Sunday, December 30, 2007

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson's latest is all in good fun, but it doesn't really have much to say about its ostensible subjects - religion and capitalism - except that the uses of the former can be more than a little ridiculous and often serve as a front for more self-interested purposes and that the latter can lead to an all consuming, but ultimately unsatisfying pursuit of profit, neither of which constitutes any sort of revelation. Still, Anderson's technical mastery, while occasionally obtrusive (his camera never stops moving), and his staging of a handful of truly spectacular sequences make its re-tread themes go down easy. But for a film with its apparent ambition, it's surprisingly thin.

Shooting for epic stature, the film spreads its action out over thirty years and follows the fortunes of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an increasingly ruthless oil speculator who amasses a fortune buying up oil land at bargain prices and then bleeding it dry. Spurning the offers of a buyout from Standard Oil (shades of McCabe and Mrs. Miller - although that film had much more to say about individual enterprise and corporate monopoly), he builds a pipeline 100 miles from his inland empire to the California coast, remaining defiantly independent until the end, only to wind up utterly alone, drinking himself half to death in his cavernous mansion.

The film begins with considerable promise as Anderson stages a long, wordless sequence which documents Plainview's initial oil discovery while digging inside a well. Building tension out of the carefully observed details of a mining expedition (which take in all the danger of the pursuit), perfectly timed cutting and the shock of the thud as Day-Lewis falls several stories to the bottom of the shaft, the scene promises the sort of expertly understated filmmaking that the rest of the film doesn't exactly deliver. Far more typical (though admittedly impressive) is Anderson's bravura staging of an explosion in the oil fields which turns the derrick into a spout of flame and sends the townspeople into a panic (as well as causing Plainview's adopted son, H. W., to lose his hearing). Handling the pyrotechnics of the fire and the movement of scores of extras with such impeccable control is a unique technical achievement, but for all its bluster, the sequence lacks the dramatic pull of the opener.

The film's finest scene, though, eschews the outdoor settings of the work's long middle section in favor of a decidedly domestic milieu. Taking place some twenty years after the bulk of the action, the scene recasts Plainview as an aging alcoholic living in a desolate California mansion. Following a long estrangement, H.W. (Russell Harvard, as an adult) pays a visit to his father in order to announce his final independence and his decision to start his own oil business in Mexico, an announcement which occasions a string of invectives and a final denunciation on Plainview's part. What is remarkable about the scene is the expository imbalance between father and son created by H.W.'s deafness and his reliance on an interpreter to communicate, while Plainview is able to give direct voice to his hatred. Not a mere distancing device, nor simply a chance for the director to show off, this mediation of language is something else altogether; it instantly transforms the meeting into an oddly affective interchange that gains its power precisely from this imaginative quirk of presentation. By making strange the ordinary functions of discourse, Anderson grants us a unique perspective on an otherwise unremarkable expression of familial hatred and desperately asserted independence. In the scene's stunning climax, Plainview demands that his son speak to him in his own voice. Anderson fixes his camera in close-up on H.W.'s face as he hesitates for several seconds. Finally, in a halting, imperfect voice, he states clearly, "I'm leaving you and I'm going with my wife to Mexico." In a scene marked by mediated speech, only the assertion of direct discourse, the ability to speak with his father on equal terms, allows for H.W. to make his definitive declaration of purpose and leave his father to his inevitable alcohol-fueled demise.

Despite these occasional triumphs, though, the film is remarkably thin in its treatment of the twin pillars of American enterprise - capitalistic drive and religious expression. Anderson makes quite clear the ways in which the profit motive has blinded Plainview to anything other than the pursuit of more profit. When Standard Oil offers to buy his land for a large sum, he wonders "what will I do then?" Retiring from business, he is faced with just that problem and can only fill the absence with booze. This may all be pretty simple stuff, but it's downright Byzantine compared to the film's treatment of religion. Through Plainview's opposite number, the hypocritical preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), Anderson posits religion as one more form of capitalism, a point made obvious in the final scene, in which Sunday agrees to denounce God if it will earn him a significant profit. The preacher strikes a ridiculous figure throughout. Barely out of puberty, with a few tufts of hair hanging from his chain, Sunday prances about the church, declaiming in typically overblown revival rhetoric, offering to cure the various conditions (arthritis, etc.) of his parishioners by driving out their evil spirits. As if the ridiculousness of the presentation wasn't obvious enough, in one scene Anderson has the atheistic Plainview attend Sunday's church in order to telegraph the audience's responses to the preacher's sermon. As Sunday baptizes the oil man (as part of a deal for land), Day-Lewis strikes ironic facial gestures and delivers sarcastic asides, making absolutely certain that the audience understands Anderson's ironic distance from his material. This sort of condescension towards religious expression doesn't mean that the director is making any sort of statement beyond the obvious about the uses of American religion; he's simply taking a few cheap shots.

Paul Thomas Anderson is clearly one of the most technically assured filmmakers working in this country. He revels in devising complex tracking shots and employing slow, Tarkovskian zooms. He's equally adept at staging huge set pieces and intimate parlor scenes. But it all seems like a little too much. Between his constantly moving camera and Jonny Greenwood's assaultive score (a mixture of low strings and aggressively ominous electronics) that - at least until the picture's conclusion - remains a near constant presence, there is little room to breathe. This aesthetic claustrophobia combined with the picture's superficial treatment of its "great" themes means that, for all the director's efforts, There Will Be Blood can't be judged a major work. That it often succeeds, and succeeds quite wonderfully, in spite of these debilitating weaknesses is a sign of Anderson's remarkable talent. But, as has been proven on an almost weekly basis this season, it takes more than talent to make a great film.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Catching Up

In preparing for my year-end wrap-up, I caught up with two fine films currently playing in New York theaters. Below are brief reviews of these two works.

A coming-of-age film given added interest by its tumultuous setting (Iran in the 1980s and early 1990s), its finely crafted animation (adapted by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi from the latter's graphic novel, the uncluttered, mostly black and white visual scheme overlays sharply drawn foreground figures onto undefined, airbrushed backdrops) and an effusive good humor, Persepolis is about as fine as this kind of thing can be. Detailing the early life of its protag (called Marjane and based on Satrapi's experiences) through the end of the Shah's reign and the brutal regime of the Ayatollah, as she shuffles between her native country and a stint in Vienna, the directors get down the brutality of life in a repressive, war torn country, the strong bond of family, the lure of forbidden Western pop-art (particularly heavy metal music) and the sense of alienation brought about by fitting imperfectly into two cultures. The film is full of wonderfully comic set-pieces as in Marjane's sing-along to "Eye of the Tiger" and suffused with a genuine tenderness that, like the stripped down, but expressive animation, provides the film with its affective foundation. Neither more nor less than a very good picture about growing up, Persepolis certainly doesn't transcend the genre (all its insights are confined within the usual dictates of the coming-of-age story), but it makes a strong case for its continued validity.

The second terrific "failure" of the season (following Richard Kelly's Southland Tales), Youth Without Youth's flaws may stem from its own ambition, but so do its singular achievements. Adapting a Mircea Eliade novella, director Francis Ford Coppola seems to want to cram the entirety of that writer's philosophy into his film's overstuffed framework. That this philosophy, dealing with the origins of language and the nature of religion, is continually fascinating doesn't ensure that the film's presentation of this material will be similarly engaging, but with Coppola's clear understanding of his sources and his indelible enthusiasm, it winds up being intellectually compelling in a way that few films can match. Heightened by a careful visual program (involving a muted indoor color scheme, a lush palette for the scenes in India, a series of canted angles and an adept manipulation of mirror images) and the sense of personal investment on the filmmaker's part, the picture makes up in sensory/intellectual stimulation what it lacks in coherence.

The film's central premise, which finds a suicidal professor (Tim Roth) granted a second youth, a chance to recapture his lost love and an opportunity to finish his life's work (documenting the origins of human speech and, thus, human consciousness), seems ideally suited for an exploration of Eliade's work. As Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), herself probably a reincarnation of the professor's youthful lover, becomes a medium for a 7th-century Indian woman, her speech regresses past Sanskrit and Sumerian and nears the very beginnings of language. For a second time in an extended life span, the professor is forced to make a choice between love and a higher calling, which Coppola posits as a sort of essential dichotomy, as if a man must renounce all worldly pleasures in order to achieve something beyond the commonplace. One can't take this as any kind of comment on the director's personal choices, but, with his latest offering (although it can't be considered an entire success - the film simply proposes so much more than it can properly assimilate), he has certainly ventured far outside the confines of the ordinary.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tim Burton has made a career out of fetishizing the macabre. From the jokey treatment of death in Beetlejuice to the necrophilia of Corpse Bride, his dominant strategy has been a self-conscious foregrounding of the freakish. But this foregrounding is often accomplished by making the mere existence of the grotesque the film's salient fact, a point at which the director seems content to stop, as if, having successfully established his cinematic milieu, there is nothing to be gained through any deeper exploration of his material. Burton's primary concern seems to be in making a great show of his own morbidity.

