Sunday, December 30, 2012

Django Unchained: Opinions, Reactions, Critiques and Reflections

If I were a movie reviewer, I'd describe my reaction to Django Unchained as follows: it was an intense movie with a lot of great moments, some funny, some poignant, and some satisfying in the way that a good action movie is satisfying: sudden, climactic, and cathartic. Is there a word for that? Anyway, those strengths are just enough to outweigh the fact that the film is stretched out and paced and plotted in such a way that it wears out its welcome. The theatrical violence and racism are exciting and indulgent for the first hour and a half, and the bloodbath and Candieland really tops it off, but it becomes exhausting by the time Jamie Foxx's genitals make their appearance. By the end, I was numb to the film's strengths, and honestly eager for it to end. It had already spent all its momentum by then.

This might be the rare film that's better in a home-viewing environment, rather than the theater. At home, you can let off steam by yelling at the screen, making remarks to your friends, or getting up and getting food. It would make the film feel less insistent, like it was leading you on through its twists and turns, rather than jabbing spurs into your sides and yelling in your ear. I might like to see it again, once it's out on Blu-Ray. I think it would benefit from a second viewing in a slightly different context.

Despite being overlong and sometimes toilsome, the film doesn't lack for substance, and I did detect an honest consideration of racial issues, rather than frivolous postmodern regurgitation of provocative material. Candieland is a vivid symbol for the collusion of wealth, power, violence, and tradition in the racist fabric of American history. Django himself embodies a racial fury that echoes forward (or back, I guess) through the black panthers, Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's Native Son, and a whole succession of hip-hop, jazz, slam poetry, and political discourse. Perhaps it's fitting that at the end of the film, Django has found his identity as a vengeful outlaw, rather than as a law-abiding citizen of the enlightened North.

Christoph Waltz's character is fascinating, as well, forming the third part of the Django/Calvin/Schultz triad. Schultz is the kind of immigrant that has always made the United States what it is, an idealist who's been shaped in equal parts by his native culture and by the American experience. He fights for Django's freedom, but he does so in an idealistic spirit, an enemy of the idea of slavery, as much as he is a friend and mentor to Django. His idealism is encouraging, but as the plot reveals, it is also suicidal: it acts on emotional impulses, turning minor slights and symbolic offenses into massive, bloody conflicts. If Schultz had really seen Django's agenda as his own, and had considered Broomhilda's rescue as a victory, he would have shaken Candie's hand and headed off into the sunset. His final act of defiance revealed that he was a slave to pride, not to necessity.

The discussions about race and discourse that have been occurring subsequent to the film are colorful and volatile, as should be expected. On Razor Horizon, Joel Randall hits pretty much all the beats, claiming that it's part of a long history of hip racism in Tarantino's films, revealing a perverse fascination with black Otherness. Of course, Spike Lee is the most visible opponent of the film's language, as Spike tweeted, not having yet seen the film in question.

I have a gut response to Spike Lee that I have to get out before I go on. Spike is entitled to an opinion, but is anybody entitled to such an uninformed opinion? Simultaneously nursing such a strong reaction, but also refusing to see the film, and then pronouncing a judgement via Tweet... it seems vaguely passive-aggressive and pathologically defensive to me. I would have seriously appreciated a well-reasoned critique from Spike, as provided by Joel Randall, above. It could have been a much more savage take-down than his twitchy Twitter response, had it been backed by some actual insight into the film itself. But for that, he would have to see the film, either by paying to watch it in the theater, or by requesting a promotional copy, from the studio or from Quentin himself. Or by pirating it.

So, in my search for other reactions, I get to read things like Steven Boone's interesting reaction piece in PressPlay, in which he discusses his own feelings about the N-word and his valuation of Spike Lee's career against Tarantino's. And reading the piece, and the comments, stirs up all those doubts and irresolvable confusions that discussions of race and power always seem to entail. For others, especially non-whites and non-Christians and non-cisgendered-males, but even for me, a standard-bearer of the American race/gender hegemony.

Of course, I still understand the counterpoint, the ugly scent of absurd unfairness that a film like this gives off, directed by a mass-marketed white man who often presents himself with a shrill, sanctimonious air. One of the liberal parts of me -- the part that twitches and shudders thinking of Daniel Tosh -- wants to write Boone's article off as contrived apologism that misses the emotional core of the controversy. But one of the comments defends the film in simpler terms, and I think, before it can be pronounced as vile and opportunistic, it has to be glimpsed in those terms, at least for a moment. That comment is from Bryan Hill, and the relevant section is as follows:
'The fact is that DJANGO UNCHAINED is the most expensive and most mainstream film depicting the horrors of slavery in the history of American filmmaking. It has a black hero. A black heroine. An unflinching look at violence (psychological and physical) and a bonafide superstar playing a slave owner. As a cultural achievement, it's remarkable. "Django Freeman" is the kind of black hero most black storytellers (me included) wouldn't dare to think they could get Hollywood-land to finance, and Tarantino spent his political-cultural capital to do it. In the theatre, my wife and I constantly looked at each other during the film sharing the silent sentiment: "Wow. They did this." I imagine that has to hurt Lee personally. Even with Denzel by his side, Hollywood would never finance DJANGO from him.'
For me, this is underlined, at the very least, by the fact that Django Unchained is serious and sickening at the right moments. A lot of mook deaths are played for laughs, but the physical and psychological torture of the slaves is always sobering and uncomfortable. If white people are allowed any freedom to take an unflinching look at racism and slavery and at the white cultures and institutions they've seeded -- and I'd be hard to convince otherwise, as long as progressivism still pushes us toward greater awareness of ourselves and our privilege -- then Tarantino's film deserves to be seen as an honest exploration of those issues. Tarantino and I are absolutely, irresolvably outside the black experience of history, but we have to find terms to examine it and even -- am I allowed to say this? -- relate to it. At some point, in some capacity, we have to scour that boundary between the black experience and the white experience. Blindness and disconnection from these issues, this inheritance of violence and these systemic social failures, is not an option.

If I get a chance, I may write another post about Django... specifically, about how Candie, Freeman, and Schultz form a triadic structure with some kind of symbolic or semantic weight. We'll see what I can come up with. I suppose I should watch Blazing Saddles and the original Django, huh? Factor in the most important reference points?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Twitter Movie Reviews, Volume 2: 1 year, 60 movies

Last December, I posted all my Twitter movie reviews from 2011. A couple people seemed to like it, so I did it again this year. Fewer movies, I'm afraid... I missed a couple, but all in all, I think I just didn't pump my Netflix queue so hard. I think I saw more in theaters, though... I didn't officially count, but if you want me to, I'll put in the time. Just raise your many voices in chorus.

For the record, each of these reviews is exactly 140 characters, including the title and date of the movie, and the punctuation. I use the final punctuation mark as a bit of latitude, and I sometimes throw in an "&" symbol to cut down on a couple characters. Those are my liberties. They make this bizarre project a little more feasible.

I think I'm getting better at writing them, all in all.

Also for the record! If you want to follow me, I'm @miksimum on Twitter. If you want to see last year's movies, that can be found here: Twitter movie reviews, volume 1.

Numbers 51 - 60

The Hobbit (2012) - Jackson's latest tries hard & hits the right beats, but its pace and tone are hampered by overwriting and overproduction

Killing Them Softly (2012) - Bad attitude and lustrous photography, another pornographic entry in Hollywood's endless American outlaw legend

Django Unchained (2012) - Tarantino's latest is propulsive & full of great moments, but it's long enough that it eventually becomes toilsome

Reign of Fire (2002) - So damn committed to its core idea - blasted wasteland, tortured heroes - every bad action movie should be this bold.

Lincoln (2012) - A picturesque, balanced portrayal of Lincoln's struggle, lovingly acted, slightly stunted by a few flat, overwrought scenes

House of Flying Daggers (2004) - A hallucinogenic vortex of vivid colors and plot twists that becomes thick and hypnotic by the final notes.

When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003) - A beautiful, sometimes overwrought film about the contrasts between reality and the fantasy of heroism

Skyfall (2012) - It's striking to see a rugged, stripped-down action film that's been shot so beautifully, with such love for color & space.

Ichi (2008) - An edgy riff on Zatoichi, often hacky, but with some beautiful pensive moments, and blessed with two vivid, compelling heroes.

Swordsman II (1992) - This cultish martial-arts tangle of loyalties and indiscretions is brisk and light, but gets rather tiring by the end.

Numbers 41 - 50

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - A fun and honest movie, but Wes Anderson is burrowing so deeply into his own preoccupations it might be unhealthy.

