Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Von Trier's Antichrist: The rational masculine, the primal feminine

I saw Antichrist recently, and at the time, I told myself it was mostly just an obligatory gesture to the cinema scene. Like Enter the Void, it was so much discussed, inciting such controversy, that I figured I should at least give it a go so I wouldn't feel too out of the loop. I'm glad I saw it -- turns out the reason it stirred people up so much is that aside from the provocation, there's a lot there to think about. The foremost is the film's position in terms of gender politics, and though this is the conversation that's been most covered, I think it's far from exhausted.

It strikes me that so much of the discussion of Antichrist alleges that it's misogynist, which seems like a totally misplaced criticism to me... in fact, the type of criticism that could only come from someone already invested in the patriarchy to begin with. Antichrist is, in fact, a highly self-aware film about gender relations on a broad scale, and it demonstrates a certain tortured sensitivity that more traditionally "feminist" films may lack. To see how this works, however, you have to start by understanding where the film is coming from (giving it the "benefit of the doubt," as it were).

Antichrist is not about breaking down or disrupting essentialist assumptions. It's not about showing that women can do what is traditionally ascribed to men, nor about lubricating the slippery contact between physical sex and gender identity. Those are more traditional routes for feminist mass media to take -- Disney films and action movies showing that women can make effective warriors, art-house pictures breaking up our stereotypes of masculinity and offering criticism of the heteronormative order. Nay, indeed, Antichrist works within a symbolically essentialist universe, where masculinity and femininity are isolated and represented as embodied symbols ("He" and "She", respectively). In order to appreciate the film's statements, you have to accept this initial premise.

From there, the viewer can start to see some outlines of themes in Antichrist. The relationship between the masculine and the feminine is a paradoxical one, entailing both dependency and competition. Perhaps the most logical way to see Nic, the infant who dies in the film's prologue, is that he is the offspring that unites the masculine and feminine forces -- he is their cease-fire condition. His death creates an irresolvable break between masculinity and femininity, and in this break, we find the nature of each of them, engaged in a complex dialectic that evolves throughout the film. I know there are a lot of pseudo-academic terms there. The fact is, this movie condenses a ton of dynamics that theorists have taken great pains to unpack and investigate.

"She" is rage and depression, the explosive despair of losing everything and having no recourse or path to redemption. She is also the body, the orgasm, the blossoming subconscious. "He" is the rational order, mustering the power of language and reason to distance himself from the tragedy he's just witnessed. His first scene in Act I -- the ritual of the funeral, the patriarchal virtues of solemn silence and respect -- is interrupted by Her fainting, a break from reason that belongs uniquely to those who suffer. From that moment forward, He assumes her psychiatric treatment, attempting to circumscribe her pain within his perspective, his methods, his exposure therapy.

This is the patriarchal offensive. It's not beating or name-calling... it's the incessant attempt to flank her grief, to second-guess her instinctive reactions and control the source of her catastrophic emotions. Even when He says her pain is "natural," that she should work through it, he's attempting to put it in its place. And when He decides to take She to Eden, he is doing something bold and inadvisable -- he's taking her to the source, the veiled epicenter of her fear, frustration and self-loathing. He's taking on an offensive role against the feminine force that She represents. She has to "face it," armed with his composure, in order to tame it.

It's worth taking a moment to consider some of the mythological references in Antichrist. Obviously there's the various Christian signifiers -- Eden, the witch hunts, and the death of the only son. The other major reference here is a story called The Story of the Three Wonderful Beggars, and/or Vasilii the Unlucky, which is an old Russian-Serbian folk tale. You can read the whole thing here, in its Serbian form, which I think is the more useful of its major incarnations. From this, Antichrist draws a number of images -- the three beggars, the tree with something significant hidden in its roots, and crossing a bridge to reach what is essentially a cursed temple.

The three beggars in Antichrist seem to be symbols of a broken order, especially within the feminine. They are all self-destructive (or destructive of their young, which amounts to the same thing in this case). He and She are not approaching a peaceful, balanced feminine spirit... they're approaching the wooded symbol of a shattered, tortured, guilty soul, ready to lash out at whatever force is trying to control it. The beggars in the Serbian myth are an ambivalent force, acting to destroy power of the father in order to preserve the larger patriarchal chain leading from the father to the son. They are heralds of the Oedipal murder. This symbol functions similarly within Antichrist... though the son was part of the male lineage, a token of the patriarchy's continuation, the mother nonetheless loved it, and she mourns and rages for its loss.

