Sunday, February 22, 2009

Let's Take a Moment to Congratulate Ourselves

The grandest of all clusterfucks in the world of film, the Oscars are like a hurricane that sucks up every film lover in its path--- from the most casual of fans to the most hardcore of cinemaniacs, there's really no avoiding them. Whether you love or hate them, there isn’t a movie fan alive who can avoid some discussion of the Oscars; it’s what the feverish, seemingly never-ending awards season culminates in. Oscar parties don't celebrate the awards themselves--- rather, it celebrates the end of award season circle jerk.

In spite of the Oscars’ innate lack of importance, the last two years’ ceremonies have been noteworthy. In 2006 Martin Scorsese received his long overdue award, and in 2007 the Coen Brothers were awarded their long overdue honor. For the first time in over a decade, the Academy was willing to give the big prize to films with violent undercurrents instead of self-important nonsense pictures (The Departed is at least silly nonsense). Last year's ceremony, rather than being a much needed sign of change in the Academy's taste (There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men being front runners has to be a unique bridging of quality and popular tastes, an anomaly in the Awards' history), seems like it was just a fluke. Now that the actors' strike is over, we're back to self-congratulatory red carpet trash--- stifling, self important garbage that suffocates world view as opposed to enlightening it. Because I hate being behind on popular movie taste, I forced myself to sit through all the nominated films. It wasn't a pretty experience.

With that being said, on to the pictures themselves.

David Fincher’s technical virtuosity does nothing to expand the themes of this vacant tale, which has all the schmaltz of Forrest Gump (a film I do not admire) but none of the energy. Fincher deliberately bores and stifles in the name of an intellectual pursuit; it’s turgid, lifeless formalism at its most portentous. I admire aspects of Fincher’s technique, but it is absolutely meaningless in the context of the narrative. The casting of Cate Blanchett’s is most revealing of Fincher’s methods--- like Fincher, Blanchett is all sanctimonious, distracting technique and no genuine emotion. Seriously, I walked out of the movie theater starving because I’d just watched scenery getting chewed for three endless hours.

If liberals in H'wood really wanted to look ahead to the future instead of doubling back on the past, Frost/Nixon never would have made it past the green lighting phase. Instead of contributing to our understanding of the nation’s 37th President, Richie Cunningham’s film is really only about invalidating genuine political discourse and re-inflating the left’s favorite punching bag, Richard Nixon. By treating the Watergate break in like it was the Reichstag's fire, Cunningham fundamentally misunderstands the dramaturgical power of Richard Nixon's story. Instead of analyzing the corrupting influence of politics in the United States (‘the beast’, as Oliver Stone so flawlessly phrased it in his masterpiece Nixon), Frost/Nixon is two-hours of pseudo-grandstanding and partisan hackery; in terms of political dialogue, it’s about as enlightening as your average cable news program, and it even comes complete with its own set of pseudo-babbling talking heads. In spite of being just plain stupid, Frost/Nixon has to count as Cunningham's first legitimately watchable film since Apollo 13, maybe Night Shift, at least in the sense that it's not offensively pedestrian and trivializing. It's just insipid.

The first of the discussed nominees to have an actual sense of life, Milk at least has the common sense to be amicable self-importance. Coasting by on energy and Sean Penn's weightless, graceful performance, Milk succeeds in embodying the three part biopic structure without dragging it out with pretension. Gus Van Sant manages to transpose his indie aesthetic to a populist form, and the result may count as one of the finer genre efforts of the year. The supporting players are all wonderful to, with Josh Brolin managing to touch a humanistic note in spite of the fact that his character is woefully underwritten. Van Sant more or less transposes his 'reasoning' for the school shootings in Elephant, that repressed homosexual rage leads to murder, and it's especially tacked on in this film.

This movie seriously fucking sucks. In all honesty, I turned off this piece of shit about a half hour in, so I can’t really comment at length on it. The Weinstein’s are another in a long line of cultural derelicts to prove that there really is no business like Shoah business, like no business I know.

Yes, I know, it’s pornography. It’s television. It’s gimmicky. It’s so sappy that you’re blowing your nose in pancakes by the end. It’s loud. It’s obnoxious. It’s bombastic. I think there is a certain sect of contrarian critics simply hating the idea of a film so digitized, and they throw out a set of meaningless buzzwords to jump on a bandwagon of hate. Maybe I’m just worn out of hating every critical and award darling this season, but I really do struggle to see what is so contemptible about Slumdog Millionaire. Benjamin Button, Frost Nixon, The Reader, and even Milk deliberately suffocate the audience with self-importance; in contrast to this, Slumdog Millionaire is practically a liberating experience. Without a doubt, this is the film that's going to win; and it is the best of the nominated films, I think (which is a bit of back-handed praise, to be sure). The film's game-show framing device is an easy target for people who want to talk about the 'death of cinema', but it's so ingrained into how the story unfolds that I think it rises above mere gimmickry. The Darjeeling Limited it 'aint, but it also doesn't deserve to be thought of as hateful or racially ignorant, especially considering the film goes to such, shall we say, extreme lengths to get you to sympathize with the protagonist (he gets beaten, waterboarded, electrocuted, spit on, and doused in shit...and that's the first ten minutes). I enjoyed it while I was watching it; indeed, it's an experience that comes at you from side to side, but if I never see it again, it will be too soon.