For a filmmaker with Burton's priorities, Sweeney Todd would seem to be the ideal vehicle. The Broadway classic about a murderous barber whose companion serves up his victims as gourmet cuisine allows the filmmaker to place his trademark love of the gruesome front and center without having to dig too far for inspiration. Then, the fact of the film's setting (industrial Victorian London) allows Burton to create a typically fantasized world of gray skies and narrow alleys with the omnipresent smokestacks the dominant presence in the screen's background, a world that rivals any of his other fictional settings (Gotham City, the alternate universe of Beetlejuice) for imaginative grimness. But all this is par for the course for Burton. What defines Sweeney Todd is not so much the film's general morbidity, but a more specific representation of that morbidity, a repeated motif that becomes a fetishistic device for the director: the throat slit.

Sweeney Todd's preferred method of killing - luring his victim into his barber's chair under the pretense of a shave and then cutting his throat - becomes the occasion for a series of lovingly rendered shots of Johnny Depp applying his steel blade to his victims. The throat slit may be an integral part of the film's story, but Burton stages so many examples of this procedure (at one point assembling a montage of six or seven such slits) that he is clearly up to something more specific here. Rather than dismissing the bloody stagings as something peripheral to the film's program, they are so obviously at the heart of what Burton is getting at, that they have to be considered as central to whatever the picture is trying to achieve.

When we are confronted with the prospect of an ostentatiously violent sequence in film, we must ask ourselves what purpose the staging serves. The sequence may be thrilling to the viewer's sensibilities, it may cause us to question our own reactions to onscreen violence or it may be played for laughs. In the case of Burton's throat slits, none of these purposes really fits. Instead, they seem the expression of a very specific form of fetish on the director's part. They clearly aren't meant to entertain or to provoke critical reflection. Nor are they particularly gruesome. Their most salient quality is their frequency. From the moment Depp digs out his old blade and treats it to a loving serenade to the film's final scene when the blade is applied to his own throat, Burton treats the instrument as a fetish-object, filming rapturous close ups of the razor in Depp's outstretched hand long before he has a chance to put it to murderous use. If Burton's typical method as a director is to pick out a handful of morbid or gruesome plot points and provide them with graphic, if stylized, expression, thus confirming beyond a doubt his status as connoisseur of the macabre, then his insistent throat slitting represents a more pronounced expression of this system. Burton's source material already provides plenty of grotesque elements; to make his own hand felt in the staging, he hits on the device of the gratuitously bloody throat slit as an eminently repeatable motif (repeatable because of its centrality to the plot) that he can employ as a kind of artistic signature. The very fact of its superfluity is what defines it as an emblematic gesture.

That Burton is saddled with a particularly weak set of songs from which to fashion his film requires him to hit on different strategies for making his film palatable. One strategy is the casting of charismatic leads Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Another is the creation of a heavily stylized fictional world, a squalid London which looks as good as any comparable screen treatment. But the most welcome strategy is the creation of two grotesque supporting characters who offer a welcome respite to the dreary proceedings. As played by Timothy Spall, Beadle Bamford, toady to the film's arch-villain, is marked by his long greasy hair, rancid smile and patronizing bow. Sacha Baron Cohen too adds some leavening humor as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, whose fake mustache, phony Italian accent and skin-tight pants obscure a devious set of motives and who provides the film with its finest moment when he engages in a public shave-off with Todd. But, terrific as they are, these caricatures aren't enough. What could have been a deliciously nasty picture just turns nasty as Burton settles in the end for an easy cynicism which culminates in Depp throwing Carter into the oven and Depp's young assistant providing one last expression of Burton's imprint by cutting his master's throat. Rather than making some sort of comment about (for example) the brutality of the industrialized marketplace, Burton stages his conclusion as a final expression of his desperately asserted morbidity. Content to push forth a weakly pronounced nihilism which obviates any attempt at providing a coherent viewpoint, he brings down the curtain on a notably downbeat tableau. After all, this is Tim Burton and, in case you hadn't realized, he's one sick fellow.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Aesthetic Failings (and Brief Triumph) of Atonement

Visually, Atonement's a mess, simultaneously overloaded and underdeveloped, but if director Joe Wright hasn't created a coherent visual scheme, it's not for lack of trying. The whole thing is shot through with a deliberate fuzziness, perhaps meant to underscore the central character's inability to understand what she sees (a miscomprehension which sets the film's events in motion), but this slight visual blurring has the unfortunate side effect of absolving Wright from properly situating his characters in the frame, the deliberate obscurity covering for the scattershot mise-en-scène. When he does find time to frame his figures, he frequently stuffs them into awkward positionings as when James McAvoy pins Keira Knightley to the wall in a gravity-defying love embrace. Wright directs with a great impatience, an impatience which causes him to eschew well-thought out compositions in favor of a series of amateurish tricks which fail to increase our understanding of the material or even provide any autonomous aesthetic pleasures. Among the tricks he resorts to are a series of quick cuts between Knightley's and McAvoy's perspectives, unnecessary close-ups of the word "cunt" being typed on a sheet of paper, a montage of several earlier scenes played in reverse and (auditorily) an annoying insistence on working the sound of typewriter keys into the film's soundtrack. Unlike The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in which Julian Schnabel's similarly ebullient direction succeeds in conjuring up the rich inner life of a paralyzed man, Wright's manipulations seem like the desperate gestures of a filmmaker who lacks the imagination to give cinematic expression to source material (Ian McEwan's novel) that is, admittedly, difficult to film. (It helps that Schnabel has a much richer visual understanding than Wright.)

The one exception to Atonement's visual failings is the famed five-minute tracking shot along the beach at Dunkirk during the film's World War II section. The sequence has been widely attacked (like the entire film) for the coldness of the authorial manipulation, an attack granted additional fodder by the director's admission that his reason for staging the shot was that he "just like[s] showing off." The sequence's detractors claim that, technical virtuosity aside, the shot doesn't add anything to our understanding of the film's characters and has no emotional resonance. Ed Gonzalez, for example, dismissed the sequence as "a triumph of extras casting and production design but completely devoid of emotion." These objections must be granted, except that the scene does provoke a certain emotional response, albeit one unconnected with the film's story or characters. It is instead the response triggered by a pure aesthetic pleasure. Of course, the viewer can only experience this pleasure as "pure" if, having taken in the film's prior failures, he has already given up on it. No longer entertaining legitimate hopes of experiencing a satisfying work of art, he is free to view the tracking-shot independent of its context in the film's overall scheme, enjoying it on its own autonomous merits.

If the first section of the film presents a rather compelling story marred by the director's cute visual tricks, the tracking sequence, which critic Robbie Freeling correctly notes is "completely aesthetically opposed to the rest of the film," represents precisely the reverse. Dropping the pretense of advancing the story, Wright grants us a stand-alone sequence in which, unlike the earlier sections, he is completely in control of the material. Against a thoroughly denuded color scheme (gray sky, gray sand), the camera follows Robbie and two fellow soldiers as they walk along the beach past hundreds of others who bide their time, some singing, most staring blankly, one performing gymnastic exercises on a stranded pommel horse; stopping to highlight a beached ship, a horse being shot, a Ferris wheel spinning in the very back of the screen. The only justification for the scene is that, taken alone, it is the one section of the film that, on a strictly aesthetic level, works without question. Given the strenuous efforts on the director's part at infusing the whole film with this kind of visual liftoff, efforts whose failures seem to stem from Wright's inability to develop a visual program appropriate to his material, the fact that he does succeed so thoroughly, if only once, makes the scene all the more remarkable. The Dunkirk sequence is by no means enough to salvage the film, especially given its lack of emotional connection to the rest of the work, but it succeeds in providing five minutes of visual delight in an otherwise ugly, ugly picture.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Five Essential Pieces of Criticism from 2007

1. "Marie Antoinette and the Ghosts of the French Revolution" by Alexander Zevin Cineaste Volume XXXII, No. 2 (Spring 2007)

Not so much film criticism as a work of cultural/historical analysis, Zevin positions recent attempts at rehabilitating the French Queen's image (Sofia Coppola's film, yes, but also Antonia Fraser's biography and Sena Jeter Naslund's historical novel) as dangerous historical mis-readings (especially dangerous because their revisionist goals necessitate the de-contextualization of their subject) which result in the promotion of a conservative, anti-revolutionary agenda. Zevin's sophisticated readings of the revisionist texts as well as extra-textual responses (the booing of Coppola's film at Cannes, for example) and his keen historical understanding support his intricate and fully-articulated thesis, offering an important demonstration of the way art transforms history for its own purposes. Zevin shows how the new vogue for presenting Marie Antoinette "as young and misunderstood, a prisoner of protocol, her royal relations and of France," whatever the authors' ostensible goals in offering such an interpretation, results in a negation of the positive significance of the Revolution and furthers a reactionary mindset which precludes any effort at altering the current status quo. The best (or at least most exuberantly) written piece on this list, Zevin's article mixes nuanced academic prose with wittily sarcastic asides that reduce his opponents to misguided simpletons in a matter of a few words. The result is one of the smartest and most satisfyingly nasty pieces written on film/history/culture this year.