Looper (2012) - A tight, brilliant actioner, wrapping up tenderness and brutality into a stylish two-hour pipe bomb. Truly exemplary sci-fi.

Children of the Corn (1984) - Odd and unnerving, but would have been scarier if it had focused on more intimate moments of madness and fear.

Paris, Texas (1984) - A gorgeous, pulsing, elegiac movie whose climax, a nostalgic conversation in a stripper booth, is surprisingly moving.

The Gate (1987) - An edifying, monster-ridden teen horror antique that rapidly tilts between comically juvenile and unexpectedly disturbing.

Seven Psychopaths (2012) - Fun, well-written gonzo crime movie whose only fault is that its self-consciousness distracts from its characters

Pontypool (2009) - Smart, offbeat zombie movie that takes an intriguing premise and spins it into a gratifying truffle of playful creepiness

Jubilee (1978) - A crass, messy film: has a couple great personalities, but seems to let pacing & craft get lost in its penchant for anarchy

The Master (2012) - A claustrophobic, gently turbulent relationship film, elevated by excellent performances and chemistry between the leads

Reds (1981) - A sprawling and beautiful romance, a story of love's fullness and desire for change, troubled by the empty gravity of ideology

Numbers 31 - 40

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) - This engrossing showcase of untreated resentments makes for an almost masochistic viewing experience

Redline (2009) - Frenetic, slapstick anime action, a mindless explosion of nitro science-fiction suspense to keep you distracted for a while

The Painted Veil (2006) - The story and sentimentality are a bit perfunctory, but the breathtaking landscapes and subtle acting are worth it

Attack the Block (2011) - Polished roughness & neon lights make for a smart, effective invasion film that really capitalizes on its premise.

Kill List (2011) - A shrill, unhinged hitman drama that turns into a queasy horror film. Methodically ambiguous, full of venom and nastiness

The Hunter (2011) - Austere action/survival movie w/ a touch of romantic heroism; good suspense, but makes more promises than it can fulfill

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) - Heavy and rank in atmosphere; whimsical, mythical, and touching in resonance. A rich and beautiful film

Mystery Train (1989) - A romantic film, even in the parts without romance; enigmatic, punctuated by hard knocks, gratifying in its variation

The Savages (2012) - Morally compromised fable of drug dealers at war for the love of a shared woman. Frivolous and full of great chemistry.

Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) - Fractured, morbid, strangely beautiful tale(s) of the desolate Midwest in the 1890s, eating itself from within

Numbers 21 - 30

Natural Born Killers (1994) - A dubious study in desensitized insanity & stylistic excess. Imperfect, but has some blunt-trauma poetry to it

Streetcar Named Desire (1951) - Pitch-perfect realization of a complex, brilliant theater piece. Brando and Leigh's chemistry is devastating

Prometheus (2012) - Misses some beats, but has enough epic tones and frightening & sublime moments to qualify it as a cinematic achievement.

Melancholia (2011) - A languid, despondent ballet of multi-dimensional characters, caught up in crises that cut to the bone of who they are.

Snow White & The Huntsman (2012) - Beautiful, overserious, & relentlessly tonally committed; take a grain of salt w/ your bite of this apple

Metropolitan (1990) - A dry, affable comedy in which a young BoBo spends 2 hours trying to be serious about things he realizes are tiresome.

The Catechism Cataclysm (2011) - A bizarro angry prank of a film, a buddy story put through the meat grinder of a cruel, absurdist universe.

Return to Oz (1985) - Like a lower-end Labyrinth, often overwhelming, but interspersed with deliciously surreal and cunningly poetic details

Network (1976) - A brilliant, convoluted film without any strong ethical center of gravity... a prose-poem of soul-sickness and gamesmanship

Meek's Cutoff (2010) - A film about a collision of spontaneous wisdom and calculated foolishness, blunted by a numbness born of deprivation.

Numbers 11 - 20

The Avengers (2012) - Perfectly-crafted & primally compelling, an astonishing construction of character, conflict, celebrity, and spectacle.

Transsiberian (2008) - A twisted thriller, where the characters' true natures emerge sinuously from the closed chambers & barren landscapes.

5 Year Engagement (2012) - Insightful romcom follows a long relationship that goes through such slow, dramatic swings, it feels almost epic.

Cabin in the Woods (2012) - Rube Heisenberg Machine of horror tropes and deconstructions. Short on scares, but fascinating and unpredictable

The Hunger Games (2012) - A bit simplistic at times, but creates such a frigid, unsettling emotional landscape, I can't help but admire it.

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) - A flawed but endearingly earnest rom-com, smartly written, with sharp natural chemistry between the male leads.

Drive (2011) - A mesmerizing & subversive post-noir fairy tale, casting a meditative trance and then shattering it with ferocious brutality.

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) - A meditative ballet of obsession, submission, and wounded nostalgia, intimate to the point of being unsettling.

Ladyhawk (1985) - No-frills high fantasy romance, full of great characters, beautifully acted. Like Princess Bride without the self-mockery.

Habit (1995) - A meditation on addiction & alienation within a close-knit community; crass, sexy, and true to the spirit of lower Manhattan.

Numbers 1 - 10

28 Weeks Later (2007) - More calculated than the original, and less sympathetic. Still intense, but could have used more intimacy and focus.

The Perfect Host (2010) - A cheeky, offbeat, unpredictable psychological thriller; full of personality, mischievously oblique on plot points

Chronicle (2011) - Not flawless, but bold, earnest, and well-acted. A study in adolescent male bonding, wrapped in a tasty superhero morsel.

There Will Be Blood (2007) - Fearlessly performed. "It's not the oil, or the money, or the religion that are evil. It's the men themselves."

Misery (1990) - Grit-teeth claustrophobia with a small-town Stephen King soul, made scarier by an incredible and unfathomable Annie Wilkes.

Limits of Control (2009) - Call it pretentious, but I thought it was a radically beautiful, archetypal accounting of the artist's inner life

The Nude Vampire (1970) - A paranoid and voyeuristic film, all stalking and dark corridors. Earns points for attempting such a ballsy ending

Secret of the Urn (1966) - Dark samurai clown show where only the common criminal is redeemable. Even the protagonist is mostly contemptible

Game of Death (1978) - Sadly inept & inert. At least I got to see Bruce Lee's yellow track suit. Maybe I should try The Chinese Connection?

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol (2011) - Big set pieces, action tempered with slapstick. Swift, rhythmic cimena that doesnt jerk us around

Friday, December 07, 2012

Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal, and another lesson in jokes about rape

I wanted to touch, again, on one of the little hang-ups in the whole "rape humor" controversy. I know the saturation point for this topic is WAY below the volume of material being churned out, and pretty much everyone who's given it any thought it dug into their point of view and sick of any further discussion. Still, each time I come up with a new angle on it, anything I think might be useful trying to sort out their own ethical position, I'm going to throw it out there where people can get to it.

Last time this came into my purview, it was the Daniel Tosh incident and the subsequent commentary by Louis CK. I've learned since then, largely via this article: it's also come up for Rainn Wilson, who is a very conscientious and self-aware entertainer; and that Two Broke Girls, which I've never seen and don't have that much interest in, apparently has a hat in the ring of this controversy, as well. And even as I was writing this, there was a little burst of controversy about FHM making a casual joke about rape victims in the middle of a tongue-in-cheek fashion advice piece. Clearly this is a raw, red, touchy, twitching, swollen nerve center on the butt-cheek of public discourse.

The big vortex of controversy today comes courtesy Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, who found himself swamped in a ton of shit for a throw-away line in one of his recent comics. The final panel – the one that's no longer there – said something to the effect of, "The F5 key = The rape victim: 'The Internet is not behaving as expected! I must now violate you over and over and over again!'" As of this writing, it can be found here:

Now, upon getting broadsided by a barrage of criticism, Inman made a typical move that we should recognize from other similar cases: he lashed out in self-defense, replacing that offending panel with a bratty editorial snark, found here: Just for the record, he has since taken this down and issued a more thoughtful response, so read all this with the understanding that I'm still a fan and I appreciate his mindfulness.

As I've said before, this is the first, biggest mistake when facing a battlefront of critics. You don't give voice to your first self-righteous reaction. It will only amplify the anger, escalate the conflict, and thereby fully trivialize the larger issue. Penny Arcade, Michael Richards, Daniel Tosh... all of these major "offensive comedian" controversies happened because the comedians saw their provocative material as some kind of territory that should be defended against critics, and they ended up losing any diplomatic perspective whatsoever. In contrast, consider Rainn Wilson's simple response, which allowed him to get out from under the hate almost immediately. Rainn is not, and will not become, an icon of anti-feminism to anyone out there in the activist community.