Just for fun, some old fashioned predictions:

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Director: Danny Boyle
Best Actor: Sean Penn
Best Actress: Melissa Leo (maybe I just can't fathom the idea of Winslet winning for a role so...embarrassing)
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger
Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz
Best Original Screenplay: In Bruges
Best Adapted Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Cinematography: The Dark Knight
Best Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
Art Direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Costume Design: The Dutchess
Best Original Score: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Achievement in Sound: The Dark Knight
Sound Editing: The Dark Knight
Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Animated Feature: Wall-E
Foreign Language Film: Waltz with Bashir
Best Documentary: Man on Wire

Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th- That's all folks.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Second Cousins: Christopher Nolan's Cinematic Offenses

In Mark Twain’s seminal essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (in my opinion the greatest piece of criticism ever written), he lays out the rules that separate good novels from bad novels, but Twain's observations are so pointed that I think we can apply it to art in all mediums--- the thin line that separates good art from bad art, the genius from the hacks, the talented from the un-talented; or, as it were, the cinematically literate from the illiterate. In his latest film The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan manages to violate several of Twain’s ‘rules’ simultaneously:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

As Jim Emerson has been arguing in a brilliantly pointed series of essays, there is simply something unsatisfying about Nolan's compositions, something unbelievable about the spatial dynamics within his frames. Batman Begins, which has a shorter average shot length (1.9 seconds to Dark Knight’s 2.6 seconds) feels far less disjointed. There is an organic flow between the shots, more appropriate matches on action, and the individual elements add up to a satisfying whole. I think both films are a little on the hyperactive side, but there is a fluidity to Nolan's first Batman film that is lacking in his latest. Personally, I find it difficult to get on board with The Dark Knight as a complete entity; the parts that work range from mediocre to excellent, the parts that don’t range from banal to embarrassing. To these eyes, there isn’t anything in The Dark Knight that is as visually dynamic as the first film’s scene in Arkham Asylum, nor as flawless a merging of form and content. The parts of The Dark Knight that I admire (certain images, the use of IMAX, Ledger's performance) feel isolated from the whole; like they stumbled in from a different, much better movie.

Some, on Emerson's website and others, have found his approach to criticizing this film perplexing. I for one find that kind of dialogue about this film, or the medium in general to be fascinating, and I find it most disheartening that people get outraged when the man simply requested that you, to paraphrase Werner Herzog, look directly at the movie. The art of seeing with your eyes. See past the labyrinth plot, the adrenaline pumping score, and look at what its images are saying. I'm not the biggest fan of Batman Begins, but The Dark Knight simultaneously smooths out some of that film's shakier qualities, while also inflating some of its problems to the heights of a Chicago skycraper.

Now, on to the offenses!

Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it

The Dark Knight is a film with what could at best be called a muddled morality. It has been suggested by some that the film deals in shades of gray to avoid the oversimplification of dealing in black and white. The world isn’t painted in strokes so clearly defined, y’see. I’m not entirely sure the film is as morally ambiguous as its proponents have suggested; at the end of the day, Batman is good, the Joker is bad, and Harvey Dent/Two-Face personifies the clash of these forces. I won’t deny that is somewhat of an oversimplification, that the film deals with the moral weight and implications of doing the right thing, but at the end of the day it doesn’t deviate from the standard “protagonist faces challenge” formula that has driven cinematic storytelling practically since its inception. In the best of the comic books, it could be interpreted that The Joker is the real hero and Batman the villain. There is no such moral flexibility in Nolan’s film.

The Dark Knight feigns nihilism and ambiguous morality but, due to the fact that it's a happy meal by its very nature, is forced to pull back the reigns on its philosophical convictions. It takes the concept of the PG-13 rating to its ultra dubious end, preaching thought while practicing the thoughtless. It's an ultra-pontificating teenage boy's movie, tailor made to pump the adrenaline of pubescents. Does The Joker present true anarchy? Of course not. He represents anarchy for the MTV-mindset; endless, heavy-handed preaching that doesn't amount to anything. He's not exactly Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, indulging his id at every passing moment. More like Tyler Durden Jr.