2. "Scenes from an Overrated Career" by Jonathan Rosenbaum New York Times August 4, 2007

"Bergman Vs. Bergman" by Kent Jones Film Comment Volume 43, Number 6 (November/December 2007)

What impresses is the sheer boldness of Rosenbaum's conceit: no sooner has the universally acknowledged "great filmmaker" been lowered into his grave, then the critic dissents from the legion of fawning and unreflective eulogies by calling for a negative re-assessment of his career. Although Rosenbaum insists that his piece is by no means the complete dismissal of Ingmar Bergman that many read it to be, the article nonetheless calls for a complete re-consideration of his status as Major Director. The charges against Bergman are striking: a "reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits," a refusal to engage with the modern world, the essential theatricality of his cinematic methods. If these charges seem a little unfair, and particularly harsh given the man's recent decease, they cannot, however, be so easily dismissed. While Bergman has made many undeniably great films, much of his work simply doesn't feel as fresh today as the films of Antonioni or Resnais, among numerous other contemporaries.

Still Rosenbaum's piece, perhaps because it appeared in the Times, a publication not given to challenging the wisdom of accepted viewpoints, received an unprecedented number of outraged responses, from Roger Ebert and Owen Gleiberman to a host of lesser-known writers and film bloggers. One of the more measured and intelligent responses came from Rosenbaum associate Kent Jones in the most recent issue of Film Comment. Jones gets at the reasons for the Bergman backlash by tracing the historical trajectory of the director's public image, from the moment Bergman became a brand name, through the late-sixties reaction when the director started to seem "out-of-touch," to the triumph of the auterist model which finally had no room for the commercially successfully and artistically independent director. If the image of Bergman that exists apart from his films is cause for backlash even today, then only by looking closely at his work and seeing what he actually accomplishes (according to Jones, a unflinching engagement with his doubt-tormented characters and "explorations, in the very best sense of the word" of what it means to be human) can we come to a true understanding of his lasting importance. Ultimately, Jones' counter-argument may be no more "provable" then Rosenbaum's argument (they rely on diametrically-opposed interpretations of essential aspects of the filmmaker's methods), but he brings a nuanced understanding of the reasons for such anti-Bergman sentiment as well as a clear sense of how such arguments can be effectively refuted.

3. "The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino" by Kenji Fujishima A Band(e) Apart (blog) October 13, 2007

Those two legendary reflexive filmmakers Godard and Tarantino may make use of many of the same inter-textual strategies, but they use them to achieve wildly different ends. In this online only piece, Fujishima explores the differences between the two filmmakers' cinematic orientations through a close comparison of Bande à Part and Pulp Fiction and offers informed speculation on the ways in which the differences between the two directors (particularly the political engagement of the older director and the apolitical stance of the younger) can be accounted for by differences in personal background and the historical contexts of their films. Although this last part of Fujishima's argument may be his least convincing, he offers enough evidence to demand a serious consideration of his speculations. The author's most interesting move may be bringing in Frederic Jameson's discussion of the difference between parody and pastiche (the former a critique by imitation, the latter a judgement-free approximation) and using these definitions to outline the differences between the two directors. Fujishima's conclusion that the ultimate "difference between Godard's art and Tarantino's is the difference between a philosopher of the movie image and an obsessive movie fan" gets to the essential dissimilarity between the two filmmakers, a difference that (notwithstanding the author's arguments to the contrary) can't be wholly explained by historical context. This one inconsistency aside, Fujishima's piece is closely argued throughout and offers a balanced and mostly convincing look at exactly what the two directors are up to when they make one of their frequent allusions to another work of cinema.

4. "Like a Complete Unknown: I'm Not There and the Changing Face of Bob Dylan" by J. Hoberman Village Voice November 20, 2007

Like Jonathan Rosenbaum, J. Hoberman is at his best when he has the chance to stretch out a little, an opportunity he rarely gets anymore within the increasingly straitening confines of the Voice's film page. For the release of Todd Haynes' free-form meditation on Bob Dylan (or "Bob Dylan"), a work Hoberman calls "the movie of the year," the critic takes the extra space to offer his own reflections on Dylan's relation with the cinema - examining the singer's various efforts at filmmaking, his appearances in both concert films and fictional features and his insistence on viewing his public image in terms of the cinema ("he imagined his own life as a movie," Hoberman writes) - as well as offering a review of Haynes' latest effort. Hoberman's analysis of the current film represents an honest and impassioned attempt to come to terms with a work that remains (like its subject) difficult to pin down to a single interpretation and his continual questioning offers a refreshing alternative to the frequently-assumed stance of the critic who has all the answers. "Is I'm Not There intelligible to anyone beyond the cognoscenti?" he wonders, speaking to the difficult question of the director's presumptive audience and the varying reactions likely to arise among viewers with different levels of familiarity with Dylan's life and work. Hoberman's shrewd understanding of the subject's shifting identities and the difficulty of carving out an authentic self get to the heart of his reading of the film. The article represents a remarkable synthesis of various texts - not least the singer himself - and does a fine job of providing a larger context for Haynes' film. Given the chance to "write long," Hoberman shows he's still one of the most perceptive (and challenging) critics in the business.

5. Slant Magazine: 2007 Year in Film by Ed Gonzalez and Nick Schager

The year-end best list may represent a rather dubious contribution to film criticism, but Ed Gonzalez and Nick Schager of the film/music website Slant offer a welcome exception through their annual refusal to regurgitate the same tired choices that clog up the majority of these rankings. Slightly less adventurous than in years past, their 2007 offering nonetheless does a valuable service in highlighting such forgotten (or undiscovered) films as Apichatpong Weerasethakul's terrific Syndromes and a Century and Philip Gröning's hypnotic non-fiction film Into Great Silence. Accompanied by a pithy capsule review, each entry tersely articulates its film's particular merits and often, through the writers' tightly packed prose, ends up being far more illustrative of the work's singular achievements than any number of full-length reviews. We can argue all we want with the choices (both critics picking Rescue Dawn?!!), but Slant's list provides the only justification for such a frequently mis-handled project - offering a diverse and provocative selection of films that forces the reader to go back and make a new set of discoveries.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Year's Most Disappointing Films

1. I'm Not There
The season's most hotly anticipated film and also one of the worst. Splitting Bob Dylan into six different characters, each designed to represent a different aspect of the historical/mythical figure, Haynes manages to tell us nothing about his subject (either real or as imagined in the media) that we don't already think we know. Refusing to engage with a world outside film or television, Haynes repeats the usual clichés surrounding his central figure and the 1960s and gives us no sense of what Dylan actually means for him, except to tell us that he views him (and the times he lived in) the same way that everyone else does, thanks to the ubiquity of a few media-sanctioned images. The dialogue is compounded of Dylan lyrics and a bunch of farcical blather and Haynes everywhere flatters the viewer on his ability to spot the allusions to the singer's life and work, while doing nothing with these allusions except showcasing his own alleged cleverness. The disappointment is compounded when we consider that the director's previous efforts (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven), while largely informed by the imagery of other films and/or television, nonetheless had plenty to say about the world we actually live in.

2. Rescue Dawn
By far the dullest thing Herzog's ever done and all the more disappointing coming on the heels of his 2005 trifecta of gloriously unconventional non-fiction films. Although Herzog shows himself adept at handling heart-pounding POW action scenes and he brings a surprising warmth to the proceedings with the Christian Bale/Steve Zahn camaraderie, the whole thing feels remarkably ordinary from its unimaginative dollies to its ridiculously sentimental conclusion. Rescue Dawn may prove its director's ability to make a passable Hollywood film, but Herzog's talents are entirely wasted on such a project. There are, after all, many directors capable of doing what he does here, but none capable of matching his achievements in Stroszek, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser or his previous film, The Wild Blue Yonder. Baseball great Greg Maddux once chided hard-throwing teammate Jason Marquis for trying to pitch like him. "If I had your stuff," he said, "I wouldn't pitch the way I do." Rescue Dawn is Herzog trying to direct like a much less talented filmmaker.

3. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
The year's worst looking major film was bound to disappoint given the avalanche of buzz it generated following its New York Film Festival debut, but it's astonishing just how uninspired the film actually is. A tale of a botched robbery and its aftermath, the film is leavened by none of the absurdist humor of the director's earlier botched robbery and its aftermath offering Dog Day Afternoon. Instead Lumet treats his material as the stuff of high tragedy. Announcing his intentions early on by including the last scene from a high school production of Lear, the director aims for both that play's nihilistic viewpoint and its tragic grandeur. By insisting on the latter, he undercuts the former objective, trying to grant his meaningless events an unnecessary significance by staging the concluding filicide as if it were a shocking and revelatory occurrence, instead of merely the logical conclusion of an absurd and futile stream of events. The film's colors are relentlessly drab, the compositions seemingly picked at random and the whole thing looks like slapdash hackwork. The film ultimately fails to achieve the significance that Lumet intends to bring to it; his efforts would have been far better spent trying to bring a coherent visual program.

4. Margot at the Wedding
From the sweet/bitter (and very funny) The Squid and the Whale to the bitter/slimy Margot is quite a drop-off for Noah Baumbach. The director's previous film might not have looked like much, but its low-slung aesthetic was well suited to its clear-eyed take on coming-of-age in 1980s Brooklyn. Deftly mixing offhand humor and gently observed family drama, the film never overplayed its hand and treated even the most serious moments with an appealing warmth and lightness of touch. In the more recent film, Baumbach seems less sure of his material, and the dim indoor lighting and handheld camerawork do no favors for a film that is already rather too messy to start with. The writing, as well, is considerably less sharp this time around and the director too content to bask in his characters' sliminess without offsetting his studied cynicism with the earlier film's redeeming warmth. While Squid's observations on adolescence and literary smugness had the sharpness of truth, Margot seems somehow opaque, its situations far less clearly sketched. Baumbach, on an off day, can still write dialogue better than most, but the whole thing, from the scattershot visual presentation to the insistent ugliness of the characters, results in an unusually sour undertaking.

5. The Simpsons Movie
The Simpsons
may have been the best thing on television fifteen years ago, but it hasn't been much good for at least the last five. Substituting a racier (but less funny) brand of humor for the shrewd, gently satiric observations of American society that were the program's trademark, the show continues to slog limply on towards its inevitable cancellation. Still, there was hope that the film version would revive some of the bite of the franchise's glory days, but instead it plays like an extended episode of the program as it exists today. Half-baked political satire mixes with crude, unfunny gags and the film veers completely off-course with an extended sequence set in Alaska from which it never recovers. With this film and its obnoxious marketing tie-ins, the final collapse of The Simpsons is, at least, achieved.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Zabriskie Point

Michelangelo Antonioni's lone American production, 1970's Zabriskie Point, has long been regarded as a sort of ill-conceived folly blighting the director's otherwise unblemished body of work; but, viewed today, it looks a lot better than most films of the period, including its celebrated predecessor, Blowup, the filmmaker's commercially successful, but somewhat limpid look at existential uncertainty in swinging London. In the later film, the director may show little facility in handling the romantic interaction of his two leads (excepting a surrealistic sex scene in Death Valley), but he gets just about everything else right: the smog and ad-saturated Los Angeles cityscape, the mutual racial distrust of 1960s America, the expansive beauty of the desert and the efforts of corporations to sell it - and stages several of his finest set-pieces. Antonioni's status as an outsider hardly results in any sort of unique perspective on the material (and indeed his insights into 1960s counterculture are not really much different from any number of other contemporary films), but he brings to the proceedings a feel for place-specific detail, a wry humor and an eye both expansive and exact, in addition to a final destructive glee that stands as a fantastic antidote to the film's acknowledged triumph of corporate over idealistic culture.

The thin thread of plot - more anecdote than story - comes from a news item the director read about a student shot to death by the police after returning a plane he stole from a Los Angeles airfield for a joyride in the desert. In the picture's first scene, a debate among student radicals filmed as handheld vérité, the young man, Mark (Mark Frechette), responds to the criticism of black leaders against the alleged lack of real commitment of their white counterparts by declaring himself willing to die and then staging a dramatic exit. That scene, with real-life Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver delivering the denunciation, captures in just a few minutes of screen time the racial and socio-economic divisions in the radical movement, a fascinating bit of pseudo-documentary footage, even if its themes are not picked up again in the picture. In fact, the rest of the film takes a largely un-ideological view of revolutionary activity. Although Mark eventually fulfills his declaration and dies at the hands of the cops, there is no indication that he died as part of any committed revolutionary gesture and indeed his political motives throughout the film are never really illuminated (even if he gives his name to the police as Karl Marx). Antonioni's refusal to grant his would-be radicals an ideological consistency becomes a wonderfully ambiguous stance. While he offers a definitive denunciation of murderous policeman and greedy land developers, he is deliberately fuzzy on the motives of their adversaries. It is difficult to tell exactly where Antonioni stands in relation to his characters, but this sense of uncertainty positions us exactly in a world where, while it is easy to identify the villains, it is difficult to locate a morally unambiguous opposition.

The initial meeting between the two romantic leads, and one of Antonioni's several expert stagings, occurs via a round of North by Northwest airplane stunts conceived as a form of foreplay. As Daria (Daria Halrpin) drives through the desert, Mark orchestrates a series of near-misses as his airplane continually skirts the top of her car. Antonioni is fine in handling his romantic leads as long as their interactions are confined to dumb gestures. Unfortunately, the aerial acrobatics soon give way to a rather limpid verbal exchange but, after quickly discharging the necessary dialogue, the director turns to another memorable set-piece, an epic love scene set in the dunes of Death Valley, unfettered copulation imagined as cosmic orgy. As the leads begin their love making, Antonioni intercuts close-ups of a voluptuous tangle of bodies against the sandy background that expands Mark and Daria's individual joining into a universal sexual expression. The young leads may be too ordinary as individuals to excite much interest, but the interweaving of their well-shaped bodies, multiplied to encompass a dozen such couplings, creates a decisively paradisaical moment as Antonioni finds suitable visual expression for his beautiful, vapid couple.

In Antonioni's California, the desert stands at the opposite end of the landscape from the ad-choked freeways of Los Angeles and Alfio Contini's camera spends equal time lingering on the billboards and traffic jams in the city and the skies and dunes of the desert, granting full visual expression to these opposed conceptions. While the former is conceived as a space of violent unrest, the latter, at least initially, offers a form of Edenic escape and becomes the only possible setting for such a radical gesture as Antonioni's love-in. Still, this setting is subject to the perpetual threat of corporate developers who plan on turning the desert into a simulated community for weary city-dwellers. That Daria works for a particularly aggressive developer (and becomes her boss' lover) complicates her sympathies, even if she only took the job because she "needed the bread". Still, after she hears of Mark's death, she loses her final illusions about her position and, in the film's spectacular finale, imagines the explosion of the corporation's Phoenix-area compound. In one of the film's early shots, Antonioni fixes Daria's boss (Rod Taylor) against his office window, framed majestically by a particularly blue sky, a golden skyscraper and the American flag, establishing as well as any gesture on the actor's part the character's embodiment of an ultimate corporate power. In the final scene, this sense of power and all its accoutrements meets its (imagined) end. As Daria stages a mental picture of the destruction, Antonioni follows a half-dozen shots of rather ordinary explosions (all taken from different angles) with a series of slow-motion captures of capitalistic debris flying apart against a smoky blue background.

Antonioni's two great articulations of the counter-cultural ethos, the love-in and the mass explosion, are both staged as fantasy sequences, an acknowledgement of the corporate reality that stands to win out over any more idealistic conception and of its inevitable corollaries: the replacement of the landscape by a reductive simulacrum fitted to a modern suburban sensibility and the elimination of the possibility of unfettered romantic coupling in favor of an uninspired domestic lovemaking. Still, the director, working in the fantasy medium of film, retains the privilege of the last word, and as he slowly lingers on the destruction of refrigerators, designer clothing, cereal boxes and electronics before turning to a final glimpse of a desert sunset, he gives delirious expression to a destructive fantasy that marks a final desperate act on behalf of an exhausted struggle. As 1969 spills over into 1970, the fulfillment of the corporate project may be all but complete, but in the world of Antonioni's cinema, the counter-gesture of orgiastic destruction remains a last, lingering expression of revolt, a defiance whose imagined triumph stands as the film's final, hallucinatory image and as the director's ultimate articulation of a comprehensively frustrated idealism.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


How can we justify the existence of a film that consists of little more than a constant series of sadistic sexual tortures and humiliations, a film that devotes a lengthy segment to forced coprophagia and that is finally unbearable in its despairing view of the human condition? Notwithstanding the numerous efforts at interpretation that have attempted to make the film, if not more palatable, at least comprehensible as an artistic gesture, Salò is ultimately impervious to understanding unless we are content to view it solely as a personal expression of rage and disgust on a level unachieved in any other screen effort. Whatever the trigger for these emotions (and given Pasolini's insistence on setting his film in 1944 Italy and identifying his torturers as fascists, the explanations offered for the film are generally political), it is the absolute expression the filmmaker gives them that counts. Trying to justify the film as some sort of comment on the persistence of fascism in contemporary Europe or as a statement about consumer culture (although its political context can't be entirely dismissed, it should not be overemphasized either) makes nonsense of what Pasolini is actually giving us, an ultimate vision of power and debasement that defies all efforts at rationalization.

