Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Streets of New Haven

In July of 2007, I found myself standing on Yale's campus dressed in a tweed jacket, a bow tie, knickerbockers and penny loafers, surrounded by probably 150 other similarly dressed individuals in the hot summer sun. No, this wasn't a costume party, and I hadn't fallen into a time warp, though it felt like I did - I was fortunate enough to be on the set for the what was the then unnamed fourth Indiana Jones picture, working as an extra, which still stands as amongst the most rewarding experiences of my life. Not just because it was about an exciting beginning to what I hope will be a long career in the making of motion pictures, but because I got to witness firsthand the directorial methods of a man I consider to be the greatest cinematic artist in the United States. Watching Steven Spielberg work his movie magic first hand was and is, quite frankly, the thrill of a lifetime - an experience that I'll never forget, and one I'll always be grateful for.

This saga began in May of 2007 when I noticed I had a missed call on my cell phone from a good friend of mine. Now, this guy is as close a friend as I have in this world, but he's not one to call you for anything, ever. You wanna see him, you have to do the initiating, but I like this individual so much that he's one of the few people for whom I'm actually willing to make that dreaded first phone call. But on this day, he called me, so I figured something must be up - maybe someone died, maybe he robbed a bank, who knew, but I knew it was something big if he was picking up the phone and calling me.

As it turned out, he did have big news, but not on the order that I could have possibly predicted - he told me that he'd just read that the next Indiana Jones movie was going to be shooting in New Haven, Connecticut, just an hour and a half away from where he and I live in New Jersey, and that there was an open casting call for extras. "Do you wanna go?", he asked me, clearly trying to contain his excitement - "Hell yes", I replied, not trying at all to contain my excitement. Here it was, one of the most anticipated and talked about movies of the decade, a film that had gone through endless stages of development hell, a movie that would reunite the legendary Lucas/Spielberg tandem, and we had a chance - however outside it may have been at the time - to be in it? There wasn't anything that could keep me away.

A few days later, he came by my house bright and early and we hit the road for New Haven. From where we live, it's about an hour and a half up Interstate 95, so it was an easy, relaxing trip. We parked somewhere on the street and headed for what I think was a Marriott and were shuffled into this room with lots of chairs where we filled out an application - which was, surprisingly enough, just like every other job application I'd filled out - and waited for it to be our turn to go talk to the casting directors. When our time came, I did what I usually do, got friendly with everyone and tried to endear myself to them in some way. They asked me if the distance would be an issue, I said absolutely not, that I had a car and was willing to make any and all arrangements necessary to work on the movie. My friend and I gave our headshots, and that was that. We headed back to Fort Lee, figuring we didn't have a shot, but happy that we tried at least.

Truthfully, over the course of the next few days it was the farthest thing from my mind. I'd more or less resigned myself to the fact that I wasn't going to get it - that there were people more qualified (i.e., better looking with more experience) and closer to New Haven than I. Then, while sitting at work one day, the phone rang and it was someone who worked for the casting agency, informing me that, yes, I had indeed been cast as an extra. I somehow managed to avoid screaming into the phone and deafening the poor fellow, and when I hung up the phone the first thing I did was call my friend to see if he'd received the same glorious phone call that I did. He did not. To this day, the fact that I was cast in the film and he was not is a source of heartbreak for me, a blemish on what is an otherwise perfect experience. I met more than a fair share of interesting people in my time working on the film, but ultimately, I did it alone. A few weeks later I made the drive up to New Haven, all by my myself this time, to get my hair cut and to get measured for my costume. I was given a date and time to come up in July, and until then, I waited for my day to come.

And when it did, I woke up before the sun was out and, once again, made the trip to New Haven, this time watching the sun rise as I drove. I arrived at the very same hotel that I had just a month prior, this time not as a hopeful but as an employed member of the cast of Indiana Jones IV. I went to get made up (an experience I was used to because of the little bit of acting I'd done in High School), then I went to get my costume. On my way out the door, I walked past the prop master who goes "Hey! You! You want a bike?". Now, I hadn't ridden a bike since mine got stolen in 8th grade (a truly traumatic experience), but there was no way I was saying no to a bike - especially a vintage one. For what it's worth, I discovered later on in the day that I was given a girl's bike.

So, after helping myself to the complimentary breakfast (man I loved working on a Hollywood movie - you make great bank and they feed you), I walked my bicycle over to the Yale campus where the other extras had gathered. I decided to ride my bike around and get a feel for it, because I hadn't ridden one in years and the last thing I needed to do was make a jackass of myself (or make more of a jackass of myself). I pedaled about the campus and stopped at a gate away from everyone else and just kind of looked around, taking in the surroundings, when I heard coming from behind me a voice I recognized instantly. I turned around and there was Steven Spielberg, and he walked past me and stopped in front of me to the side, where he stopped and waited for his assistant, whom he was a good 40 paces in front of. It somehow made perfect sense that Spielberg would be in such a rush to get to work that his assistant wouldn't be able to keep up, and though he stood near me for a solid few seconds, I didn't dare say anything to him, though I know I should have. Not "OMG I love your moviez!!!!", but something simple like "Good morning". But I couldn't. I was star struck, for the first and only time in my life, and though we made solid eye contact we exchanged no words. His assistant finally caught up to him, and one of the great American artists continued on his busy way.

The rest of the day seemed to go along smoothly. They were basically filming 2nd unit footage, though Spielberg was supervising it, for the motorcycle chase that occurs early in the film. The whole sequence is masterful, displaying Spielberg's near perfect sense of geography and his inspired use of camera choreography - my favorite bit of staging being when Indiana Jones hops off his motorcycle, goes through an open car window, and comes out the other side and gets back on - but what was filmed in the courtyard over the course of the two days I spent there is visually uninteresting in the film. My guess is Spielberg was there to shoot a crucial shot of the Marcus Brody statue being decapitated, but the short sequence - about a minute of the finished film - was by and large standard from a compositional standpoint.

My first day on the set was a Friday, and I'd presumed that would be my only day. I was surprised when, on the following Monday, they contacted me in the later part of the morning and asked if I could come to New Haven - like now - because apparently they had to do re-shoots in the courtyard and were scrambling to get extras. I told them of course, and as quickly as I could got in my car and drove (really, really fast) back to New Haven, donned my costume, and went back to the Yale Courtyard for another day of riding my bike around the campus.

My reward for coming so far on such short notice was being offered to join them the next day, which truthfully didn't thrill me at the time because that would mean I get home just in time go right to sleep, wake up at 5 AM and do it all again, but obviously there was no way I was going to refuse. And I'm glad I didn't, because my third and last day was by far the greatest I spent on the set, though also the longest and most exhausting (though getting paid time and a half was a consolation). I spent a 10-12 hour day inside the Yale Law Library, and it was here that I really got a sense of Spielberg's directorial methods, because the staging was more intensive and required a more active presence on his part. The man worked with an energy that was infectious - his enthusiasm for his work was truly inspiring. One of the more touching displays I saw in my three days occurred when a young man, who has a few quick lines in the finished script, thanked Spielberg when he was through shooting. It was clear he was very deeply touched by being given this opportunity, and as he was in the midst of thanking Spielberg it was obvious to me that he was on the brink of tears. Spielberg sensed this, and just gave the kid, whom he probably barely knew, a big hug. Spielberg is truly as warm a human being as his films would have you believe, and that kindness was on full display in my three days on the set. Which is not to say Spielberg is a pushover by any means - on my first day, he kicked a member of the crew off the set for dicking around. Though the set was a very pleasant place to be, you never forgot for a second that you were there to work and work hard.