For all of his endless diatribes about chaos and anarchy, The Joker's plans are actually incredibly well thought out and suggest a hugely methodical individual. One of the film’s great ironies is when Joker asks Harvey Dent if he “looks like a man with a plan”, when the fact of the matter is he is a man with a plan, even if he doesn’t look it. Rather, like The Dark Knight itself, the Joker is supremely controlled while preaching, and projecting, chaos. Is Nolan an artist so in touch with his form that he deliberately made a statement on the nature of his methods? I’m not completely sure that’s the case. Rather, he distorts the Batman universe into turgid magical realism--- trying to mythologize and de-mythologize simultaneously. The Joker’s elaborate plans wouldn’t require so much logistical explanation if Nolan hadn’t tried to turn The Dark Knight into a Zodiac-esque document of process. If I have a problem suspending my disbelief with The Dark Knight, it’s because Chris Nolan so insists on grounding his film in reality--- again, reducing the Batman mythos to mere magical realism.

Use the right word, not its second cousin

This is strictly a matter of taste, but I still think it needs to be said. I can't help but feel that, as a director, Nolan doesn't understand the lyricism of images. Every scene--- good, bad, or indifferent feels over before it really began. We could apply that to the film's shot-by-shot visual syntax; every image--- whether good, bad, or indifferent feels gone before it even had an opportunity to register. When the film came out, the most oft-cited of these offenses was the quixotic image of Ledger's Joker dangling his head out of a police car window after his escape from the Gotham Police Department. Again, this is one of the moments when the film's visual language completely crushes its oral language, and all of the themes that Nolan had been handling through his bumbling, ineffective writing style is perfectly expressed through image. But blink and ya miss it! Again, the film is in such a hurry to rush to flick to the next page of panels (that's what the audience paid for, dontchaknow) that it refuses to slow down and enjoy the sights.

Eschew surplusage

This one needs no explanation. Even supporters of the film acknowledge that it’s overwritten. Every character has at least one monologue--- in some cases, several. There isn't a single theme that isn't touched on at least fifteen times through heavy-handed dialogue. Allow me to quote the great David Bordwell (who, thankfully, is not one of the film’s aforementioned supporters):

Then there are the mouths. This is a movie about mouths. I couldn’t stop staring at them. Given Batman’s cowl and his husky whisper, you practically have to lip-read his lines. Harvey Dent’s vagrant facial parts are especially engaging around the jaws, and of course the Joker’s double rictus dominates his face. Gradually I found Maggie Gyllenhaal’s spoonbill lips starting to look peculiar.

The expository scenes were played with a somber knowingness I found stifling. Quoting lame dialogue is one of the handiest weapons in a critic’s arsenal and I usually don’t resort to it; many very good movies are weak on this front. Still, I can’t resist feeling that some weighty lines were doing duty for extended dramatic development, trying to convince me that enormous issues were churning underneath all the heists, fights, and chases.
Like so many films these days, The Dark Knight suffers from being overwritten. I don’t necessarily mean that in the sense that it establishes its themes through dialogue rather than image, dialogue is a perfectly acceptable tool for thematic expression. Rather, The Dark Knight is mostly unconcerned with providing us with alluring images, reverting to a standard and boring shot/reverse shot aesthetic. This is tragic because in certain, fleeting instances the film manages to visually evoke the themes the dialogue distracts from. Nolan has incredible set design that brings to mind Blade Runner or even 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he does absolutely nothing with it.

He establishes these labyrinths, but doesn’t use them to express any kind of character psychology or emotion. Rather, he reverts to staging all of his dialogue with characters facing each other, doing his tired rendition of shot/reverse shot. This is when the shitburger script is suddenly thrown into center stage. I'm not picking on the technique in any way, I'm saying Nolan's use of it (as with most techniques he employs) is tired and lacking (and I believe deliberately fashioned to be so--- I just feel it was a mistake). Cinema is supposed to give us faces, emotions, and towering imagery, but Nolan thinks providing a sense of wonder and painting a bleak portrait of a dystopic society can't go hand in hand; A.I., anyone?

In his review of The Fountain¸ Matt Zoller Seitz expressed frustration that the film took what he called an “express train to profundity”. In other words, we’re not told why we’re supposed to care about the events and characters on the screen, we’re just told that we’re supposed to care. I feel that The Dark Knight takes a similar approach, constantly reminding us how serious the actions unfolding are, and how much dramatic and thematic weight they carry. It’s shamelessly self aware to the point of pretension. The House Next Door’s Keith Uhlich told me part of his problem with the film is that the film’s characters are symbols first, and the character’s themselves second; and he’s right, the film reduces its characters to clichéd literary types, which gets in the way of any emotional attachment we might have had towards them. There is nothing tragic about the fall of Harvey Dent, because he’s just a personification of the struggle between Batman and The Joker instead of a living, breathing entity. Nolan's cold, calculated, pseudo-intellectual approach to telling this story subverts the human drama brewing beneath the surface.

