Friday, October 21, 2011

Road to Perdition (2007): Machinist Gothic

Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition has a lot on the surface -- well-trodden themes of father/son loyalty, that slick neo-noir cinematography, some clever camera work, a host of oily, volatile secondary characters -- maybe too much, according to some.  For a director who got famous making morally ambiguous, thematically twisted films like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, Road to Perdition seems almost too straightforward, too direct about its hero's journey.  Michael Sullivan is indeed a comic book character, and you could be forgiven for mistaking Road to Perdition for a boringly typical comic book movie.

But this figure has a ground -- there is a thematic inner world to the film, expressed in both a literal and a metaphorical layer, that brings a formal unity to the whole thing.  You won't appreciate everything this deceptively well-constructed film has to offer until you recognize its inner life, the way all the parts interlock seamlessly.

Of course, we shouldn't pass by without mentioning the beautiful, polished images created by Conrad C. Hall, who won the Oscar that year.  This world is dusty and exposed by day, inert in its overcast grays, but at night, it's all angles and shadows... more than shadows, it's a funhouse of black surfaces and bottomless abysses.  It's an indifferent world, freezing cold or stuffy and still, with the blessing of a cool breeze only at the end, on the beach, as the plot folds back upon itself.

That polished cinematography is the first clue to how the film functions on a symbolic level.  Each scene is meticulous, the camera work is orderly and slow-moving, and every element is isolated in the frame, so that all the spatial relationships can be clearly identified.  These people are parts of a well-oiled apparatus, oriented to one another by their loyalty, their malice, their dependence, their pivotal, inescapable utility.

That's the subtext to the whole film: we are inside the machine. Here, before the camera, Mendes and Hall and Hanks lay bare the internals of a great mechanism, and Michael Sullivan Sr. is the rogue component, the cog that's slipping its axle and forcing everything to grind to a halt.

When Harlen Macguire asks Michael what he does, he tells him he's "a salesman. Machine parts." This is the first time he gives a cover story, but it doesn't seem to come out of nowhere... he's spent the whole film assembling various firearms, hiding them away, and explaining their use. In fact, in practically every sequence, the camera fetishizes machines -- we start with a shot of Michael Junior riding his bicycle, and eventually, he graduates to a full motor-car, becoming his father's getaway driver. Harlen the hitman is not simply a murderous reporter -- he's a mechanical eye, a walking camera that captures the souls of the people he murders. It's a world of telephones and combination safes and locks and keys.  Everything in the film seems to jingle and click together and "turn over," the totems of a clockwork world that seems to run more smoothly than our own messy digital universe.

That's the literalization of the film's unifying principle. In reality, the whole Irish underworld of the early 30's is a machine, and all the characters are locked into functional relationships with one another. Michael Sullivan, Sr. is the most reliable part in the whole apparatus at the film's beginning, a trusted enforcer for the local boss. Connor Rooney is the companion piece to his father, and John Rooney is the transmission for the whole local system, functioning on its own terms to serve the larger Chicago machine.

Both Michael Sr. and John Rooney carry fatherhood as an inescapable constraint while they fulfill their functions -- murder, profiteering, regulation, organization.  John, like a well-designed automaton, remains constrained by this obligation even when it turns out his son is betraying him. Knowing he's being undermined by his own kin, he just keeps idling along, acting as the responsible patriarch, keeping the rest of the community in line, making money for his family and his bosses.  He never stops working right, even up to his final stand in the rain, surrounded by his orderly but ineffectual circle of bodyguards

As it turns out, it's Michael Sullivan Sr. who catastrophically malfunctions, provoked as he is by Connor Rooney's subterfuge. Once Sullivan's button is pressed, he switches into revenge mode. He can't be dissuaded by bribery, coercion, or even his desire to protect his son. He will destroy this machine from the inside, even after it's taken care of him since he was young. Michael Sullivan knows that there are some sins that are unforgivable -- there are some breakdowns that can't be prevented.