He filmed the whole sequence that day, and I had a feeling it would be my last. It couldn't have ended more perfectly. As I walked to my car, up the streets of New Haven which were decorated with vintage store fronts and lined with pristine 1950's cars - which, combined with everyone being dressed in period costumes, was truly surreal - I suddenly realized I was walking through Steven Spielberg's memory, his vision of his childhood both as it existed to him and our culture's perception of it. This feeling was very much echoed when I saw the film when it was released in May of 2008, which opens with a shot of teenagers driving their car through the desert while Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" plays on the soundtrack, through its opening which ultimately finds Indiana Jones on a nuclear test site and nearly killed by a bomb, to the sequence's shot in New Haven which convey cold war era political tensions, and through the finale which conveys a genuine wide eyed appreciation of science fiction pulp. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is Spielberg at his most personally populist, a channeling of the popular conception of the '50s through his own personal memories and imagination. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is by no means a perfect film, but it's certainly a film that illuminates a lot about where Spielberg is coming from as an artist, and to be able to participate (however insignificantly) in its creation is an experience I'll always cherish.

Yours truly, decked out in 50s attire, caught completely off guard (though that's the expression I usually have on my face) by some dude with a camera while riding my prop bike around New Haven, July of 2007.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Spielberg's 9/11

In 2005, Spielberg did what he had done in 1989, 1993, 1997 and 2002, that is make two films in the same year. This feat is pretty incredible in and of itself, especially in modern Hollywood, and though it seemed to follow in the standard formula of blockbuster in the summer and serious film in the winter, the two films are really more alike than they are different. War of the Worlds and Munich are both, essentially, reactions to September 11th - the former is a channeling of the imagery from the attack through science fiction aesthetics, the latter is a philosophical consideration of the aftermath via a combination of an early shared memory of Israel/Palestine relations and, fittingly, 70's spy movie tropes. Together they form a rich, fascinating tandem, and still stand as amongst the most thoughtful reactions to the September 11th attacks by an American artist.

When I saw War of the Worlds when it was released in the summer of 2005, my opinion was pretty much in line with that of many other people - that it was a failure with some effective moments, that Spielberg's sappiness ruined the ending, and so on. When I saw Munich later that year I was forced to reconsider a film I had dismissed, because Munich made me stop viewing War of the Worlds as a piece of summer entertainment and made me think of it as a serious consideration of 9/11, as Munich most certainly is. Now I think of War of the Worlds as the dream and Munich as the reality, like when you wake up after a nightmare and begin to comprehend the imagery and dream logic; that which seemed irrational or nonsensical while you slept suddenly makes perfect sense.

Spielberg subverts standard blockbuster formula with War of the Worlds, which is all too fitting as he allegedly invented the genre (which is another topic for another day). War of the Worlds is, essentially, the world's first avant-garde blockbuster. Upon its release in the summer of 2005, though the film did well at the box office, everyone I spoke to about War of the Worlds treated it with a kind of hostility, and I think that's because it does not aim to excite, it aims to capture an emotional frame of mind, and a painful one at that. There are moments in the film that are downright frightening. It is a masterful, if imperfect, symbiosis of 1950s martian mythology - itself symbolic of communism hysteria - and imagery directly inspired by the September 11th attacks and our subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Spielberg forces us to see ourselves on the wrong end of an invasion - which is truly radical in a time when the media barely documents the atrocities of the wars we wage - by reminding us what our home looked like as a warzone, and then expanding that nightmare to a full scale invasion. But rather than using the imagery as a gateway to cheap thrills by justifying our knee jerk desires for revenge and further brutality, Spielberg vividly dramatizes what an invasion looks and feels like, turning the American landscape into a desolate warzone. 9/11 was a nightmare, but it was only a glimpse into the true nature of living in a place where war is being waged, and Spielberg's film serves as a powerful visualization of invasion and occupation - something the United States has never been on the receiving end of. As Wells' novel, written at the height of the English empire, was a blatant allegory for the spread of imperialism and colonialism it's only fitting that Spielberg, King of Hollywood, shift the setting of the film to the modern day United States.

By recontextualizing Wells' text to modern America, Spielberg is able to express themes that have been vital to his work throughout his career while still remaining faithful to the source material. By making the film's central character the typical Spielberg absent father, Spielberg is able to examine the issues of family that have been so vital to his work. As in his first feature, The Sugarland Express, Spielberg paints a portrait of a parent who is really still a child, who has been unable (or unwilling) to grow up, and the casting of Tom Cruise as the perpetual adolescent is a stunning example of casting against type. I've always thought Cruise was a better actor than he was given credit for, and the way he portrays his characters transformation from an immature, incompetent man to a capable, mature father is truly remarkable. It probably didn't hurt that he was given a fully capable co-star, whom he shares many of the film's most deeply affecting moments with, Dakota Fanning, in one of the best performances Spielberg has ever received from his child performers (which is saying something).

Spielberg's affinity for familial drama is put brilliantly on display early on, when the tensions begin between Tom Cruise's Ray Ferrier and his teenage son, Robbie. What other film maker could use a simple game of catch between a father and son to express the emotional distance between them? Only Spielberg could elevate such iconographic American imagery as a father and son tossing a baseball in the backyard into something so intimately personal. Ray, who has been seen adorning a Yankee cap for the entire film, is miffed when his son comes for a weekend visit wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. This detail could have been merely juvenile bickering, but in Spielberg's hands this visual detail becomes truly heartbreaking, a metaphor for how Ray Ferrier has lost his children in the time since he divorced his wife. Spielberg, by shifting the focus from the children onto the neglectful father, challenges himself to sympathize with a character he has demonized in the past.

The examination of the dissolution of the nuclear family in the modern era gives Spielberg an emotional vessel to illustrate the manner in which extreme trauma is capable of at once uniting and dividing humans; Spielberg's martian invasion brings out the best and worst in humanity simultaneously. There is a harrowing sequence where the Ferrier family, who have one of the few working automobiles left, suddenly find themselves in a town surrounded by hungry, exhausted, desperate people who steal their car from them - one particularly unsettling image shows a man breaking the windshield glass with his bare hands. The person I saw the film with in 2005 criticized this moment as being unrealistic, whereas I felt the exact opposite, that the sequence is an all too accurate dramatization of exactly what would happen - it wouldn't even require a disaster on the magnitude of an alien invasion to unleash our barely restrained animal instincts. In Spielberg's 2002 film Minority Report, a character has a line that essentially serves as the precursor for this scene in War of the Worlds. "It's funny how all living organisms are alike. When the chips are down, when the pressure is on, every creature on the face of the Earth is interested in one thing, and one thing only: its own survival". Though this sounds like a cynical sentiment, it's really not, as we are animals and our latent desire to survive above all else is something that Spielberg has elevated to profound heights in films like Schindler's List, A.I., and here in War of the Worlds. All of Spielberg's films are, essentially, survivor's stories, which makes the ending of the film where Robbie inexplicably turns up alive - which is a very accurate approximation of the book's ending, for what it's worth - not as out of place or absurd as it has been accused of being. Yes, it's a bit contrived, but people have been shown to be capable of surviving against all odds - let's not forget that there were people on 9/11 who survived having 110 story buildings collapse onto them. To quote Dr. Ian Malcom from Jurassic Park, "Life finds a way".

Spielberg has said that they key image he took away from September 11th was people walking in large groups away from Ground Zero, and he channels that imagery of mass exodus beautifully in War of the Worlds, filtering an almost absurd science fiction concept through our collective memory of our home being attacked. Spielberg invokes the attack to give way to catharsis, challenging us to stop seeing 9/11 as something that happened to the United States and to instead view it as something that happened to the human race. I may not have responded to Spielberg's profoundly empathetic sentiments the first time I saw War of the Worlds, but little did I know at the time that Spielberg was in the process of making a film that would turn the very concept of national identity on its head.

War of the Worlds forces you to relive September 11th. Munich, on the other hand, forces you to think about it. Though War of the Worlds deals with the attack more directly, the fact that Munich fictionalizes a real life event - the massacre at the 1972 Olympics - allows Spielberg to draw a direct parallel between an event that introduced many in the United States to the realities of radical Islam and September 11th . Munich begins with the members of Black September hopping a chain link fence and breaking into the Israeli athlete's hotel room and ends with a shot of the World Trade Center, and Spielberg here is illustrating that the events at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and the atrocity in September of 2001 are directly linked, and Munich can be viewed as serving as a straight line between the two events.

