millennium noir superstars. Also, I've been thinking about the oneiric experience and how it's been captured, and Nolan's film, which appears to be an art-deco dreamlike noir film, is a perfect focal point for these ruminations. So in homage and preparation, I'm going to dedicate a few blog entries to dreamlike films.

The experience of dreaming is a very elusive one to capture and describe. Superficially, you might say that in dreams, "weird stuff happens", and this is certainly true. However, as far back as prehistory remembers, we've known there's a deeper significance to those nighttime non-sequitors. Skipping past Freud and his psychosexual descriptions, we find Jung, telling us that dreams have a language comparable to poetry, able to be deciphered and interpreted. It's worth submitting: studies have shown that this language is often expressing suppressed mental content, disgorged by the mind in its rejuvinative semi-aware sleeping state.

More recently, there have been a bunch of studies of dream content. They've discovered that the dominant images in dreams, across ages and cultures, include being chased, falling, and "loss of close persons." As these images suggest, anxiety is the most common emotional content of dreams. Though it hasn't been covered in the studies I read, it seems to me that these reports are probably strongly affected by another factor, the relationship between dream and memory... dreams are infamously hard to remember, and any recollection of images or emotions from dreams are bound to be blunted by forgetfulness.

Synthesizing this research with my own personal experience of dreams, I think I've worked out some characteristics that skillful directors use to make their films feel dreamlike. None of these are necessary or sufficient conditions... they all just contribute to the effect I'm talking about.

1. HEIGHTENED REALITY - In dreams, perceptions drawn from daily life are being filtered and reorganized, so anything that appears tends to be imbued with enhanced significance. Unnecessary details, textures, and contexts are filtered out. Some filmmakers (Malick?) do this with framing and editing; others (Lynch?) do it with colors and production design.

2. EMOTIONAL CLOUDING - For those who have scary-ass nightmares, it may sound unlikely, but at least in my experience, the events in dreams tend to be shrouded in an emotional haze, allowing only simplified, blunted emotional reactions to the events being visualized. The emotion is almost always there, but is rarely complex -- positive emotions tend to be reduced to a feeling of well-being, negative ones tend to manifest as general discomfort. Even the terrifying climaxes of nightmares (the primary exception to this rule) tend to be the culminations of much more gradual build-ups of anxiety. Consequently, the best dreamlike films have a minimum of musical cues and jump-scares, allowing narratives to flow evenly, rather than twisting and rupturing as they move along.

3. DREAM LOGIC - This is the one that people tend to fixate on; I think it's actually the least important of the four characteristics here. Still, it's definitely worth noting: in dreams, conventional continuity and cause-and-effect logic tends to be severely undermined, logic being replaced by more subtle associations and intuitions. This results in locations blending into one another, people changing identities, and inexplicable turns of events. David Lynch is probably the true master of this technique; other, more rational writers and directors can ruin a good "dream" film by leaning too much on logic, or by rejecting it too adamantly, when they attempt to reproduce the voice of the subconscious.

4. IMMERSION - This is simply to say that within the dream world, reality is never questioned, even if it's absolutely distorted, illogical, or discontinuous. Obviously lucid dreamers are the exception to this. The phenomenon is closely related to #2 above, emotional blunting; the shock and confusion that would normally result in skepticism never triggers.

Feel free to revisit this entry if you keep reading this little series. When I discuss the next few films I'm planning to talk about, I'll return to these three aspects. In the meantime, I'm going to touch on a few films that have made an explicit attempt to evoke a dream-state, but that, in my humble opinion, didn't really hit the mark (although some of them were great films).

1. Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006) - a fun, wild anime that's supposedly about a character who can flit in and out of dreams... but there's such an overflowing abundance of intentional strangeness, it overwhelms the fluid, intuitive feeling that we usually get in dreams. Dreams tend to feel familiar, even when things are surreal or amiss. Maybe this is what dreams look like in Japan?

For the record, Satoshi Kon's earlier film, Perfect Blue (1998), is a brilliant example of a dreamlike film. The general sense of interconnected events, the growing anxiety and uncertainty, the fluidness of identity, and the murder and chase themes that provide the film's undercurrent -- this was a fantastic nightmare film, among the best dreamlike films in history.