And maybe that sheds some light on the film's moralistic father-son relationship, too. Michael Sullivan Sr. doesn't seem to be able to extract himself from this system of reflexive violence... being a loyal enforcer, he's totally defined by it.  But he struggles profoundly with his attitude toward his son, who he gradually initiates into the criminal lifestyle, while paradoxically trying to protect him from it.  He gives his son a pistol to defend himself, he teaches him to drive a getaway car, he tells him to keep a lookout.  At the same time, his misgivings are palpable... he distrusts his own father-figure (John Rooney) with the boys, he tries to deliver his son to his wife's sister, and he distances his son from the violence he carries out, albiet erratically.  This is the behavior of a firmly entrenched part of a machine, trying to ensure that his son doesn't find a place in that same machine.

And unto the end, in Michael Sullivan Jr's vulnerability -- in his inability to master the stick shift, his intense love for reading and religion, his dislike for math -- he's the most organic element in this plot, the bit of soft tissue that needs to be protected from the grinding gears of the criminal underground, lest he be torn apart.  This comes across as clear as day when he sits with his father inside an old farmhouse, providing compassion and patience and sips of water.  The boy is not a machine... he's the one real boy in this world of pinnochios, the sole human touch.

The father-son relationships, the intrigue and depravity of the crime world, the Midwestern road trip through heartland prohibition... these are just the flesh of the story.  Dig deeper, and you find its iron-clad, mechanical heart, all angles and edges and parts that lock into place... and then, even deeper inside the film, there's Michael Sullivan Jr., the soft soul peeking out from inside the great machine.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Zodiac (2007), Chinatown (1974), and the heart of the noir city

At the heart of the noir city, there's a spider's web of influences and motives that never quite resolve, never quite explain themselves, never present a clear target for the apparatus of justice. It's this lack of identity, this lack of certainty, that makes the noir city such a terrifying place for us helpless human beings, who strive for clarity, balance, and closure. Humans try to consolidate their power and their organization within the city, but this only empowers the city to tear it away from them, laughing, casting its shadow.

The fact that "justice" is itself a diffuse, teetering bureaucracy of internal contradictions doesn't help; in that sense, it's just another part of the urban structure, which envelops everything within its domain.  In trying to organize the truth within the noir city's labyrinth, the justice system simply amplifies its power, like a vaccine in reverse -- the virus is innoculated against the body. The judge who signs the warrant can be bought, the sergeant who carries it out can be undermined and turned aside by his own rules. In this hostile space, the regional departments compete, and the multitide of divisions collapse, burying the truth.

The outsider in these situations may be able to reclaim some power, but not much.  Yes, being independent of a department is an advantage.  Being free of jurisdictions and bureaucracies empowers the ambitious citizen to make his own inquiries and draw his own conclusions.  But disorganization and formality is only the city's outermost defense.  The true irresolvable force, the cancer at the center of the decay, is the rotting heart itself, the empty, uncertain soul of the metropolis.

J.J. Gittes discovers noir LA by wandering through its empty reservoirs and dry lake beds, using his "investigation" as an excuse to take a lot of curious walks. Though he is an outsider (a private dick as opposed to a beat cop), he generally falls in line with the city's cynicism, following people around town, taking photographs, and profiting off his clients' troubles.  But Gittes has a bad habit: he occasionally takes a personal interest in his clients and tries to save them from the city's tentacles. In this, he is a true outsider, an idealist... a guy who falls stupidly in love with women and trouble, who picks at scabs and turns buried secrets into open wounds.

I rewatched Chinatown (1974) because I'd just seen Zodiac (2007), and the dark tangle of intrigue and bureaucracy in the latter reminded me of the indecipherable architectures of the former. It's hard to overstate how different the Chicago of Zodiac is from the LA of Chinatown, the former being a crowded, murky, confrontational fortress of institutions, the latter being sun-drenched and empty, wealthy and lonely and in a state of gilded deprivation. Chicago is flushed and choleric; LA is dizzy and dehydrated. But both cities are big, cynical centers of misanthropy, and both of them are hard on their heroes. Robert Graysmith is to Chicago as Jake Gittes is to LA: a pesky savant, an outsider looking for the inside track, stirring the mud as he indulges his own obsession.