Spielberg always claimed that Raiders of the Lost Ark was the result of his desire to make a James Bond movie, but we could argue that Munich is actually his 007 movie - but it's a Bond movie as only he could do it, one that thoughtfully considers identity on both a personal and national level, that evaluates the morality of killing another human being, that analyzes the sacrifice a person must make to become an assassin. It's James Bond with a moral center, in other words (though obviously morality is not the reason we watch 007 movies). In Munich Spielberg transcends nationalism before the film properly begins, as the title sequence shows a collage of major world cities before ultimately highlighting the word "Munich" - rather than portraying this act of terrorism as something that happened to Jews or to Germany or to any one group of people, Spielberg is suggesting throughout Munich that this was a tragedy that happened to the human race, that the murder of human beings is something that should be treated as tragedy regardless of your religious, ethnic, or political affiliations.

Munich is, at its heart, the tragedy of a man - that man being Avner, in an unforgettable performance from Erica Bana. We are introduced to Avner at the end of a long montage showing people of various backgrounds - Israeli, Palestinian, families of both the athletes and the members of Black September - watching the events unfold on television; as with September 11th, this is a tragedy that television was an inseparable part of, where the news reports are a vital element of the popular conception of the event. Spielberg captures the feeling of being glued to your television by this real life drama beautifully in these opening sequences. The next day, Avner is contacted by no less than Golda Meir herself, who requests that he lead a mission of retaliation against the architects of the Munich massacre, essentially Government sponsored terrorism in the name of revenge. Out of a sense of duty to his people and his country, he accepts, not realizing that by agreeing to take part in this mission that he will lose his soul as well as his cultural and spiritual identity in the process.

In the hands of lesser artists, Avner could have been an empty symbol, but Tony Kushner (whose screenplay surely ranks amongst the very best of the last 10 years), Spielberg and Bana manage to make Avner work on both a symbolic level and as a flesh and blood human being. The same is true of the supporting players - Daniel Craig's Steve, a nationalist who has no moral qualms about the mission and makes this fact repeatedly known, Ciaran Hinds' Carl, who has nothing but moral qualms about the mission, Geoffrey Rush's Ephraim, the pencil pushing bureaucrat - who, between the quality of the writing and the excellence of the performers, manage to play Kushner's admittedly philosophy-heavy script as very real human drama. But it is Avner who is the heart of the film, and Bana plays his pathological dissent into guilt, paranoia, and borderline insanity masterfully.

The tragedy of Avner is that, at the outset of his mission, he truthfully believes that what he's doing is right, and as the mission presses on he gradually comes to the realization that killing is not only wrong but that it doesn't accomplish anything; that anyone you kill will only be replaced by someone who is even worse, that murdering your enemy will only escalate their desire to bring harm to you - essentially, Avner comes to understand the reciprocal nature of violence over the course of the film. More than violence being morally reprehensible, it doesn't solve a damn thing except our desire for bloodshed, which is only a temporary fix anyway. Yes, Avner loses the notion of Israel as a home over the course of his mission, but he gains a philosophical enlightenment by becoming a man without an ethnic identity; he stops seeing humans as a collection of countries and religions and sees us all as one. That Munich was accused of being anti-Israel by some and anti-Palestine by others (depending on your bias) illustrates the depth of the film's powerfully anti-nationalistic, humanistic sentiments.

Avner is clearly meant to represent a certain discontent that Spielberg and Kushner feel as pacifists with the militant actions of Israel. Late in the film, Avner's mother has a beautiful speech about how whatever he did - and she doesn't actually want to know - was worthwhile because it means the Jews "now have a place on Earth". Kushner and Spielberg certainly aren't arguing that the Jews don't deserve to have a home, they're just theorizing on what extents are acceptable to ensure that they don't lose that place on Earth. Avner - and by extension Kushner and Spielberg - draw the line at bloodshed, radically suggesting that the murder of another person is wrong regardless of if it's in the name of revenge, country, or religion. In a time when the United States launches invasions predicated on the concept of vengeance, this is a truly bold sentiment.

The film's brilliant final scene - which features some of the best screen acting you are ever likely to see - sends this message home in a powerful way. It details the final meeting between Ephraim and Avner, and in it Avner makes his stance clear that he firmly believes that the mission he undertook was wrong, while Ephraim argues that what he did was brutal but necessary; he reminds him that he did what he did he did for "the future, for Israel... for peace", to which Avner responds "There's no peace at the end of this". While Ephraim still believes in his responsibility to his country above all else, Avner has comes to the realization that his responsibility to humanity overrides his responsibility to his country. Avner invites Ephraim to break bread with him, and Ephraim refuses - it's a truly devastating moment, but their worldviews are ultimately irreconcilable. As Avner walks back to his Brooklyn apartment, alone, the camera pans to reveal the World Trade Center off in the distance simply waiting to be destroyed, another casualty in the war between Israel and Palestine. Here, Spielberg cuts through the nonsense we were fed by our Government after the attacks - that we were attacked because those stinking Arabs hate freedom, democracy, and capitalism - and acknowledges that 9/11 happened for political as well as religious reasons. September 11th was another act of retribution, and it has only yielded further murder and destruction in the name of revenge.

The Spielberg Blogathon

The day is finally here! Be sure to check back throughout the blogathon for updates to this post, and read our friends' hard work and, most importantly, comment.

Day 1:

Over at Icebox Movies, my co-host Adam Zanzie takes a look at Spielberg's early short Amblin', featuring an interview with Caryle Camacho.

At Radiator Heaven, J.D. offers his observations on Catch Me if You Can.

At Little Worlds, Hokakey offers a take on Jaws.

At Not Just Movies, Jake Cole applies his considerable critical skills to an essay on Empire of the Sun.

At The Flickering Myth, Trevor Hogg begins his five part examination of Spielberg and his work.

At Seeti Maar, Ratnakar Sadasyula examines what it means to love and A.I.

At Cinema Viewfinder, Tony Dayoub defends Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

At 24 Frames, Jon Greco takes a look back at the summer of Jaws.

At Cinema Directives, Tom Hyland analyzes themes of identity in Catch Me if You Can.

At Invincible Defeat, Ilias Dimopoulos examines Munich.

Noel Tanti pays tribute to A.I. at noeltanti.com

At Taking Barack to the Movies, Tom Shone celebrates the 35th anniversary of Jaws.

At They Live By Night, Bilge Ebiri takes a look at "Spielberg's Fantasies of Reversal".

At The House Next Door, Keith Uhlich announces our blogathon and reprints a terrific series of reviews of the Indiana Jones quadrilogy, written by Odienator, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Keith Uhlich respectively.

Day 2:

At Not Just Movies, Jake Cole gives us a review of Hook.

At Diary of A Movie Lover, Ratnakar Sadasyula celebrates the power of Schindler's List.

At Icebox Movies, my co-host Adam Zanzie defends Jaws as a New Hollywood film.

At The Man from Porlock, Craig Simpson details his problems with Spielberg's "maturation" as a film maker.

At Things That Don't Suck, Bryce Wilson appreciates Catch Me if You Can.

At Invincible Defeat, Ilias Dimopoulos celebrates Jaws.

At four:48, Tom Elce waxes poetic about E.T.

Jaime Grijalba offers the blogathon its first non-English contribution, a celebration of the spiritual essence of the Indiana Jones films.

Day 3:

At Icebox Movies, my co-host Adam Zanzie considers Jurassic Park as Spielberg's "Howard Hawks film".

At Hell and Beyond, Lee Chase IV takes a closer look at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

At Diary of a Movie Lover, Ratnakar Sadasyula writes up E.T.

At Flickering Myth, Trevor Hogg gives us part 2 of his five part profile on Steven Spielberg.

At 30 Years at the Movies, Sean Stangland analyzes A.I.

Day 4:

At Not Just Movies, Jake Cole writes up Always.

At 30 Years at the Movies, Sean Stangland takes a look at Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

At Icebox Movies, my co-host Adam Zanzie writes a tome on Schindler's List.