This profoundly complex nature of the feminine spirit is thoroughly explored in Antichrist. She is the vengeful antagonist, inconsolable and violent, but she is also complicit. Indeed, She seems to feel herself to be incomplete, which is a consistent theme throughout patriarchal mythologies. The Freudian/Lacanian image of the female was of an entity that felt itself incomplete, lacking a phallus. In Antichrist, She becomes unhinged because her son, to whom she feels connected on a deep, organic level, is ripped from her, as if a part of her body is amputated. Her rage, pushed to its limit, is expressed as a fear of abandonment, and for a short time, She takes control from He, using the coercive power of a millstone and a fucking huge log. At this moment in the film, the moment when She presides over He's mangled body, the sexual order seems reversed through violence, if only for a moment.

The first reason I claim that this film could be read as feminist, rather than misogynist, is that Von Trier acknowledges the power and the validity of certain forces that he associates with the feminine: pure emotion, including rage, despair, and depression; unconditional love for a son, regarding him as a part of oneself, and the desperation that might be experienced upon the loss of something so irreplaceable. Von Trier seems to acknowledge the injustice of trying to rationalize those things, to fix them through inert spiritual/psychological engineering. I believe he understands these things because he's experienced depression, and he knows that from the abyss of despair, it can't just be explained away (whether as a mere medical condition, or with the platitude that "it will get better").

From that point, the film evolves into a story of the ascension of the patriarchy (a sign, to me, that it was meant to be read as a tragedy, like Orwell's 1984). Once She has dominated He and her rage has abated, She makes a desperate, fateful decision, essentially surrendering her power by neutering herself. This is another sign of the ambiguous nature of the feminine, which is emotionally uninhibited but prone to guilt and self-destruction. This event, depicted so provocatively in the film, is the reversal that allows He to destroy her, reestablishing the patriarchal hegemony.

You may see this as a happy ending or a tragic one (nothing in this film is really happy, per se), but you have to acknowledge, this is what everything was leading up to. In all of the references -- Christian mythology, Freudian theory, the Russian folk tale -- the male lineage has to be broken and reforged in order to circumscribe and control the violent, sexual, physically-potent Female figure, which always threatens to rupture the established order. Christ joins the Father, Vasilii replaces Marko, Oedipus murders Laius, and Nic dies so that He can confront and control She's unstable emotions. And in the end, the women are faceless, dressed conservatively, and gathering as He ascends to the top of the hill. The primal feminine has been dominated, and in Eden as in the Western world, order is restored once more.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and's Laura Miller

-- by the way, this post has been significantly edited for clarity. Please don't be mad. --

Okay, so this thing was published in, penned by a Miss Laura Miller, on the phenomenon known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It's both incredibly petty and mysteriously sympathetic (although for any individual, it'll probably strike one of those chords sharply, and miss the other entirely). And it's interesting to parse out as commentary on writing, on our changing literary and creative ecosystem, and on what it means to be an artist in our digital world.

NaNoWriMo is an event, mostly organized online, calling on people to write a 50,000+ word novel in a month. If you successfully do so, you're granted the status of "winner," and there were about 37.5 thousand of those last year. The objectives of this exercise, as gleaned from the NaNoWriMo website, are: 1 - to exercise your innate creativity, which you may ignore or set aside in much of your everyday life; 2 - to commit to a large project and follow it through, which is something you may not often get a chance to do; 3 - to break the shackles of self-censorship that may constrain your intellectual and creative life; 4 - to take part in an important cultural art form, in order to better understand and appreciate it. For the record, I hate that "NaNoWriMo" abbreviation, but I'll keep using it as necessary.