Of course, Robert never gets the stamp of approval that we all want: an arrest and conviction for his suspect. The city doesn't yield up closure so readily, and sometimes, a glimpse of the truth is all you're ever going to get. But Robert does achieve something heroic, even if he goes unrewarded: he confronts that sinister underside of the city, stepping up to it and staring it in the face on multiple occasions. He finds his way into the basement of a Projectionist who seems unmistakably significant in this whole Zodiac affair; he meets a woman who recalls a dark, shadowy figure at her bohemian painting parties; he looks into Leigh Allen's eyes.

In Zodiac, the city is an empty morass of connections and uncertainties.  At least in the LA of Chinatown, it comes down to a few specific people, a few brazen confessions. But what a rotten heart it is! At the heart of the city are the Crosses, one of its most powerful clans, embroiled in incestuous relationships and opportunist plots to destroy farm families and reclaim the land for the wealthy. Gittes unearths the Cross's bizarre culture of transgression, appeasement, and favoritism: Mr. Mulwray, the business partner, is sleeping with his wife's sister-daughter? The connections to Noah Cross are so dense, so intractable, that his motives seem to determine the whole structure. Did Cross and Mulwray really sever ties over the ownership of the water supply?  Or are all these wealthy, broken degenerates still in cahoots, working in uneasy but unbreakable cooperation to protect their fucked up family?

Good-looking, bad news
So Gittes discovers the truth. Kind of. He's turned up the soil wherefrom this rotten tree has sprung. But once he sees its face in Noah Cross, once he tastes its tainted fruit in Evelyn Mulwray, his power ends. He can't hold these people accountable, nor expose their poisonous influence. Their crimes converge and dissolve on a street in Chinatown, where nothing's really reconciled. And maybe this is a worse fate than blissful ignorance: knowing the darkness that lurks within the noir city, and knowing that you can't do shit about it.

Where Gittes found an impenetrable knot, Robert Graysmith finds something else: the erasure, the uncertainty, that the noir city presents as its final face, beneath the masks of violence and domesticity.  He discovers, in Chicago, a troubling fact: the fact that actual, physical events, in all their brute violence and cruelty, eventually disappear, leaving only a facile layer of information. Four years later, Graysmith is still asking, "Who committed these murders?" A better question may be, "Did these murders actually happen?" and even this is more or less irrelevant, because the murders are gone, diluted in history. All that's left of them are anecdotes, clippings in binders, casings in envelopes, handwriting samples, marks on certain detectives' records, an "open" case file.

Robert Graysmith rages against that emptiness, that void, by drawing together what information he can, but more importantly, by finding the people who were involved in the slayings: Linda del Buono, Rick Marshall's friend the movie poster artist, and finally Leigh Allen. Through them, he finds actual anecdotes, the traces of real experiences, so much of which has disappeared after four years.

Robert Graysmith never really sees as much of his picture as Jake Gittes sees of his own. But Robert wins a small battle against the vast forces of the city's unexplored labyrinth -- in the absence of any confirmation, Robert Graysmith comes to his own conclusion. He approaches his suspect in a hardware store and looks him straight in the eye, and at this moment in the film, we can see Robert Graysmith make a leap of faith -- the leap from suspicion to belief.  This is only victory a man like Graysmith can retain in the face of overpowering uncertainty.  This leap of faith may be nothing but appeasement, but at least there's that.  J. J. Gittes never has anything like that.

SIDE NOTE: I think Zodiac, the film, actually presents us with a possible resolution, though it's never quite spelled out for us. Consider: during the extended climax of the film, Robert Graysmith confronts two different men. First, the projectionist, who admits to making posters that seem to match Zodiac's handwriting. This confrontation happens in the basement of a house, the deepest cavern Graysmith reaches in this affair.  And there's someone else in the house... someone who flees before Graysmith can identify him.