Day 5:

At Only the Cinema, Ed Howard takes a look at Minority Report and what it means to see.

At Invincible Defeat, Ilias Dimopoulos examines family in the Spielberg canon.

At Edward Copeland on Film, Damian Arlyn discusses Schinlder's List, the greatest film he's ever seen.

At Venetian Blond, Machelle Allman looks at some of the best moments with Spielberg's kids.

At The Kind of Face You Hate, Bill Ryan examines the way Spielberg uses violence.

Day 6:

At Icebox Movies, Adam Zanzie asks "What is happening?" in Saving Private Ryan.

At A Fish in the Percolator, Elliot Gallion loses his mind puts Spielberg in a villainous context.

At Cinenoxi, Chris Zafeiriadis celebrates Duel.

At Not Just Movies, Jake Cole examines The Color Purple.

At The Flickering Myth, Trevor Hogg gives us Part 3 of his 5 Part profile on Spielberg.

At The Dancing Image, Joel Bocko asa visual tribute to Duel.

Day 7:

At Scanners, the great Jim Emerson ressurects a duel piece on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.

At Diary of a Movie Lover, Ratnakar Sadasyula takes a look at Raiders of the Lost Ark.

At Ferdy on Films, Roderick Heath defends Amistad as Spielberg's best history film.

Day 8:

At Things I Know About Movies, Adam Gentry tells us what he knows about A.I.

At The Flickering Myth, Trevor Hogg contributes Part 4 of his 5 part Spielberg profile.

At Wonders in the Dark, Allan Fish defends A.I.

Day 9:

At Cinema Styles, Greg Ferrara discusses how George Pal paved the way for Spielberg.

At Invincible Defeat, Ilias Dimopoulos takes a closer look at War of the Worlds.

Day 10:

At Pussy Goes Grr, Andreas takes E.T., "the sacred cow", to task.

At The Flickering Myth, Part 5 of Trevor Hogg's Spielberg profile.

At Flak Magazine, Sean Weitner looks at "the Spielberg ending".

At Invincible Defeat, Ilias Dimopoulos waxes poetic about A.I.

Day 11:

At the Indiewire Blog, Eric Kohn offers a piece on Duel and escapism as art.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Spielberg Blogathon Reminder

Hello friends, just popping in real quick to remind you all that in one week's time the feverishly anticipated moment that will surely define a generation, The Spielberg Blogathon, will begin, commence, and so on. To participate, just host a piece on your own site, send Adam and myself the link, and we shall post it on our respective sites and also at the Blogathon's official site. And that's about it, really. If any of you could advertise it on your blog by hosting a banner or even just throwing up (no not like that) a quick post to get the word out, I'd appreciate it greatly. Click the above image for the Blogathon's official site, with announcements, banners, and more (actually there's only banners and announcements).

And once again:

Adam Zanzie's e-mail: adamzanzie@gmail.com

My e-mail: medflyquarantine@gmail.com

Hope to hear from you next week. Looking very forward to it.

Over and out.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

2010 Capsules: Somewhere, Winter's Bone, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

First things first: My apologies for the dearth of posting for the entirety of this blog's existence in the last month. But, you know, lack of will, appropriate subjects, and time has prevented me from partaking in the noble vocation of cinema blogging. My many thanks and most sincere apologies to my readers for putting up with my laziness for the entirety of this blog's existence the last month.

But I have a reward for all of you who have been anxiously awaiting my triumphant return to writing about the cinema of Two Thousand and Ten in the Year of our Lord: capsule reviews! Delicious, delicious capsules.

Sofia Coppola - for whom I've been a bit of a defender/apologist - attempts a minimalist (or more minimalist) aesthetic in Somewhere, and it's an experiment that, save for some truly touching moments, largely falls flat. Coppola, so often written off as a Princess who has been handed the keys to her indie kingdom, is undoubtedly a major talent, and I think her namesake prevents a more objective analysis of her work - yes, she is a rich girl, and she makes movies about rich people, but the honesty of her perspective is often overshadowed simply by her being who she is. For whatever reason, her particular method of depicting rich people seems to rub a great many people the wrong way.

Somewhere represents the first time I've understood where her detractors are coming from - while in the past I feel Coppola has humanized the rich in a meaningful way, offering us insights into a social world that many of us never have and never will know anything about, the manner in which she tries to extract sympathy for her disaffected wealthy protagonist in Somewhere is insensitive and borderline obnoxious. The film opens with a static shot of hot shot actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) driving his expensive muscle car very fast on a desolate road, and this opening image, which drags on for what feels like an eternity, pretty much sums up the problem with Coppola's film - she basically sits back and expects people who have trouble paying their God damn mortgage to feel bad for this poor, lonely, alienated little rich man. Look how boring it is to be rich! Look how dull it is to drive a really fast and expensive car, look how passe it is to sit by your swimming pool, look how "meh" it is to have an almost absurd amount of big breasted women throwing themselves at you every time you turn around. I weep for this man.

Perhaps the stripped down aesthetic is the problem - Coppola is not the most expressive of visual artists, and the use of minimalism basically necessitates that you be able to tell stories in a purely visual way. Coppola's images don't feel evocative, they feel literal, and that makes the endless static images, long passages of silence and sparse dialogue more dull than poetic. Also, Dorff is good enough, but he's not a strong or dynamic enough actor to be able to express the things that Coppola wants him to wordlessly, as Bill Murray did in Lost in Translation.

The best moments in the film depict the relationship between Marco and his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning) - essentially, this is a tale of a father reconnecting with his daughter, and the two of them have some moments together that are truly magical; especially affecting is a sequence when a tearful Cleo is leaving for camp, and Marco apologizes to her for not being more involved in her life, but his apology is drowned out by the sound of a helicopter. In spite of this, it still feels like Coppola is reaching to places she can't quite achieve through purely visual expression. Especially after the ambitious and extremely underrated Marie Antoinette, this feels like a retread to safer, more familiar territory.

An effective balance of social realist and mystery, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is a sensitive class portrait and an engaging, suspenseful neo-noir. There is a real poetry to the film, espeically in its quieter moments; Granik and her cinematographer Michael McDonough capture the sparseness and stark beauty of their Missouri backwoods, expressing both the desolation of their setting and the literal and figurative loneliness of their main character, Ree Dolly, unforgettably brought to life by Jennifer Lawrence. Dolly, whose father has been in jail for dealing drugs and whose mother has had a mental breakdown, is forced to raise her two siblings in spite of being only 17 herself when an officer comes to her home and informs her that her father has skipped bail and, since he put the house up for collateral, their house will be claimed in one week unless he turns up. Ree then essentially takes on the role of a detective, searching for the truth of what happened to her father, and being delivered standard noir warnings by the townsfolk along the way; "stay out of it", "mind your own business", and so on.

The biggest problem with Winter's Bone is the dialogue, which tries too hard to approximate Southern dialect - it lays it on more than a little thick, and the performers with the exception of Lawrence frankly aren't talented enough to sell it. It tarnishes the illusion somewhat when you're constantly reminded that you're watching actors reciting lines; indeed, the films greatest flaw is that it feels the need to oversell all its point via the script, which isn't any great shakes. Still, Winter's Bone brings enough new ideas to its genre to make it worthwhile. But it could have been so much better.

Woody Allen, while not quite "returning to form", certainly rebounds from last year's despicable Whatever Works with the surprisingly pleasant You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Though still chock-full of token Allen cynicism - everyone cheats on everyone, every relationship is doomed to failure, and so on - there is a gentle feel to what is on the plot level standard Woody boilerplate. While Whatever Works essentially condoned immorality with its titular philosophy, Allen forces his characters in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger to confront their mistakes, and the result is a moving, if imperfect film. Anchored by terrific performances from a great ensemble cast, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is one of the year's most pleasant surprises.