Pasolini's aggressive conceit is compounded by the shrewd way he draws the viewer into the film through a program of forced sexual identification. The acts being committed may be indefensible, but they are, at least initially, arousing and Pasolini is unwilling to deny this inherent attraction in even the most horrifying sequences. The eighteen victims are evenly split between male and female, so as to appeal to viewers of all orientations and they are all young and well-shaped. In an early sequence, the victims are selected, brought in front of the four Masters and then forced to "audition" for the men (and viewing audience) by stripping and having their physical merits assessed. Later, this voyeuristic program is repeated when the victims are again stripped bare and arranged in a semi-circular pattern with only their buttocks exposed. The men walk around the semi-circle, judging which victim has the "best ass". The judgement is based solely on the feature in question, since the rest of each victim, including his face, is hidden. Thus the individual, reduced to a body in the initial scene, is further debased by having his identity defined by a single feature, a feature frequently viewed with shame and disgust. In both scenes, the film's audience finds its voyeuristic mirror in the Masters since, like them, its members are (presumably) fully clothed and watching the (at least occasionally erotic) proceedings from a safe vantage point. As a singular expression of disgust, Salò is harrowing enough, but when the viewer is so thoroughly included in that disgust, it becomes almost unbearable.

As a work whose content consists principally of sadistic torture, Salò was certainly exceptional in 1975, but today this content has largely been mainstreamed through the efforts of such "torture-porn" offerings as Hostel and Saw, films which are no more justifiable than Pasolini's. So what separates the earlier film from today's offerings, apart from the fact that it's considerably more imaginative? Authorial intention, as far as it comes across on-screen, would seem to be one of the chief differences. While the current crop of products evince a calculated nihilism, Salò feels like the genuine expression of a single outraged individual. Directors like Eli Roth cook their product for maximum saleability, concocting a crude series of bloody gags and a cool cynicism to match, satisfying their largely youthful audience who, they believe, wants to have its blithely nihilistic world-view confirmed. In addition, such directors seem to take a real delight in staging their bloody humiliations. If the directorial presence in Hostel is aligned with the torturers, in Salò it seems more in line with the victim. It is not that Pasolini evinces any sympathy on behalf of the victims - if anything, he is more brutal with them than Roth - but, his anguished presentation of their suffering implies a degree of personal identification that doesn't extend to the Masters. Regardless of its author's actual mindset at the time of filming (and whatever insight biographical accounts can offer us doesn't change what comes across on the screen) Salò registers as a brutal howl of pain, a pronouncement of a despair personally felt. In expressing this despair on the screen, the director takes, not the position of a gleeful torturer, but that of a committed artist who, in staging the humiliations, forces himself to experience them as well. It is this personal stake in the project that, if not able to provide the film with a justification that it doesn't need, at least endows it with a certain importance, the importance of an ultimate, deeply felt aesthetic gesture.

This post was selected as a link of the day on The House Next Door for December 6th.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly may consist of a self-consciously "inspirational" story overlaid with art-house trappings, but the story is, for the most part, consistently compelling and, visually, the film is wonderfully effusive, even if director Julian Schnabel occasionally seems to be striving too hard for effect. Schnabel builds his film from unlikely narrative material, relating the real-life story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Almaric), chief editor of Elle France who, suddenly paralyzed by a stroke, retains movement in only his left eye. Overcoming his initial urge to surrender (one of his first communications is "I want to die") and through the selfless aid of a series of more-or-less interchangeable women (his speech therapist, his amanuensis, the mother of his children), he adjusts to his situation, learns to communicate by blinking and eventually pens a best-selling memoir, the basis for Schnabel's film, only to die ten days after its publication. If this set-up sounds rife with sentimental possibilities, the director does not always try to avoid them, but, by relating so much of Bauby's narrative through a carefully-constructed visual program, he manages to find an effective solution to the problem of filming a premise so dangerous in its possibilities for bathetic indulgence.

Aesthetically, the film is unusually rich, if a little overloaded. If Schnabel tends to subordinate character to visual presentation, we can hardly fault his priorities, since they offer a welcome corrective to the typical middle-brow art-film which pays lip service to aesthetics and expends its efforts in propping up its dull characters with superficial complexities. As Bauby realizes the two assets remaining to him, his memory and his imagination, Schnabel begins conjuring up the rich inner life of the character, a reverie comprised of personal recollection, private symbolism and vivid fantasy. Apart from the titular images, recurring shots of a man in a diving suit sinking underwater and a bright panorama of flowers and butterflies, we get the attractions of an 19th century Empress in period dress walking down a hospital hallway, a hallucinatory funeral, images of glaciers melting into the sea as well as the same footage played in reverse and a series of flashbacks from Bauby's former life, often set to pop music.

The film's engagement with the real-world present is conceived in two aesthetic models, the first-person and the third-person. The scenes shot directly from Bauby's perspective are overlaid with a blurry filter, reflecting his imperfect vision and favor crudely-darting camera jabs mirroring his rapid eye-movements. The third-person scenes are likewise subjected to a certain visual muting, mitigating the self-consciousness of Schnabel's occasionally too-studied compositions. Many of these shots are arranged as stand-alone images, like a repeated seascape with Bauby in his wheel-chair sitting on a raised platform surrounded by waves. Outside of such shots, Schnabel generally keeps his camera moving with a series of graceful dollies that provide a nice contrast with the crude camera-thrusts in the first-person segments. The subdued color-palette and refusal to provide visual immediacy (which keep all Schnabel's images at a certain remove from the viewer) only give way to a greater luminosity in several of the fantasy sequences, an appropriate gesture for representing the inner life of a man forced to live for such mental pleasures. When the director grants us the central image of the butterfly (a symbol for Bauby of his triumph over his situation), he switches to a bright, unfiltered presentation that instantly registers as a shock and justifies the use of a rather simplistic symbolic program by rendering the potency of its personal meaning in all its vivid immediacy.

Still, the whole thing occasionally seems a little too calculated, a little too neatly constructed for maximum viewer response. Bauby's change from self-pitying whiner to sympathetic optimist is effected with a startling abruptness early on in the picture so as to quickly dispel any unpleasantness of character that might get in the way of the film's smooth operation on its audience. The first third of the film is shot (almost) entirely from Bauby's limited point of view, with the blurred shots and constricted range confining us within his narrow perspective. Then Bauby suddenly announces that he will no longer pity himself and the film's viewpoint shifts to the third-person, reflecting his refusal of his previous self-absorption. This may be a neat trick, but it is too easily accomplished. The viewer rightly expects some sort of intermediate stage in his transformation, some sense of struggle, but Schnabel refuses this satisfaction in the interest of getting the narrative quickly out of the way, so he can focus on the (admittedly more interesting) question of Bauby's mental imagery. Schnabel's neatest manipulation though is saving his dramatic payoff for the film's conclusion. The unfolding of the narrative carefully skirts the circumstances of Bauby's paralysis which the film intentionally withholds until its final moments, when it offeres a comprehensive reconstruction of the event. Schnabel's presentation of the incident is thankfully restrained, but his belief that the viewer is so curious to find out the details that it is necessary to present this information as a sort of final revelation seems like an uneccesary presumption about the audience's narrative/structural requirements. Still, considering Schnabel's refusal at nearly every other moment to make the standard assumptions about his audience - that they want the narrative material milked for all its sentimental possibility, that they want their stories conveyed primarily through dialogue and simple action rather than through a complex program of evocative imagery, that they are unwilling to accept challenging formal strategies- his occasional manipulative indiscretions seem like thoroughly pardonable offenses.

Monday, November 26, 2007

I'm Not There

Writing about Todd Haynes' 1995 film Safe, Jonathan Rosenbaum argued that "Haynes' hatred for most of what he's showing [upper middle-class California life] is his real subject" and not the supposedly central question of "environmental illness." With Haynes' new feature, I'm Not There, the real subject seems to be, not the "lives and time of Bob Dylan" (as the film's subtitle has it), but the director's delight in his own perceived cleverness. Splitting his central figure into six different characters, each highlighting a different aspect of Dylan's persona, Haynes' film cribs its various aesthetic conceptions (a different conception for each figure) entirely from within the world of cinema and builds its dialogue from a combination of Dylan lyrics and a series of gnomic utterances which are more frustratingly impenetrable than evocative. The result is an unsatisfying pop artifact, a work that refuses to engage with any conception of the world that exists outside the cinema (or television), that strings its audience along by flattering its ability to spot the references to Dylan's music and biography and to the film's catalogue of cinematic allusions and that, finally, doesn't tell us anything about its purported subject that we don't already think we know.