The other person Graysmith confronts is the perennial suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, who seems connected to the killer in every possible way: he has the right boots, he has a watch with the symbol, he lived near the first victim.  But Leigh Allen is exonerated by... his handwriting!  And the DNA samples from the letter.

Maybe I'm the only one who thinks this, but to me, this suggests the simple conclusion: Leigh murdered the victims, and the projectionist wrote the letters on his behalf. No connection between these individuals was ever uncovered, and yet, they fit together, like perfectly-shaped puzzle pieces in a picture that's never assembled. Leigh may even have been in the house when Graysmith was there; if he had seen him, it would have brought the whole affair into focus, but he missed him, and so the truth once again eluded him.

Anyway, that's my leap of faith.  I follow Robert Graysmith in coming to my own conclusion, at least in terms of the movie's version of these events, and I'll stand by it until something upsets it.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Event: Occupy Wall Street and Steve Jobs

History takes a strange twist when two big things happen on the same day, and they're related enough that they converge in the news media. That's what happened yesterday, when the Occupy Wall Street protests got big enough to spark some police conflict, and then, in the evening, the death of Steve Jobs was announced and totally took over the media. I've been personally following the protests, finding in them an interesting change in the timbre of political participation. Most of the country is still ignoring them, but this is becoming less and less possible.

The news of Jobs' death, on the other hand... nobody could ignore that. It totally overwhelmed public discourse for the rest of the night. Even the protestors, caught up as they were in the surge of a mass demonstration, had to find time to tweet about the Apple CEO's passing.

The two events create a stark contrast, happening at the same time like this. The protests, in the words of McKenzie Wark, are truly an "event" -- they feel unprecedented, as if they're subverting the media cycle of sensationalism and forgetfulness. This kind of public gathering and outpouring of emotion, this mass expression of discontent, perpetual because it doesn't articulate a terminating condition -- it's a rare occasion, and this is truly the first event of its kind in the age of mass media.  It demonstrates the validity of those philosophical concepts like "aletheia" (Heidegger) or "event" (Badiou), which seem so useless most of the time, but that take on a new vitality when you're in a situation like this, and you truly don't know where it's going.

Jobs' death is totally different. The signs were there for months: the autobiography, the resignation from Apple -- and yet, it was sudden, like getting jabbed with a needle is sudden, even after thirty seconds of watching the doctor get the syringe ready. In that way, even its suddenness was sort of predictable. Jobs' death was a confirmation of the cycles of seasons, the rhythm of life and death, sweeping up even those people who have been elevated to icons, to ideals. He joins the ranks of Amy Winehouse and Mother Theresa in that respect, a victim of the tyranny of the inevitable.  His death wasn't an "event" in the radical sense... it was a landmark, a testament to the power of Eternal Return.

It's hard to overstate the importance Steve Jobs had in our culture. His name is one of the most widely-recognized, and he presided over Apple at a time when it was systematically shaping our whole cultural framework.  This is an information age, and Apple's always been at the leading edge of information access and organization. The number of loving eulogies is a testament to this fact (read many of them here, as noted by Jason Kottke).

And maybe Jobs' infamous lack of corporate charity is part of the zeitgeist, too -- the zeitgeist of the super-rich in-crowd, a massive social class of self-made millionaires and billionaires, created by market speculation and booms in information technology. It's been argued that this crowd suffers from a problem of entitlement and self-interest, a disconnected (almost patronizing and authoritarian) attitude toward the social and political structures, which they're subject to, but not really a part of.  That's another topic altogether, worth pursing, but outside the scope of this reflection.

Indeed, if we can't pay tribute to Jobs as a humanitarian, we can pay tribute to him as a projection, representing capitalism in all its best and worst attributes. Out of self-interest, he created world-changing products and historical innovations -- radical events in their own right -- and he represented the power of freedom and ambition and authoritarianism.  That's free-market capitalism: a blind visionary, seeing the whole world through the prism of itself.