But there's another tangent I want to follow before I shrug my shoulders and say, "There goes another one." In his faux-apology, Inman seems to think he's being criticized simply because he used the word Rape, and that every use of the word is now policed and shut down. If he was paying any attention, he would know that this isn't true. Even in comedy, some people mention rape and it goes unpunished, and even appreciated. The question is, what was it in Inman's particular case? What unique lesson might he learn here?

It's not that complicated, honestly, and it holds consistently across all the cited examples: Penny Arcade, Rainn Wilson, Daniel Tosh. And it contrasts mightily with other cases, like Louis CK and Sarah Silverman, who can get away with joking about rape without being shouted down for it. What triggers the outrage is that Inman (and PA and Tosh) seemed to use "rape" as a punchline because it's the first damn thing they thought of, and they just blurted it out. It was a simple "so provocative!" verbal cue that made whatever they were talking about funny by default.


Rape is an actual thing, with very serious cultural and psychological implications for a ton of people. It is not a good thing, ethically or pragmatically, that it's a de facto punchline, funny just because it makes people gasp and giggle. It's especially dangerous that, in a certain way (and I know this is debatable), it's a little winking reminder to violent, abusive people that their power is feared, accepted, and trivialized by our culture... i.e. by everybody around them, who are content to laugh at rape jokes without actually considering their content. Look, I'm not a sociologist. But I know a sociological issue when I see one.

The point is, don't throw rape around as a punchline because it's easy, and it's the first thing you think of, and it's easy shorthand for "abuse, but funnier!" That's what all those outraged, screaming PC police are trying to tell you. Talk about rape, and make jokes while you're doing it, but when "rape" is some kind of punctuation mark that makes people laugh reflexively, that's a problem. Don't be the asshole comedian who makes it worse.

To his credit, Inman has issued a much more solemn apology later, indicating that he had actually thought about the issue and didn't want to lock himself into being a dismissive douche about it. For a while, he retweeted the criticisms of his comic... at first in defiance, I think (I could be wrong), but eventually it seemed to become a form of penance. Personally, I think Inman has paid his dues, and has settled upon a wise and well-considered response to all that controversy, and deserves to continue his gross, hilarious, extensive comic production unmolested.

Self-awareness: it's the new S-M-R-T.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

JRR Tolkien and a Long-Expected Journey

"'Well, now we're off at last!' said Frodo. They shouldered their packs and took up their sticks, and walked round the corner to the west side of Bag End. 'Good-bye!' said Frodo, looking at the dark blank windows. He waved his hand, and then turned and (following Bilbo, if he had known it) hurried after Peregrin down the garden-path.They jumped over the low place in the hedge at the bottom and took to the fields, passing into the darkness like a rustle in the grasses." 
The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 3: Three Is Company

My mom’s finally moving out of the house where I grew up, from ages 9 to 21, to downsize her life and make her expenses and lifestyle more manageable. She deserves the break, especially now that we, her children, are fully engaged in the process of making our own lives and establishing our own households. Still, the bite of change stings a little when you clean out the attic, or when you walk down the hall and see everything cleaned up and dusted off for the eyes of potential buyers. This is your youth, suddenly repackaged and commodified. This is farewell to that vain hope that someday you might be able to return to this sanctuary, a time and a place that wasn't laden with the demands and frustrations of adulthood.

Cleaning the attic was the foremost item on the agenda over Thanksgiving, and I ran across the traces of many childhood amusements and escapes… decks of tarot cards, old comic books, photographs of best friends and first loves. The whole effort was sustained by our nostalgia, our sense of personal history in watching these things pass before us to go to other storage, or thrift stores or trash cans. Every time you handle an object that you haven’t touched in a decade, you feel the texture and permanence of your past, vibrating up through your fingers.

I was lucky, though. In the silt of farewell, I found the gold dust of rediscovery, a trace of an old interest that I could actually follow back to its source, at least for a moment. That was a small hoard of old maps, books, figurines, and calendars from my years of desperate, hopeless love for the work of JRR Tolkien. On some other recent visit, I had already rescued my whole Tolkien library – The Hobbit, the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and a third-party book called The Tolkien Bestiary. Now, over Thanksgiving, I rediscovered the accessories and artifacts that were pure Middle Earth fetish objects, free of the weight of words and commitment.

I think the calendars are the most personally poignant of these artifacts. There is a great history of wall calendars illustrated with scenes from Tolkien’s works, which I was collecting long before Peter Jackson’s three films came around to infect Tolkienism with the faces of celebrities. There was John Howe’s 2001 calendar, and 2002’s calendar illustrated by Ted Nasmith, both of which were engorged with rich, intense paintings… but these calendars already had a sort of concept-art feeling to them, with theatrically-staged, dramatically-lit images that seemed to gesture toward the films that were coming out around the same time.

The real treasure was a 1994 calendar, illustrated by Michael Kaluta, that was obviously the first Tolkien calendar I had ever owned. Kaluta’s images are wild, expressive drawings, toned with broad spreads of color, not given to dramatic gradients or realistic chiaroscuro. In every scene, some figure seems to be seized with the tremors of an inner demon, from Boromir at the Council of Elrond to the Orc at Helm’s Deep, thrashing in the ecstasy of battle, a sort of tortured non-sequitur who’s burst into the foreground of the layered landscape. Kaluta’s lines are sketchy and complex, and whether he paints mere figures or elaborate three-dimensional spaces, he seems to be working intensely in two dimensions, pressing pandemonium into the confines of the page, though it seems to spill back out at the edges.

Since last weekend, I’ve been struggling with the question: what do I do with them? Do I just scan every page? Do I rip out my favorites and hang them up in our front room? Do I store the ravaged calendars somewhere obscure around my place in Bushwick, so I can discover them again when we move to a new apartment? At any rate, I'd stopped drawing or painting for a while, and these calendars made me suddenly start thinking about it again.

Strange, isn't it, how a little encounter like that, a chance meeting with a few emotionally-charged artifacts, can cause sudden swerves and turbulence in the inertia of everyday life?

The other Tolkien artifact I found that struck me was a map of Middle Earth I had bought at some point, a big glossy spread folded like a highway map and tucked in a card-stock cover. It certainly wasn't as beautiful as Michael Kaluta's calendar, looking more like standard decorative art assembled to indulge a consumer fan base, but it's full of information -- exactly the thing to hook us fanboys -- and this is what drove me to stick it in my suitcase to take back with me to Brooklyn. This map had an interior, a network of references and entry points, constellations of associations and emotions encoded into place names. It made me want to go back to that world.

I'm very lucky, in this regard, that Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is coming out in fourteen days. I might have picked up the books anyway, but with this film coming into view on the horizon, it's like Middle Earth is beckoning me back, promising a festival in my honor. Jackson did an exceptional job of giving life to that world, better than any of us expected, and when I saw his Fellowship of the Ring back in 2001, I felt like I had already met the characters on the screen and already visited those places he had brought to life.

It's hard to believe it was that long ago. As Frodo left Bag End with the Ring in Jackson's adaptation, so I was leaving that home in Collegeville -- the same home that my mom's finally moving out of -- for my first year in college. Like Frodo, that was the end of my time as a steady resident of that particular household. For the past 11 years, I've been making new homes in new cities, carrying the wisdom of that old house with me into each new community. And mom is finally leaving that house, too, just as Bilbo is leaving The Shire in another Tolkien adaptation. It's uncanny how our lives and our stories echo one another.

So now, suddenly, I'm back to drawing and painting a little bit. More importantly, I'm back to reading Tolkien's stories, for the first time since I was 12... I started The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring simultaneously, intending to get through the first third of the former book before the movie comes out on December 14th (it turned out to be a very easy goal). Every night, before I go to bed, I feel those stirrings again -- the feeling of safety and habitation, as if my apartment was a little Hobbit hole in the Shire, and simultaneously, I feel a sense of displacement, like I'm lost in the great landscape of my own life, separated from the comforts of a childhood home. Both of those feelings resonate through these Tolkien books, alternating and colliding in my sentimental brain.

It's great that I can go back to the world of Middle Earth so easily. That's one of the great comforts of an imaginary universe... you can pick up the book, and you'll go right back there, to whatever degree you can abandon yourself to the story. My real childhood home, that house in Collegeville, won't be so easy to return to once somebody else owns it. As with Bilbo and Frodo when they left the Shire, I'll always hereafter be a stranger there. That home isn't an open door, eternally waiting for me in case I need to go back to being a sheltered 12-year-old fantasy nerd again. Rather, it's the bank of a river that I've had to cross on the way to kingdoms where I've had larger parts to play.

