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.