The film's central sequence, the one that conforms most readily to the image of Dylan that tends to prevail in the popular imagination, provides the film's most transparent display of many of its essential weaknesses. Channelling its subject circa-1965, Cate Blanchett plays a churlish rock singer named Jude Quinn who speaks in an indecipherable jumble that mixes lyrics from Dylan's oeuvre with a series of cryptic formulations and plays like a parody of the singer's persona in D. A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. Ultimately, this segment fails to add anything to our understanding of either the historical or the mythical Dylan. It repeats the shopworn conception of its subject as an impenetrable personality given to chiding the media and fans who want to confine him to a single, manageable construction, but this conception fails to take us beyond Pennebaker's film and only serves to perpetuate the misleading and superficial image we already have of Dylan from a myriad of inferior sources. If Haynes reaches for the most obvious point of reference for his imagining of his principle figure, he calls on an equally unilluminating source for his re-creation of the time period. His presentation of the 1960s takes place in a simplified version of the world of Richard Lester (he alludes directly to Petulia and A Hard Day's Night) and reduces that director's milieu to a generic view of the psychedelic parties and iconic figures that have come to represent the period in the simplest version of the public imagination. Refusing to present either its subject or its setting in any way that isn't sanctified by the conceptions of other films, Haynes' self-consciously referential approach winks at viewers savvy enough to catch the allusions, while confining our conceptions of a complex time period and cultural figure to what has already been well established by previous screen presentations.

But this is only one version of the Dylan legacy. Are the other five any more illuminating? The simple answer is no. While few are as disappointing as the Jude section, practically all repeat its simplification and cinematic/pop-referential strategies. In one sequence, Christian Bale plays a folk-singer named Jack Rollins meant to recall the Dylan of 1963 and 1964. The segment is shot as a fake-documentary and recreates the biography of his real-life counterpart with some pointed changes designed as hip in-jokes between Haynes and his audience. For example, the savvy viewer is expected to laugh at the altered titles of such Dylan albums as The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin'. Except for the fun Haynes has in changing these titles and in playing (rather unimaginatively) with the documentary form, the segment really has no reason for existing. In another section, Heath Ledger plays an actor who plays Jack Rollins in a film, a meta-theatrical ploy less clever than it sounds. His wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) spends much of her time watching news broadcasts on television, a device that Haynes uses to fill in the historical background of the period, but in an inevitably simplified manner, since the news reports merely repeat iconic images and are designed to regurgitate the "reality" we have become accustomed to believing in thanks to the perpetuation of these too-familiar representations. Like the cultural conception of the 1960s drawn from the world of the cinema in the Jude section, this presentation of the political events of the decade draws on a similarly media-sanctioned conception that further reveals Haynes' desire to limit his concerns to the world as understood from movies and television and his refusal to grapple with any reality outside this self-contained world, both in terms of his central figure and the time period he covers.

Finally, there is nothing particularly striking in Haynes' various aesthetic conceptions. If each segment purports to employ a different visual strategy, they all end up looking pretty much the same. The bright greenery of the Woody Guthrie section figures later in the Billy the Kid segment. The garish indoor lighting of the Jack Rollins sequence is repeated in the Robbie segment. With the exception of the two black-and-white sections (the Jude sequence and another sequence where a figure identified as Arthur Rimbaud stands trial), there is little to differentiate Haynes' various conceptions. And none of them looks very good to start with. Unlike the unified visual presentation of the director's vastly superior Far From Heaven, I'm Not There partakes of an anything-goes aesthetic that results in poor staging of individual shots, a dearth of interesting compositions and a general confusion over which particular aesthetic components belong in which specific conception. For a film that pretends to attempt something daring with its visual scheme, I'm Not There looks surprisingly drab.

This visual monotony, combined with a correspondingly unilluminating conception of its central figure and time period, results in the director's first real misfire. That the film has received such universally laudatory reviews is indicative of a willingness on the part of many critics to overlook a poorly conceived and unreflective historical program, a program which reinforces a static and conservative view of history, and a general acceptance of a cinematic conception that is content to limit its engagement to other films and ignore interaction with any version of an external world. With the prominence of directors like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, films whose cinematic milieus are drawn entirely from the world of other movies have become an unfortunate staple of the American cinema. That these films often illuminate more about their directors' perceived cleverness than the world as understood from either within or without the cinema, seems irrelevant to the many viewers who are all too happy to be taken in by their surface manipulations. Haynes' film not only simplifies its cultural history, blunting the impact of its iconoclastic subject by presenting him through the clichés by which we are already accustomed to view him, but keeps us firmly locked within a media-dictated universe that prevents its creator from getting at any essential truth about either Bob Dylan or about the world that he lived in.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Redacted, Brian De Palma's furious indictment of the Iraq war, couches a straightforward story of a group of GIs who rape a 15-year old Iraqi girl and murder her and her family, in a sophisticated formal framework. The film's central conceit finds the entirety of its images filtered through an array of mediating devices designed to distance the viewer from the on-screen action and cause him to question the validity of the film's catalogue of images. Among the filters through which we view the work are the handheld camera of aspiring filmmaker and army private Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a series of security cameras, a mock French art-documentary and various Internet sites. The stated goal of De Palma's formal experimentation is to call into question the legitimacy of the media's portrayal of the Iraqi conflict which forces viewers to assess the war through an inevitably biased filter (whether imposed by the U.S. or foreign governments or by individual ideologues), a theme reinforced by an early on-screen conversation in which the soldiers mock the idea of Salazar's camera as an instrument for recording the "truth". De Palma's formal design not only forces the viewer to reflect on the nature of the war images whose authenticity he is expected to take as a given, but offers a useful corrective to the reports of the mainstream U.S. media by filtering the footage through sources of various national provenance and different levels of official and unofficial discourse.

And yet, De Palma's skillful formal manipulations are undercut by his simplistic understanding of his material (his various sources offer more-or-less the same viewpoint) and his straightforward exposition. If the different filters are designed to make us question the validity of official presentations of the war, this implied skepticism is not translated to De Palma's own presentation which plays out in predictable polemical fashion and which admits of no such interrogation. The director's formalist gesture works as a distancing strategy, a device which asks the viewer to regard the film's content with a certain degree of irony, but such an approach seems ill-suited to a story as unambiguous as Redacted, especially since De Palma's tendentious attitude towards his material precludes precisely that ironic viewpoint suggested by his formal framework. The film's salient feature may ultimately be the disconnect between its simplistic content and its multi-faceted form, a form which promises a nuanced understanding of the material that is at odds with the director's blunt perspective. De Palma's formalism is remarkably inventive, but it belongs in another film, one more open to a corresponding multiplicity of viewpoint.

Much has been made about De Palma's crude presentation of his material. The stock characters that comprise his cast and the lack of nuance in his understanding of the complexities of war have been endlessly enumerated by the film's many detractors, but in this crudity lies an undeniable power. As J. Hoberman noted "the most authentic thing about Redacted is the rage with which it was made." As an instructive presentation of the "reality" of the war, it may be useless, but as an expression of the director's anger (which may ultimately be the film's real subject), it achieves a rare force. The rape sequence, despite the murky filter provided by Salazar's helmet camera, provides, with the sole exception of the final scene in The Wayward Cloud, the year's most disturbing on-screen violence. Although its staging may feel like an unfair manipulation of the viewer's reponse, slickly designed to further the director's exhortative ends, only such a brutal expression of rage can provide a fit correlative to De Palma's anguished conception of the circumstances surrounding the war.

But De Palma's simplistic understanding of his material finally works against him. As Paul Arthur demonstrates in a recent piece in Film Comment, the director's portrayal of the rapist/murderers as vulgar, immoral rednecks whose characters are fixed from the film's start blunts his indictment of the war machinery since the criminals' acts are not shaped by the military culture, but are the inevitable expressions of their essential personalities. The director's one critique of the military apparatus (as opposed to the actions of the individual soldier) comes when a conscience stricken GI tries to report the rape and runs into a hierarchical machinery designed to protect the military from any such unflattering charges, but the film's blame rests largely with its monstrously caricatured soldiers. As Arthur notes, the film "turns its murderous rampage into a weird aberration, something perpetrated by monsters exhumed from an imagination steeped in hack-Hollywood action clichés." Salazar, who attends the massacre, his camera rolling, as a supposedly objective witness (thus indicting the filmmaker who observes but doesn't interfere with the perpetration of atrocities), may serve as a example of the innocent GI who, caught up in the exceptional circumstances of war, is brought to participate in immoral actions, but De Palma's primary interest in this character is through his capacity as video recorder. Ultimately, the perpetrators are no more than the stock figures common to nearly every war picture since the 1980s. To his credit, De Palma acknowledges this reliance on shopworn models through the mouthpiece of an angry teen video blogger, but the mere acknowledgement doesn't negate the act. This refusal to bring to the material any hint of a nuanced understanding may add to the film's forceful sense of outrage, but it prevents the work from serving as anything more than an expression of personal anguish, the impotent cry of a lone individual.