Not omit necessary details

This is strictly on a plot level, but it’s certainly one of the film’s problems. One of the notable things about The Dark Knight is its labyrinth plot; always moving, always driving forward, never slowing down for a beat. It's really quite relentless, and one feels that Nolan did an extreme amount of tightening up on the finished product. I think he cut out so many part's that don't work, that necessary plot details are simply excluded! When the film was released, many people had expressed confusion as to exactly what in the hell happened during the Harvey Dent/Rachel Dawes kidnapping scene, and their confusion is strictly a result of Nolan's bumbling. The Ramirez family, who is essential to the plot of the Dawes/Dent kidnapping, isn't introduced to the audience until after the fact. Again, I tend to not mind plot holes, and indeed would prefer a film not allow its visual expression be bogged down by semantics, but The Dark Knight puts such an emphasis on its arranged sequence of events that it's a fair criteria for judging it.

The film wants to be grounded in reality, yet all of The Joker's plans--- all of them, are so lacking in logic it's a shame Nolan didn't have more fun with the concept. I mean, of course The Joker arranged for a line of school buses to drive past the bank at the EXACT MOMENT he was pulling out of it. Of course he managed to put a cell phone-bomb inside a convict's stomach in a jail cell. Of course he has connections on the inside that allowed for the Dent and Dawes to be kidnapped while he was being apprehended. Of course he can rig an entire hospital with explosives, disguise himself as a nurse, and waltz right into the District Attorney's private hospital room. Of course he can call a talk-show that doesn't have a call-in format.: he's the fucking Joker, man! In the image of Ledger in a nurses uniform, calmly walking (and dancing a little) away from the piece of orchestrated chaos he's created, the film finds a bizarre, surreal, cheerfully inspired piece of insanity (without a doubt my favorite kind of insanity). Nolan relishes in it (or at least, he relishes in Ledger relishing in it), and this personable moment highlights the lack of personality the rest of the film has (doesn't have?). If the rest of The Dark Knight had thrown caution to the wind so gallantly, I think it would have been a far more effective film.

Avoid slovenliness of form, use good grammar & employ a simple and straightforward style

This is really the heart of what I'm driving at with this post. Nolan films as so many film makers of his generation do--- information contained in individual shots, rapid cutting, etc... There's nothing wrong with this, of course, and there is more than one way (there are infinite ways, perhaps) to put together a film, but that doesn't mean there isn't a right way and a wrong way. His supporters have argued that he deserves a best director nomination--- for what, exactly? (though I'll contend he did a better directing job than Howard, Fincher, et al) From where I'm sitting, Nolan's style is a more refined version of what Michael Bay or Paul Greengrass; it's more elegant than usual blockbuster fare (though never reaching the poetic heights of Spielberg, or even Del Toro), but at the end of the day it's still an MTV-aesthetic, only The Dark Knight plays it in a deliberately somber, dreary manner. It wants so bad for you to take it seriously.

Many have complained about the fight scene in the nightclub, which I'll contend is just downright incomprehensible. But I certainly don't think that's the only example of Nolan's poor directorial choices; take a much simpler scene (in terms of logistics), like the one where Gordon arrests Eric Roberts' character, Maroni (click for larger versions of the screenshots).

The scene begins with a shot of Harvey Dent being interviewed on television. Harvey Dent points off-screen, which is a fairly common (and effective) device for preparing an audience for a reverse shot. I certainly think it's probably the most effective directorial decision in the scene.

This lovely creature is one of Maroni's thugs. As I said earlier, I think this is easily the most interesting cut in the scene, in the sense that it actually works for preparing the audience for the shot to follow. Sure, we're in the 21st century and audiences can 'read' unusual cuts with a fair amount of ease, but that doesn't mean spatial relationships and dynamics should be completely ignored.

Cut to another individual shot of the character of Maroni. We're probably about 30 seconds into the scene at this point, and we still haven't seen a wide shot of the space we're inhabiting. Nolan is in such a rush to pound the next piece of inane, plot driving, thematic hammering piece of dialogue into the audience's skull that he ignores simple, effective directorial choices that could have better fleshed out the drama of this scene. After that first cut, this short sequence is a series of one baffling decision after another. Both times I saw it, it took me out of the movie completely.

This is more or less how Nolan stages all his dialogue and action set pieces. Whether it be individual shots of characters reciting dialogue or individual shots of characters punching or chasing one another, Nolan seems to not be interested in giving the audience a clear concept of where objects and characters are in relation to one another. In a film of this ilk, I think that's tantamount to developing a sense of tension and excitement, as well as a more economic way of developing character relationships and dramatic arks. (what does the way the character's are positioned in the frame say about their relationship to one another?)

Anyway, the shot immediately following that last one of Maroni (the shot shown above is the last frame before the shot cuts) shows Gary Oldman entering the restaurant.

¿Qué? Considering the frenetic pacing of the preceding 40 minutes or so, for all we know the cut to the entrance to the Gangster's Hall could be an entirely new scene beginning. Nolan used points, glances, and gestures effectively during this scene, so I'm confused as to why he would have Roberts looking in the opposite direction to where Oldman is entering. I, for one, found the cut to Oldman's entrance completely jarring. He used close-ups when he should have used a wide shot, and wide shots when he should have used close-ups. It's only after Oldman's entrance that we have even the faintest idea as to what the setting of the scene is comprised of. Simple, effective staging like the following image from Batman Begins is virtually absent in The Dark Knight.

