Sunday, August 29, 2010

"In order to believe in God, you have to believe in demons": doubts about Eli Roth's The Last Exorcism

Poised between the competing ideologies of Christian fundamentalism and scientific rationalism, The Last Exorcism would like to be something more than a cheaply made StudioCanal horror movie seeking to capitalize on the success of Paranormal Activity (with producer Eli Roth giving the film movie star cred), but there are problems.

For one, if you are going to elaborate upon Linda Blair's work in The Exorcist (1973), what is there left for a possessed teenage girl to do? (For that matter, in what way is a wild-eyed, berserk, possessed teenager any different from a normal one?) Blair's character Regan has already vomited pea soup, urinated in front of guests, levitated, spoke backwards in English, and rotated her head several times. Poor Louisiana country bumpkin Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) tries to compete by twisting her head into odd positions, crying like a baby (echoing a similar sound in The Blair Witch Project), hacking some goats and cows and a cat to death, and breaking her fingers until the doubting evangelical minister Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) cries out "Stop!", but somehow she's still playing second fiddle. Nell obtains some hipster red boots from one of the crew who arrive at her dad's farmhouse to film a documentary about her exorcism. (For awhile, I entertained the notion of cat blood-splattered cotton dresses and red boots becoming the hot new fashion look for fall.)

Be that as it may, what separates The Last Exorcism from other "realistic" jerky handheld camera motion Blair Witch ripoffs is its intellectual pretension that may in part account for the fact that the film is not all that scary. A scene late in the film evokes both Rosemary's Baby and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown." The charismatic and fraudulent young preacher Cotton Marcus' name alludes to Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister who participated in the Salem Witch Trials. In contrast, Cotton Marcus has a website, a way with words (he brags of his ability to sway a congregation with a recipe for banana bread), and a cynical attitude toward his exorcising craft. He sees his mission as an effort to "heal people" who think they are possessed. Lastly, Cotton suffers an ironic crisis of the faith. Even the demon, speaking through Nell, knows that when he says, "I hear you don't believe in me." Can this admitted fraud perform a real exorcism?

In other ways, The Last Exorcism loads the dice as it falls short. Poor Nell has a creepy villainous-looking acne-scarred dad named Louis (Louis Herthum) who looks like he could be easily guilty of who knows what crimes, and a brother named Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) who has aggression issues of his own. When he isn't throwing rocks at Cotton's van, Caleb's threatening to hurt Cotton if something happens to his sister. The entire Sweetzer household reminded me of the toxic ambiance of Bad Day at Black Rock. No one, except perhaps naive Nell, wants the film crew around.

With all of his ambitions of emulating Lars Von Trier, director Daniel Stamm still has difficulty setting up a scary scene. For instance, after his first (fake) exorcism, Cotton takes his payment, exhorts Louis to lay off the bottle, says goodbye to the Sweetzers, and then retires to a hotel. But then, sometime in the night, Nell just appears in a nearby room. How did she get there? How did she know what hotel he was in? Why is she acting so weird? But there's no suspense in the scene. She just shows up, and Cotton takes her to the hospital and requests psychiatric help for her.

The film is full of these missed opportunities. I was especially distracted by the snippets of scary non-diegetic music soundtrack that kept giving away that we are not watching a "real" documentary. Even given its copycat effective marketing, The Last Exorcism betrays the challenges of imitating Paranormal Activity, which really did only cost about $10,000 and looks crude enough to prove it. Cotton says that "in order to believe in God, you have to believe in demons," but it's another thing altogether to not see the studio gloss and calculation belying a deliberately amateurish horror film.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

This is your brain on Twitter: attention, social media, and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows

After a summer of tweeting, playing Scrabble on Facebook, and writing posts on this blog, I've returned to teaching, and suddenly my attention seems like a vanishing natural resource. Several questions come to mind:

1) How much has Twitter led me away from writing?

2) Has the Internet trained me to skim?

3) Does Twitter succeed because it caters to a short attention span?

4) Does Internet surfing encourage people to watch videos instead of reading?

5) Does one's writing become more fragmentary and scattered due to the influence of social media?

6) How much does this scattering of concentration affect the reading of print media, specifically books?

On the one hand, I enjoy sharing my thoughts with an engaged audience, finding links that others may enjoy (playing the aggregator), learning more about film and the media, and participating in a lively interactive culture of bloggers, journalists, academics, experts, and so on.