Acknowledging that fact is a cause for concern for some activists, because it leads to a deluge of criticisms, like this one and this one, from both inside and outside the movement.  Twitter: the new platform for mass soul-searching, amiright?

Chances are, a lot of people at Occupy Wall Street had to make some very quick assessments of what they really thought of Steve Jobs last night. On one hand, there's a good chance they were using iPhones and iPads.  They may have been radicals, struggling to excuse their own brand-loyalty; they may have been moderates, trying to decide where Apple's consumer-friendly empire fits on their gradient of indignation. A few of them -- notably the occasional left-leaning libertarian -- may have looked at their iPhones, looked up at a pro-Obama sign, and thought, "Should I really be aligning myself with this movement?"

Self-defenses are simple to generate.  "We're unhappy with the system, not the individuals who have done well for themselves within in." Or how about, "It's the collusion between money and politics, not the actual companies themselves." Or, most obviously, "This is about banks and financial speculation, not about companies making retail products."  These are all reasonable, though they don't completely close off the argument.

Ultimately, though, the final answer is a universal truth: we have to accept, in some measure, what we oppose in another measure, or in another form.  We have to "waffle," as it were, between seeing the value in personal ambition and monetary incentives, and seeing the danger in letting it run unfettered.  In its healthiest form, market capitalism drives human progress and keeps economies balanced.  When it's toxic, it takes over everything: the political process, the lives of individuals, the educational system, the military.

The Occupy Wall Street protests aren't so militant that they can't struggle with these questions. It's one of the visible struggles within the protests: anti-capitalist? Anti-consumerist? Or just anti-Big-Five-corporate-banking? It goes right along with the other tensions that are being dealt with: pro- or anti-Obama? Pro- or anti-Cop? These dichotomies are yet to be decided, and in some cases, it may be up to the subject of the dichotomy (Obama, the police, etc.) to win or lose the movement's favor.

Because of this mushy flexibility, the protests are able to absorb outside resources -- support from unions, support from celebrities -- without, thus far, being infected or assimilated by them. These allies are accepted in good faith, even as their merit is being internally debated. Like any good democratic mass, this collective has constant ideological indigestion.

In fact, Occupy Wall Street exhibits all the best and worst of the democratic process, just as Steve Jobs exhibited the best and worst of capitalism. Occupy Wall Street is flexible and open, few voices are "silenced" arbitrarily, and it's in constant flux, adapting to situations and expressing the changing ideologies that are allowing it to build momentum. It's ecstatic and troubled and massively inclusive. At the same time, it's indecisive, anemic in terms of concrete long-term goals, and it frequently splits. Sometimes it seems to teeter on the edge of mindless mob rule. One part goes to Liberty Square, one part goes to the NYPD, one part goes to the Brooklyn Bridge. The human megaphone is empowering somebody, and we can all hear them echoed in that messy multitude, but nobody knows who's talking, or what the hell their qualifications are.

This Occupy Wall Street movement, this "event," as it were, will only survive if it stays true to its troubled nature, its indistinct but deeply-rooted value system. Certainly, as this Tea Partier points out, there will be lots of attempts to appropriate it.  It needs to keep thriving off that kick, that emotional resonance, that you get when you're part of a collective sentiment... when your own unsettled idealism is amplified by the voice of the masses.

There is no right time for a landmark like Steve Jobs' death -- it was always predestined, and no matter when it happened, it would have been a shock. Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, is delivering the kick of rupture, of the radical event -- and those of us who are investing in this movement are watching closely, hoping that for this movement, the "right time" is here.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Oneiric Break: Dream structures in four major films

I've sensed a recurring structure in a range of highly-acclaimed films, a lot like the self-destructive female archetype I wrote about a while ago. In this case, I've noticed it repeated in four films, all with that sort of "high-concept mainstream" status.  There's an extremely high chance that you've seen at least one, and maybe two or three, of the ones where I've discovered it.

