Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Naked City: familiar moments from an NYC noir

Naked City is a beautiful and curious artifact, especially if you're locked into the little New York City bubble of self-regard (as I am, along with most of the bloggers I follow). It's curious because of the tangible resonance of each scene, the strange alien familiarity of each city-street sequence. Simply writing about it -- waxing prosaic about the soul of the Big Apple, by way of an obscure silver-age film noir -- would have gone beyond even my own limit of self-indulgence, so instead, I looked for the beauty and strangeness in the frames themselves. You can find those below. A lot of what's worth noting is also kind of funny, at least to me.

It's worth noting that LA Noir, the recent electronic entertainment offering by Rockstar Games, was partly inspired by The Naked City. Funny that they repurposed the personality to be so West-Coast, when the film itself prides itself on being NYC Vintage. Still, you can feel the gamer spirit here, as well, with its exploratory pace, its chain of tasks and obstructions, its puzzles waiting to be assembled and unlocked. All the accented side-characters may as well be NPC's, and sometimes the dialog feels like it was written to be repeated to every passer-by.

Go looking for the film, by all means, but don't expect anything groundbreaking from the story itself. It's a detective story reduced to its most predictable beats. Instead, watch it to see this police procedural narrative, these tricks and twists and technicalities, just as they're being repackaged for drama and turned into mythology. Also, watch it for the details, the things the filmmakers probably didn't realize would be noteworthy, some of which I've presented below.

Here is a beautiful on-location shot of the Williamsburg Bridge, from the climax of the film:

In the 1940's, boys did a lot more swimming in the East River than they do now. Is this because 1) it was cleaner? or 2) they weren't as worried about the constant stream of refuse?

Have you EVER seen this many kids playing on a swingset at once? There's a girl standing up on her swing, and a little boy climbing way up one of the poles. I doubt I've ever seen as many kids in a whole playground as Detective Halloran is currently interrogating on that swing set.

Throughout all of recent history, salons have been the testing-grounds for alien brain technology. In the 40's, it was less big plastic bubbles, and more wires and spark plugs.

It's not completely obvious from this photograph, but this blind man's seeing-eye dog is also an attack dog that mauls anybody who bumps into him -- as Willy Garzah is about to find out.

Speaking of Willy, you can tell he's an athlete and an acrobat, because he's the only guy in The Naked City who wears sneakers (Vans? Chuck Taylors?) with his three-piece suit.

But finally, after all these familiar scenes and nostalgic moments, my favorite detail in the film: as Detective Halloran is chasing Willy, this random dude appears behind him, walking the same direction, and carrying a Pomeranian that's apparently too lazy to walk.

It's nice to see that some things never change.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tree of Life: Malick, Proust, and the cinema of memory

A month or so ago, I started reading Swann's Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust's epic novel "In Search of Lost Time" (otherwise translated as "In Remembrance of Things Past"). About halfway through, I went to a screening of Terrence Malick's widely-discussed recent film, Tree of Life; there was much to admire in it, but also lots of mixed feelings and dubious appreciation. And just last week, as I was finishing up Swann's Way, I discovered it was Proust's birthday. Happy birthday, Marcel!

Tree of Life is difficult to reconcile privately, I think. It's one of those films that's loose enough -- devoid enough of structure and cues, sufficiently unhinged from standard expectations -- that you might never really know what (or how) to think of it until you can bounce your ideas off of someone else. It's interesting, the way it demands to be reflected upon, and thereby, in a strange way, makes the act of analysis kind of mundane. When you do a critical reading of Wolverine or Harry Potter, there's something subversive about the act... when you write a meditation on Tree of Life, it seems almost perfunctory (i.e. this, and this, and this, and this, and this). The movie is asking for us to read it, to interpret it, to generate conclusions about its themes, its imagery, its technical and creative decisions. In a certain way, being ambiguous and experimental is its way of being predictable (at least to Terrence Malick fans and film students, who seem to be its audience).