While I think Begins is still a little chaotic (an ASL of 1.9 seconds equals lots of cutting no matter how you look at it), I still think Nolan manages to pull it off, for the most part. Batman Begins is more simplistic, but it's also more effective as a complete entity; which is a shame because, on paper, The Dark Knight seems like the better film (not to say it's script is any good). It's more ambitious, takes on more mature themes, and takes the form of comics seriously (and, no, I don't think that's one of the film's problems at all, you can applaud the concept and still deride the execution). I'm not trying to pick on The Dark Knight in any way, as I admire it in many respects (and enjoyed my two IMAX viewings of it), I just think it is one of those works that really illustrates the difference between a well directed movie and a poorly directed movie. It's a very fine line, and while Nolan is certainly ambitious and has a refined visual sense, I don't think we should mistake that for a discernible visual style. Do all the images serve necessary plot, narrative, and character functions? I certainly don't think so--- most shots exist to solely to give the characters a chance to recite the next piece of heavy-handed, convoluted dialogue that doesn't assist character and thematic development, but rather gets in the way of it.

In spite of all my misgivings with it, I still really do kinda like The Dark Knight. In a loose way, I enjoy all the Batman films (I'll even watch Mask of the Phantasm if I catch it on Cartoon Network), so The Dark Knight, being easily the finest on-screen pairing of comic books' most iconic rivalry (coming from a Superman-man) fits well into the canon of Batman films. It ruminates on iconography in a unique way (the way Batman and the Joker are more playing roles in the world's stage than battling each other), as well as highlighting the psychological depth of the Batman universe. I think it tries too hard to reach those narrative ends, but I appreciate the attempt.

But it's also something else, besides a Batman movie; a genuine, true-blue, out of left-field pop culture sensation. In that sense, it's representative of the way we tell stories in the 00s, so it's an important film, too. I think a closer look at the film's narrative syntax and subtext can tell a lot about the way movies are made today, and what they mean to us. Though, regardless of any problems I may have with it, there's little doubt in my mind that it's better than all of the Best Picture nominees. Put together. Times infinity. Plus one.

My original review of The Dark Knight can be found in the October Issue of Bergen Community College's "The Torch", available online here, page 11.

Some days...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Heart Locked in a Gran Torino

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*Spoilers herein

Unquestionably one of 2008's most reprehensible films, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino has to count as one of the most embarrassing embodiments of a star persona this side of George Clooney in Batman & Robin (or Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler). I am sad to report that Gran Torino is so awful a film that it calls everything--- yes, everything Clint Eastwood has done as a film maker into question. It forces us to ponder what his presence as a star has meant to us, as well as his own perceptions of his work and career. He's called this a 'swan song' for his acting career, something he said about his own (and far superior) Unforgiven (he should have stuck to his word). I didn't think it was possible for a director to make a film more laden with dramatic cliches, with more ignorant a class portrayal, and a more retrograde view of race than Million Dollar Baby (that film was written by Paul Haggis after all)--- but Clint Eastwood has managed to disgrace his career and star image even further, in the name of contrived, visually bland Americana that attempts to be socially relevant and falls on its hateful, politically correct face.

Gran Torino is yet another lame rumination of The Searchers sexually charged "young, innocent virgin" motif that Eastwood's been regurgitating since his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me. Only instead of focusing that sexual frustration solely on to women, in this film he splits up that fraction of the id into two equally poorly written characters--- one, a smart mouthed teenage girl named Sue and the other her effeminate, "big fat pussy" (Eastwood's words, not mine) brother Thao who is affectionately, or not, referred to as "Toad" by Eastwood's Walt Kowalski throughout the film. In a transparent move for political correctness, Thao is the truly effeminate one, and Eastwood is attempting to 'man him up' over the course of the film--- macho bullshit values that Eastwood flaunts while pretending to deconstruct.

There hasn't been so awkward a documentation of race since Paul Haggis' insipid Crash. Like Haggis, Eastwood actually reinforces racial stereotypes that his film is attempting to counter. Watching the film, I found it difficult to discern whether or not Gran Torino served as a trial or confession on the part of Eastwood; whether this was deliberately fashioned as an elitist, hateful portrayal of white middle class, or whether this is some kind of pseudo-confession on his part. There's no denying it's a personal project --- after all, Eastwood did put himself up on the screen. He's undoubtedly delivering a message of some kind, the question is what.