Monday, November 19, 2007

What We Mean When We Call a Film "Boring"

The vocabulary we use to talk about films fundamentally defines our attitudes towards the cinema. As we watch a movie and begin to formulate an opinion, we call upon our own personal vocabulary, mentally assigning the film to one or more evaluative categories based on the different descriptors we apply to the work. Since most of the vocabulary used in thinking and writing about film has become hopelessly trite thanks to years of overuse (think of unilluminating expressions like "a meditation on..." or "an exercise in style"), and generally focuses on what makes a film similar to any number of other works rather than defining what makes it unique, we tend to bring stale, passive attitudes towards the viewing experience and continue to think about the most challenging films in the same old terms. When these challenging films don't fit any of the old categories, we fall back on dismissive formulations to invalidate the work, since we have little or no prior cinematic grounding from which to evaluate it. (We may say, for example, that a film is "pretentious"). The directors of these films may have employed a new cinematic vocabulary in their work but, too often, we are still locked into our old critical vocabulary which has become insufficient to describe many of the important contemporary works being made. A failure to adjust the language in which we think about film inevitably leads to a failure to adjust to the new aesthetic strategies being employed by the world's leading filmmakers.

One of the more dangerous accusations that an unreflective viewer can inflict on a film is the charge of "boredom". The question of a film's being "boring" - or in its euphemistic critical formulations "slow moving" or "deliberately paced" - poses a unique problem, since the speaker is often less than clear as to what he means when he uses the term. Saying a film is "boring" is not merely to abjure the responsibility of actively engaging a given work, it is to fundamentally misunderstand the proper uses of film viewership. Writing in 1965, Susan Sontag noted, "the charge of boredom is really hypocritical. There is, in a sense, no such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration. And the new languages which the interesting art of our time speaks are frustrating to the sensibilities of most educated people." She was speaking specifically about the art of Antonioni and Beckett, artists that forged a new vocabulary (cinematic and literary) to challenge the by-then largely assimilated language of the modernist movement that was beginning to weigh down much of contemporary art. Today, the question of a unique cinematic "language" that is often dismissed as "boring" is no less an issue than it was in the 1960s, as most of the best filmmakers working today, Béla Tarr, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Jia Zhang-ke, Alexsandr Sokurov and Tsai Ming-Liang, employ an aesthetic approach (long takes, an emphasis on strong visual composition, a refusal to grant primacy to traditional notions of character and narrative) likely to frustrate those unwilling to engage the filmmakers on their own terms. When someone says of one of these filmmakers that his works are boring, he is betraying his inability (or unwillingness) to respond to the filmmaker's singular aesthetic presentation. What the viewer means is not "this film is boring," but "I lack the cinematic grounding to engage this film's unique language". Outside of a small number of the world's more discerning critics, the works of these filmmakers have largely failed to connect not only with a majority of viewers (educated or otherwise) but with many short-sighted film writers as well, who employ a modified version of the vocabulary of their lay counterparts to the same dismissive ends.

To describe a film as boring is, in many cases, to assert a definition of the cinema that is hopelessly narrow: film as a narrative-centered medium, relying heavily on dialogue to grant its characters the illusion of psychological complexity; a medium that presents a closed, self-sufficient world and is carefully engineered for easy viewer consumption. There aren't too many critics who would, in theory, subscribe to such a limiting definition of the art form, but when writers like Todd McCarthy take filmmakers to task for refusing to adhere to these very limitations, we know that something is very wrong with the predominant critical attitude towards contemporary cinema. When McCarthy writes something like "the various influences of Chantal Ackerman [sic], the Dardenne Brothers and Bela [sic] Tarr have moved numerous filmmakers to abandon the shaping and dramatizing of events in favor of recording mundane daily activity and presenting repetitive behavior ad nauseum" in his 2005 report from the Cannes Festival, he is again giving expression to a fallacious understanding of the medium. By insisting that only films that "dramatize" their material are worthwhile, McCarthy and writers with a similar critical orientation lay the groundwork for damaging accusations of boredom. Granted, every filmmaker that follows the example of Akerman, the Dardennes or Tarr may not be as successful as their models, but they are still attempting to speak in a fresh cinematic language, a language that may seem "mundane" or "repetitive" (two synonyms for "boring") to its detractors, but is perpetually invigorating for those willing to engage it, just as the language of Antonioni and Godard was for receptive viewers in the 1960s. Those who insist on "traditional" passive notions of film viewership will always fall back on their stock vocabulary (or new variations thereof), but, by doing so, they automatically preclude themselves from properly experiencing the truly important work being done in the medium.

But the descriptor "boring" does have its critical uses. It applies quite nicely to a work like Pan's Labyrinth, a film that mystifyingly received near universal critical acclaim upon its 2006 release. Clinging to a tight narrative structure and conventionally defined characters (that is, given a consistent, if shallow, psychological grounding), Labyrinth everywhere plays it safe, confining itself to too narrow a set of boundaries and then failing to generate any interest within these boundaries. Certainly a film that follows traditional notions of cinematic storytelling can achieve great success, but it must do something with its narrative elements other than simply allow them to unfold in a predictable chronology. The film presents two levels of narrative reality - the brutish existence of resistance fighters following the Spanish Civil War and the fantasy life of the young girl, Ofelia - but both play out without surprises, the clichés of political oppression alternating with the clichés of the fairy tale. The Francoist is a typically brutal chauvinist, one of the most ordinary screen villains ever created. The girl is a poorly conceived example of the typical "imaginative" kid. A film can be wholly successful without developing interesting characters (and in many of the best films of today, character "depth" is largely beside the point), but in the terms set by Guillermo del Toro's film, the terms of strict narrative development, character inetivably plays a central role and del Toro seems content to rely on the least imaginative conceptions to build his principal figures. The film's interest may not lie in characterization, but it needs to lie somewhere. The director seems to have saved all his imagination for the creation of the mythical creatures that inhabit Ofelia's fantasy world, because it is only in these vividly imagined figures (and the accompanying makeup and costuming) that the film generates any interest, visual or otherwise. What finally makes the film so dull is its insistence on drawing extremely narrow limits to its cinematic conception and then failing to do anything worthwhile within those limits. A failure even within its own highly constricted terms, Pan's Labyrinth is a film for which the frequently mis-applied descriptor of "boring" fits all too well.

This post was selected as a "link of the day" for December 2nd, 2007 on the excellent collaborative blog The House Next Door. It generated a lively discussion both on that site and right here on The Cine File consisting of (mostly) intelligent commentary. Check it out here.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Southland Tales

In the end, it's just one more apocalypse fantasy. But Richard Kelly's sprawling, satirical pop sci-fi epic Southland Tales cuts such a wide swath through our political-cultural landscape, fills the screen with such an unassimilable mass of information and is so insistent on playing the whole thing for laughs that, even though it offers little more than a superficial treatment of its vast catalogue of topical concerns, the overall effect is of an overloaded, wonderfully skewed, but decidedly pointed projection of the fears and fantasies of contemporary America.

After opening with footage of a family barbecue (shot as a mock home-movie) that gives way to an unexpected nuclear attack on Abilene, Texas and the onset of World War III, the film shifts gears to bring us up to date on the state of global affairs in a sequence that quickly establishes Kelly's information-saturated attack. Taking its cue from Godard films like La Chinoise, Southland Tales assaults us with more data than we can reasonably assimilate. But Kelly's film ties this sense of information overload specifically to the mass media whose dulling assault on our sensibilities Kelly simultaneously approximates and critiques. A mock news broadcast, the screen littered with text, fills us in on the ensuing events, the ongoing war with Iraq, Iran and other Middle-Eastern powers and the curtailing of civil liberties at home. A key recurring image in the film's iconography of media-saturation finds Nanna Mae-Frost (Miranda Richardson), director of the newly appointed government agency (USIDent) responsible for controlling all the country's information portals, seated in front of a dozen television screens each tuned to a different image. Mirroring the device popularized by CNN, many of the screens offer simultaneously three distinct pieces of information, an image, a caption and an update from an unrelated story at the screen's bottom. The concurrent barrage of information, which the viewer cannot be expected to fully process and the tight control under which it's placed create a unique situation in which we are simultaneously given too much and too little information. The result is a confused state of affairs in which informed analysis is all but eliminated as a possibility for a nation's citizenry.