In terms of scale, and in relation to the director's other work, I'd liken Tree of Life to Darren Aaronofsky's The Fountain or Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films. Each of these feels like the director was trying to reach some pinnacle of style, as if to max out their own capacity for filmmaking. In each case, the result seems to overreach, toeing the boundary between eccentricity and self-indulgence. Aaronofsky and Tarantino followed their respective films up with fresh approaches... Aaronofsky totally reversed his heightened melodrama and made The Wrestler, almost comically opposed to The Fountain in spirit. Tarantino took a break from exploring tortured souls with Deathproof, and then went on to make Inglorious Basterds, which was another "masterpiece" film, but felt more like a film he was willing to grow into, and out of.

Perhaps Malick will give us something radically different with his next film, as well; his sensuous-poetic-introspective mode really does seem to have reached some sort of apotheosis with Tree of Life. These speculations aside, however, it's an important demonstration of an artist's ability to push his own defining tendencies as far as possible. The stylistic similarity to Badlands, Malick's first film, is tenuous at best, and he seems to have purged every conventional narrative and literalist instinct that was present in that first film.

Swann's Way was the culmination of Proust's work, as well, though I'm not sure whether he intended it that way (Proust scholars? Steve Carell?). The story is told as a sequence of interwoven memories, some being direct accounts by the narrator of his own life, and others being accounts of the life of Charles Swann, a French aristocrat, whose life intersects with the narrator's at a few key moments. There's a constant theme of budding love and the frustration of romantic asymmetry, all grounded in memories of specific people and places. It's the secondary characters, people like Aunt Leonie and Mme. Verdurin, who make the book so readable.

These two works have the potential to illuminate one another considerably. There are both stylistic and structural similarities between them, and I think you could discover some concordance in their intended effects. Both are experienced as emotionally-fraught reminiscences of grown men looking back on the defining moments of their lives. Both feel like reveries, journeys of the imagination to a personal history of the senses, of sights and smells, less concerned with motivations and grand designs of human lives and more concerned with individual moments.

For instance, the narratives in Proust are evoked via involuntary memory -- the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea, the sight of a pink hawthorn flower. These memories, meandering through the narrator's youth, are not called forth as an explanation or a didactic personal history; rather, they emerge as images from a mind freed from immediate tasks. They're the daydreams, distractions, unchained nostalgia, the roaming spirit. They are already filtered, leaving only the most significant, the ones with the most emotional resonance.

And this is why Malick's film feels the way it does, as well: it's a reverie. It's the adult Jack's escape from his solitary life, into his own sense memory. Youth is when memories leave the strongest imprint, and these childhood vignettes quiver with the vitality of boyhood.

One of the tensions in Tree of Life, hinted at in the criticism, is between the feeling that it's "naturalistic" (i.e. referring in an authentic way to memories of an actual time and place) and the feeling that the whole thing has something of the glossed, exaggerated artificial about it. It's a testament to Malick's skill that he can evoke both a real time and place, and also the mood, the golden glow of nostalgia. But the tension between "naturalistic" and "stylistically overwrought" won't really be resolved, because the film is largely about the transition between the two: about how memories become myths, about how the filtering and feedback of internalization can turn the banality of a simple sense impression into a cosmic signifier, a portent, a lesson about good and evil and failure.

Of course, that treatment leads to these scenes having an echo of archetype. (Theory side note: despite the constant references to Heidegger in the criticism, I'd argue that the film owes more to C.J. and Sigmund than to Martin). Mrs. O'Brian's butterfly, and her levitation; a harsh lesson about letting a screen door slam, a backyard wrestling match, a ruined watercolor, a house submerged in water -- to those who are symbolically literate, these might seem too obvious, too blunt. The signification begins to overwhelm the immediacy of the scene. In using such symbolic details, Malick puts himself in a tough position: he has to use convention, tapping the familiar to bring out its semantic resonance, but he has to do it in a way that doesn't feel played out. His product is defensible, but not flawless.

In Swann's Way, Proust seems to have fully solved this problem. He floods his narrative with perceptual details, many of which resist interpretation; he focuses on those things which have personal resonance for his narrator, such as the sight of a female form through the shurbbery, the moments of tension between Swann and Odette, and the unconsciously cruel remarks of Gilberte. Rather than relying on the great reservoir of pre-defined cultural symbols (Malick perhaps overuses the symbols of water and trees), Proust creates an internal symbolic language: the madeleine and the hawthorn, the blue feather, the monocle, the pathways through Combray, the writing of Bergotte. This allows the story to remain contained, and provides a cohesion that Malick never achieves.