On the other hand, I wonder about the Internet's effect on my concentration. I read (skimmed) Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains over the summer, and he decries the subtle ways in which the Internet changes how we think, particularly the way the mind reshapes itself to react to different media. He finds that all of the switching from link to link does affect our concentration negatively. Some quotes from his book:

"The Net seizes our attention to scatter it" (118).

"As the economist Tyler Cowen says, `When access [to information] is easy, we tend to favor the short, the sweet, and the bitty'" (94).

"Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle: that's the intellectual environment of the Internet" (126).

"frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and angry" (132).

"Nielson found that the vast majority [of Web users] skimmed the text quickly, their eyes skipping down the page in a pattern that resembled, roughly, the letter F" (134).

"most Web pages are viewed for ten seconds or less" (135).

"it's in Google's economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible. The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction" (157).

Lastly, Carr quotes from David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon college: "`Learning how to think' really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience." Otherwise, one is left with "the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing" (194-95).

Perhaps due to Carr's influence, I have never been more conscious of the limitations of my attention and the need to carefully select what I might concentrate on.

Related links:

Monday, August 23, 2010

machine links

---bull attack

---5 cinematographers

---"In Search for Autonomy":

"Bifo uses Elephant, Gus van Sant’s captivating account of the Columbine tragedy, to illustrate the spreading psychopathology of the first post-alpha(betic) generations, the ones that “have learned more words from a machine than from their mother” (as the anthropologist Rose Golden wrote in 1975). He writes: “it is with glacial tenderness that Van Sant shows us the neurotic mumbling, the anorexic hystericisms and the relational incompetence of the Columbine generation (…) Bodies that have lost contact with their soul and hence no longer know anything about their corporeality”. In Elephant Bifo sees the cognitive mutation that is unfolding in the context of a communicative transformation: the passage from “conjunction” to “connection” as the predominant mode of interaction. While conjunction is a singular process of “becoming other”, connection is a functional and repeatable interaction between discrete, formatted segments. Connection requires that these segments are compatible and interoperable - which is something digital network technologies dwell on, as they expand by reducing more and more elements to format, standard and code. There’s no room for margins of ambiguity or gradations of nuance here. Central to this shift is the insertion of the electronic into the organic, which has provoked a palpable change in the relation between consciousness and sensibility. As the info-sphere is becoming thick and dense, putting our attention constantly under siege, we are less and less able to react consciously to emotional impulses. There’s just not enough time for empathy, time to experience, to caress, to feel the other as a sensorial body. “Affective attention suffers a kind of contraction, and it is forced to find ways of adaptation: the organism adopts tools for simplification, and it tends to smooth out the living psychic response, to repackage affective behaviour in a frozen and fastened framework.” Reducers of complexity such as money, media clichés, stereotypes or webinterfaces have simplified the relationship with the other, and when the other appears in flesh and blood, we are unable to deal with its presence, because it hurts our (in)sensibility. It is as if we cannot longer understand or convey that which cannot be verbalized, that which cannot be reduced to simple codified signs."

---Cabaret cinema (from Daniel Kasman)

---100 helpful photography tutorials

---Bogdanovich chats with Wes Anderson

---Matthew Taylor and 21st century enlightenment

---how do you take notes on films? (I mostly just try to capture dialogue)

---James MacDowell analyzes The Room:

"One the most fundamental pleasures of The Room is the way in which it unsuccessfully tries to be a bizarre paean from Wiseau to himself, presenting him as a great and loving man who becomes the undeserving victim of all around him (“Everybody betrayed me!” is his later anguished exclamation). Yet, as this scene shows, his character’s goodness is often expressed in ways that are by turns unimpressively conventional (buying Lisa red roses and calling her his “princess”), awkwardly expressed (being a good customer and kind to animals, always being interested in friends’ problems), and deeply weird (sort-of adopting a teenage boy [Denny], letting friends [like Mike] use his apartment for sex). The ultimate result of this is that the film comes to feel like a parody of the masculinist narcissism that lies at the heart of its conscious project, exposing the fact that this troubling ideology is troubling, and opening it to ridicule. This is one of the many things that contributes to making The Room not just a ‘failure’ but a fascinating “passionate failure” (one of Sontag’s descriptions of camp). Wiseau has poured his heart and soul into this fevered tribute to himself, and it is a mark of his specialness as an artist that his heart and soul can produce a tribute that ended up feeling this consistently baffling, and this unintentionally self-critical. I do not say this ironically."