So, instead of counting on that home being there, a site for escape and nostalgia, it's up to me to carry it with me into the new homes that I create... my encampments and conquests in the strange land of adulthood, this new fantasy where I've lost myself once again.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Skyfall, a photographer's Bond, and the theme of obsolescence

There are times during Skyfall when I felt like Sam Mendes was scoffing at Marc Forster, his predecessor in the lineage of James Bond directors. By my reading, the film was thoroughly aware of the recent history of the franchise, not least because it linked the new Bonds to the very old ones in some trivial homages. But also, the film's didactic content -- its message of old and reliable methodology versus whiz-bang novelty and gimmicks -- is also a comment on the way the series has been going so far. Lucky for us, part of Sam Mendes's message required him to prove himself, and he did that by making a damn fine Bond film, on par with the excellent Casino Royale... kind of a rebuke to Quantum of Solace, which is fine by me.

An argument in the background of the film, the ground to the figure of chase scenes and assassinations, was the confrontation between M (Judy Densch) and the Board of Inquiry that was investigating her conduct in running MI6. Given that espionage and terrorism is largely conducted online in our modern age, the board asks M a practical question: does MI6 even need human agents at this point? In response, M argues for the continued human engagement and expertise that her agents (like Bond) can provide. This explicit argument is just a few token lines of dialogue in the film, but its implications resonate through the whole narrative, affecting its characters, its themes, and its progression and resolution.

This whole debate is, of course, underwritten by the strong presence of Q and Silva in the film. Q is Bond's new Quartermaster, is a young, precocious computer hacker who seems to feel that he can solve most problems from his control room. He regards agents as clumsy but necessary appendages: "Occasionally, a trigger must be pulled." Silva, the arch-villain of the film, is a vengeful ex-agent who turns out to rival Q in the realm of digital espionage. He uses YouTube as a medium to broadcast the identities of the MI6 agents around the world; he masks his own digital signature by hopping around remote servers; and he transforms his laptop into a sort of reconnaissance bomb that, upon being connected to the MI6 computers, takes them over and breaks open the compound's security systems.

Bond villains always have to seem superhuman; in this case, Silva is a dangerous combination of Q's high-level computer skills and Bond's unbelievable physical and social prowess. He is a strong parallel to Q, in that both of them seem to think they can rule the world by dominating it through their computer terminals. Q is fortunate in that for him, as opposed to Silva, being proven wrong by Bond doesn't mean getting killed.

These themes of Old-Busted-versus-New-Hotness are infused into a categorically excellent action movie, which is what a James Bond film really needs to be. What made Casino Royale so brilliant was its ferocious attitude and its groundbreaking action sequences; for Skyfall, the action is smart and serviceable, but not necessarily brilliant. We've all seen fights on top of trains; we've all seen arenas with unlikely creatures in them. We've all seen the Home Alone sequence where a house is rigged with traps. What's fucking fantastic about Skyfall is its visionary cinematography, its insistence that every scene look like a painting, with mesmerizing relationships between light and color and shadow, ballets of figures and silhouettes and backgrounds playing off one another. It's a photographer's Bond film. Were any of the old ones like that? I don't remember them well enough to say.

But how gorgeous was the empty office in Shanghai, surrounded by glass, with the pulsating monitor visible across the gulf outside?

And how perfectly composed was Silva, staggering over layered crests of pasture, barely illuminated by the flames of a burning mansion off in the distance?

How chilling were those shots of Bond suspended in a frozen lake, fighting to get to the surface as a henchman sank into the abyss below him?

Mendes brought his stylistic strengths fully to bear in this Bond film, and that turned out to interface neatly with the film's larger thematic issues. Quantum of Solace, the previous Bond film, was embodied in Skyfall by Silva and Q, who thought that high-tech, high-fidelity solutions were the way of the future. In case you don't remember (or didn't see it), Quantum of Solace was fatally sabotaged by its action sequences, which were totally incoherent, shot in a queasy shaky-cam style, with debris and flames flying by the camera and no respect for space or continuity. This is what you get when you invest a lot of your resources in equipment and post-production... quick effects, crane shots, tons of coverage, but no economy, continuity, or coherence. Marc Forster must have seen the Borne films and thought that style was a great fit for Bond. It turned out to make the film intolerable.

Bond represents Skyfall, the film itself, as a refutation of the Quantum aesthetic. Bond is a human element, running on cunning and judgment and loyalty, whose skill as an agent allows him to defeat Silva's vast resources and technical capabilities. Skyfall is the low-fi rejoinder to Quantum of Solace, showing fans that the way to make an excellent Bond film is through the traditional techniques of writing, pacing, and cinematography. Both Bond and Skyfall go back to fundamentals, and in being so goddamn good, they prove that the new Hotness can't replace the old standard... at best, it can build on top of it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

On The Road and the romance of American nostalgia

I've had the upcoming film On The Road, directed by Walter Salles, in my peripheral vision. Now, at last, there's a nostalgia-infused preview on the front page of iTunes trailers, and I get to sample the tone of the film. It's hard for me not to be sarcastic about it... in some ways, it's comitragically predictable, peddling an Instagram aesthetic that the world should surely be getting tired of by now. On the other hand, this seems to be a rare case where that Instagram aesthetic is actually appropriate, as opposed to those photos of your take-out sushi dinner from last night. There's something sad about that, and it's not just the disappointed annoyance that comes from seeing a stylistic gimmick repeated ad nauseum. This is more bittersweet than that, because this movie might actually be pretty good.

I base that hopeful assessment off the shallowest indicators, the cast and the photography in this useless little two-minute snippet. This film brings together two actors -- Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart -- who seem to be pursuing some sort of elusive 20th-century romanticism, and it's exactly the right film for them to come together in this endeavor. I like Sam Riley a lot, purely on account of the one film I've seen him in... the film Control, directed by Anton Corbijn and released in 2007. In case you don't know about this (it's a bit high on the hipster obscurity scale), it's a film about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the 80's goth punk band Joy Division. Sam Riley digs deep into Curtis's character, and discovers a pretty reprehensible human being, privately self-destructive and publicly poisonous. Anton Corbijn is an excellent photographer, and the film captures something singular about 1980's England and Manchester, about the decadent despondence in the angry counterculture that was active at the time.

Kristen Stewart is another matter, and I know she's the epicenter of a whole cottage industry of hatred. Still, she seems strikingly appropriate in On The Road, which is a fitting extension of her screen career. I'm going to go out on a limb here, and possibly offend a whole community of Kristen-haters, in order to suggest that Kristen Stewart is methodically and shrewdly constructing an acting persona which will give shape and resilience to her acting career. This persona is one of nostalgic American romance, and it links her historical roles (Joan Jett in Runaways) to her timeless youthful roles (Bella in Twilight, Em in Adventureland, and Tracy in Into The Wild). All these roles are sullen outsider teenagers with a baked-in awkwardness, which is also visible in Stewart's TV interviews. It's rapidly becoming clear that she can't break out of this style, and it will require a very dramatic rebirth as a performer for her to do anything much different.

If your criticism is that Stewart always just plays herself, I can't argue, but what of it? First of all, this persona is probably something she can sell... but also, like all things that people create, it's an aesthetic object, a big idea that makes a broad and meaningless career into something worthy of contemplation. I am reminded of James Dean, who cultivated a similar persona: impulsive, moody, emotionally naked, and beautiful. James Dean only really played himself, too, and like Kristen Stewart, he made himself into an idol by putting his "self" on display.

The idea of American romanticism through reckless youth and counterculture, explored in this film by these two actors... that idea poses a bigger question for me, a cultural critic who has an aesthetic interest in the American experience. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are the original symbols of this American mythology, along with Janice Joplin, Alan Ginsberg, and an ensemble of other cultural icons. Jack Kerouc is right up there with the best of them, and the On The Road trailer is full of all the moods and indulgences that call those times to mind: wide-eyed sentimentality, the suggestion of wild, soaring impulsiveness, and a dubious obsession with freedom and transcendence.

And what's sad about it is that this big idea sort of had a resurgence, and it's already been picked over and played out. Levi's has probably profited the most off it, with campaigns like "Go Forth"... in the last few years, it's also become totally ubiquitous in music videos, which have developed an obsession with the 60's and vintage cameras. Not that this is a complete waste... some of these music videos are admirable aesthetic artifacts (Keane's Silenced By The Night comes to mind), and others are perfectly respectable tributes to a generation's aspirations (Katy Perry's The One That Got Away). But it's been too much, too fast, and it's been reduced to elements that are too simple: dusty roads, yellow filters and lens flares, rope swings, bikini tops. What does all this stuff make you think of? What did the trailer for On The Road make you think of?