2. The Cell (Tarsem Singh, 2000) - The Cell, while a gorgeous and engrossing film, has the same problem as Paprika. There's too much detail, too many intentionally bizarre and ultimately irrelevant details, and a general sense of alienation from the inner world of the dream. If my dreams were that vivid, I would definitely stop eating pizza before bed. Incidentally, again, I think Tarsem's later film, The Fall, is more dreamlike, because the reality of the main character's narrative world is more focused, more archetypal, and less intrusively shocking.

3. Waking Life (Richard Linklatter, 2001) - Waking Life was intended to take place inside an extended lucid dream. The director's decision to make the whole film in rotoscoped animation may have been to divorce it from the messy realism of normal film photography; however, in my opinion, it backfired: the world isn't immersive (see #4, above) because the animation style looks two-dimensional, calling our attention to its materiality and artificiality.

Consider the above an explanation as to why I won't be discussing any of those films much in the next few posts. Here's a list of the work I will be discussing. Hopefully it's interesting reading.

1. Terrence Malick - a storyteller whose epic historical tales evoke the sense of drifting reconstructed memory common to dreaming.

2. David Lynch - a classic weaver of dreamlike tales, Lynch is considered cryptic because he operates in an oneiric space.

3. Warner Herzog - I discuss this guy a lot, but there's something about his earlier narrative films that feels both intensely human and totally disconnected from reality.

Over the next few days I'll discuss oneiric evocation in the works of these filmmakers, and sometime next week I'll include something on Inception, which I'm very excited about. For more credible information on the experience of dreaming, check out these sources:

Dream Rebound: The Return of Supressed Thoughts in Dreams

Like a Dream: A Critical History of the Oneiric Metaphor in Film Theory
The Wikipedia article on Dreaming
The Wikipedia article on dreaming in film theory

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Flagging Discourse: Plagiarism, sensationalism, bad logic

I’m noticing a recent spate of carelessness among movie writers and reviewers, and I think it’s a good opportunity to step back and consider one or two of the innumerable changes wrought upon public discourse (okay, so I’m specifically talking about film writing) by the changing media environment. Not that these things can be blamed exclusively on the blogosphere and the accessibility of the Internet, but it’s through that open, fluid, voluminous forum that many transgressions find their audience, and it’s through these channels that many offenses come to light.

Just to sum up: a couple minor print reviewers (college newspaper writers) and one larger-scale online reviewer (the custodian of a popular blog) have been pegged for stealing reviews from major outlets. Tom Perkins, Alex Petrosian, and David Eng have all been exposed as unceremonious plagiarists. In the cases of Alex and Tom, we may be able to chalk it up to their being lazy college students, desperate to keep their positions as staff movie reviews at their school publications. Why would you be desperate enough to expose yourself to scorn and embarrassment, I can’t fathom, but hey – at least these guys learned that creating original written content for a professional publication requires more than just “liking movies and stuff.” It’s less understandable on the part of Eng… first of all, his blog is entirely a hobby, so he has no special status or social standing to maintain by generating new reviews all the time. Second, he’s an adult who works in PR, which substantially amplifies the WTF quotient of his infractions.

But I’m not just talking about plagiarism, am I? I’m talking about discourse in general, which also includes the many original thoughts floating around out there. In particular, I’m going to note Armond White’s negative review for the universally praised Toy Story 3. Now, Armond is certainly an original thinker (“contrarian” even?) and he deserves his place in the discourse, but after you’ve given him an honest shot, you should read Paul Brunick’s spot-on deconstruction of White’s post. The problem isn’t that White disagrees with everyone… it’s that his nay-saying is a sugar-coating over sloppy logic and critical inconsistency.

Consider also the recent row between feminist celebrity blog Jezebel and The Daily Show. Following the hiring of Olivia Munn as a correspondent, The Daily Show found itself the target of a scathing critique from Jezebel, whose writer interviewed some ex-employees and some prospective employees who didn't work out. From their testimony, Jezebel fashioned an accusation that Jon Stewart and his staff have created a work environment that's unfavorable to women. The females of The Daily Show responded fairly quickly.