Instead of trying to weave all the criticism together, which I'm sure would result in a big discursive mishmash, I'm going to describe the template right out front, and then describe how each movie fits into it.  Like most of these common structures, it's surprisingly elaborate and surprisingly consistent, once you know what essential elements to look for.

This structure always seem to occur when there's a male protagonist.  This male's sexual desire, somehow unfulfilled, is a key narrative feature; this male is generally pursuing an agenda of desire, mixing sexual, sensual, and romantic desire.  As the story develops, this manifests as pursuit of a particular female.

In the course of the story, there's an initial sense that this protagonist is in the real world (just an assumption of cinema in general, really), but in short order, this reality always gives way to a dream-world.  Sometimes this happens just through implication, other times the transition is quite explicit.  Generally, this dream-world is trance-like and vaguely hallucinatory -- sometimes through subtle touches of surrealism, sometimes in dramatic and disturbing ways.  However, at first, it's a peaceful dream, a dream of comfort and routine.

However, in the climactic moments of the story arc, this dream world becomes a nightmare, manifested as bizarre and sinister disturbances in the surrounding order. This nightmare world is generally unlocked by that obsessive sexual desire -- sometimes right at the moment of its fulfillment.

From here on out, I'll call this moment the "oneiric break" -- when a good dream suddenly turns into a horrible nightmare.

The rest of the plot is the protagonist trying to restore order to this nightmarish world, often through death, either literal or symbolic.

Here are the four test cases. Please let me know if you can think of others!  The first two are films that make the "dream" themes explicit, and then fill into the formula from there.  Also, warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

1. Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe)

Crowe's unexpectedly cerebral Cruise-vehicle was loose and jumbled... much to the chagrin of his usual fan base, but to the delight of cinematic masochists like myself.  As with many of these, the line between real-world and dream-world is blurry right from the start, as David Aames' self-indulgent playboy lifestyle almost seems like a good dream from the first moment -- complete with references to paintings and echoes of pop songs.

This is the best initial test case, because at the end of the film, Tech Support basically lays out the formula.  The dream officially started when Sofia picked up David from the sidewalk after a humiliating bender.  The oneiric break occurs when David flashes back to his damaged face when looking into a mirror, and its nightmarishness is consummated when Sofia is suddenly replaced by Julianna.  According to Tech Support, this break occurs because of a malfunction in the machine, but according to Dr. McCabe, it might be the result of David's guilt over how he treated Julianna (was it the neglect, or the sexual desire? Or both?)  Finally, Vanilla Sky ends with a return to the real world, via a symbolic death: the fall from the top of the skyscraper.

Vanilla Sky is interesting in that there are TWO objects of desire: Sofia is the ideal, the Madonna, a paragon of love and support and intimacy; Julianna is the whore, a seething sexual cauldron of possessiveness and jealousy.  This variation on the basic pattern will be repeated in one of the other films.

Also, note the plastic surgery theme, which will be repeated later.

2. Brazil (Terry Gilliam)

Again, in Brazil, the "dream" theme is very explicit.  Also, as in Vanilla Sky, the initial "real world" and the parallel dream world hardly vary at all in terms of realism; Sam Lowry's dreams of a monolithic concrete city and an evil samurai, aided by a team of tormented monsters, isn't much more out-there than the clockwork bureaucracy he lives in, the whole of which operates as a sort of Benny Hill Rube Goldberg machine from hell.

If you interpret the whole film as a dream, the oneiric break seems to come when Sam and Jill are finally consummating their romantic interest.  This is when the fulfillment of forbidden love becomes the nightmare of incarceration and torture, and eventually, this implied nightmare of torture gives way to the explicit nightmare of Oedipal confusion and madness.

Three additional interesting notes about Brazil: first, it's named after a song, which will occur in one other movie in this group; this song is used to signal the final, empty disconnect as Sam regresses into a permanent dream-state.  Second, as with Vanilla Sky, the film includes a fascination with deformation and plastic surgery.  Third, there's a "mask" theme in Brazil, though it's not as developed as the mask motifs in Vanilla Sky and a later film.