That's right. Instagram.

When I was first thinking about this, I thought maybe this is because my own generation is culturally impoverished. Why do we go back to symbols and kitch references to the 60's to capture the idea of freedom and youthful energy, if not to fill a void in our own culture, an empty gap where there should be some kind of joy and subversion and rebellion? Do we look to these vintage symbols because the youth of today have no symbols of their own? I was all ready to pen a rant about how sad that was.

It took me about ten minutes to realize that if I wrote that, I would just be imitating the cynical carping of people like the Frankfurt School, who I find kind of intolerable. The truth is, the rising energies of today's youth don't have that nostalgic glow because they're still happening, they haven't been appropriated and repackaged yet, and the ad hoc nature of improvised political and cultural activism isn't so easily summarized in winking photo filters and anachronistic fashion. It will be a few years -- or maybe a few decades -- before we have Occupy, hip hop, Silicon Valley, and the blogosphere boiled down to a set of convenient symbols for investing with nostalgia.

So that's a good thing, I guess. And yeah, it's still sad that those 60's frequencies are so commodified and played out, but as long as they're now available as part of our cultural vocabulary, I'm ready to see what directors like Walter Salles can do with them.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Mechanics of Time Travel and Humanity in Looper

Looper was excellent, I have to say. It deserves a place alongside the best dystopian time-travel films, 12 Monkeys and Primer, and in many ways, it compares favorably to them. It was stylish and earnest in equal measure, which is hard to pull off in our post-Tarantino era, and it was crafty and precise in its construction of an anachronistic gunmetal future.

It's hard to maintain, with any seriousness, that any film -- Looper included -- could challenge the merits of 12 Monkeys and Primer, which are both justifiably held up as the best, sharpest, most uncompromising films in the time-travel genre. Still, I think there's a case to be made that Looper is more subtle than either of these leaving more room for a larger view of humanity. To talk about that, though, I'll probably spend most of my time talking about those other two movies. As a bonus, at the end of this entry, there's a thorough explanation of how I think the time-travel rules work in Looper, accounting for all the "paradoxes" that some armchair critics get so hung up on.

Here's the thing about 12 Monkeys... in this film, there is a sense of complete helplessness on the parts of the main characters, as if fate is a storm they're caught up in (maybe I just have Sandy on my mind). For most of the film, James Cole is a confused, twitchy nutcase who can't seem to navigate basic social situations, much less act as an elite agent from the future. This mirrors the state of all the characters in the film, who don't really have much of a hold on their present or their future, and are at the mercy of the winds and waves of circumstance. After all, this is a strictly deterministic framework... everything that's happened must happen, even given the possibility of time travel. This kind of determinism leaves little room for humanity, except as an anxious, hopeless, and powerless little cloud of particles. For a science fiction movie with an impossible premise, this creates quite a harsh and inhospitable film.

Primer is very different, but frankly, not much better. These characters DO have agency... in fact, they're flush with it. Whenever they use their time-travel machine, they spawn a new universe, where things can go differently from their source timeline. This allows them to treat their world as a simulation, or a specimen under glass... going back in time, they're essentially hitting a reset button, or opening up the glass case, tweaking some conditions, and letting the whole thing play out again, now differently. By building larger time-travel chambers, they can go back further, and their simulation enlarges to include their previous selves. It's a baroque, cynical story of what would happen if humans were able to operate the universe like a computer, or a massive complex machine.

This is, in a sense, a perfectly INDETERMINIST universe, the opposite of 12 Monkeys. If a pair of humans can simply step outside the world, tweak a few switches (i.e. decide to place bets on certain stocks) and see how everything plays out, it suggests that there are no larger reasons, no absolute consequences, and no patterns that really hold, except by happenstance, meaningless collision, and mindless interaction. Whatever purpose or pathway the universe seems to have, people like Aaron and Abe can just step outside it. This is what gives the film its mechanical coldness... it's a drama of absolute agency, where the characters lose any of the resistance that allows them to assert their humanity.

(note: spoilers ahead, which gradually accumulate, until the whole movie will be ruined)

Looper manages to find a middle-path between these two options, which is why it can be cynical and sad and frightening, and also hopeful, with space for agency and heroism within the conditions created by fate and time-travel. In Looper, "fate" isn't deterministic... it's more like an attractor, or a gravitational force, pulling every iteration toward a certain path but still allowing divergence. Clearly, most versions of Joe outgrow Looperhood and travel the world, meet a certain woman, and then travel back in time. Most versions of Cid, unfortunately, become the Rainmaker. But at least one instance of Joe takes a different path, and at least one instance of Cid is saved from his fate.

This, I think, is where Looper is better than either of those other time-travel films. It creates a space for humanity, somewhere between fate and free will, and it does this without being too sappy or soft around the edges. That creates the space for a few incredible moments -- Cid's rage, Seth's torture and murder, Abe's weathered, blithe melancholy -- that really gave definition to Looper, really set it apart from its colder, more nihilistic cousins. It also manifests a much more palatable pop sensibility as a result.

As a bonus, I think Looper accomplishes this feat in a fluid, self-consistent way. This isn't obvious to everybody... lots of people got hung up on what they felt were "plot holes." As for me, on the contrary, I think, among all recent time travel movies, this is probably the most fun film to explain. I take it on faith that deep under all this convoluted plotting, there's some obscure set of rules that's self-consistent... that's the whole puzzle-game appeal of time travel movies, and at least for me, it's sufficient fuel for suspension of disbelief.

Now on to the explanation, for those who want a way to understand this film so that there are neat patches and bridges over its internal contradictions. If you were inclined to dislike the film because of its time-travel paradoxes, you probably won't buy this, because why should you be any more sympathetic to my suspension of disbelief than to your own? But if you want to like the film, but are hung up on the time travel paradoxes -- like, How does Seth come back in time as a capable middle-aged man, when his young self has been mutilated and possibly murdered? -- I think this way of understanding the rules of the world will do the job.


We start with the givens. Clearly time is not a deterministic, closed system, like 12 Monkeys... the whole action and resolution of the film belies this. So various parallel versions of the same timeline can be different. Also, there is a "first" timeline, where the Rainmaker is first traumatized, and a "final" timeline, where he's finally freed from his trauma. Those are just the initial premises.

So how can this all fit together? In this system, time runs more like an endless spiral than an actual straight line or closed circle. In the very first loop, Cid was traumatized by something else... his mother was killed by a vagrant, maybe. So he becomes the Rainmaker, and takes over the Looper system, and just closes loops whenever they're scheduled to close, not because of some vendetta. In THAT loop, Joe's wife is killed, and Joe goes back to try to prevent The Rainmaker's rise. That starts an infinite cycle of loops, like a spring, with each coil (i.e. loop) being basically identical, save for a few minor differences. Every time, by trying to save his wife, Old Joe kick-starts the Rainmaker's reign of terror, and each time, the Rainmaker tries to close all of the Loops... maybe to prevent his mother from dying, or maybe just out of vindictiveness toward the Loopers who took her.

This results in a psuedo-infinite, indeterminate number of loops, until eventually, one of the Young Joes realizes that the only way for him to end the cycle is to kill himself before he can create another Rainmaker.

In this schema, it's important to note: a change in one timeline can cause sudden, drastic effects in the neighboring timelines, like an Old Joe from a previous timeline suddenly disappearing when the new Young Joe commits suicide. But they don't retroactively negate every coil in the spring... they just cause a kink in a couple loops. That's why you can have an Old Seth, who lived his whole life as an able-bodied man, but who is suddenly, drastically affected by amputations carried out upon his Young Self in an adjacent timeline.

Working from this schema, the movie basically shows us three "coils" (loops). It shows us the very first loop, where Young Joe closes his own loop, then sails off to see the world and meet his wife. This loop ends with the rise of the Rainmaker, through some unexplained psychological trauma. The film also shows us the middle loop, which is repeated ad nauseam: when Old Joe appears, hoodless, Young Joe fails to close the loop. Young Joe then allows Old Joe to kill Sara. From there, Young Joe runs away, travels the world, and meets his wife; this is the loop that most of the film dwells in, and it's the loop we see concluded in Young Joe's imagination, with the murder of Sara. The film also shows us the final loop, which looks like the middle loop, except that Young Joe commits suicide before he can become Old Joe. All the timelines after that have no Rainmaker, and Cid grows up to become something more benevolent.