The film is simply so out of touch with the reality that it purports. It would be hard to imagine characters written in more convoluted a manner and more terribly acted than the ones in this film. It's beyond B-Movie bad because it has genuine psycho-sexual/social pretensions, but it uses every cloyingly obvious dramatic cliche in its arsenal to hammer these themes. What Eastwood has done to his image--- deliberately done, should qualify as self mutilation. He's giving a big middle-finger to the generations of movie goers who have his image as Dirty Harry, The Man with No Name, or the Orangutan-Man (!) frozen in time. He reduces his own persona to a barrage of grunting, cursing, and shooting--- and throws a little politicized cherry on top of his Shit Sundae. In our current environment, this kind of pseudo-nonsense has been mistaken for profundity; Eastwood intellectually and politically placates, and thus voids the real dramatic content of his film in favor of a trite, PC, morality play.

Gran Torino reverses Eastwood's usual motif of murder as the ultimate penance; in this film, self-sacrifice is the answer to all his trite socio-philosophical ruminations. However, instead of delivering a spiritual revelation, Eastwood trivializes the concept of self-sacrifice by reducing it to a PC-ploy for intellectualism. The Searchers may be an influence for Eastwood, but Gran Torino indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of Ford's masterpiece. Whereas The Searchers had a sexually charged psycho-sexuality that was used to expose racism's emotional and intellectual fraudulence, Gran Torino hijacks that central motif, but none of the commentary or tragedy that permeated Ford's film is transposed.

Eastwood has become such a sanctimonious academy-whore that he doesn't even embrace the camp of his story--- his piano score suggests a sorrowful, reflective tone, which highlights how ham-fisted the dramatic content of his story is. Watching it, I wanted to simultaneously laugh and cry at the sad, bumbling, ineffective performance of an icon struggling to make a social commentary of this new-fangled millennium, as well as on his own persona, and failing miserably. It's so bad, it almost counters Eastwood's brilliant career foot-note Unforgiven; where he expanded, evolved, and went deeper with his image. Gran Torino is just a ploy for attention--- the sound of one hand clapping.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Once in a Lifetime: W.

To honor the release of
W. on DVD, I bring you one from the archives:

A startling work of empathy in the face of infantile Bush bashing, Oliver Stone’s ode to the baby boom generation defies easy labeling because it refuses to pander to bi-partisan bias. Rather than conforming to a derogatory and simplistic portrayal of the President, Stone seeks to use film as a medium of social, political, and emotional enlightenment; and in the process elevates modern history to a Shakespearean power struggle. Indeed, Stone uses this portrait of the President as a gateway to exploring America at this most peculiar phase of her existence, and the chain of events that led to this most unlikely President.

While W. features scenes set during Bush’s Presidency, most of the film focuses on his youth and the path he chose that led him to the White House. Some of the film’s most effective moments show an unsure Bush rebelling against his father--- in effect rejecting and resenting his royal creed in an effort to create his own identity. Because Stone is such a perceptive observer and dramatist of history he recognizes the oedipal dynamics of Bush’s story. The film traces Bush’s paternal evolution; in his youth he resents his father’s stature, during his middle years he is in awe of it, and during his Presidential years he surpasses his father in drive, enthusiasm, and global vision. James Cromwell brings a sense of nobility and dignity to the role of G. H.W. Bush, turning a modern President into a classical figure. While the portrait of Bush the elder may be a bit exaggerated for dramatic effect, it has a valid emotional tenant within the context of Bush Jr’s baby-boom identity crisis.

Stone turns what could have been an extended Saturday Night Live skit into a rich, slightly satirical examination of modern power dynamics. While the film does have a few laughs at Bush's expense, it never feels like we are supposed to be laughing at him. Rather, Stone creates a feeling of empathy while avoiding being outright piteous. Stone, who is a few months younger than George Bush, clearly identifies with the President in unique, unexpected ways; he documents his determination, his humor, and his ability to relate to people on a common, unpretentious level. He recognizes the sheer gall necessary for the unprecedented pre-emptive attack on Iraq, even while illustrating the folly of such a course of action. The story would be unbelievable if we hadn't lived through it.

The performances avoid mere impersonation and instead the cast embody their respective characters. Stone has always been effective at casting historical figures--- Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger; and the entire ensemble shines here. Like the sections of an orchestra, they come together to form a seamless illusion of sight and sound, and bring modern history alive. The cabinet meetings function like one would imagine they do: Condoleezza Rice as the policy apologist, Rumsfeld as the tactician, Cheney as the artful manipulator, Powell as the voice of reason, with Bush standing as the ultimate commoner of the group; a Frank Capra character with a subversive dark side. But Stone doesn't merely reduce Bush to a one-note buffoon, a superficial oversimplification that has been mistaken for commentary in the era of Michael Moore and Bill Maher.

What Stone does in this film is examine Bush's place within the lexicon of our current culture. The film regurgitates the facts of Bush's life that we have all become familiar with these last eight years, but it brings such a sense of life and energy to the story that it feels as though we are seeing and hearing it for the first time. Some critics have complained that there 'aren't enough surprises' within the narrative of the film, that it doesn't tell us enough that we don't already know, but to insist for a surprise in a biopic of a sitting President is to miss the point entirely. Rather, through the examination of George Bush’s life and times we can understand America’s current place within global politics. When I saw the film, it seemed to me that its unique insight and emotion was wasted on most of the audience, who came to take part in a condescending exhibition of the President’s weaknesses. While the film in no way idolizes Bush, it also avoids senseless vilification. It may be the first step towards understanding the last eight years.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Shadows' Tears

The above, from Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven.

