Sunday, July 29, 2012

Justifying love's sacrifice: Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea

"Beware of passion, Hester.  It always leads to something ugly."

"What would you replace it with?"

"Guarded enthusiasm.  It's safer."

"But much duller."

In this exchange between Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) and her husband's mother (Barbara Jefford) we get the romantic tension of Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea, set in 1950s-era London. With her name evoking the heroine of The Scarlet Letter, Hester falls epically in love with the vivacious Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston, otherwise known as Loki in The Avengers). After Hester scandalously dumps her fuddyduddy older husband Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) and moves in with Freddie, she finds that the callow and frequently drunk World War II vet cannot reciprocate her love (though he does like her), so she creates scenes, attempts suicide, in effect, doing all that she can to drive Freddie away from her as fast as she can.

Given that the script (adapted from a 1952 play by Terrence Rattigan) largely takes Hester's point of view, The Deep Blue Sea begins in a lush, swooning manner, with Barber's "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra" playing loudly on the soundtrack and overhead tracking shots of bodies intertwined in passion.  Hester experiences multiple flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks) of earlier happier times in her love affair as she pulls a Sylvia Plath ten years early by attempting to gas herself in the bedroom of a dingy, bourgeois English flat. Suffocated by so much pretentious cinematic technique, the viewer could understandably run for the hills. As I watched the movie on Blu-ray, my significant other said "I get the idea. Can we turn this off now?" Fortunately, the film soon recuperates with a more jaundiced perspective and much irony as Hester receives several big comeuppances. First, she survives the suicide attempt and tries to cover it up, calling it an "idiotic accident" to the landlady who helped save her life, but when Freddie discovers her suicide note in her robe pocket, he, exasperated, runs off to get drunk in a local pub. We learn that, in dramatic contrast to their earlier flirtations, Hester has recently debased herself multiple times to Freddie, pleading with him, promising that she "won't speak" if he'll just return to the flat. Freddie responds with a mixture of contempt and aversion, saying "I can't be bloody Romeo all of the time!"

Ultimately, the success of The Deep Blue Sea hinges on how much the audience can understand and sympathize with Hester's love. From Freddie's point of view, and from the perspective of our more jaded era, Hester's devotion can just seem ludicrous. Modern-day adulteresses would have careers to fall back on if their cougar flings didn't work out. The Deep Blue Sea made me wonder how much of Hester's suicide attempt might have been calculated?  She doesn't take all that many pills, and they were only aspirin; the room might have been too large and well-ventilated for the gas to work. But these kinds of practical details can be easily missed given Florian Hoffmeister's gorgeous cinematography. Was Hester trying to force Freddie to acknowledge her despair? to punish him for not loving her enough?

How much contemporary validity does Rattigan's play still have? It reminds me a little of an episode in Upstairs Downstairs where a maid falls in love with a chauffeur, gets dumped, and then hangs herself. The Bellamy family carries on, the chauffeur proves indifferent, and the suicide becomes a banal Romeo and Juliet mini-drama of unrequited love, worthy of one show. How much importance can one attribute to one woman's willingness to sacrifice everything in a society that doesn't understand it, especially the man she's sacrificing it for? As her husband William puts it, "How could you throw away so much for so little?" William's mother predicted that passion would lead to something "ugly," and by the end, she is proven right. How much would a real woman of Rachel Weisz's intelligence and considerable star presence allow herself to suffer so much for being true to herself? No outside circumstances can ever match the extremity of her devotion, but that may be the point of the movie--to find a aesthetic means to justify her sacrifice.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Gotham's reckoning: a discussion of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises

In a Waffle House on highway 95 in South Carolina (not far from Myrtle Beach), I sat down with W, a 21-year-old film major of USC, to discuss The Dark Knight Rises over coffee and cheese eggs with raisin toast.  We mention some spoilers, so this post is meant for those who have seen the film.

FD: Did you like the movie?

W: Uh huh.

FD: Why?

W: Because it successfully concluded the trilogy, and most three parters don't, except Toy Story 3 (2010).

FD: Tell me about the James Bond correspondences.

W: As we learned from Inception (2010), Nolan loves Bond films. There's a very Bond-esque giant winter fortress in Inception with its own paramilitary. The Dark Knight Rises strongly resembles The World is Not Enough (1999), since they both involve a bald villain who takes the fall for a scheming society lady. Also, like Bane, this man constantly feels pain, and there's also the stealing of a radioactive bomb.  Also, Fox (Morgan Freeman) resembles Q in the way he likes to show off the hero's new toys. The opening scene of TDKR resembles many aerial hooks of the Bond films.

FD: What of Bane in the comic books?

W: In the comics, Bane wasn't constantly in pain. He does break Batman's back however.

FD: Didn't you find Bane mere macho fodder for the professional wrestling-loving masses?

W: No. He brought a certain revolutionary speaker vibe to the movie.  He knows how to inspire people, so he's more than someone who just hits people for the sake of it.  He always had a plan. It's important that Batman has a villain who can fight him physically.

FD: Why?

W: The previous villains like the Joker and the Scarecrow are more interested in scheming, mind control, and being chaotic for the sake of it. Bane can both fight and scheme.

FD: Didn't you find his fights with Batman kind of tedious?