That's how I make everything fit together. Now that I'm through with that, I can get back to thinking about the moral and metaphysical philosophy that's on display here. Lucretius, anyone?!?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Love on the Inside : Jesse on Punk in the 90's

Berfrois published another of my written pieces, this time on punk in the 1990's. It even got retweeted by Fat Mike of NOFX (@FatMike_Of_NOFX), who called it a "Decent big worded essay." Here's part of the intro:
"Why should I want to write about the 90s? The world of music history, written by the consummate insiders at Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, seems to have concluded that punk happened in 1977, and that it left an aftertaste in the 80s, but had “died” by the time New Wave hit. Why write about the 90s in punk, the decade of fallout after the bomb had dropped and the dust had settled? Here’s why: that was my decade, and it happened. Punk was alive, and it was changing, and it was a centerpiece in all our lives, and it deserves to be remembered, fondly and harshly and nostalgically and in all its bitter glory. Those were my years. Why the fuck shouldn’t I write about it?"
From Love on the Inside / Our Own Shit Decade

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A short, unqualified celebration of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

I just saw Guy Ritchie's second Sherlock Holmes film, Game of Shadows, and I liked it way more than I was expecting. I think I found its wavelength, which consisted of... lots of texture, lots of chaos, lots of inky blue shadows, judo buffoonery, and dialogue that straddled the line between clownish and whip-smart. Unlike with some other, "better" movies -- Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises, for instance -- I was only hung up on the wild implausibilities for about five minutes. Then the shockwave of the film's momentum picked me up and carried me all the way to the end, and I still feel it, here at 2 AM.

There were a few aspects that were integral to the feeling of the film, and this feeling -- its shape and offbeat tactile quality -- are part of what made it work so well. First of all, Guy Ritchie maintains his tone meticulously, coating everything in that gritty texture, firing off a barrage of visual references to that industrial revolution technology, knocking the audience around like machine gun shells. I think Guy Ritchie makes Zach Snyder's speed ramping work even better than Snyder does, because he uses it to exaggerate the effect: a moment of stillness in the midst of chaos, the skin and bone and fragments of debris, letting go of focus on the bodies and using the suspension to let us get lost in the chaos of pure sensation. When Snyder does it, he's so hung up on peoples' positions, their muscular bodies and spatial arrangements... it makes the whole thing feel more like a diorama, rather than a freeze-frame from an exploding camera.

Within this aesthetic, Game of Shadows was a mad burlesque of violence, played out by superhuman characters at the margins of European politics. This epic, elevated subterfuge worked wonderfully, too... reminiscent of James Bond, who was always sort of a peak-performance ubermensch, but who always seemed like the only true player in the games he was always winning. In Game of Shadows, on the other hand, there was a whole ensemble of these high-end superspies, all of whom possessed uncanny instinct, incredible technical abilities, elite fighting expertise, and incredible competence in intrigue and sabotage. There were at least 5 or 6 of them... Holmes himself, and Moriarty, his eternal enemy, are the twin peaks of the pyramid, but the supporting cast -- Watson, Simza, Irene Adler, and Colonel Sebastian -- were all mythic in their capabilities. Even the less physical of the side-characters, Mary Watson and Mycroft Holmes, seemed to take on a glow of incredible power.

There's something elegant and beautiful about these super-agents, all maneuvering within the volatile world of late Victorian politics in Europe. This was an age in the midst of revolutions, resistance movements, and subtle politics between rapidly-developing nations. It's the perfect place for intrigue and scheming, and a fertile field for the kind of violent game that Holmes and Moriarty are playing. I have doubts as to whether the original Holmes novels had quite this feeling of Mission Impossible-level international conspiracy. It's certainly not something I've ever seen before, at least in this pseudo-historical steampunk context.

Knowledge of the history of the period makes Moriarty's ominous remark about the inevitability of industrial warfare... a prophecy of the brutality of World War II... all the more potent.

Of course, this wouldn't matter if the individual moments had fallen flat, but they didn't. Both of the private meetings between Moriarty and Holmes -- first in Moriarty's office, and then on a balcony in Switzerland -- were brilliant, these moments of pure confrontation in the midst of all the machinations and evolving conspiracies. In each of these scenes, Moriarty reveals himself as a person who's dangerous not because he's super-intelligent (though he is that), but because he's perfectly devoid of morals. As the audience, we feel his threats toward Watson prick us like knives, and in these moments, we understand the rush of fear that even Sherlock Holmes must feel in facing this adversary.

There was also something magical and compelling about seeing Holmes and Moriarty work out their final battle in their heads, flawlessly anticipating each thrust and parry, like Deep Blue working out every move in a chess match according to a pattern of perfect optimization. The echoes of chess and computation, the feeling that we're immersed in a grand Difference Engine calculating every possible outcome, echoes throughout the film, giving it an additional dimension that makes it even better.

This is the first time in a while that I felt the need to write about a film immediately after seeing it... and it might be the first time that's ever happened with a movie I watched casually on Video On-Demand. Kudos, Guy Ritchie... I think this is some of your best work.

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Fiction of Politics: Sweet Home Alabama and American Beauty

I suspect that most of my small audience is liberal types, media and design and art and culture people who identify strongly with things like academia, city life, secularism, and technocracy. In case you haven't noticed from previous posts, this blog comes from that framework, as well. I think it's important to step back and reflect on those things once in a while.

I rarely notice politics in film, except when I'm watching a documentary (those tend to make open statements on politically charged ideas), or when the politics are farted clumsily into the story as a bunch of generic devices (see: The Dark Knight Rises, Avatar). I suspect I frequently miss the broader political assumptions of films I'm watching. Sometimes, the politics only surface at the broad philosophical level, with frameworks that have political implications... like "war is the way to solve the tough problems," "business people are greedy," and "teenagers are bad decision makers."

Other times, the politics are rather more immediate.

I saw Sweet Home Alabama on TV today, and it struck me again -- just as it did the first time I saw it -- that though this film doesn't adhere perfectly to conservative dogma, it comes from a very conservative framework. However the film wants to apologize for it, the message can't be scrubbed away: city life has ruined Melanie, and though it creates an illusion of happiness for her, only the earthy, family-oriented, idealistic humanity of Southern country living can really give her lasting fulfillment. The Yankee North is caught up in the pursuit of money and status; New Yorkers are self-absorbed, ambitious at the expense of authenticity, and closed off from the awesome power of nature and childhood.

The cues are clear: Melanie's parents won't like Andrew because "he's a democrat" (and their assumed reaction turns out to be right, as if they exist in Melanie's subconscious, warning her against this course of action). Kate Hennings, played by Candace Bergen, is a transparent caricature of Hillary Clinton, with touches of other PR-happy politicians. At the end of the film, Melanie reverts entirely back to a stomping, drinking country girl, as if city life was a dress she put on for a few years while she played around in fashion (a very successful career that she gives up completely, to no fanfare whatsoever).

There are positive portrayals of gays in the film, to its credit. You may read this as a whitewash of the actual attitude toward gays in the South, or you may feel it's refreshing, because you know that many rural Southerners aren't as homophobic as the liberal rumors would have you believe. Nevertheless, there is no real confrontation with the politics... none of the gay characters make any mention of wishing they could get married or adopt kids. In fact, the film conveniently glosses over the fact that Bobby Ray had to stay in the closet for so long in the first place.

The film's attitude toward homosexuals feels rather like the attitude of some liberal films toward religious leaders: Shepard Book in Serenity, Father Barry in On The Waterfront, Friar Tuck in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves... though the films themselves are clearly secular, they make a gesture toward religious figures to acknowledge the positive, paternal spirit that a man of God can embody. Such films tend to ignore the fact that the main characters are not churchgoers, and that they are often acting in a very unreligious way.

My first reaction to Sweet Home Alabama was lukewarm indifference, but after I thought over it and picked up on the conservative bent, it gradually turned to annoyance and aversion (yes, I do change my opinions of films after having some time to think about them... my initial reaction has no special authority). Now, seeing the film for a second time, I have a chance to step back and consider that refined reaction, and I think that Sweet Home Alabama has something to teach me, especially considered in relation to many drama and character study films. Particularly, it can teach me something as a liberal cinephile who doesn't want to be irrevocably stuck in his own dogma.

I sometimes forget that serious films often (very often) have a liberal framework to them. Some of the greatest enduring celluloid antagonists are the bugaboos of liberal identity politics: racists, sexists, businesspeople, and military authorities. Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Avatar, A Beautiful Mind, even down to The Muppet Movie: films considered "serious idea films" overwhelmingly come from a socially-conscious, vaguely leftist framework, and it's easy to become blind to that.