We are introduced to Helena (Gemma Jones) as she tells a "clairvoyant" about her recent break up with her husband (Anthony Hopkins) , who is going through a life crisis and doing the things men apparently do when they go through said crises: break up from their boring old wife, get obsessive about physical appearance, and bag a bimbo half their age (and I.Q.) whose just sleeping with them for money (literally - his new girlfriend is an ex-hooker). While this is going on, their daughter (Naomi Watts) and her husband (Josh Brolin) are having - wait for it! - marital issues of their own; Brolin is a struggling writer whose novel he's sure will be rejected by his publishers, and Watts is resentful of being forced to be the breadwinner by working in an art gallery while her husband sits on his ass waiting for the phone to ring and stares out his apartment window at a young guitar player (Freida Pinto), who apparently only owns red clothing. Their fights lead them, naturally, to grow more fond of acquaintances than one another - Brolin begins making advances towards his neighbor while Watts finds herself falling for her boss (Antonio Banderas). You can imagine where things go from there, but Allen enriches this borderline soap opera by making his characters more alone by the end than they were in the beginning - acknowledging that the answer to your problems can't be found in the warm embrace of another person, but only within yourself.

While in his previous picture Allen just shrugged his shoulder at his characters' wrongdoing, here Allen grapples with his characters callous shortsightedness. This is typified by a scene where Pinto breaks off her engagement with the man she was to marry, and tearfully apologies to her fiance and his family for her wrongdoing. It's hard to remember the last time Allen didn't merely accept infidelity as a given - that is, didn't reductively characterize it as one of those things people do to each other - and acknowledged that it is profoundly hurtful to the person who was cheated on, and this in and of itself adds a dimension to Allen's work that has been long absent. In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Allen does what he does best - that is, finding comedy in sadness and tragedy in the humorous.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Giants baseball: torture.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Indian Giving

Criterion's stunning Blu-ray release of Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited provides an opportunity to re-examine a movie that was received rather coldly when it was released in 2007 - or at least it should. Wes Anderson's film about three brothers on a "spiritual journey" through India may be his greatest work, one of his Salinger-esque tales of the disaffected wealthy, but here he puts his typically Anderson-ian characters into a global context, enriching our understanding both of his characters and of the world itself. Anchored by three great performances from Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman (who are completely believable as brothers in spite of looking nothing alike), this is Anderson at his best - gorgeous aesthetics, funny, poignant, sad, and incredibly moving.

Any discussion of The Darjeeling Limited must begin with the film's true beginning, the short Hotel Chevalier, a great film on its own that is even greater in the context of The Darjeeling Limited, as The Darjeeling Limited is greater, more powerful, and richer in the context of Hotel Chevalier. Hotel Chevalier focuses on the younger brother Jack, played by Jason Schwartzman, and as far as I know Anderson using the vessel of a short film as a prequel to the film that it precedes is unique. It's certainly an inspired an idea, at any rate, though a completely necessary one. Hotel Chevalier is, while an integral part of The Darjeeling Limited, very much its own film with a tone that differentiates it from the feature; there is an exuberance permeated by sadness in The Darjeeling Limited, whereas the tone of Hotel Chevalier is decidedly melancholic, though beautifully so. We are introduced to Jack as he sits alone in a hotel room in Paris when his one man party is crashed by his ex-girlfriend, who invites herself up to his room. Anderson, with his wide lenses and 'scope aspect ratio, makes the hotel room feel at once vast and confined, creating almost a feeling of claustrophobia in what is undoubtedly a 5 star hotel. The hotel room itself is eerie, like the zoo at the end of 2001, in that the room itself symbolizes a literal and figurative solitude. Jack prepares his iPod doc to play Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go To My Lovely?" upon her arrival, and this feels almost like Anderson criticizing his own methods, that is using music as a kind of emotional shorthand. The reunion with his girlfriend, played in a coolly detached manner by Natalie Portman, when it occurs is extremely painful - not the passionate embrace of reunited lovers, but isolated people fucking out of loneliness, boredom, and desperation. When in bed, with her naked on top of him, they don't even have the meaningless sex that was the whole purpose of her visit in the first place, and, in an exquisite moment, he throws a robe over her (in slo-mo, of course) while, yes, Peter Sardtedt's "Where Do You Go To My Lovely?" comes in on the soundtrack. The characters finally leave their room and step out into the world, ignoring their own problems and appreciating the beauty of their surroundings; this is the key theme of The Darjeeling Limited, literally stepping outside yourself and gaining a better understanding of the world around you, and in turn gaining a better understanding of yourself.

A large part of the condescension towards The Darjeeling Limited when it was released resulted simply from its subject matter - white people (rich white people, at that) traveling through a 3rd world nation and "finding themselves" in the process. What this line of criticism ignores is that Anderson himself is critical of this so-called "spiritual journey", and he puts their materialism on display throughout the film and is sharply critical of it himself. The first stop on the three brothers' journey is an outdoor mall - the spiritual journey begins, as it were, with shopping. The brothers carry luggage (exquisitely designed by Wes' brother, Eric) that was previously owned by their dead father throughout, and yes, this is a bit of rather heavy handed symbolism - but it symbolizes much more than their family's emotional baggage, it's a literal representation of the brothers' attachment to possessions. They bicker over items of clothing, over which of their father's possessions belongs to whom, over the most petty, insignificant of things - yet Anderson mangers to be critical of them while never looking down at them. He has too much affection for, and understanding of, his characters to gratify a desire to put the bourgeois on display so we can all gawk at the immorality of those decadent rich folks. Anderson is a humanist, above all else, and a large part of humanism is trying to understand people we don't necessarily have an immediate, emotional connection with - of empathizing with the other.

And this is the key theme of Anderson's more recent work - while his films from Bottle Rocket through The Royal Tenenbaums (all of which I like, in varying degrees) are relatively inclusive - if we were going to level the accusation of Anderson being a white film maker who makes white movies about white people doing white things, I could almost understand that if you were judging solely by his first three films, though that's still a gross oversimplification, and it's hard to imagine these accusations being leveled at film makers of other races. But Anderson's films since The Life Aquatic have all been about, either directly or indirectly, understanding the other as a natural part of the world - even if it's scary, unusual, or both. In The Life Aquatic this was symbolized, naturally, by the Jaguar Shark that starts out as the Moby Dick to Steve Zissou's Captain Ahab, but by the end, when Zissou has the opportunity to kill it, he can not - he is awestruck by the creature's beauty, even if that beauty is threatening to our own existence. In last year's Fantastic Mr. Fox, the other is symbolized by the wolf - the film makes Fox's phobia of wolves clear throughout the film, and when Fox meets the creature at the film's end, he too is blown away by the creature's majesty, and can no longer fear it. This sublime moment was accused of being racist by some, because the wolf is black - but, assuming Anderson meant for this moment to symbolize race relations (I don't think it's that specific), that would make it the opposite of racism. The key theme of his work has always been understanding - loving, even - that which we don't understand; his characters have generally been obnoxious and petulant, yet earnest and lovable - though he's expanded that theme in recent years beyond what was previously a relatively narrow worldview. In spite of the fact that Anderson's films are largely divorced from a political context, empathy as he portrays it is practically a revolutionary concept.

The other manifests itself in two ways in The Darjeeling Limited - first, and most in line with the two examples I cited above, is the tiger that's haunting the convent where the boys' mother, Sister Patricia Whitman (Anjelica Huston), lives. The second is the people and country of India itself, and once the brothers are kicked off their train at about the film's halfway point, the genuine spiritual journey begins. To this point, they have been typical American tourists - visiting the towns, admiring the people, wasting money on frivolous expenditures, but a tonal shift occurs after they get kicked off their train for fighting like a bunch of 5 year olds - one of the film's most hilarious scenes, yet it is a humor that illuminates a profound sadness in terms of the brothers' relationship with each other. The Whitman brothers naively hope that this beautiful country with its beautiful people holds the answer to their problems - that's the rather patronizing attitude Owen Wilson's Francis has been trying to imbue the trip with, as it's easy to think that a certain place holds the answer to your problems when you are ignorant to their problems. They were amused by the quaintness of the country and its people while traveling on the train, seeing the country in only the most superficial of ways - "These people are beautiful", Francis says on one of their stops, and that about sums up the complexity of the brothers' perceptions of their spiritual journey. They go through the motions of a spiritual awakening, but leave out the important part - they go to Indian churches but pick petty fights with each other instead of pray (their ignorance is hilariously crystallized when Adrien Brody's character Peter says, after getting fed up with the bickering, "I'm gonna go pray at a different thing"), they focus more on their personal problems than learning to appreciate each other and their own life. Francis is recovering from a motorcycle crash that he reveals later to his mother to have been a failed suicide attempt, Peter is apprehensive about the fact that his wife is having a child, and Jack is recovering from the failed relationship we glimpsed in Hotel Chevalier. They finally get removed from the train for being so childish and disruptive throughout their trip, and as they set up camp in the Indian desert they have reached rock bottom - "Maybe this is where the spiritual journey ends", Jack says, and it does seem that the three of them are incapable of relating no matter how hard they try because they all, not to put too fine a point on it, have their respective heads up their respective asses - so much so that, when Francis reveals to his brothers that the real reason for the trip is to meet up with their estranged mother, all they can do is use this as an excuse to become even more withdrawn from each other.