Expressionism has had a deep-rooted (and noted) influence on Hollywood. This should come as no surprise--- throughout the history of humanity, we have traded our knowledge and our progress has been collective, so it's natural that this would manifest itself in our art. As Hollywood taught the rest of the world how to tell stories in pictures, so did the rest of the world teach us how to properly consolidate technique. So naturally the richest films have been the visually inventive films that use film techniques from around the world to tell their story, merging seemingly wild different sensibilities into a tangible, collective whole.

Expressionism's influence on certain genres in obvious--- where would Universal Horror Films or Film Noir be without the undeniable influence of the expressionist movement? Much like German Expressionism films, Universal horror pictures and Film Noir use distorted sets and shadows to express character's subjective frame of mind--- dreams, nightmares, and the macabre all rolled into a bizarre, beautiful whole.

But, lately, a less discussed period of Hollywood film making has been thrust to the center of the film culture. The Murnau, Borzage, & Fox set was, for me, an introduction to a style of film-making that I had been previously unaware of: the expressionistic melodrama. As with all things related to film history, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The decision on the part of William Fox to bring Murnau under his wing is indicative of the kind of artistic direction he wanted to take his studio in. He recognized artistry when he saw it--- and he knew that expressionism was a unique way of telling stories visually. His films from the late 20s with F.W. Murnau, Frank Borzage, and John Ford can be seen as his attempt at merging populism and artistry, elevating the cinema to a collective process of catharsis.

This all leads to my somewhat unexpected double feature, courtesy of Netflix. As the service is sometimes inclined to, it mixed up the order in my queue, sending me Borzage's Seventh Heaven and Ford's Four Sons. I'd planned on doing a Borzage double feature, but Netflix had foiled my plans once again.

But it turns out these films had more in common than I had imagined. They are both meoldramas that use World War I as their backdrop (indeed, both films seem to depict World War I as something that happened to the characters) , and they both have influences rooted in expressionsim (made all the more fitting by the fact that Ford's film is set in Germany before, during, and after World War I). Again, these films use this technique to underline an entirely different set of emotions and ideas--- there is a sentimentality that permeates these films that one normally doesn't find in films from the Expressionism era. One particularly chilling sequence in Ford's Four Sons uses this nightmarish technique to express the horrors of war in a way that is deeply psychologically affecting.

Ford establishes this nightmarish landscape in stunning wide shot and then brings us disconcertingly close to it with a claustrophobic series of close ups. In a sequence that brings to mind Dreyer, Ford uses the faces of the soldiers to express the psychological degradation a trained killer goes through, what some would call the spoils of war. They have a moment that is both profoundly sensitive and revelatory, where they humanize the so-called enemy and realize that it's an actual, breathing human being in the opposite trench.

This is a simple, eloquent anti-war sentiment that most of today's so-called counter cultural films can't express with all their partisan pandering. Films like Jarhead or Charlie Wilson's War by-pass emotion emotion and intellectually placate (and are visually bland worst of all). The essence of art is to express profound emotions simply, and Ford's film found the proper visual chords to paint a portrait of what war does to a people. Not just the loss of blood and treasure, but the profound bitterness and loss it creates, especially on the front which the war is waged. If more people had been listening to this and other cries for empathy, perhaps a second, arguably more catastrophic World War could have been prevented.

Similarly Borzage's highly regarded Seventh Heaven take a microcosmic view of the effects of war, though Borzage's film is more unabashedly sentimental than Ford's film. I for one have never understood why sentimentality is frowned upon in films--- as it is with any dramatic construct, it can be good or bad depending on the practitioner. Like Steven Spielberg, for whom Borzage was most certainly an influence, Borzage uses sentimentality to express deeper, more profound yearnings. It's not a cloying, manipulative device but rather a transcendent one in his divine hands.

Borzage paints a portrait of pre-war France that is reminiscent of a fairy tale. He contrasts it with the harsh realities of a country ravaged by the destruction of war. At the end of the film, the main character is robbed of his ability to see (but not feel), as countries are blinded by nationalism, xenophobia, and petty politics. Seventh Heaven and Four Sons may represent differences in physical perspective with respect to World War I (Four Sons is set in Germany and Seventh Heaven in France), but they represent a similar emotional perspective; and they use a similar visual technique to express a humanism that transcends country, race, and ideology. These films vividly illustrate the horror of what human beings do to one another and suggest that the power of family, love, and empathy are greater forces that war can cripple but never destroy.