The next two cases aren't explicitly "dream" films, but when you watch them, it's pretty clear that this is shit that would only happen in a confused person's head while they're asleep.  Plus, the "dream" interpretation of each of these films is widespread in criticism and reviews.

3. Blue Velvet (David Lynch)

In terms of this structure, Blue Velvet is the loosest of the four films.  There's clearly a mixture of hazy dream and lucid nightmare, but the boundaries between them are porous.  Even so, the themes are the same: Jeffrey occupies a sort of idyllic suburban world, ruled by convention and idealism and hope for his future. As the story progresses, this lazy fantasy is fractured by Jeffrey's insatiable curiousity, which attaches to the Ear, and by his unfulfilled desire, which draws him to Dorothy.  This leads him into the strange, nightmarish world of Frank Booth.

The Frank/Dorothy lounge music seems to be an essential signal that an oneiric break is taking place -- that we've been lured by voyeurism and curiousity into a nightmare world dominated by Frank's psyche.  The first lounge-music scene occurs just before Jeffrey first enters Dorothy's apartment; the second one occurs before Jeffrey decides to follow Frank to the saw mill; another occurs in Ben's house, and yet another occurs as Jeffrey is being beaten.

Two of the other key themes are repeated.  First, the object of desire is split into an idyllic Madonna figure (Sandy) and a fallen female figure (Dorothy). Second, the film is named after a song -- and music takes on a pivotal thematic significance.

4. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)

Kubrick's last film is both brilliant and divisive, elliptical, enigmatic, and among his less goal-oriented endeavors. Whether it's really a dream film is up for debate, but I know which side I come down on: I think the film is mostly taking place in Bill's head while he's asleep, right after he and Alice smoke up and have a fight. The fact that a highly sexual post-mortem encounter immediately follows is a good indication: he is entering the underworld of his psyche, and he's going to be working through his subconscious desires and anxieties for the rest of the film.

And indeed, for a little while, it's all fantasy-fulfillment: an intimate moment with a prostitute, a jazz club, a mysterious party, the intrigue of an orgiastic cult out in the wilderness.  The intensity escalates until Bill reaches the inner chamber of the party.

The oneiric break is pretty obvious in this film: it comes when Bill is exposed to the scrutiny and judgment of the cult leaders. From this point on, he continually finds himself brushing up against death, guilt, and retribution.  The dream of fulfillment and pleasure has given way to a nightmare of anxiety and paranoia.

Bill eventually arrives home to find his mask from the party lying on his pillow. According to my reading, this discovery represents Bill waking up from his extended dream/nightmare.  The mask is actually Bill's sleeping face on the pillow beside his wife, and at this moment in the narrative arc, he is finally called to return to the real world.

Note that, though Eyes Wide Shut isn't named after a song, music takes on a vast, important symbolic role. Not least of all, the pianist Nick Nightingale acts as Bill's access point to the dream-world's inner sanctum.

Note, also, the theme of unmasking as a dream transition.  This blatantly echoes the dream transitions in Vanilla Sky.

So yes, there are a TON of shared themes, motifs, echoes, and structural parallels between these four films. It's hard to pinpoint any particular statement or position held by all of them; however, the structure itself might indicate some cultural anxities and obsessions that are being worked out.  The patterns are just too clear and intense to be dismissed as coincidence.

As a supplement, I've mapped out all these common themes and motifs.  Check out the chart below.  Fascinating stuff.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Where Photography is Going

Today I read something called "Is the Art of Photography Dying Due to Digitalization?"  It's not a particularly new idea, but it's part of a conversation that needs to be ongoing, as conditions are changing faster than discourse can keep up with them. And the concern being voiced in this essay is still urgent.