Miss Miller's thesis (perhaps laid out a bit snarkily) is that this organized activity is tragically misguided. She points out that writing demands more than a steady 50,000-word stream of consciousness, and that this initiative creates a glut of amateur prose in a world that's already got too many books and not enough readers. Her arguments aren't very concrete or practical, because she doesn't convincingly show any harms; rather, she's giving voice to a more general frustration, a lack of patience for the narcissistic, the trivial, the self-indulgent that, in her opinion, this initiative seems to appeal to. She seems to be saying, "If you really want to write, you'll learn to do it, and eventually, you'll do it well. Why must there be a widespread movement of people who push themselves and each other to write badly?"

Miss Miller's argument sounds puffed up and crotchety, given the apparently harmless inspirational nature of the NaNoWriMo program. People who participate in NaNoWriMo aren't damaged by the experience; to the contrary, they tend to come out feeling very gratified, like their souls have grown, and proud of having created something personal, often for the first time. Editors may gripe about those few writers who send them amateurish manuscripts thrown together for the sake of a writing exercise, and some random people around the world may be annoyed that their novel-writing friends are forcing them to read badly-written manuscripts, but these complaints are minor at best. There's already quite a bit of writing about how arbitrary the "slush pile" process is anyway, and it's hard to imagine that editors are really that heartbroken by having to scan over and discard a few more pages of bad writing.

And yet, there are reasons to sympathize with Laura Miller's angst.

One of them might be your sense of our digital culture, which has been developing over the past decade: an ecosystem of vapid consumption and creation, of capriciousness and self-regard. This is the age of blogs and Facebook, not to mention the world of self-publishing, of YouTube filmmaking, of self-promotion in 140-character chunks. It is a world of consumption that's accelerated but not well-informed, as people ravenously devour the most accessible and sensationalistic media artifacts -- Snookie and the Kardashians, Jack and Jill, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

It may be a new world of digital media, with more ubiquitous access to cultural products, but this doesn't mean it's more favorable to talent, or more rich and evolved. A bookstore owner recently said to me, "The e-book devices don't really threaten my business, because they're not for book-lovers... they're actually more for the book-haters." If he's right, it's that much scarier that these devices are taking over the market so quickly.

If you really wanted to back up Miss Miller's thesis, you could probably argue, on a theoretical level, that NaNoWriMo is contributing to a culture of noise. There is a great deal of content being created, more and more every day, and the capacity to curate this content is not keeping up. Ten new blogs pop up for every new magazine or reviewer. Everybody is talking more and more about themselves, feeling more and more pressured to project themselves into profiles, blogs, and tweets. Noise is starting to overpower signal, and arguably, NaNoWriMo is just going to contribute to that trend.

This argument is shaky, given that NaNoWriMo doesn't sell itself as some sort of Great New Writers Tryouts and Awards. Arguably, the vast majority of the people who write a novel in November don't even try to make that novel public... they ask a couple people to read it, and then allow it to disappear into a drawer, existing simply as a personal badge of accomplishment. You may say, "Then what's the point?", but that's not for anyone to judge except the person doing the writing -- nobody is entitled to judge anyone else's creative act in this mundane little world.

Following this "signal vs. noise," "creation vs. consumption" thread, there's another assertion in Miss Miller's argument: that the world needs more readers, rather than more writers. In a way, this is a pointless observation... the lack of readers may be a problem, but it's not NaNoWriMo's problem, because the organization is devoted to personal growth and the individual journey of writing, not to the issue of informed literacy. However, it clarifies Miller's vantage point: she's coming from a place that's concerned not about writing per se, nor about reading per se, but about the economy of creation versus appreciation.

I think this aspect of her argument can best be summed up thus: we in the Western world are developing a culture, not simply of creation and consumption, but of mindless, impulsive creation and consumption -- and NaNoWriMo is an initiative that trivializes and cheapens the very difficult process of creation, and muddies up the literary landscape, making informed consumption that much harder.

Of course, there's something else in Laura Miller's post that bears witness, and it's not so much a "good reason" as it is a way of understanding where she's coming from. It doesn't justify her sourness, but it brings it a small measure of validity. It's something she touches on in this passage:

"So I’m not worried about all the books that won’t get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done. I see no reason to cheer them on. Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say."