Does Jezebel have a right to criticize The Daily Show, however beloved it is by the general liberal community? Of course. However, The Daily Show actually does hire women correspondents as part of its markedly diverse staff, and furthermore, this criticism was leveled at the show after hiring a female to a position. When you consider the tension between supporting hiring of women in general, and critiquing appearance-based hiring practices specifically... and when you consider that on the whole, The Daily Show's feminist track record is pretty solid compared to every other outlet imaginable... the whole Jezebel article starts to seem a bit silly and sensationalistic, and perhaps motivated by some force other than justice and honest criticism (as Slate's Emily Gould suggests) -- like page views, perhaps.

I have no doubt that the open-forum environment of the Internet has contributed to this sloppiness. If there’s anything you can credit to the Internet, it’s that it’s created a massive glut of public discourse… I’m sure, since self-publishing technologies became a media mainstay, the amount of writing available to the general public has increased by exponents of exponents. Once, the biggest gateway to finding a wide readership was getting your foot in the door. Now, the door is wide open, and everybody’s stuck their foot in at once. This room isn’t big enough for all these feet.

I suspect that in the not-too-distant past, public discourse felt like a complex but healthy ecology of relationships. The people who had audiences related to one another through things like influence, reaction, critique, agreement, disagreement, comparison, and contrastitude. I’m sure this mode still prevails in some communities, like specialized academic writing, where technical proficiency and peer review still filter worthy writing from idle interest. However, in the world of editorial opinion… a world once framed by newspapers and magazines, pamphlets, radio talk shows, and television programs… the filtering methods have broken down, and I think we’ve started slipping out of a give-and-take discursive environment. Something scary has replaced it.

What is this scary thing, whose shadow all opinion/idea writers have felt cast over them? It’s the monster of PURE VOLUME, the endless ocean of assertions and arguments and noise created by a completely accessible media environment. We’re not relating to each other anymore, so much as competing against an undifferentiated mass of discourse that’s grown far past our ability to assess its general shape… and unfortunately, past some peoples’ ability to cope with it. The plagiarism, contrarianism, and general sloppiness cited above are all defense mechanisms for confronting this overpowering wall of opinions and ideas.

If you’re looking for an audience, you’ve probably already felt pressure to keep up a high level of creative output. Group blogs have found a nice way of doing this, assembling a bunch of writers to create a Voltron of public recognition. Some individuals have simply adapted, like Roger Ebert, who’s done a TON of writing since he lost his voice. However, the pressure to remain visible in the oversaturated discursive landscape has driven some people to copy-and-paste content generation, and it’s driven others (Armond White and Jezebel!) to sensationalistic contrarianism without the logical chops needed to take such an argumentative stance.

I have to throw in a qualification that, honestly, may sound like a complete cop-out reversal of this whole diatribe. I realize that I’m among those squawking voices on the Internet, the beneficiary of free media, who’s never been accepted to a serious publication, or vetted by a panel of peer reviewers. I think accessibility – the current fertile environment for new ideas to blossom, the massively democratic ecology of fresh voices – is one of the greatest things to happen to communication since, like, ever. I think it’s awesome that so many brilliant media agents – The Constant Viewer, XKCD, Pictures for Sad Children, Ze Frank – have come to prominence, and blessed my intellectual life with their wiseness. So I’m NOT saying blogs are destroying film criticism, or public discourse, or anything else.

What I’m suggesting is that now that we’ve had revolutions in accessibility and volume, maybe it’s time for a new revolution in selectivity, quality, and commitment, and involvement? Maybe somebody (Google + Wikipedia, with Technorati consulting?) needs to find a way to blunt the pressures of endless volume and key-phrase dependence, and provide a new way for content to be scrutinized, filtered, and interrelated – a different set of pressures, I guess.