Of its varied concerns, the film spends the most time negotiating the trade-off between personal liberty and government control in the face of the constant threat of annihilation. The discussion is crystallized around the upcoming vote on Proposition 69 (the bill's title played for sophomoric humor) which aims to reduce the nearly limitless powers granted USIDent following the nuclear attacks. The debate plays out largely through a series of television commercials, political discourse pointedly given its principal expression through the detritus of mass media. In one ad, a redneck with a shotgun asks the camera "do you think your personal privacy is worth more than my family's safety from terrorist attack?" and then proceeds to threaten anyone who would challenge his priorities. But the film's concerns take in far more than the civil liberties debate; among the myriad of topics covered are the Iraq war, alternative energy sources, drug addiction, television punditry, police aggression, the space-time continuum and the ensuing apocalypse, the last prefigured in a series of quotations from the Book of Revelations that a monotonal Justin Timberlake invokes at various intervals throughout the film. With such a comprehensive catalogue of concerns, Kelly is understandably prevented from treating any at length. Rather, by mashing such an overwhelming range of discourse into one undigested mixture and not worrying about such lesser concerns as coherence, he builds a confusing, disjointed but powerfully resonant picture of our society, a society that combines stultifying government control with a barely-checked self-destructive impulse.

Kelly fills out his cast with such pop figures as The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), Timberlake, Bai Ling and Mandy Moore, but rather than subject his unlikely actors to a judgemental irony, he mines their personae for their iconic cultural significance. The Rock trades his signature eye-wink for a less certain gesture, a nervous rubbing together of his fingertips that becomes a running gag, but it is his status as a media icon that counts, his presence expanding the film's inclusive cultural landscape. Beyond these figures, the work is overloaded with characters and plotlines. The various strands may be defiantly incoherent, but, after enduring their separate adventures, the characters are all herded together for the film's impressive conclusion, the onset of apocalypse in downtown Los Angeles. As rioters surround the Staples Center and the city starts to burn, the governmental figures float above the fray in a sleek zeppelin, its safety undermined by an upended ice cream truck magically floating nearby. Kelly alternates footage detailing the action from ground level, aboard the zeppelin and from an unspecified aerial point of view, the latter shots bringing the fantasy of annihilation, the destruction of Los Angeles so frequently imagined in film, into full view. As the rioters swarm the streets, they register on the screen as barely discernible, slow-moving splotches eating away at the city, while the glory of the fully lit metropolis turns to an even more glorious fire as the high-rise buildings begin to burn and the zeppelin is consumed in flames. This vision of apocalypse, effected from within, even as the city faces the external threats of nuclear warfare and environmental instability, registers as the final expression of the collective deathwish of American society and the culmination of the picture's endless catalogue of contemporary ills. In the end, if we find Kelly's imposingly inclusive vision too much for us to fully assimilate, we can't fail to recognize ourselves in his splintered, disturbing and very comical portrait of a world inexorably committed to its own destruction.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

No Country for Old Men

At its best, No Country for Old Men comes off as a sensational fast-paced actioner that happens to look terrific. At its worst, it finds the Coen Brothers wallowing in their trademark indulgences - sketching a condescending gallery of rural caricatures designed for the ironic amusement of their pseudo-sophisticate audience and betraying a cynically concocted attitude towards violence which combines hyperstylization and exactly-detailed gross-out gags to ensure a rise from the viewer, the preferred reaction being a mixture of laughter and groans present in equal measure. Still, at least until the film's final third, the Coens' brisk pacing and strong visual program swallows up any of these other concerns in a whirlwind thrill-ride, a wholly successful entry in the action genre which achieves its greatest success within the limits of the genre rather than through any attempt to transcend them.

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's rather forgettable novel, the central action of the story consists of a chase across Texas that spills over the border into Mexico: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across two million dollars from a botched drug deal and is pursued for the rest of the film by the psychopathic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The chase device allows the Coens to eschew their usual method of characterization, allowing their lead figures to simply exist without burdening them with one or more of the irritating quirks that the filmmakers' generally assign to their characters - the Midwestern wholesomeness (and accent) of Marge Gunderson and the squeamish stupidity of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, the exaggerated naïveté of Norville Barnes in The Hudsucker Proxy, the condescending self-righteousness of Barton Fink. Here the Coens subsume character in action - the men of the film count in so much as they act. Surprisingly, the filmmakers succeed by hewing to the demands of the genre (at least until the film's final act) - creating suspense, handling pacing, delivering the expected payoffs - rather than using the genre framework as a springboard for their trademark pop culture musings. Chigurh may be a typical villain, defined by the pleasure he takes in his villainy, but, with his unchanging expression, his bass voice and his absurdly asymmetrical bowl-cut, he is a particularly effective one. Moss is completely ordinary, a man seized by ordinary motives (greed), involved in continual activity. The third major character, a sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones, is likewise wholly unremarkable but, in his case, the Coens attempt to add some heft to his characterization by including a few feeble conversations that fill in his backstory and which mar two of the film's three final scenes. In this film, the principals are too ordinary for the Coens to condescend to; the filmmakers refrain from providing them with those unwanted quirks that too often invite the audience to feel superior to their main characters whose idiosyncrasies mark them out as objects of ridicule. But, lest the Coens' sense of superiority find no outlet, they save the condescending impulse for a gallery of hapless supporting rubes. The exaggeratedly obese woman who works the desk at a trailer park, Moss' mother-in-law who says things like "it's unusual to see a Mexican in a suit", a dim-witted motel clerk, all are defined by their grotesque inferiorities which identify them as dispensable rural beings whose only use is as figures of amusement for the film's more sophisticated audience. They may be confined to the margins of the film this time around, but their presence is still cause for regret.

If the American cinema suffers from a general unconcern with the visual aspects of film, thankfully the Coen Brothers can not be accused of furthering this disturbing neglect. In the past, they have perhaps tended too frequently towards an overstylization which occasionally caused them to lose their feel for setting. In the current film, the filmmakers have no trouble evoking the landscapes of rural Texas and their strong visual achievement only strikes a wrong note during some of the violent discharges. The wide expanses, the garishly lit interiors, the framing of characters, all contribute to a work that is as visually assured as any American film of recent vintage. In one scene, Chigurh dips a rag in oil, sets it in a car's gas tank and lights it on fire. He slowly walks away from the car and enters a drugstore. As he goes through the doors, the Coens place him in the center foreground of the screen. In the right background, through a window, we see the car and a tiny flame coming from the gas tank, umemphatically set into the mise-en-scène. Suddenly, the car explodes and Chigurh, without breaking stride, continues walking and, the staff distracted by the explosion, goes behind the vacated counter to seize whatever drugs he needs. The scene, for all its expert staging, gains its power from the single image of the small square of flame set off against the blue of the car so matter-of-factly wedged into the screen's background. This little detail leads to the more conventional aftermath of a routine screen explosion, but it is the tiny flame rather than the ensuing conflagration that sticks in the mind. This eye for detail within a general framework of expansive exteriors and constricting interiors ensures that the film never lacks for visual interest.

But the Coens' visual inventiveness is put to more dubious use in the scenes that depict the gore-heavy aftermath of the film's frequent violent encounters. David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, another of year's most celebrated films, likewise included jolting gore-heavy violence but, if Cronenberg's film can't exactly be called a critique of violence, it at least calls upon viewers to question their attitude towards its on-screen portrayal. The Coens' sole concern with the uses of screen violence seems to be the reaction they can elicit from the viewer. As in the infamous wood-chipper sequence in Fargo, this reaction is often one of laughter, but not the sort of self-critical laughter that results from Cronenberg's absurdist presentation. This laughter is more akin to the yuks that Quentin Tarantino gets from his own violent scenes, an unreflective laughter predicated on the director's cleverness in presenting mutilated flesh. In one scene from the Coens' film, Chigurh gets in a car accident and afterwards sits to the side, writhing in agony. As two boys approach the scene, we notice a piece of bone sticking out from Chigurh's arm. But, even if we didn't notice, one of the boys is there to continually remind us, as he can only keep repeating "his bone's sticking out of his arm." The image of the bone, like the fountains of blood gurgling from Stephen Root's slit throat in an earlier scene, is a masterpiece of makeup calculated to achieve the maximum effect but, not merely horrifying as it would be in real life, it is stylized into an odd sort of beauty that only make the uses to which the filmmakers put it all the more disturbing. In a way, the boy who notices the bone is the Coens' ideal spectator. He seizes on the most sensational detail and rapt by its gory spell stands in willful ignorance of the situation's other concerns - the fact of the injured man's pain doesn't seem to bother him. The other boy, by contrast, shows a genuine concern and stands as the only figure in the film not consumed by selfish motives, but it is the first boy who mirrors our reaction to the situation, at least if we buy into the Coens' cynical shtick. But, even if we don't, even if we object to their uses of screen violence and their ironic condescension, their latest film offers enough excitement and visual pleasure to make it continually worth our while.