Consider, for instance, American Beauty, in which (SPOILERS AHEAD STOP READING IF YOU WANT TO SEE IT TONIGHT) an ex-army homophobe murders a suburban dad, just as he reaches some sort of personal epiphany about his place in the universe. To us liberals, who are consciously sensitive to issues of racial, sexual, and heteronormative marginalization, that's pretty unremarkable. But how would it have changed the movie if that murder had been committed by the angsty pot-dealing teenager trying to impress his girlfriend? You know... the one who was vaguely glorified, in an offhand way, in the course of his character development?

So if you're a liberal cinephile, think about Sweet Home Alabama, and remember: if that movie inspires frustration, that might be how a media-literate conservative feels all the time. That might be why conservatives often claim to be oppressed by a liberal media conspiracy. And if you're a conservative cinephile, take some comfort in the fact that Sweet Home Alabama is out there, an enjoyable, technically competent, well-acted romantic comedy that makes liberals feel as ideologically needled as Avatar makes you feel.

I have another hypothesis: that Will Ferrell made a double-feature of political parodies in Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory, satirizing the right and the left, respectively, through sports. I need to see both of those before I can really sink my teeth into that idea, though.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Poisonous Image in Wisconsin Death Trip

This was a while back, but 366 Weird Movies published another piece of mine, on an obscure documentary called Wisconsin Death Trip. It's a pretty cool, out-there kind of movie.
Frank Cooper’s account of Black River Falls, above, may be little more than a publicity blurb, but in Marsh’s film, it represents something much larger. It is an image of the town and an image of small-town life as a whole, an idyllic fiction created and taken as a faithful reflection by those who identify with it. It is a broad meta-narrative, a reassuring script – a framework to give larger meaning to many small lives and arbitrary circumstances. This is a category of “image” that Mitchell barely touched upon… the reflexive mental image called a self-image, which gives identity to both the individual and (by custom and consensus) the collective. Unfortunately, as the citizens of Wisconsin discovered in the late 1800′s, this self-image is a fragile thing, a glass castle on a precarious perch, and its destruction can be catastrophic.

-- The Poisonous Image in Wisconsin Death Trip, published in 366 Weird Movies

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises and Mechanical Filmmaking

I am deeply ambivalent about The Dark Knight Rises, and that's more frustrating than it should be. This is from a guy who thought Batman Begins was refreshing, and The Dark Knight was the closest thing we've had to a masterpiece of comic book movies. Also, I like Nolan enough to have thought about which is his best film, and I've decided that it's Inception... a puzzle box wrapped around a vivid emotional core that debunks every talking point about how Nolan is a "mechanical filmmaker" who doesn't understand human feeling.

While I don't think Nolan is a mechanical filmmaker, I think that The Dark Knight Rises is an example of mechanical filmmaking. Or, to put it more precisely, it's film engineering, rather than organic filmmaking, and the result is a collection of calibrated gears and interlocking parts that add up to empty clockwork.

I think it worked out this way because Nolan was trying to recapture the power of The Dark Knight, but by identifying that film's many merits, which originally evolved organically, and trying to reproduce them intentionally, he lost sight of his third movie as a whole. It's an easy mistake to make, especially for a director who's controlled and calculated and cerebral. Unfortunately, in this case, he basically relied upon his targeting mechanism and it caused him to miss the target. That's a Luke Skywalker reference, in case you didn't catch it.

There were a lot of things that were great about The Dark Knight... like any serendipitous event, they sprung up spontaneously and he captured them all in the emulsion. The principal merits:

1 - An extreme, visceral, compelling villain with endless depths to plumb, and an actor at the top of his game, digging deep into the role.

2 - A compelling side-character who toed the line between hero and villain

3 - A broad, open-ended theme of human nature and the power of the symbolic hero as a way of purifying the corrupt human soul

4 - Political references that were somewhat timely, but not forced (cell phone surveillance, for instance)

5 - A couple major twists that radically altered the trajectory of the plot, involving betrayals and sudden shifts in loyalty

6 - The sense that Gotham City, as a macrocosm for its citizens, is sort of a character in itself, a populist gothic metropolis with a sinister underside

Those six things fell together so perfectly in The Dark Knight. It was a film that revolved around the slow rise and payoffs of two major action sequences, each with two or three parts: the lengthy introduction to the Joker and Gotham's underworld, proceeding through a series of plays and counter-plays that plateau with Gordon's "death"... the first major ascent and climax as the Joker chases Harvey Dent through Gotham, gets caught, and escapes while Rachel Dawes is killed... another tense, extended low-key sequence, as Harvey is corrupted and The Joker lays plans for a final showdown... and the climactic battle sequence, the fight for Gotham's soul in the rooftops, on the river, and at Gordon's home. Nolan orchestrated the whole thing like a grand symphony, tuning and conducting the rises and falls until every demand of the viewer was sated.

Those six things are all there in The Dark Knight Rises. The problem is, they're rushed together, glued into a kludge of ideas and sucker-punches that doesn't seem to have any rhythm at all. Tom Hardy almost makes Bane genuinely inspiring (I didn't really mind the voice much), but he's undercut by the need for a cheap twist at the end of the film. Anne Hathaway does justice to her role as Catwoman, but she is sabotaged by the populist theme and the conventional crisis-of-conscience device, which undermine her integrity. Nolan gets caught between the closely-linked wheels of the populist Gotham and the timely Occupy references, and he doesn't end up fleshing out either idea sufficiently. The Batman-as-symbol theme is draped over this whole structure, but it never reaches a moment of real clarity, as Nolan is caught up in the need to make Batman a traditional action hero and Bruce Wayne a winking playboy survivor.

This is the basic failure that motivates so many of the further complaints about TDKR. The plot is full of holes and the motivations are often indecipherable, because each character was trying to fit into a grand mosaic of elements that just weren't left any time to fall into place. Because Nolan was trying to get so much stuff in, the film felt rushed, even though it was a full one hundred sixty minutes. It could be reverse-engineered and put back together much more organically, and you could probably still keep most of the writing and plot developments... you would just have to extract a few threads to give the rest more space to breathe. You'd need to let go of some of the abstract ideas, some of the Occupy references and current-event set-pieces, and you'd need to give more love and attention to Bane, Selina Kyle, and Catwoman... those characters need space to stand on their own, to make decisions that seem meaningful within their particular moral arc.

Even without the substance, you can see the plot engineering going on. The fights between Batman and Bane occur at the correct times... right in the middle, and at the moment of maximum crisis... but they have no soul, looking less like tactical encounters and more like games of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Bane's build-up is hasty and obscure, but we're good at responding to Nolan's rudimentary cues, so we know he's supposed to be terrifying and malevolent... but even as we buy into his evilness, we're cheated out of a gratifying defeat, because the guy is just blasted off-screen by a battery of guns. And it's a lovely setup that Bane treats Gotham as a doomed revolution, so yes, we want to experience Gotham as a chaotic locus of resistance poisoned by a petty tyrant. But that experience never gets fleshed out, because we don't spend any time among the citizens of Gotham. It doesn't look like a police state, nor like London during the 2011 riots. It just looks like a bunch of cleared streets, a big controlled set for furtive encounters between our protagonists.

The moments with Bane, Selina Kyle, and Scarecrow make it worth another viewing some day, and I want to congratulate all the actors for bringing these clumsily-scripted characters to life. But I'm eager for Nolan to make another film for his own edification, because this one is his biggest stumble, in my opinion. Nolan knows the art of cinema, but I think, by acting as an engineer in this last entry, Nolan neglected his role as an artist.

Monday, July 23, 2012

PressPausePlay - a short reflection on a film about the creative climate

PressPausePlay is a documentary that I caught this weekend about the digital revolution in the arts and culture. It's from directors David Dworsky and Victor K√∂hler, and if you dwell on the same stuff I do, you might want to check it out. It's mostly dedicated to celebrating the accessibility of digital media, and trying to get a grip on the changes it's bringing about. They got some interesting people to address this topic... Moby, Robyn, Hot Chip, director Lena Dunham, Napster daddy Sean Parker, and authors like David Weinburger and Andrew Keen.

It's free on their website, if you wanna just go take a couple hours right now. Go ahead, I'll wait here and drink my soda.

Okay, so... buried in the unrelenting optimism about the future, there is some anxiety in PressPausePlay, and honestly, the interviews that speak to this anxiety are the most interesting of the bunch. Doomsday prophets are always kind of captivating, giving voice to our fears, and the few interviewees who really sounded freaked out about the whole thing are actually kind of existentially reassuring. At some point, one of them says, "Every artist I know is scared by this," which is actually really nice to hear.