While traveling the next day they encounter three children making way across a tempestuous river on a raft, and the raft capsizes and each brother quickly jumps in the water to save one apiece. Francis and Jack each save a child, but the one Peter was trying to save was killed on the rocks, "I didn't save mine" is his heartbreaking confession as he holds the dead child in his arms, covered in blood that is not his own. In an instance of parallelism typical of the famously meticulous Anderson, it was three brothers they encountered, and as they're leaving the village the Whitmans are informed that they're invited to the funeral. It is in this passage of the film that the brothers get a true glimpse into India - into their way of living, their beliefs, their social customs, and it is at this point that their sojourn to India becomes a genuine spiritual journey, not just a hollow, cliched idea of what a spiritual journey should be. The death of the child naturally strikes a deep chord with Peter, and this tragedy helps put his own problems, indeed the problems of all the brothers, into context; as the Whitmans march off to the child's funeral, with The Kinks' "Strangers" coming in on the soundtrack in one of those patently poetic slo-mo shots of Anderson's, they have transcended their small mindedness and are finally truly brothers. At this point the film flashes back to the last time the three of them were together, their father's funeral, and this masterful sequence detailing their experience at Lutwaffe Automotive - alluded to throughout because it's the subject of a short story Jack is writing - is like another Hotel Chevalier, another movie within a movie that, instead of focusing on one of the brothers, illuminates who all three Whitman brothers are as people, their motivations, and their relationship with one another.

At this point the Whitmans go to follow through with their plan to leave India, and they get as far as the airport tarmac. There is a wonderful sequence set in the airport lounge, and it's clear that the brothers feel more comfortable with each other, as they look happy to be together for the first time in the movie. The incident with the three brothers has clearly impacted them significantly, awakening them to the beauty and preciousness of their relationship with one another, but Anderson coveys that not with grandiose emotional moments but subtly through the brothers' mannerisms. They have a brief conversation right outside the airplane, though we don't hear any of it as the plane's propeller drowns it out - obviously we don't know what they said, but Anderson clearly wants you to imagine it, and I've always imagined Francis turning to his brothers and saying something to the effect of "Look, we don't have it so bad. We came all the way to India to see our mother, and we should". Whatever he said he must have made a strong case as Peter, who has to this point been hostile to all of Francis' ideas, takes their tickets and tears them up right there on the tarmac. The spiritual journey hasn't ended.

The passage at their mother's convent is perhaps the most extraordinary one in the film, as it gives Anderson a venue with which to more directly address the themes of family, spirituality, class, and materialism that have to this point only lingered on the surface. The ghosts of the past are made apparent immediately upon their arrival when their mother asks Francis, whose face is covered in bandages, what happened, and it's at this point that he confesses that the crash - which to this point he'd claimed to be an accident - was a failed suicide attempt. "There's a lot we don't know about each other" is their mother's reply, and this simply and eloquently expresses how much they've changed and gone down separate paths since the death of the boys' father. And, as the Whitman boys tend to, the bickering begins almost immediately - they can only ask their mother, like a bunch of neglected 12 year olds "What are you doing here?", and she responds that these people need her in a way her grown sons can't and shouldn't. They may have learned to appreciate each other more, but they still fail to grasp that there are people in the world whose needs are far greater than their own - they still think of Patricia as their mommy. She suggests that they stop feeling sorry for themselves and stop with this incessant bickering; she suggests they simply look at each other. So they shut up for the first time in their life (for the first time in the movie, anyway) and try to really see each other, to look deep inside these people that you have wasted so much time hating and bickering with. In the film's most stunning sequence - indeed, perhaps the most stunning sequence of Anderson's filmography - these characters look at each other and see the world, and Anderson expresses this with the most natural of visual metaphors considering the film's title, a train. But the train isn't just a train - it's a hotel room, an airplane compartment, indeed the whole world; and every compartment contains all the film's minor characters - it is The Darjeeling Limited. The train is life itself, and the tiger, the other that is a threat to our own existence, is a God in Anderson's micro-cosmic universe. This is Anderson's most concise expression of his view of humanity as ultimately one despite the language, class, and social barriers that separate us, and the result is eminently beautiful.

There is still one hurdle that remains on the brothers' spiritual journey, though they are themselves unaware of it until the moment presents itself. They leave their mothers' convent the next day after she mysteriously disappears, which they are told she is known to do from time to time. They get to the train station just as their train is departing, and in one of the great liberating moments of modern cinema, they dispense with their luggage in order to make the train on time. Again, this may be somewhat obvious symbolism, but it's also extremely rich symbolism; not only are they dispensing with their father's baggage, but with their mother's, their own, dispensing of their pettiness and materialism and vindictiveness and simply living life. They are now truly family because they are now truly people. In The Darjeeling Limited, trains - collections of humans, where each person is interesting and beautiful and on their own unique path - are symbols of life, and after such a profound and metaphysical spiritual journey, Wes Anderson makes us all want to get on board. Great movie.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Bloggin' Spielberg

My friend and partner in crime Adam Zanzie and I would like to take this opportunity to announce a little pet project of ours: we'll be hosting a Steven Spielberg blogathon come December. December 18th, to be exact. It will run a full ten days, so that means it ends the 28th, for the mathematically challenged among us (I used a calculator). Anyone and everyone can participate, just please send myself and Adam (or just one of us, if you're lazy) the links to your work when it's published, and I will link to them here as well as on a blog I created specifically for the blogathon (click picture for link).

Also on the blog you will find banners for the blogathon. If you could place them on your own site, I would greatly appreciate it.

Adam Zanzie's email: adamzanzie@gmail.com

My email: medflyquarantine@gmail.com

Thanks in advance, everybody.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Kids Today: The Social Network

Two artistic styles that, separate from one another, I've found obnoxious in the past - David Fincher, who found profundity in the grotesque and banal before becoming an Oscar-baiting softy and Aaron Sorkin, best known as a smartass writer of trite melodramas on the big and small screen - form an effective synthesis in The Social Network, aka "The Facebook Movie" (even though "The Mark Zuckerberg Movie" is more accurate and less reductive, but anyway). It's not that their temperaments compliment each other so much as they cancel each other out - Fincher's ice cold detachment effectively counterbalances Sorkin's hacky, show off writing style, while Sorkin supplies Fincher's stoic seriousness with a sense of life and energy. In tandem they've created perhaps the best "Give me an Oscar!" movie in a while, though that's admittedly a bit of faint praise.

One thing that I think is important before continuing: The Social Network is not, ostensibly, a movie about "the Facebook" - that would be boring. I feared that it would be based on the trailer released earlier in the year, but it's a movie about the people who made Facebook. There is a distinction, and a fairly large one at that. Though it's an ingrained part of the world today - honestly, it's hard to imagine going to a party without being tagged in a photo album the next day, and it's hard to meet someone without asking them if they have a Facebook - analyzing Facebook as social phenomenon when it's been around less than a decade would be pretty much a futile effort, and thankfully Sorkin and Fincher avoid that line of thought, for the most part. Though the movie can't resist making a few sweeping generalizations about connection in the digital age, mercifully these examinations comes in the context of Zuckerberg as a human being as opposed to a sociological one. What I find disappointing is that The Social Network is ultimately a combination of two rather cliched stories: triumph of the underdog, of the nerd vs. the jock(s), and a tale of a person who gains everything and loses his soul in the process. And I don't think it brings enough new ideas to these older-than-dirt stories to be a really great movie.