If you read the comments on the article, you'll only discover a few that agree with Miss Miller, and these mostly come from people who claim to be writers and editors already. On the other hand, sundry great writers (Neil Gaiman, Dave Eggers, Meg Cabot) have strongly supported to the initiative (via "pep talks" in particular). If you consider the status of these various participants, with their various positions, you discover something: the people who are most irked by NaNoWriMo are semi-successful or struggling writers, and the people who sing its praises most highly are amateurs on one hand, and celebrated masters on the other.

On a superficial level, this may explain Miss Miller's position: she's part of that class of semi-successful and unrewarded writers who resent all the naive amateurs elbowing in on her profession. Perhaps this essay is simply an expression of insecurity, a blast of misguided frustration with her own professional status, which is obviously respectable, but not transcendent. This may be one of the reasons I feel some sympathy with her, as well: when NaNoWriMo tells amateurs that "anyone can do it," we want to say, "Wrong! It's goddamn difficult! We've been working on it for years, and our careers have hardly seen the light of day!" It's a narcissistic reaction, but there's always some narcissism in art.

However, on a deeper level, there's something here to be said about the actual creative process, and how a creative career develops. There are two highly rewarding parts of a creative career: the very beginning, where there's no barrier to at least "trying it out," and the eventual end, when you finally get the fame and recognition that registers as "fulfilled potential." NaNoWriMo is full of the latter famous people commiserating with the former hopeful people, who are just discovering their own potential: their first comments from readers, their first chapter headings and plot twists and cliffhangers, their first obsessions with their own worlds and the characters who inhabit them.

What's obscured by this process is the fact that between the beginning and the glorious end, there's an extremely long, torturous, difficult journey of thwarted expectations, setbacks, and self-doubt. Audiences don't come easily, and you quickly get tired of soliciting people to read and appreciate your work. The amount of effort you put into each piece increases rapidly, until you're strained and exhausted, and the returns on this investment diminish, basically to nothing. The people who once thought you were so talented and promising are now openly avoidant and dismissive, thinking you're misguided, tired of hearing about what they consider your private obsessions. This period of an artist's life is a trial by fire, and this is why so many give up or discard something that they once claimed to do "just because I love doing it."

This period is not just growing pains. Committed artists know this -- many people will begin an artist's journey thinking they've found their calling, only to give up on it after five or ten years have vanished into a quixotic pursuit. Others will continue with their passion their whole lives, but will never actually be discovered, and they'll have to find some reason to keep going without from the thrill of validation (an absence which, unfortunately, often feels a lot like "failure").

I think it's natural, and even somewhat justified (I don't know, maybe 5-10% justified) to feel some frustration and resentment toward something like NaNoWriMo, which calls out to so many aspiring, idealistic, uncommitted amateurs and invites them to experience the first fleeting thrill of an artist, but doesn't provide any fertile ground for them to really commit. It feels like it trivializes the work of the people who have built lives around their art. It feels like a massive giddy tour bus going through a coal mine or an auto factory.

And yet, I can't stand in open opposition to such a movement. It is not claiming to create great writers, nor is it intended to trivialize the hard work of the great authors. Personal growth and new experiences are valuable in themselves; agency, artistic awareness, well-roundedness, and positive mental habits are things the world could use more of. I can think of lots of alternative projects and initiatives I think would be more valuable than NaNoWriMo within the literary cultural space, but I'm not the one who's taken that first step of creating an organization. Even in the dark forest of my own misgivings and anxieties (and Miss Miller's), I have to step back and remember: this is about giving people a chance to make their own lives better through writing. That's utilitarianism and virtue ethics and self-actualization, the groundwork of great individuals and great societies. There are so many bad things in the world. This is not one of them.

By the way, if you know any websites or services that are dedicated to discovering great writers in the digital ocean of amateur work, please let me know. I've seen them for visual arts and music, but not for writers.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Twitter movie reviews: 1 year, 100 movies, 140 characters each

Over the past year, I've been tweeting movie reviews.  I've tried to do this after every single movie I've seen, either in the theater or on video.  I also covered a couple of the anime series I watched. I'm guessing I've captured about 70% of my consumption. Not bad, I don't think.

Each review fits perfectly into a Tweet... including the movie title, date, and any punctuation, each one is 140 characters long, no more, no less. The biggest liberties I've taken are the use of ampersands, and the use of the final period, both of which I considered optional. Again, I think I've done pretty well here, managing to get most of the reviews sounding pretty natural while staying within that character constraint.