I think the anxiety comes from a very specific question, and a few of the interviewees approach it from a few different angles. The question is... how are we going to get along and keep culture in shape if the system of filters and gatekeepers has collapsed? And I think it's a really valid question, and the only real answer is, "Wait and see?"

When I say "gatekeepers," I mean a lot of different things. First of all, there are the simple resource scarcities of yesteryear, something that's often called a "barrier to entry." Once upon a time, filmmaking was so expensive that you needed to know people... producers, other filmmakers, or very wealthy family members... to get anywhere near the industry. Second of all, there are the credible critics, people vetted by major publications, armed with graduate degrees in the arts and publications in journals, who were hired to tell us all what was really the good shit, and what was just shit. The days of blogs have severely damaged the landscape of professional reviewing and criticism, and the incredible surplus of new work is overwhelming the ones who still have any cultural clout.

This all makes it very hard to confidently differentiate between brilliant work and crappy work. One of the documentary's talking heads said that we may be getting to a point where all the good work is drowned in the noise. Another one said he doubts the old great directors -- people like Scorsese and Coppola -- would ever have risen to the top or been discovered in the current climate. Their early shorts weren't genius, and in the current media glut, they would have been swamped to the point of frustration by amateurs competing for the same money and attention. Some of the cultural authorities in this documentary were driven to say, "Look, most people just aren't talented and shouldn't be making art." One of the most interesting of the critics claimed that this loss of sobriety in media and discourse would lead to a new cultural dark age, where cultural production rises so much that cultural literacy just falls entirely flat.

There's a question implicit in all this that nobody quite got around to asking (although some of them answered it, in a roundabout way). Whether you're really anxious about this is contingent upon what you think of those cultural gatekeepers, those filters, those critics, those barriers to entry. They are losing their influence. The question is: were they actually selecting based on merit, and thereby fulfilling a very important cultural function? Or were they actually selecting based on privilege, institutional bias, and luck? Because if the latter is true, then losing them will be one of the best things to happen to art... because even if an absolutely democratic process of selection is stupid, illiterate, and prone to distortion by advertisers, at least it's authentic. At least our art will match our preferences and our interests and desires, even if those aren't exactly high-brow or well-informed. At least our art will be a reflection of us as a collective, be that for good or ill.

Of course, between these two... gatekeepers are a positive force vs. gatekeepers are a useless burden... the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. And to be honest, I doubt the cultural landscape will ever be a flat ocean of white-noise. New mechanisms will arise to help shape the landscape of art and media, and we'll figure out how to make them work in service to culture. I guess, deep down, I'm just a dumbass optimist about the whole thing. That's fine with me. I may as well have faith in something.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Daniel Tosh, Louis CK, and comedy and advocacy locked in an eternal struggle

On the Daniel Tosh incident: I'm perfectly comfortable with the standard, rational interpretation of these events, which takes all of the following for granted:

First, Tosh made a cheap joke whose punchline was simply a provocative subject. As annoying as that might be, it's got many precedents in comedy.

Second, the lady blurted out an opinion, which can be rude, but also has precedents in the world of comedy. When Tosh is saying intentionally offensive things, he will occasionally have to deal with people being offended. Nobody denied anybody else's right to speak. Nobody was censored.

Third, Tosh was a dick to the woman in his response. He had all the power in the room... a microphone, a sympathetic audience. His response showed him to be a clumsy, flat-footed entertainer playing to the stupidest common denominator of his audience. It's this insane, overheated response that got Tosh the monumental backlash from the rest of the Internet. Again, he deserves it. Nobody is being censored. If people are calling you out for being an idiot and an asshole, then obviously, in a certain person's world, that's exactly what you are. I'm glad he at least apologized, but he has to realize that won't close the discursive floodgates he opened, or entirely absolve him of purveying some ridiculous bullshit.

I agree, on a philosophical level, with this piece in Jezebel, which is pretty straight-up with ya'll on the issue. If you and I already understand each other, you don't need to read it (or you've probably already read it anyway), but if you still find yourself fuming with hate at the humorless lady in Tosh's audience, then maybe check it out as a bit of reinforcement.

Louis CK addressed it on The Daily Show later.

I dig Louis CK; I trust him that he wasn't really supporting Tosh's RJ when he tweeted about him, so much as tweeting a general fan message that got stuck in the wrong context. Louis CK has, after all, taken on an insane challenge: he's tried to be true to his comedic art and impulses, while also being conscientious and respectful of his audience... and since he's now a massive international phenomenon, that audience includes everybody, from frat-boys to minorities. His success at navigating those complex waters is a testament to his genius and audacity as an entertainer.

Look at what he's trying to do here. First, he's engaging with everybody at once, inhabiting a gray area of diplomacy where he's both funny and critical. This involves holding a few things in his head at once: first, the feminist perspective of, "Why the fuck would you say that? Why should we let it slide?"  Second, the comedic perspective of, "We're in it to make people laugh, and sometimes offensive stuff gets the LULZ," and more abstractly, "We are doing our jobs, and we won't be bullied by people who have no investment in our success."

When he says feminists and comedians are natural enemies, he is making a broad generalization. It's far from universal, and the defenders of feminism are quick to jump on the exceptions. However, it's not a total deception. There is a sense in which advocacy of any kind (racial, gender, etc) is at odds with comedy. After all, comedy is almost entirely about pushing boundaries. Even the most benign jokes are premised on the need to break, overturn, or subvert our expectations, with the punchline usually breaking out of the boundaries of the original question ("Why did the chicken cross the road?" "To get to the other side!" "Hey! You tricked me into thinking there was a real reason! Jerk!") Advocates, on the other hand, are at least partly responsible for sculpting the boundaries of speech. Make no mistake -- when you're telling people not to use the terms "faggot" or "retarded," you're erecting (lol) a very justified boundary within the game of language. You're pushing back against the uncritical, offensive, intentionally demeaning uses of those words.

So in this very abstract way, these two impulses are opposed to each other. Of course, they can work together... Louis CK never said they can't, and he's one of the greatest exemplars of ways to make this work. It requires a sort of judo... a kind of humor that calls attention to some boundaries while breaking others... in order to shape the discourse in a positive way. And, in the opposite side, a kind of advocacy (feminism, for instance) that is willing -- through humor -- to puncture some interpersonal boundaries and acknowledge some stereotypes in order to shed more light on the whole edifice.

That's what the great self-aware comedians do... Margaret Cho, Bo Burnham, Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, and of course, Louis CK, among many others.

Then there's a somewhat passive-aggressive reaction piece, questioning Louis CK's Daily Show discussion, on The Daily Beast.

It's nice that this piece presents a range of opinions from people who identify with both feminism and comedy, but I think it's a little uncharitable toward CK. It never bothers to actually ask: what did Louis CK mean when he said comedians and feminists are natural enemies? How does it jive with his persona as an actual comic? Does it make sense, in the larger context, for me to get offended by it?

Luckily, this is mostly dying down at this point, and I think most people feel that justice was served. And by this time, the trickle of remaining opinions (like, for instance, this one!) aren't going to change the landscape of civil rights or humor or anything like that. I just wanted to get this perspective out there, to make sure I had contributed a few words to the balance of the larger consensus.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Three Fetishes: An Essay on Return to Oz (1985)

(from a new essay of mine, entitled The Three Fetishes: Transformation and Ethical Engagement in Walter Murch's Return to Oz (1985)):
Both Mombi and the Wheelers are deconstructed human types, but it’s worth noting the difference in their strategies. The Wheelers are mechanical constructs, almost steampunk in their primitive morphology. Mombi, on the other hand, is cybernetic. She is a highly adaptive system with interchangeable identities, wearing faces and demeanors like it’s a matter of fashion. She is more dynamic than the Wheelers, but also more fragmented, with seams and couplings that penetrate right into her soul.
In what seems like somebody’s terrible delegation decision, Mombi has been placed in charge of guarding some very important things. One of them is a substance called Magic Powder, fairy dust gathered into a vial, that gives life to anything it’s applied to. She keeps this powder locked up with her original head; why she has it, why she values it, and what she might ever do with it are all mysteries that won’t be answered by this narrative. In no time at all, Dorothy will steal it and use it to animate a new companion (the Gump). Though it doesn’t have much more of a role to play, the powder is a symbolic cornerstone within the text. Honestly, Oz might as well be made of the stuff.
-- from the essay, which can be found at the excellent blog 366 Weird Movies. I've been writing a bit for outside outlets, and I'm going to continue doing that for a while; I'll keep posting selections on here, so feel free to click through, if this is how you keep up with my ramblings.