In the meantime, it’s nice to see that in our wide-open webtronic world, bullshit generally gets identified and called out. Out here in the discursive fray, nobody is above scrutiny.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Jim Thompson on screen: The Killer Inside Me (2010), After Dark My Sweet (1990), The Getaway (1972)

Note: This is rather long, and it contains some light spoilers (light in that I refer to the twists and surprises, but don’t spell them out precisely).

Jim Thompson is a rare literary bird, a genre novelist who’s genuinely transcended his genre (pulp noir) not by subverting it or cross-pollinating it, but by fully assimilating it to his own style. In his greatest works of fiction, like The Getaway, After Dark My Sweet, and Savage Night, Thompson purified the pulp novel of its dependence on pop, its clever twists and moralistic statements. The stories he wrote were meditations, twisted forays into the meaningless order of disturbed psychology, dismantled parables from a noir world where fatalism and betrayal are mechanisms of everyday life.

James Foley directed perhaps the first innately successful adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel. In his film, After Dark, My Sweet (1990), he shows us the naked brutality of Thompson’s vision of the world, where good fortune is so scarce that the characters fight tooth and nail for every scrap of it, and still tend to come up tragically short. It’s a noir universe, parched under the exposure of the Western sun, where the sentimentality is vintage in the way only a shameless storyteller can write it.

In some of his novels, Thompson takes a surrealist route; here, he’s uncompromisingly realist. Both modes work because of the little absurdities and inconsistencies, the gaps in communication and behavior, the general failure of order and explanation, all of which indicate a world that’s not chained to an author’s calculations. Seriously, what was Fay doing when she put Charley out in the woods near her house? Was she trying to kill him, let him escape, or simply find a way to get him out of her house and her disarrayed life? This is plotlessness in the midst of a plot, rough breaks in a smooth stream, and they’re the details that make Thompson’s books so rich in texture and psychology.

Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of The Killer Inside Me (2010) is cinema’s latest attempt to capture Jim Thompson’s spark. Winterbottom’s Lou Ford is a landmark performance of pathological insecurity, played by Casey Affleck, who has a penchant for this sort of thing (as evidenced by The Assassination of Jesse James (2007), another brilliant downbeat piece of cinema). Honestly, I never pictured Lou Ford as a skittish, mousey guy… in his more stable moments, I pictured him as a classic Good Ol’ Boy cop, a la Ron Elard in House of Sand and Fog (2003). Thompson's Lou Ford was a guy the whole town could trust, just because he presented himself as such an upstanding citizen. The only flaw with Casey Affleck, I think, is that his “healthy” state looks too much like his “sickness” state, so it’s hard for me to see him as a cop that people could have mistaken for trustworthy in the first place.

Still, the rural noir tone, the offbeat musical cues and twisted hints of humor, and the wild swings from tenderness to depravity – these all scream Jim Thompson. This is the real shit, the unsettling, uncompromising view of the world that Thompson wrote into so many of his novels, nailed perfectly to the wall by Winterbottom. Perhaps the most compelling reproduction of a moment from the source material comes when we hear Amy’s letter, voiced over a scene from a diner that never happened, where Amy walks to the bathroom to let Lou escape; this scene is paced and rendered and framed in perfect harmony with its counterpart in the novel, so much that it seems to echo Thompson’s words.

You’ve gotta give it to Winterbottom for evoking this moment so perfectly. The rest of the movie does the same, to varying degrees, but this scene is perfect verbal-visual mimesis, and it’s a beautiful moment. The only other perfect reproduction of a “Thompson moment” that I remember is from Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet: that scene at the very end, where Kid Collins masters his innate eccentricity just long enough to proffer a great gesture to Fay, his lover.

The more tone-sensitive adaptations of Thompson’s work also tend to be meticulously faithful. Both After Dark and The Killer Inside Me are almost obsessive about following the sequence of events set forth in the script; Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972) is far less so, and as if by necessity, it seems to lose some of the tone of its source material, as well, sacrificing open-air cross-country paranoia in favor of a lovers-on-the-lam Western feeling.