Below I've compounded my first 100 Twitter movie capsules! Have fun browsing through. You'll notice the format is a bit different at the very beginning (i.e. at the very bottom)... it took me a week or two to settle on the final structure. So, from this past week to more than a year ago, here's my year in Twitter movie capsules:

-91 - 100-

Antichrist (2009) - Harrowing, sinister, & extremely transgressive, a merciless escalation of pain, captured by a viciously invasive camera.

Jigoku (1960) - A treatise on the inherent irredeemability of all men, leading to a descent into Japanese Hell, an eternal tortured bad trip
Hellboy II (2008) - Mignola's lovable brute, transplanted from M.M.'s gothic ruins into Del Toro's carnival of the baroque gilded grotesque.

Season of the Witch (2011) - History? Fantasy? Horror? Still, it's fun watching Perlman and Cage talk trash and fight in barbarian costumes.

Silent Hill (2006) - a wild industrial body-horror throw-down, undermined by some sloppiness, but redeemed by the boldness of its execution.

Wicker Man (1973) - Weird: a story of deception and man's murderous delusions, gilded in a folksy erotic giddiness that's hard to reconcile.

The Machinist (2004) - A tense, jarring psychological echo chamber; the twist isn't as important as the preceding journey of paranoid denial

Strange Days (1995) - A portrait of disconnected people adrift in a world at war, that makes a case for both its destruction and its rebirth

Robocop (1987) - An epic, disjunct hybrid of retro futurist fantasy and gory nihilistic brutality, & a paean to the moral purity of machines

Legend of Hell House (1973) - Offers up an interesting conflict between New Agey science and New Agey spiritualism. Atmospheric, but clunky.

-81 - 90-

I Can See You (2008) - Plays like a twisted wet-dream-turned-nightmare. An uneven, head-trippy romp that shows both inexperience and talent.

Road to Perdition (2002) - Shows the 1930's as a Bauhaus machinist future, its men guided by hard sentimentality & puritan sense of purpose.

Zodiac (2007) - A smart, breathless account of an amateur, willing to reach deep into a dangerous animal's den, even when its handlers balk.

Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales (2006) - A masterpiece of elegant abstraction and subtle storytelling. Blew me away. Esp. the last three ep's

Dead Leaves (2004) - A hyperactive acid-trip anime that becomes a test of patience. Mesmerizing, if you manage to sync up with its insanity.

Elfen Lied (2004) - An apparently cutesy shojo anime subverted by extreme emotional & physical violence. Sailor Moon by way of Takashi Miike

Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988) - Ups the ante on the first film, and comes with the same nightmare fuel set-pieces, but maybe shows too much

Winter's Bone (2010) - The paranoia of a noir, the harrowing grit of Southern Gothic, with just enough love & heroism to keep us sympathetic

Sling Blade (1996) - A movie that fit together perfectly; wouldn't have felt so brutal if it weren't so deadpan, quiet, gentle, & vulnerable

The Beach (2000) - Uneven plotting, at times comical writing, but some earnest sentiment and intense moments between the volatile bohemians.

-71 - 80-

Hellraiser (1987) - Gruesome, thematically focused, unflinching & disturbing at all the right moments. Brilliant, extreme, deservedly iconic

From Beyond (1986) - A parade of semi-human creatures and depravity; provides a great character in the young scientist tortured by the abyss

The Beyond (1981) - Mysterious, relentless, & revolting, full of cheesiness and horror tropes, but redeemed by an epic nihilistic conclusion

Wild Blue Yonder (2005) - Hypnotic at times, definitely a uniquely fuzzy-headed experience, but could stand to be a little bit more focused.

Fear[s] of the Dark (2007) - An eerie and bold psychological study, but not too scary, except Richard McGuire's section, which blew me away.

Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me (1992) - Full of Twin Peaks' enigmatic forces, but more grounded in the main character's troubled hopelessness.

Doctor Zhivago (1965) - A bitter, disillusioned family and political saga with a storybook veneer; stark, beautiful, and surprisingly cruel.

Goodbye, South, Goodbye (1996) - Thoughtful, evocative family crime drama, with a deadpan realism that makes the plot almost indecipherable.