In a sense, Malick is trying to do far more than Proust was doing: he's trying to link the episodic memories of an individual life with the mythic history of the universe as a whole. The origin-of-the-universe scene, which I haven't even touched upon here, attests to that ambition. He's also doing it in a single two-hour movie, rather than a seven-volume masterwork of literature. This is perhaps one of the downfalls of this fallible film: it starts to leak out of its scope, and with no horizons, its themes get fuzzy (which is not quite the same as being "complex" per se).

Whether you can appreciate Malick's ambition apart from his execution -- whether you can marvel at his imagery without getting too caught up in the convention and ambivalence of his symbols -- that depends on how you judge execution apart from intention, and on how keyed you are to his particular mode, and to this film's particular time and place. Variance aside, however, it's remarkable how much Malick has to say about what and how we remember our lives, and how these memories make us who we are.


I think there's a lot more to be said about this film. Wish I had the time, energy, and expertise. For instance:

  • Why does it use the language of gestures, in lieu of actual dialog? Could it be seen almost as a ballet or a modern dance?

  • What of Malick's romanticized and stylized naturalism, especially considered as an objection to "realism" as a filmmaking philosophy?

  • With a nod to Nathaniel's post of things people were heard saying at the film, what makes this film so difficult? What's to be gained from spurning the audience's expectations of narrative direction, rhythm, and legible emotional cues?

  • As noted above, what about the debts to Freud and Jung? Just how densely archetypal and psychological is Tree of Life?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Kyle McDonald and PeopleStaringAtComputers: sorting out the issues

Kyle McDonald's work on PeopleStaringAtComputers has generated a lot of free-floating controversy. He installed a program on computers in various public places, and those programs caused the computers' cameras to take photos, scan them for faces, and then automatically send them to Kyle. He apparently curates them and uploads some of them to that Tumblr once in a while.

News services and commentators (and enforcement agencies, apparently) are all scrambling to figure this whole thing out. It's one of those little hacks that opens up a grab-bag of property rights, privacy rights, and representational politics issues. The idea that a computer is secretly taking pictures of them and sending them to some random dude is making tons of people genuinely uncomfortable. This is true even if it's a public computer, and even if the application asks permission, albiet in kind of a sneaky way.

What's left to consider, skillfully asked in thefactoryfactory's piece on the topic, is the question of how this differs from other, similar situations that set the legal and ethical precedents for it (I didn't see his name explicitly referenced, but his handle is joshuajnoble, so for now, I'll refer to him as Noble). Noble brings up the fact that this is happening in a public space (well, not technically public, but not the private property of the subjects of the photos), and we presumably appear in photos and videos in this kind of space all the time, from security footage to webcam feeds to backgrounds of other peoples' pictures. He also points out that we have our information collected, analyzed, and sold ALL the TIME, usually as statistical information that can be used by marketing people. Yet, a lot of people -- all over blogs, forums, etc -- seem kind of stirred up by this whole thing.

So the ethical question isn't so much a contractual or rights-oriented issue of the letter of the law. It's more about the ethics of consent. If people are all so indignant about this, it means there must be something unique about this particular situation, right? That's not covered by all the related situations that seem to set the precedent?

Noble's approach is illuminating, but also sort of obfuscates the nuance. By breaking the situation down into the various precedents, he shows the various issues at stake, but he fails to account for their convergence in McDonald's work. As I see it, there are three things all in play.

First, CONSENT: if you're going to capture a representation of a person, it's considered ethical to get permission, even if it's just by way of EULA.

Second, VISIBILITY: there's something very intimate about taking a picture of somebody; people don't personally identify with "data" about them, but they definitely identify with an image of their face.

Third, BANALITY: we're all highly sensitive to the fact that computers are everywhere, and we don't really know exactly what they're doing at any particular time; our modern lifeworld is built around this lack of transparency.