In the former two films, Jim Thompson’s personality seems to subsume those of the directors. Winterbottom has always been a chameleon, whose only trademark is that there’s something convoluted about his work, whether thematically or structurally. Foley’s own oeuvre fit perfectly with the Thompson novel he directed: his work has always been lurid, paranoid, and violent, and he seemed to sink right into the story he was telling.

Peckinpah’s adaptation, on the other hand, is what you might call “loose.” It excises some significant narrative blocks… the desperate, panic-inducing cowering in the bottom of a well, and the whole cynically offbeat ending, which I won’t deign to spoil here. The rhythm of the story changes, and the atmosphere changes, as well, taking on a much more dust-bowl/Southwest/cowboy flavor. The violence, which Thompson tossed off with a cavalier flourish, feels abrupt and brutal under Peckinpah’s direction. Apparently these departures were good moves: Packinpah’s film was his most successful, and it’s still the most successful of the Thompson adaptations. Even so, it’s a bitter success for fans of Thompson.

Maybe it’s the ending. Thompson’s endings are unapologetically downbeat, and Steve McQueen made sure that shit wasn’t goin’ down on The Getaway, his comeback movie. Even Winterbottom tweaked the ending of The Killer Inside Me a little, placing more focus on the disastrous love between Lou and Joyce… a theme that he emphasizes through the length of the film, which had a noticeable sentimental edge over Thompson’s novel. Only After Dark, My Sweet seemed to hit the ending nail right on the head, with Jason Patric landing Kid Collie’s final deception with perfect, gut-wrenching panache.

It’s worth asking: are these movies misogynistic? Is Thompson himself? This is what’s stirred a lot of the controversy around The Killer Inside Me; as with any story by an intelligent author, it’s not simply a matter of misogynistic-or-not. Thompson’s world is a brutal, paranoid, unforgiving landscape, both socially and psychologically, and it’s dominated by masculine characters wrestling with their manly identities… Lou Ford is a pathological sadist, but it doesn’t make him a happy man. No, indeed, he has the bad habit of killing those he loves (especially his lovers), and we can see that for him, there’s no appreciable boundary between loving them and wanting to damage them. Not only does his psychosexual deviance make him unhappy – it also makes him unstable, and induces him to entangle himself in a situation he can’t resolve. The film is a chronicle of his universe, constructed from sex, violence, insecurity, and self-indulgence, crashing down around him.

Peckinpah’s adaptation is the only adaptation of these three movies that actually crosses the line into misogyny, which isn’t too surprising, considering it’s the product of a pair of manly men par excellence. This patriarchal tendency is partly due to the source material, which, of Thompson’s works, is one of the least sensitive to the female point of view. Throughout the novel, Carol McCoy mostly blunders and frets alongside Doc, who steers their dangerous road trip from the chauvanist driver’s seat. Still, at the very least, there’s a sense of retribution at the end of Thompson’s story, as the characters’ rottenness devours them, figuratively and literally.

However, Peckinpah and McQueen turn this into a cowboy action movie, a long chase with a benign ending, and this actually reverses the implosion that gave the novel its intellectual substance. Instead of a reflection on inner conflict and mutual resentment, the film becomes a justification for all of Doc McCoy’s cavalier womanizing, which even turns violent a couple times. The two female characters are a slimeball (Fran / Sally Struthers) and a loveable, sexually-empowered sidekick (Carol / Ali McGraw), and the hero and the villain are paragons of masculinity, respectively noble and depraved. As the ending affirms, this is the correct way of things in Peckinpah’s world.

It’s borne out by all three films – not just the least faithful, but also the two that adhere slavishly to the novels – that Thompson’s world is difficult to capture, and impossible to improve upon. Whether you’re an iconic director working with a 70’s sex symbol, or an indie crime-drama filmmaker out to shoot something profoundly authentic… or maybe a marginal Hollywood director with the guts to make a provocative film out of hazardous source material… you’re going to be fighting against Thompson’s subversive psychology, which is elusive even to his most discerning readers. His characters are compromised, contemptible, deserving victims of their own sins, and Thompson’s task is to chart their downfalls. It’s all cinema can do to keep up with these stories as they rush into oblivion.