Black Hawk Down (2001) - Gritty, star-studded, shows through audience identification that patriotism is inextricable from vicious bloodlust.

Nietzsche & the Nazis (2006) - Plus side: It's available on Netflix Instant. Minus side: it's a philosophy PhD talking for 3 hours straight.

-61 - 70-

The Sacrifice (1986) - A dreamy meditation on hopelessness and the tragedy and ecstasy of unrepayable grace; muffled, breathless, & hypnotic

Dust Devil (1992) - A parched, haunting, culturally-informed supernatural thriller with touches of abstraction; dense with subliminal power.

General Orders No. 9 (2011) - luminous feature-length meditation on the death of the natural soul of the South; uneven, sometimes beautiful.

Pistol Opera (2001) - spastic Frankenstein of a trippy samurai crime film; loosens up your brain for 70 mins, then attacks it in the finale.

Tree of Life (2011) - Nostalgia and intimacy mustered in service of a heroically ambitious effort. I need another viewing to fully absorb it

Pale Flower (1964) - Japanese sharp-eyed neo-noir, excellent high-contrast camerawork: a disciplined yakuza hitman is devoured by his vices.

Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) - A compelling saga of perseverance and surrender, although undermined by its one-sided cultural perspective

Bridesmaids (2011) - Funny at times, but tired with crassness. A few lovable central characters allow it to squeak by as amusing & endearing

Nights of Cabiria (1957) - Cabiria was perfect as the jester maiden centerpiece of a storybook tabloid Rome, pregnant with her joy & tragedy

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) - Effectively tense, but could have used better characters to root for (Wilson was the charismatic exception).

-51 - 60-

Thor (2011) - An epic grade-B movie, full of pomp, that always seems to be smirking itself; yet, the father/brother/son conflict rings true.

Unbreakable (Shyamalan, 2000) - A simple, focused narrative construct, with the intensity & tonal commitment necessary to keep me hooked in.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - An opera of slow revelations, of tragic loss & partial recovery of the soul, against an endless desert backdrop.

Your Highness (2011) - Fun, vacuous vehicle for Danny McBride's crude sense of humor. Props to Courtney, one of the greatest sidekicks ever.

Inferno (1980) - Dario Argento weaves a demented doomsday tale of supernatural forces. Full of slow, lurking suspense & unhinged set-pieces.

13 Assassins (2011) - A samurai adventure hijacked by bleak, bloody, degrading medieval brutality. A tortured, vicious, un-heroic hero story

Wild at Heart (1990) - Flailing, fragmented, and twisted, but fairly straightforward compared to Lynch's later films. And Nic Cage nails it.

The Bird People in China (1998) - poignant, lyrical film about the smallness of human lives against the enduring stories of cultural memory.

Night of the Hunted (1980) - surreal, chilling, & sexual: intriguing, but annoyingly close to depicting actual mental illness as evil force.

Vampyres (1975) - A sometimes-silly erotic horror film that still manages to create a compelling setting and a sense of sensuality and dread

-41 - 50-

Cache (2005) - Unsettling, deadpan thriller, very modern in sensibility, clamped over issues (political, social, moral) that go a mile deep.

Midnight Cowboy (1969) - Voight and Hoffman in a platonic romance that competes with Taxi Driver for urban grit, but remains human in scope.

Barry Lyndon (1975) - never seen somebody balance epic romance with dry amusement like Kubrick. Oh, and the photography is beyond brilliant.

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1976) - a meditation on love, the sublime, & self-destruction in the shadow of an endless ocean

Annie Hall (1977) - Heartfelt, inventive, distinguished by its lovable cynicism. Has the inscrutable touch of a brilliant emerging filmmaker

The Holy Girl (2004) - a subtle story: childhood faith and adolescent sexuality meet adult perversion. Cinematography you could get lost in.

Do the Right Thing (1989) - A rare film, both warm and cynical: jovial camaraderie, barely suppressing an undertone of reactionary violence.

Restrepo (2010) - Walks a gritty knife-edge between callous and sentimental. An eye-opening window into the way war reshapes the human mind.

The Mist (2007) - A menacing build-up overflows into an epic, devastating climax. The muscular apocalyptic paranoia is vintage Stephen King.