---Truffaut's last interview

---What's My Line? with Hitchcock and others

---J. J. Murphy considers Medicine for Melancholy

---fake Criterion covers (thanks to @annehelen)

---"I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you" and reasons to not own a cell phone (thanks to @osulop)

---Obama: a day in the life

---watching a story go viral

---Jonathan "technological consumerism is an infernal machine" Franzen resists the promotional machinery for his upcoming novel Freedom.

---Arctic warming

---back in America, as the stores close and the 20-somethings refuse to mature, the Facebookers spy on each other

---upcoming possibly intriguing films--Vanishing on 7th Street and Fair Game

---lastly, the future of search

Monday, August 16, 2010

down by links

---Cours Toujours

---Jim Jarmusch is a student

---Pulp Fiction Disneyfied and Lock and Load

---time to abandon the earth before the empire collapses:

"Let's face it: The planet is heating up, Earth's population is expanding at an exponential rate, and the the natural resources vital to our survival are running out faster than we can replace them with sustainable alternatives. Even if the human race manages not to push itself to the brink of nuclear extinction, it is still a foregone conclusion that our aging sun will expand and swallow the Earth in roughly 7.6 billion years.

So, according to famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, it's time to free ourselves from Mother Earth. "I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space," Hawking tells Big Think. "It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn't have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let's hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load."

Hawking says he is an optimist, but his outlook for the future of man's existence is fairly bleak. In the recent past, humankind's survival has been nothing short of "a question of touch and go" he says, citing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963 as just one example of how man has narrowly escaped extinction. According to the Federation of American Scientists there are still about 22,600 stockpiled nuclear weapons scattered around the planet, 7,770 of which are still operational. In light of the inability of nuclear states to commit to a global nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the threat of a nuclear holocaust has not subsided. In fact, "the frequency of such occasions is likely to increase in the future," says Hawking, "We shall need great care and judgment to negotiate them all successfully."

---the gospel according to George Carlin

---Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy discuss Todd Haynes

---apocalyptic art

---Chaplin's blooper reel

---celebrating the great Sterling Hayden

---junk computers in Ghana

---cinematic Paris:

"You can recognize these local habitations even if you have never visited the city. When you do visit, you often have the uncanny feeling of walking through a movie. And it is often in movies that the city seems most itself. The actual Louvre, imposing as it may be, comes alive when encountered in the sprint through its galleries undertaken by Arthur, Franz and Odile in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders.” The play of traffic, buildings and sky that inflect the city’s bustling waking hours is splendidly palpable in “The Red Balloon,” Albert Lamorisse’s ageless children’s film; it is all still there, and yet somehow captured for the first time, in Hou Hsaio-hsien’s “Flight of the Red Balloon” made more than 50 years after Lamorisse’s film and in homage to it.

The city serves Hollywood most handily as a backdrop for romance and mystery (see“Casablanca,” “Charade,” “Julie and Julia” and countless others in between), but it can also accommodate action thrillers (like “From Paris With Love”) and other, less classifiable entertainments. Paris is set in stone — the cobblestones of some of its ancient bridges and sidewalks, the limestone facades of most of its buildings — and at the same time infinitely fungible. Having been around forever, or at least much longer than movies, it never grows old, and so is susceptible to perpetual reinvention: by the wizards of Pixar, for instance, who folded its landmarks and ambience into “Ratatouille,” and by Christopher Nolan, who literally, digitally folded up its geography in one of the most memorable scenes in“Inception.”

That sequence — a practice exercise for Ariadne, the apprentice dream architect played byEllen Page — is entirely superfluous to the plot of “Inception” and essential to its atmosphere. A film so utterly saturated in movie references, and so besotted with the medium’s capacity for illusion-making, could hardly neglect to tip its hat in the direction of France."