Monday, February 2, 2009

31 Days of Boredom

Like hurricane season, the flu, or even the Oscars themselves; every year TCM commences with its annual 31 Days of Oscar. I'd imagine this is the time of year when their ratings are highest, playing a slew of canonized classics with hugely iconic stars. It's just about the only time of year I notice people that I wouldn't normally classify as classic film watchers seem to tune in to TCM with relative consistency.

It's also uniformly their least interesting month, schedule wise. Especially after the brilliantly inventive schedules TCM has had the last few months which included everything from Hitchcock to Abel Gance and Ford to Tourneur, as well as a slew of films unavailable on Region 1 DVD:

Nick Ray's first collaboration with Humphrey Bogart,
Knock on Any Door, undoubtedly inferior to their second collaboration In a Lonely Place, but still worth a look for any fan of Ray. It's a two-fold narrative: one, a rehash of They Live By Night (a better film, I think), and the other being Bogart's relationship with the 'hood' character. Bogart plays his lawyer, which allows for lots of moralistic preaching in courtroom scenes about how his failings are really society's failings.

There was King Vidor's Show People, released the same year as the seminal The Crowd, and nearly as great a film. It has a serio-comic tour-de-force performance from Marion Davies, who will always tragically seem to live under the shadow of William Randolph Hearst. While he was undoubtedly driving for her success, what stands the test of the time is her incredible screen presence and ability to flawlessly weave comedy and drama into a rich tapestry of emotion. Plus, it has a cameo by Vidor, playing himself. A real travesty that both his masterpieces from that banner year 1928 are currently unavailable, and I know of no plans for them to be released any time soon.

There was also Jacques Tourneur's
Stars in My Crown, the first time he's ever disappointed me. Somewhat simplistic and turgid Americana that reminded me of Hawks' Sergeant York; pictorially effective but subtextually vacant. Still, the director of Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and especially Out of the Past deserves better, and any fan of those films should check this out for many of Tourneur's usual breathtaking compositions. This film is interesting for its unusual turn for Western star Joel McCrea, as this strikes me as one of the beginning of the 50s answer to the Westerns of the past, not films that focused on action so much as evoking a feeling of Americana and deriding the violence in the films that many of the Westerns of the 30s and 40s purported. High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma, and even The Searchers could be seen as examples of this different spin on a classic American construct.

Joseph Cotten gives a somewhat phoned in performance in Budd Boetticher's
The Killer is Loose, an incredibly economic noir-thriller, which borrows the psycho-sexuality of Hitchcock and gives it a rough, exploitation edge (Hitchcock would of course give himself a rough, exploitation edge in Psycho a few years later). Still, it benefits from Cotten's Star power and Boetticher's brilliant staging, which always underlines the drama and establishes a lot about the mental state of the character.

I'm not saying all the aforementioned films are great, but they are noteworthy for film fans because they are hard to find elsewhe re. Someday, someone really should write a long diatribe about TCM's invaluable, jaw-dropping contribution to film history and film preservation.....

The Criterion Collection must put out the occasional Michael Bay film, so must TCM do its 31 Days of Oscar. I'm not knocking any of these films in any way, I'm just saying the schedule by its very nature is going to be more confined to a certain pool of films; many of which your average cinephiles saw a great majority of the March schedule by the time they were twelve. TCM is great for its variety; not everything they play is a highly regarded, prestige classic, and that makes their treasure chest of an archive all the more alluring. They're so all-encompassing that, like the Criterion Collection, you get spoiled and demand that they stick to the same consistency of quality and variety. Still, there are plenty of things to look out for this month:

King Vidor's
Comrade X and The Citadel
Ernst Lubitsch's
Mervyn LeRoy's
Gold Diggers of 1933
Vincente Minnelli's
Designing Woman and Madame Bovary
Paul Musurzky's
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
Zoltan Korda's
The Four Feathers, The Jungle Book and Sahara (the last of which with the always agreeable Humphrey Bogart)
Michael Curtiz's
Mildred Pierce
Douglas Sirk's
Imitation of Life
Hal Ashby's
Bound for Glory and The Last Detail
George Cukor's
David Copperfield and Pat & Mike
Carol Reed's
The Fallen Idol
John Huston's
Moulin Rouge
Louis Malle's
Pretty Baby
Istvan Szabo's
Jean Renoir's
The Southerner
Masaki Kobayashi's
Frank Borzage's
Three Comrades

Do these films make up for selections like
Moonstruck, Sophie's Choice, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Awakenings? Almost. Still, I'll be looking forward to March, which looks like it's going to hit the ground running.

My memory doesn't recall if they've had themes in the past; I always thought that TCM arranged them by the categories the Academy Awards did. This year they've decided to a simultaneously lame and hilarious College-theme, with films organized by 'Department'. Film-square extraordinaire Robert Osborne is the so called "Dean of Ceremonies". Somehow, I think TCM may have found the perfect shoe to fit Osborne's tweed personality.

Like college itself, I'll attend enthusiastically, but perhaps finding myself day-dreaming during some of the 'required' courses.

TCM's full schedule can be found here .