The Iron Giant (1999) - Luminous animation, with the kind of charm you expect of an old movie. A feat of imagination, flawlessly translated.

-31 - 40-

Time of the Wolf (2003) - Harrowing vision of an untamed, barren world - but with a touch of gentleness & determination. My favorite Haneke.

Tenebre (1982) - A respectable work of art, with some genuinely terrifying and surreal sequences, locked in a swinging new-wave time capsule

28 Days Later (2002) - Brilliant because it succeeds in being methodical, sympathetic, & character-driven first, and only then a horror film

Emperor of the North (1973) - Both gritty and magical, the roughest railroad-weary fairy tale I can imagine. Full of great 1930's shit-talk.

Kwaidan (1964) - four sad, claustrophobic ghost stories, staged in small expressionist spaces that feel like the inside of a disturbed mind.

Harakiri (1962) - a film that's slow-burning, but genuinely angry, culminating in a burst of violence in the face of silence and oppression.

Red Desert (1964) - A movie of modernity as emotional paralysis & lethargy. Haunting, in its way: stifling, neurotic, & visually captivating

Black Swan (2010) - Beautifully-lensed, unbalanced film of the torturous process of relinquishing control; striking in its fixated restraint

Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) - oblique and callous; a strange puppeteer's parade of dead souls on a jaunt through the real world

Come Drink With Me (1966) - The over-the-top theatrics make this 60's kung-fu classic a curiosity; the sick female heroine makes it awesome.

-21 - 30-

The White Ribbon (2009) - A knot of malice gathering slowly on an historical stage; this makes its relative banality strikingly suspenseful.

My Young Auntie (1981) - goofy theatrical kung-fu, like Crouching Tiger meets Three Stooges. This genre has a tone that's truly distinctive.

Chungking Express (1994) - A fluid tale of love losing itself in a big city. Delicate, meditative story with razor-sharp and dynamic visuals

The Exterminating Angel (1962) - surrealism made suspenseful, addictive, & captivating; evokes giddy helplessness, like temporary paralysis.

Samurai Rebellion (1962) - Quiet & relentless; dripping with the angst of a mannered political society barely suppressing its violent urges.

Lone Wolf & Cub 2 (1972) - Fragmented, less scenic, with a heavy emphasis on explosive violence - balanced by surprisingly poignant moments.

Lone Wolf & Cub 1 (1972) - Striking mix of feudal Japanese atmosphere and 70's exploitation violence; definitely feels like a genre classic.

Venus in Furs (1969) - Great film. A sexually-charged near-death fever dream, endearingly self-important, but chilled out enough to earn it.

The Last Winter (2006) - A good psychological/suspense/madness horror movie, undermined by fragments of a bad monster movie late in the game

Solaris (1972) - Lots of exposition, but a well-wrought love story, subverted by the unease of loving a facsimile of reality... all in space

-11 - 20-

Night and Fog (1955) - Resnais contrasts concentration camps with post-war ruins. Full of images that tore me apart. Difficult but profound.

Onibaba (1964) - Dark, sinister, beautiful footage in the reeds. Barely supernatural, but full of a sense of menace lurking just offscreen.

Pineapple Express (2008) - Like a conversation with a stoner... You could get caught up in it, or just caught in it. Franco made it worth it

Flesh and the Devil (1926) - Epic tale of love and loyalty; an intriguing, endearingly maudlin romanticization of desire and self-deception.

L'avventura (1959) - a mellow, melodramatic journey through the sad, guilty process of forgetting a lost friend & lover; captivating visuals

Last Year at Marienbad (1961) - alluring recursive mystery, illusions of depth crafted from surface reflections; already a personal favorite

Visions of Light (1992) - A film giving a voice to the image-makers; for such a history of experimentation, it's almost too straightforward.

To Live and Die in LA (1985) - Heavily dated style & music, but the cynicism, hung over the traditional buddy-cop framework, is cutting-edge

Ivan's Childhood (1962) - A dreamy, powerful, ethereal war film on par with Malick's Thin Red Line; also, a pure cinematography masterpiece.