---Jean-Louis Rodrigue considers manly men in Hollywood and where they've gone

---Edgar Wright's favorite musicals, Wright's views on video game addiction, and a track-by-track dissection of the music of the excellent Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

---photos of Sofia Coppola's Somewhere

---A. O. Scott checks out Broadway Danny Rose

---living out of a hard drive (thanks to @stevensantos)

---lastly, as our colleges go bankrupt, the Simpsons toy with grad students

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Spiritual consumption: the hybrid aesthetics of Eat Pray Love starring Julia Roberts

Part self-help guide, part autobiography, and part spiritual journey, Eat Pray Love concerns the recently divorced travel journalist Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts). Unhappy with her fling with young actor David (James Franco), Liz decides to take a year off to find herself while visiting Italy, India, and Bali. Given that Gilbert's original best-selling book was based on fact, I was struck by the various ways the film's writer and director Ryan Murphy glamorized the material, using much gorgeous backlighting to give the movie a softened romantic comedy glow. The visions of Bali and Italy respectively reminded me of a quote from J. D. Salinger: "God undoubtedly loves kittens, but not, in all probability, with Technicolor bootees on their paws." Instead of finding unknowns to play the men in Liz's life, Murphy stacks the cast with movie stars, leaving me wondering--how could Liz divorce Billy Crudup so easily? How can she just walk away from James Franco? Wouldn't it be nice to be nearly run over and then romanced by Javier Bardem in Bali?

Earnest enough in its itch for self-discovery, Eat Pray Love constantly betrays the way movies are better at depicting sensual pleasures than at showing ascetic absorption. As much as Liz seeks to free her mind, I kept noting how she much she consumes--buying jeans, enjoying excellent Italian food (savoring some spaghetti alla carbonara as Mozart's "Magic Flute" aria plays over the soundtrack), and renting beautiful Bali estates at cutthroat prices--but how does one film a movie star meditating? The movie is full of her efforts to pray, but it peddles a freeze-dried form of transcendence, a problem exacerbated by the truncated, episodic nature of the Liz's relationships with people in Italy, India, and Bali. In the book, there may have been time to develop some of this material, but in the movie, there's only time for Liz to bop in, learn something holy, and bop out. The film strip mines religious and cultural wisdom as it goes along.

Eat Pray Love also compulsively displays emotion. I confess that I prefer cold and malicious cinematic heroines (Bridget of The Last Seduction, for instance). Liz has wit and Roberts' charm (although I wondered about her suspiciously puffy upper lip), but she has much regret, sorrow, and guilt over dumping her husband to process amidst her travels. When she isn't weeping, her men certainly are. Bardem (who plays the Brazilian Felipe) tears up when saying goodbye to his teenage son as Liz watches wistfully. Liz's Texan friend in the Ashram, Richard (Richard Jenkins) chokes up as he confesses to her of how he almost drunkenly ran over his son. There's so much of this touchy-feely carrying-on, I realized that Liz (and by extension, perhaps, the movie's targeted audience) thrives on this emotional voyeurism. To seem real, everyone has to show his/her feelings therapeutically to merit what passes for characterization in this film.

Incidentally, Murphy displays a fondness for Cary Grant.  He tilts the camera when Liz wakes up one morning hungover in Bali to allude to the famous oblique camera angle of Cary Grant looking down at Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious.  Also, all of the talk of the phrase dolce far niente ("how sweet to do nothing") in Italy evokes a similar conversation in Grant's Houseboat (1958). 

In all, Eat Pray Love uneasily straddles the line between a woman's journey of self-discovery and a romantic comedy, a spiritual self-help guide full of pithy sayings ("Empty your mind so the universe can fill it with love"), and day-glo tourism ad visions of Bali and Italy. Gilbert's message, Murphy's direction, and Roberts' acting all know how to keep the message light and witty just in case anyone feels oppressed by all of the midlife crisis uplift. Liz strives to attain the ability to find balance, open her heart, find God dwelling within her, and "love the whole world," but boinking Javier Bardem and James Franco is more fun all around.

Friday, August 6, 2010

I saved Latin links

---Rushmore Twitter

---Razzle Dazzle Pt. 6, The Takeaway

---@Filmbrain says goodbye to New York City:

"Yet at the same time there's been an unpleasant shift in recent years, significantly souring the mood, and the poor economic climate has only served to make matters worse. Too many gifted critics with years of experience are unable to find steady work, while younger writers willing to do more for less are churning out serviceable but ultimately uninspired content at an alarming rate. Okay, fair enough, everybody has the right to earn a living. But that some fancy themselves modern-day Manny Farbers and use Twitter and Facebook as tools to worship at the temple of their own narcissism is disconcerting to say the least. On top of that, critics have been spending way too much time bashing other critics' opinions (or simply the critics themselves) and second-guessing why it is that their peers don't share their views. It stifles rather than encourages discussion, and it's fucking depressing if you must know the truth.