If The Social Network is a great movie - and I don't think it is by any means - it's because of Jesse Eisenberg's performance as Mark Zuckerberg. He so perfectly balances arrogance and insecurity, loneliness and congeniality, bitterness and charisma, that he rises above the rather mediocre material. We're introduced to Zuckerbeg while he's having a typical Sorkin rapid fire conversation with his girlfriend in a bar, and he says something obnoxious about his being allowed into clubs and introducing his girlfriend to "people she wouldn't meet otherwise", which she (understandably) takes a large degree of offense to, and walks out on him, though not before saying to him "When you're alone, it won't be because you're a nerd, it'll be because you're an asshole". I have no issues with taking artistic license, but the real Zuckerbeg has claimed that he had no interest in joining college clubs, and I see no reason to not believe that. Why would he? It's clear he planned to make a ton of money working with computers, so why would he waste time with a bunch of spoiled little shits while they do body shots and play beer pong when he was a blatant careerist, even as an undergrad? But Fincher and Sorkin don't really see it that way, and early on the movie includes a rather hackneyed juxtaposition between Zuckerberg and his group of computer nerd friends working on a website and one of those illicit college parties - you know the kind, with blasting techno music in a darkened hall, where super skinny girls take off all their clothes (in slow motion to boot!), where the cool kids play strip poker while doing ecstasy and - wait for it! - smoke pot, and have sex with each other, and do all those super cool things that I'd imagine Fincher and Sorkin were never invited to do, because this rather unfortunate sequence is played with hostility. Basically, it's a cliched movie party that exhibits how out of touch the two of them are from any kind of modern reality - they're just basically saying "Look at these kids, with their Northfaces and their marijuana and their alcohol and their sexy parties and their internet" - not a particularly unique point to be making, and it honestly makes Sorkin and Fincher look like a pair of cranky fuddy duddys. I think this speaks more to their view of "the cool kids" than to Zuckerberg's, which is fine, but to take such extreme artistic license while projecting your own anti-social anxieties onto another human being is borderline character defamation.

Not to say Zuckerberg isn't worthy of some criticism - he's a ladder climber who stomped on people on his way to the top. He perhaps not un-coincidentally donated $100,000,000 to Newark public schools about a week before the film's release, and I don't think you need to have a PHD to deduce that he was probably trying to pre-emptively repair his image in light of a film that is, really, extremely critical of him - he's called an asshole or something to that effect no less than 20 times during the course of the movie. I don't know how serious a flaw in terms of storytelling that is, but I think this is fairly representative of A) the current hatred of the wealthy elites and B) the resentment of genuine innovators in this country, which admittedly isn't exactly a new development. Zuckerberg created - and he did create it - a tool that fulfilled such a primary function and spoke to such a profound need that it's hard to imagine a world without it. Coming up with something so simple is undoubtedly a form of genius, and if he's as much of a back-stabbing shit as Sorkin and Fincher make him out to be, well, welcome to America. That's how you make billions of dollars. Bill Gates "stole" an idea in the same way Zuckerberg did - and, like Gates, Zuckerberg improved the initial idea, made it simpler, more accessible. You don't become a billionaire by being nice and doing everything by the book. It just doesn't work that way.

What I've frequently found most bothersome about David Fincher's sensibility is his detached point of view, but that detachment helps diffuse some of the idiocies of Sorkin's script. Sorkin's script is just so conventional, and even the interwoven structure - which has invited comparisons to Citizen Kane - feels like it's there strictly to impress. The dialogue is the driving force of The Social Network, and I think it speaks to Sorkin's lack of ability that many of the film's best moments are wordless ones. An event so frequently cited as proof positive of Zuckerbeg's dickishness and cockery, the now famous "I'm CEO, bitch" incident, is played as such an expression of youthful arrogance that it's heartbreaking, with Zuckerberg looking over the cards with the aforementioned expression on it alone in the office of Facebook and wondering what the hell he was thinking - and Eisenberg absolutely nails this poignant moment. Fincher works Sorkin's script, somehow, as it's easy to imagine another director either playing the film as either too much of a celebration or condemnation of Zuckerberg, but Fincher's detachment gives way to a sense of objectivity. Though Sorkin does not deny Zuckerberg's humanity, I still feel like he's a little too harsh on him; yes, he's a bit of a jerk, but he was also a sophomore in college when he suddenly found himself in charge of a multi-million dollar - and, soon enough, multi-billion dollar - corporation. We can cut the guy a little slack I think, as I'm sure there are lots of people who, if they had their every move from their early 20s enshrined in the popular lexicon, wouldn't come out smelling like roses either.

The backbone of The Social Network is a great and truly amazing story, a real life account so littered with drama that it was almost tailor made for a movie. However, Fincher's directorial disconnect helps keep the film from becoming a soap opera, and it is this very disconnect that creates a feeling of isolation, which in turn helps align our sympathies with the lonely Zuckerberg. Though I feel Sorkin and Fincher are too hard on Zuckerberg throughout the picture, ultimately they understand that his know it all exterior is a facade concealing a much more complex person. "You're not an asshole, Mark, you're just trying so hard to be" , a lawyer tells him, echoing his ex-girlfriend's harsh words to him in the beginning of the picture, and though this line is more than a tad sappy - I was so embarrassed upon hearing it that I looked around for a place to hide - it still works, and it's still necessary to the duo's portrait of Zuckerberg. Most affecting is the film's final moment, (again, wordless) which shows Zuckerberg looking over his ex-girlfriend's Facebook profile and adding her as a friend, and hitting refresh on an endless loop. The implications of a man who brought so many people together being unable to forge a human connection himself elevates this insider account of the creation of a social networking site to a more general statement on the nature of loneliness, and is all the richer for it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cutting God: Saying Goodbye to Sally Menke

Few things in life are fair, but some things are so unfair they make you stop and wonder what the fucking point of getting up in the morning and going through the daily grind is. That's the state that the news of the death of Sally Menke, Quentin Tarantino's career long editor, has left me in. As most of you have probably noticed, I tend to avoid obituaries on this blog, for several reasons, but the primary reasons are A) Whenever anyone dies many movie blogs all chime in with their remembrances, most of which are more eloquent than I am capable of and B) Obituaries of people who worked in the movie industry tend to favor the work over the person, which annoys me. I'm not sad that Sally Menke isn't ever going to edit another movie again - well, I am, but that seems almost beside the point now - I'm sad that she isn't walking amongst us anymore. I'm sad that a director I value very much has lost a collaborator and a friend. I'm sad that her dog, who was with her on her ill-fated hiking trip, has lost an owner and companion. I'm sad for her friends who spent all of Monday worrying about her only to find out in the early hours of Tuesday morning that she was dead. I'm sad for her husband, her two kids, for anyone who was lucky enough to meet her.

And, yes, I'm sad about all the footage that will be shot by Quentin Tarantino throughout the rest of his career that will be unedited by her. I recall in a documentary I saw, that I can't exactly place now, where he said he always felt that he needed a woman to edit his pictures (which I think illuminates part of why he puts women on pedestals in his films, but I digress), his reasoning being that while a man would try to imprint his own ideas for what the film should be in the editing process, a woman would be more nurturing towards his vision. The way I paraphrased it makes it come off a little sexist, but I think the sentiment illuminates a lot about Menke as an artist - that she would listen to Tarantino and do everything within her considerable power to help him make the film he wanted to make. It seems that the two of them were on the same wavelength, and his work to this point has relied on her considerable abilities (he has even flat out stated that he considers her work vital to his own). He also said in that same documentary that cinema is like music, and cutting at the right vs. wrong instant is the cinematic equivalent of a sweet note vs. a sour note; Sally Menke prevented him from playing sour notes. He had such fondness for her that he would always have his actors do a "Hi Sally" take where they would look directly into the camera and say hello to his dear editor. Watching these outtakes now, some of which are available as extra features on his DVDs and on YouTube, is literally heartbreaking.