The Last Command (1928) - Slippery, self-conscious, and layered; big ideas for a silent movie, making it (arguably) an early postmodern text

-1 - 10-

The Devil's Backbone (2001) - A historical horror fable, with attention to the microcosmic effect of terror and tyranny in an enclosed space

The American (2010) - Lonely thriller for action fans who want something unusually beautiful and meditative - intelligent & easy on the eyes

Code Unknown (2000) - Cryptic multi-threaded film from Haneke -- makes me feel like I'm missing something very important & should dig deeper

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) - A messy (revisionist) historical action mystery with intriguing gothic stylings. Superficial but satisfying

The Mission (1986) - All-star cast of brooding men makes epic adventure feel strong & sincere, but I feel like it could have used more drama

Late Spring (Ozu, 1949) - slow drama chronicling the tensions within a family, reflecting social change; a sublime cinematic zen meditation.

The Killing (Kubrick, 1956) - Jim Thompson's brilliant writing, plus twisted loyalties and tragic betrayals, make for a palatable retro noir

The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959) - Frank and melancholy saga of youth inadvertently gone wrong; charmingly sentimental, stylish in its honesty

The Piano Teacher (Haneke, 2001) - Twisted, cynical, and insightful -- a film whose perversity makes more sense than we might like to admit.

Heat (Michael Mann) - A+ blend of epic & personal, heightened by intense, unsentimental depiction of violence. Subjective,realistic,powerful

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Who are you Nicholas Cage?

A memo inspired partly by my friend Eric's open letter to N.C.

Dearest Nick, the dorky dad of the action pantheon, how do you end up in these situations? Stealing cars, unhijacking airplanes, riding motorcycles under an undead sky. This is such a different man from the guy I see before me... a guy whose droll face says, "I just got home from a long day, I need a few minutes on the couch"... a guy whose arch-nemesis is simply the daily grind, whose epic victory is cracking a joke for his kids when they get home from school, asking them inane questions over a family dinner.

So who in God's name convinced you to put on a suit of chain mail and run off for the crusades? Another actor could sell this as an impulsive act of piety; from you, it seems more like a midlife crisis, prolonged by the interminable travel time to the Middle East... a long road trip with your drinking buddy Felsom, who seems much better cut out for this type of thing, though he's much less serious about it.

Here's the thing, Nicholas -- I've seen you play this character before... a man on a long journey, not sure where he went wrong. There too you were crushed by the guilt of a needless murder, by your own brutality at a moment of release. The only difference: at that time, you were on an airplane instead of a horse, and the demon presiding over the carnage was a man named Cyrus the Virus. You strayed far from your wife and daughter, but at least they were there to ground your clumsy army-guy eccentricities.

That grounding is the anchor that makes you SO GOOD -- so recognizable, so perfectly plausible -- every once in a great while, in one movie out of every ten.  Like that time you saved San Francisco from a rogue faction on Alcatraz... you weren't there because you were some sort of master thief or daredevil motorcyclist. You were there because you were a respectable government-employed toxicologist, and they needed someone with your expertise in the field. Never mind that your wife was bizarrely smokin' hot... that happens sometimes, to friendly, awkward, well-compensated professionals.

And there was also that one time, when you dressed yourself and your foul-mouthed daughter up like superheroes and went on a jaunt to ravage the criminal underground. It was just right, because it was YOU -- an awkward dad at heart, a family man who learned his manners in the 50's. A guy whose devotion and insecurity drove him to do unforgivable things.  You were no Bruce Wayne, with all his playboy sex appeal to compliment his amateur vigilante-ism.  You put on the costume because you wanted to indulge your own boyish fantasies, rather than somebody else's.

And like it or not, Nicholas, those characters are you. You've grown out of those edgy early days, when you were putty in the hands of David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, and the elder Coppola. So now that you should be inhabiting dramas and dramedic Oscar contenders, like Clooney has settled into doing, you've instead devoted yourself to wandering around Hollywood looking for that lost inner Jason Statham, aggressively miscasting yourself as an elite action star. Your career, like the lives of your characters, is a permanent mid-life crisis.

And this leaves the rest of us split, tortured, deciding whether to scoff at you or shake your hand... whether to hope that you grow up... or pray that you ride this quixotic motorcycle into the ground, forever content to pursue characters outside your nature and against everyone's better judgment.