So why are these Kyle McDonald photos making so many people exceptionally uncomfortable? I'll let the diagram explain it for you:

Mr. Noble's examples isolate these three aspects and show how each one can be glossed over in the name of an information-rich datasphere. However, when he says, "None of the complaints seem to make very much sense to me," he's willfully denying an important fact: in this case, these issues are all active at the same time.

And it's a rare phenomenon that reminds us just how transparent and visible our personal lives really are.

AFTER-THOUGHT: I'm not trying to argue that this should be illegal in any way, or that it's unethical; in fact, this kind of non-standard boundary case -- this kind of unexpected defensive impulse -- is just what any good art should trigger. I'm just trying to make some more sense of it.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Life Developments: Dixie the Optimus S

My fiancee and I both finally got new phones this week. She got that 3D Evo, less for the trapped-in-a-virtual-cube effect and more for the processing power and range of capabilities; I got the slightly more modest LG Optimus S, reasoning that I wanted an efficient, capable touch-screen phone with a compact physical profile and the Android OS. It didn't hurt that it was free with the new contract.

The subsequent process, for both of us, can only be described as "pair-bonding." I start by working toward a very basic level of familiarity with my new companion -- figuring out where the most consistent menu options take me, what kinds of touches and taps are acceptable, and which ones cause undue tension. As I get to know my phone better, its capabilities gradually become more transparent: it can help me with directions (GPS), it has access to a whole library of specialized training in the form of Android Market apps, and (perhaps the most gratifying part) it can keep my social life straight for me, doing the constant work of associating names with e-mail addresses, phone numbers, Twitter accounts, and Facebook profiles, and consolidating that all in my list of contacts. My Optimus is frighteningly intelligent sometimes.

Of course, as I learn how to cooperate and respect my companion, it goes through a process of imprinting, as well. I train it to be quiet (at first it would ding every time I got a new email), I decide on a desirable background photo, I go about the work of creating special shortcuts and custom commands. I respect the phone, but at the same time, I have to maintain some authority over it, and even in the short time I've had it so far, it's bonded with me enough that it would be pretty inconvenient for anyone else who tried to kidnap it.

I'v been told to root the phone... to break into its OS so I can control its memory allocation and such... but this feels like it would be too harsh, in a way, a violation of the Optimus's integrity. At the moment, it's being very cooperative, and I haven't even scratched the surface of its capabilities, so I'm not sure hacking its admin accounts is really necessary at the moment.

I haven't named the phone yet, but I'm working on it. I'm sort of scanning my mental library of names and references, considering things from literature, film, video games, and just general names that I like. For some reason, I kind of like "Claude." Also, because my most common screen name is "symbot," I thought of calling the phone "robol," which is a reverse recombination of the two words in that handle. I think I'm gonna skip all the anime names, because naming a

cell phone after an anime character is just a little too obvious.I've named devices after literary main characters before... I had iPods named Mersault and Roquentin, named after the main characters from The Stranger and Nausea. This feels a little wrong, though, because the phone is not really going to be fulfilling a main-character role. I would call it Melmoth, just because I like the book, but there's almost nothing else fitting about the name or the character it would be referencing. Now that I watch more movies and TV, I could always try to figure out a sidekick name for it -- Chewy, Ethel, Sancho, Renfield, Alfred, or Sam.

But as I've thought about it, I've realized that I don't think of the phone as a sidekick, so much as a familiar. It's really, like, a little assistant that I have around so much that it eventually becomes a friend and confidante. So now I'm trying to think of names of familiars: Archimedes (Sword in the Stone), Thing (The Addams Family), Bartok (Anastasia), Boh (Spirited Away), Brown Jenkins (Dreams in the Witch-House) and Graymalkin (Macbeth). There's also some Sapient Steeds that have nice reference names: Falcor and Shadowfax come to mind. I'm sure there are lots more, especially if you start accounting for imaginary friends and such.

Taking it a step further, I think there's a fair stock of digital familiars and sidekicks recently. The Dixie Flatline from Neuromancer is one of my favorites. There's also Jarvis, from Iron Man, and HAL, which is a name I would not want to adopt for something that had an important role in my life.

I think I'll go with Dixie. Now I just need to find a ringtone that sounds like a strange, inhuman laugh.