As a distributor, things haven't fared much better. Indie film is certainly alive and well, but the discussion around distribution is increasingly becoming one of crass commodification, where the delivery mechanism supersedes the content. What we're seeing is a seemingly endless stream of repetitive and pointless panels at film festivals, blog posts by self-proclaimed "experts" who preach profitability over artistic integrity, and the emphasis on new and clever ways to market yourself instead of, you know, actually making a good film.

(To the many talented, daring filmmakers out there not buying into the bullshit -- I tip my hat to you all.)"

---Ratatat's "Drugs"

---the most badass music video from India

---instant camp classic or horror film?--the Burlesque trailer.

---Peggy Orenstein's "I tweet, therefore I am":

Back in the 1950s, the sociologist Erving Goffman famously argued that all of life is performance: we act out a role in every interaction, adapting it based on the nature of the relationship or context at hand. Twitter has extended that metaphor to include aspects of our experience that used to be considered off-set: eating pizza in bed, reading a book in the tub, thinking a thought anywhere, flossing. Effectively, it makes the greasepaint permanent, blurring the lines not only between public and private but also between the authentic and contrived self. If all the world was once a stage, it has now become a reality TV show: we mere players are not just aware of the camera; we mug for it.

The expansion of our digital universe — Second Life, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter — has shifted not only how we spend our time but also how we construct identity. For her coming book, “Alone Together,” Sherry Turkle, a professor at M.I.T., interviewed more than 400 children and parents about their use of social media and cellphones. Among young people especially she found that the self was increasingly becoming externally manufactured rather than internally developed: a series of profiles to be sculptured and refined in response to public opinion. “On Twitter or Facebook you’re trying to express something real about who you are,” she explained. “But because you’re also creating something for others’ consumption, you find yourself imagining and playing to your audience more and more. So those moments in which you’re supposed to be showing your true self become a performance. Your psychology becomes a performance.” Referring to “The Lonely Crowd,” the landmark description of the transformation of the American character from inner- to outer-directed, Turkle added, “Twitter is outer-directedness cubed.”

---Tom Shone reviews the review of Scott Pilgrim versus the World (and Wolcott's reaction)

---YouTube at war:

"Wilson’s video did not appear in isolation. A few weeks before he uploaded “Blah Blah Blah,”a troop of soldiers in Afghanistan spoofed Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” and it became a viral sensation. In July, a group of Israeli soldiers in Hebron filmed themselves dancing to Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK” on the very street they were just then patrolling, their rifles flopping as their hips swiveled. And the USO in Korea is holding a music-video-parody competition for all soldiers, which, Wilson says, is using his video as an example. American Soldier Idol.

These videos are revealing a new breed of soldier: rebellious, witty, rabid consumers of pop culture, thousands of miles from home but able to Skype daily with family and friends. They are as plugged in as lab rats. When they are not on patrol, they live on the web. They are there and here at once. In Iraq, there are long, stretching days and lonely nights when the guys don’t come out of their rooms unless the Internet is down or an alarm sounds and the base is in trouble. They get gray inside waiting for time to pass, downloading songs and doing pull-ups and growing larger, their arms, chests, jaws. But the making of the video was a reason to come outside, to wield glow sticks, to show off their gym bodies, to have fun. “They don’t pay us,” Wilson says, “to be miserable out here.”

---Scorsese prefers story to plot

---the mystery of Charlie Chan (thanks to @filmstudiesff)

---the last 5 years of blogging

---J. Rosen's media diet

---Hollywood is ruled by fear

---Edward Luce's thoughts on media wage stagnation:

Statistics only capture one slice of the problem. But it is the renowned Harvard economist, Larry Katz, who offers the most compelling analogy. “Think of the American economy as a large apartment block,” says the softly spoken professor. “A century ago – even 30 years ago – it was the object of envy. But in the last generation its character has changed. The penthouses at the top keep getting larger and larger. The apartments in the middle are feeling more and more squeezed and the basement has flooded. To round it off, the elevator is no longer working. That broken elevator is what gets people down the most.”

---Trash Day video

---Soviet photo art

---technology and censorship

---intriguing LGM film-making techniques from Filmutopia

---Sheila's doorway portfolio of The Searchers

---Funny or Die and the viral video

---lastly, Todd Selby's hip blog of various aesthetic spaces, a reply to the Sartorialist?