The only Sally Menke I ever knew was the professional Sally Menke, which was admittedly a distinct pleasure in its own right. It's hard to pick a favorite moment, but there are many unforgettable moments in Tarantino's films that result from her spectacular sense of cinematic rhythm: the final sequence of Reservoir Dogs, as intense as any moment in any movie you can think of; the dance sequence in Pulp Fiction, masterfully cut in time to "You Never Can Tell"; the genius mall sequence at the end of Jackie Brown, which creates a flawless unity of time and place; the fight with the Crazy 88's in Kill Bill, which is lightning fast yet never disorienting; the car chase that serves as the climax of Death Proof, which is visceral yet never sacrifices spacial continuity for cheap thrills; the unforgettable opening of Inglorious Basterds, where the tension builds slowly, deliberately, and when the violence explodes you can almost feel the bullets penetrating your flesh. All these moments belong to Menke as much as they belong to Tarantino.

For all these unforgettable moments, and many others, I will forever be thankful to Sally Menke. I will miss her as much as you can possibly miss someone you've never met. Rest in peace.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Business of Junk: Naked Lunch

Junk is the mold of monopoly and possession. The addict stands by while his junk legs carry him straight in on the junk beam to relapse. Junk is quantitative and accurately measurable. The more junk you use the less you have and the more you have the more you use. All the hallucinogen drugs are considered sacred by those who use them - there are Peyote Cults and Bannisteria Cults, Hashish Cults and Mushroom Cults -`the Scared Mushrooms of Mexico enable a man to see God'' - but no on ever suggested that junk is sacred. There are no opium cults. Opium is profane and quantitative like money. I have heard that there was once a beneficent non-habit-forming junk in India. It was called *soma* and is pictured as a beautiful blue tide. If *soma* ever existed the Pusher was there to bottle it and monopolize it and sell it and it turned into plain old time JUNK.

David Cronenberg's adaptation of William S. Burroughs' junkie manifesto Naked Lunch surely ranks as one of the great film adaptations of all time - as much a biography of the novel's troubled author as an adaptation of his most well known work, which Cronenberg has cited as his favorite book of all time. Since the novel only barely has a plot, Cronenberg was forced to improvise much of the content of the picture, and the result is an often hilarious, occasionally tragic, perpetually surreal film - one that dramatizes Burroughs' psychological state at the time he wrote the famed novel. In spite of the numerous alterations to the text, this is a surprisingly faithful adaptation, as Cronenberg's film is a scathing satire that attacks Capitalism, drug culture, Corporate America, even the creative process - ultimately, it's as true to Burroughs' novel as any adaptation could possibly be, while also a new dimension to the text: an extremely moving portrait of its author.

I must confess that I did not care for Burroughs' novel, though I've had trouble deciding if I find it bad or simply disturbing, as Naked Lunch reflects a particularly tumultuous time in its authors life. Burroughs further wrote in "Deposition" that he had "no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch", which certainly explains the novel's lack of grammatical and narrative structure, as well as the often repulsive imagery that Burroughs employs (it's the only book I've ever read to make me physically ill). Cronenberg's aesthetic is a good match for Burroughs', creating similarly revolting depictions of flesh on the screen. By merging biography with fiction, Cronenberg dramatizes Burroughs' subjective reality; in spite of the numerous artistic liberties he takes with the book and Burroughs' life, Cronenberg beautifully dramatizes the state of mind of the author at the time of writing Naked Lunch, creating an extraordinarily rich and moving allegory for the creative process.

Peter Weller plays William Lee, an exterminator working in 1950s New York, and the film evokes the period before it properly begins with stunning opening credits in the style of the great Saul Bass. The film opens with Lee performing an extermination job and running out of bug spray in the middle of it, and he realizes that his wife has been lifting his bug powder for her personal use - the film uses bug spray as a representation of heroin - and the very beginning of the picture details her descent from user to all out junkie. Burroughs later states in "Deposition" that " [he] could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours. I was only roused to action when the hourglass of junk ran out. If a friend came to visit - and they rarely did since who or what was left to visit - I sat there not caring that he had entered my field of vision - a grey screen always blanker and fainter - and not caring when he walked out of it. If he had died on the spot I would have sat there looking at my shoe waiting to go through his pockets. Wouldn't you? Because I never had enough junk - no one ever does.", and we gradually see Lee's wife, Joan (Judy Davis), slipping into this barely cognizant state. When Lee walks in on one of his friends casually fucking his wife on his living room couch, she urges him not to be jealous - she assures him that his friend can't come, because of the spray, and she doesn't need to. Though the film never deals with Burroughs' actual drug use (the film only shows him drunk, in one scene), it nevertheless portrays the drug culture that Burroughs' art was a result of.

Naked Lunch also details the paranoid mind of a drug addict -though Lee is never depicted using drugs recreationally, he nevertheless confesses that he experiences "severe hallucinations", presumably a side effect of being in constant contact with the spray. After being apprehended by police for misappropriation of his insecticide, he has a vision of a large bug that speaks out of its asshole telling him that he must kill his wife because she works for "Interzone Inc.", and, moreover, isn't even human. He winds up inadvertently completing his 'mission' when he suggests that he and his wife do their William Tell routine, misses, and shoots her in the head. This is a key moment, both in Burroughs' life and in Cronenberg's film, an event that fueled Burroughs' writing. "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death", the author wrote, and the film examines the profound effect that him killing his wife had on his life and his work.

The inclusion of the death of Burroughs' wife is part of the genius of Cronenberg's film; Cronenberg sprinkles in details of Burroughs' personal life to at once make Naked Lunch a cohesive narrative and an expansion of the text upon which it is based. Rather than treating the man's work and his life like they are two separate entities, Cronenberg suggests that the two are intimately related - that understanding the man is key to understanding the art, and vice versa. After shooting his wife, Lee flees to Interzone to complete his mission, and it is here that that the picture details the writing of the novel, which it imagines as Lee's reports from Interzone.

Perhaps the most inspired detail in the picture is the way it transforms the character of Doctor Benway - a crazy, corrupt surgeon in the book - to a pharmaceutical doctor, a daring connection of illegal drugs to legal drugs. Lee visits him early in the film to receive a substance that will get his wife off the spray, called The Black Meat, though in fact it's a more dangerous drug than the drug spray; Benway is the most successful pusher of them all. Lee finds Benway's factory in Interzone at the end of the film and witnesses a few barely conscious human beings feasting on the insides of Centipedes, high out of their minds, highlighting that pharmaceuticals - abused as frequently, if not more frequently, than illegal substances - can produce the most strung out junkies of them all.

This discovery prompts Lee to leave Interzone for Annexia, accompanied by Joan Frost - also played by Judy Davis - and when he arrives at the border he is ordered to "prove" that he is the writer he claims be. He turns around to see his wife in the back of his car, and suggests that they do their William Tell routine. Once again, Lee shoots Joan dead, and this is the point when Cronenberg's approach towards translating the novel to the screen takes on truly tragic ramifications. As Burroughs wrote, he would not have become a writer were it not for the death of his wife, and the film pays homage to the fact that this event is part of Burroughs' artistic identity - there is no getting around it, he did a terrible thing, but it was an event that formulated his art (though it's worth noting that, while Burroughs expressed profound guilt over shooting his wife, he didn't feel bad enough to serve any kind of punishment for it). Cronenberg takes a senseless tragedy and ingrains in into the fabric of William Lee's very existence, and the implications of a never ending cycle of guilt and regret - yet Burroughs' necessity for it - are truly heartbreaking.

[This has been an entry in The Cronenberg Blogathon, hosted by Cinema Viewfinder, where this piece is cross-published. The blogathon runs from September 6-12]