Man Ray
As much as I'd like to simply shrug, wave it off, laugh, dismiss it, and tell this author that (s)he obviously knows nothing about photography if (s)he can't appreciate its eternal artistic value, I can't.  Why?  Because the author is right in pointing out that photography is changing.  As the technology improves, it provides easier access, and it changes the value placed on images.  This, in turn, changes the expectations, the methods, the purview of the discipline as a whole.

Because, like this essayist, I've heard people play with my DSLR (the cheapest Pentax DSLR I could find) and say, "It's so easy to take great pictures with this!"  And as much as I hate hate HATE to admit it, their untrained golden-hour snapshots often look pretty high-level, as long as they're using a camera capable of capturing the light robustly. So part of me entertains, and fears, this idea: that maybe, for all photographers' self-importance about framing, and the rule of thirds, and being experts in "writing with light," blah blah blah, it turns out that there's nothing between a serious (potentially professional) photographer and a random person on the street, except for maybe a $600 camera.

The article seems to suggest that, in becoming automatic, fully democratic, and highly accessible, the process of taking a photograph is losing its artistic value. As thousands of people are able to buy high-quality cameras, and these cameras become very smart about automatically calibrating and manipulating photos, there is no barrier to creation, so millions of people are suddenly taking, and sharing, billions of photos.  Brilliant amateur work starts to appear, and people stop seeing great photography as the domain of specialists and professionals.

Diane Arbus
So maybe the democritization of photography is leading to the breakdown of the photographer meritocracy.

I think there's something else, though: photography is changing because it's becoming an art of selection, rather than composition. Good photographers in the digital age know: the key to getting a great photograph is getting thousands of bad ones. This wasn't possible when you had to pay for film, and it was clumsy and took time to load, and had to be selected for the light and the speed of the subject; at that time, a photograph was created like a story or a painting is created. The situation and the intended outcome were considered, creative decisions were weighed, and commitments were made before the shutter ever clicked.

Now, the shutter clicks a hundred times -- we try every exposure setting, every film speed, every focal length -- for every shot or scene that looks even remotely intriguing.  Composition isn't so much a concern any more.  Instead, the creative process takes place in the office, operating LightRoom or Adobe Bridge.  Instead of composing a single great shot, we're selecting the incidental great shot from the SD card full of random crap.  We're doing a lot of deleting, both on location and upon later review.

This is a significant change, because it makes the art of photography more like the general process of idetifying images you like.  And like it or not, picking out a great picture has never been seen as a specialist activity -- pretty much every person has the prerogative to say, "This shot is awesome!" and/or "I don't really like that one much." They don't have the training to recognize good from bad?  Who cares? Everybody has a right to an opinion. And this is now synonymous with the discipline of photography -- it's just selection from a gallery of snapshots.

I do think this is happening.  I think it looks like a bad thing, initially, especially to people who are invested in the meritocracy: photography professors, magazine editors, purveyors of extremely expensive professional photography systems.  But ultimately, it's not a bad thing, because the new democratic landscape will be built upon that meritocracy.  There will be specialization: portrait and product photographers, event photographers, artists who focus intensely on one technology, technique, or subject. The standards and the economic value of photographers' skills will change -- it may even take a big hit, as barriers to entry come crashing down. But we'll eventually find new ways to determine merit, and new ways to manage the flood of new talent at the lowest levels of the talent pool.

Sebastiao Salgado
One thing for sure: photography is on the leading edge of two cultural battles being fought right now.

The first is the wrestling match with Content, which has ballooned in volume over the last few years; photography, along with art and writing, has suddenly burst the dam of cultural access, and we're all desperately trying to manage it using little content delivery buckets, like blogs, and social networks, and self-publishing tools. It's the battle of finding SOME way of auditing and distributing all this content, however subjective, low-brow, or crowd-sourcey it is.

The second battle is the economic one, where we're trying to figure out how to deal with this excess of cultural production: who gets paid for this stuff? Has art, in its excess, dropped out of the need- and value-based economy altogether?  Is it going to be the test-case for a post-scarcity economic model?