Friday, July 01, 2011

An appreciation of Simon Abrams' "What is a Bad Movie?"

An introductory piece in a new series called Simon Says is called "What is a Bad Movie," but it's really not about badness; really, it's more about criticism showing us how movies are good:

"That’s what criticism should strive for: making films like Zardoz, or a vastly more mainstream but still eccentric superhero film like Green Lantern, look good—and in general make films whose faults and/or merits might otherwise be inaccessible more accessible."

I massively appreciate and sympathize with this piece, and want to riff off it a little bit. I'm a constant reader of various types of criticism... popular reviewers like Ebert and Edelstein, critic/reviewers like Jim Emerson and Pauline Kael, and writers with a committed scholarly ethic like David Bordwell (and many others whose names I forget, because I only read a single essay from them). Also, I read various blogs and forums, populated as they are by a Frankenstein patchwork of amateur opinions and analyses.

Some of this criticism is transcendentally good, and some of it is totally parasitic. The difference, I find -- the continuum upon which this merit can be evaluated -- is how much the reviewer engaged with the film they're commenting upon. Indeed, this is the greatest strength of scholarly writing and pop criticism... judgements aside, you really have to attempt to understand a film before you can offer any kind of interpretation or analysis. And the most recognizable common feature of bad amateur criticism -- stupid forum comments, incessant complaints from nay-sayers -- is that you can always sense that the commentor never gave the film a chance, never really opened themselves up to it.

There are certain code-words that indicate whether a person engaged with a film or not. "Pretentious" is a big one, usually used by people who were faced with an opaque or challenging movie and simply weren't interested in going there. "Pointless" is another one. "Boring" is perhaps the most universal -- it can be used in conjunction with both "pretentious," and as its opposite... many high-brow fanboys will refuse to engage with any big-budget summer action movie, justifying themselves by saying, "See, I'm the type of person who finds THAT stuff boring."

This schema favors the descriptive over the prescriptive, and the prescriptive over the proscriptive. It recommends complete surrender to a film as the best possible response, and patience as the second-best (i.e. in the case of films that don't hook you). It's a method that discourages cynicism, and has no regard for dismissiveness or contempt.

To be sure, I pretty much never hate a film. I think hatred is something that only makes sense as an instinctive response to a threat or an enemy -- an automatic, defensive way of reacting to something whose interests seem to conflict with your own. Why would I ever hate an aesthetic object? What has a movie ever done to hurt me?

That said, I don't think criticism has to be exclusively positive. Nay, the most salient and scathing condemnation is the type that first engages with the film, and then discovers its contradictions, flaws, and weaknesses. There are all sorts of films that reinforce negative stereotypes, or act as destructive propaganga, and these require active engagement and critical acuity to be recognized and deconstructed. Troy Duffy's Boondock Saints is probably the most egregious example of subconscious propaganda, a manifesto of postmodern sexism, ranking right up there with Triumph of the Will in terms of films-with-agendas. To a lesser degree, there are also hidden messages in Avatar and X-Men: First Class, the subliminal, insidious expressions of the filmmakers' (and audiences') subconscious minds.

But even with these movies -- even the most egregious -- the critic needs to step into the movie to understand its orientation. Some of the darkest films, the most dependent on stereotypes and negative energy, may actually turn out to be critiques of these ideas, rather than unreserved expressions of them. The difference between something like Hostel and something like Funny Games is subtle, and to engage with it, you need to really engage with the films. Yes, both of them.

Have I said this before? I feel like I have, because I think it, constantly. Every time I read a piece like Dan Kois's Cultural Vegetables essay, or Ebert's blustering, and subsequent further-consideration, over Thor, I think about this. I think about how important it is, for the sake of the medium, and for the sake of our own psyches, to invest in these films, to become as involved with these hypothetical, fantastic, mythological worlds, as we did with our own invented make-believe landscapes when we were children. Criticism, like all consumption, and all its corollary activities, should be about having a strict filter, especially if it's merely an enforcement of one's own tastes and habits -- it should be about being a sponge, a proud cultural processor, desperate to find meaning, even in things otherwise disregarded.