W: No, well maybe the second one.  Nolan has gotten so much better at directing action. I also liked seeing Batman get the crap get kicked out of him. The lack of a score in that scene gave it more weight. The second big fight scene might suffer from repetition and the viewer's relative exhaustion at that point.

FD: I had a problem with Bane's plausibility. Why does he set up a social experiment in which he obliges Gotham to enact its own small French Revolution, since it all proves a moot point due to the bomb?  Why didn't Bane just kill Batman when he had the chance?  Bane is constantly enabling the next plot twist by leaving Bruce Wayne's options open. The Occupy Wall Street-inflected scenes such as the takeover of the stock exchange give the moviemakers the opportunity to play with our longing for economic equality.

W: The League of Shadows want to tear apart societies that have grown corrupt.

FD: Kind of like Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible.

W: Yes, Bane reverses everything.  He makes a statement about the most corrupt, the most decadent--how their lives can be torn from them, while the lower classes, the shoe polishers, the construction workers can take over.

FD: If that's the case, why threaten to blow them up?

W: Bane mentions to Batman that there can't be true despair without hope, and so he builds up the city's hope even as he retains the same goal of destroying it.

FD: Doesn't that make the populist impulse pointless?  It seems to me that all of The Tale of Two Cities aspects, the class tension, all of Bane's talk of "Courts will be convened, spoils will be enjoyed, blood will be shed" is mostly in there to help with the trailer.

W: It's a way for him to create this big hullabaloo and then destroy it.

FD: I guess what I'm wondering about is--does the film really seem to care about populist themes at all, or are they marketing window-dressing for a standard James Bond plot?

W: If that's the case, it's incredibly interesting visceral window-dressing. Bane inspires people to join him.  He puts the whole society of Gotham in this apocalyptic light. It's a method of control.  You're right, though. Ultimately, it's not a movie about Occupy Wall Street.

FD: It's disappointing, because then what appears to be the major thrust of the movie proves bogus.  I felt cheated. I'm probably looking for ideological depth that isn't there.

W: (Nods). It might be there, but we would need to watch the film again. To answer your second question, throughout the whole beginning of the movie, Alfred wants Wayne to retire. There's this implication that Wayne doesn't care if he dies as Batman. He's crushed by Rachel Dawes' death. Bane keeps Batman alive because he realizes that Batman doesn't fear death, so Bane has to punish him by crippling him. Then he intends to destroy Gotham as he forces Wayne to watch it on TV in the prison.

FD: Yet, to me, all of that just seems like giving Batman opportunities to come back.

W: I agree that Miranda (Marion Cotillard) should have killed him later on.

FD: These dubious motivations and plot holes don't bother you?

W: Nolan is more a filmmaker about emotion and getting you to side with certain characters instead of being a creator of clear coherent plots. In Inception, you want to see Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) deal with his wife's death. In The Dark Knight Rises, you want Batman to rise, to get back to his former glory and then disappear. What Alfred wants for him is the emotional core of the movie.

FD: Oddly, Alfred reminded me a bit of Etta Place (Katherine Ross) in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).  She tells her two buddies that "I won't watch you die.  I'll miss that scene if you don't mind."  In the same fashion, Alfred tells Wayne "I won't bury you. I buried enough members of the Wayne family."

W: That seems like an arbitrary correspondence. I was concerned about other plot holes.  How did Batman get into Gotham after it was sealed off? How did he get his back fixed so fast?

FD: What did you think of Batman's final resurrection?  I predicted that, based on the movie's title, that Batman would ascend into the heavens and then sit on the right side of Catwoman.

W: Toward the end of the movie, someone mentions that Bruce fixes the autopilot on the Bat.  He jumps out, and he has (I guess) Catwoman pick him up.  He and Catwoman are living on her stolen goods in Florence indefinitely. Both of them could live with the slate clean from that point on.  He becomes immortal because he doesn't have to exist.

FD: The movie begins with a memorial to Harvey Dent, and it ends with Batman's gravestone.  So, the movie is framed by memorials.

W: Yes, Batman takes the fall for Harvey Dent in the second film, and he takes the fall for Gotham the second time.

FD: So, you like getting yourself emotionally involved in this movie even though intellectually you can tell there are lots of problems.

W: Yes. When you watch Batman Begins (2005) you get bogged down by the clunky action scenes, but now with Rises you can get caught up with a guy learning how to be hero.  It's hard to imagine anyone taking on all that Nolan took on (pressure from fanboys, critical expectations, multiple story strands) without leaving in some problems. When you watch the movie, you notice them, but you don't care, due to the compelling nature of Batman's situation. In The Dark Knight (2008), you don't care much about Batman, but it doesn't matter because of the Joker's intrinsic interest.

FD: Bruce Wayne's various reversals at times reminded me of Rick Blaine's (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca (1942). Rick eventually goes against all that he stood for (his isolationism, hard-boiled demeanor, refusal to sit with customers) at the beginning of the movie. Similarly Wayne begins Rises as a humorously gothic Howard Hughes-esque recluse, but almost immediately he loses all of his money, comes out of hiding, romances Miranda, gets over his leg wound, etc. Batman seems more made up of extreme oppositions and inconsistencies than other superheroes, and that may make him more interesting.

W: Yes.

FD: Would you agree that Nolan's emphasis on Marion Cotillard, Anne Hathaway, and Michael Caine helps make up for the loss of the Joker?

W: Mostly, the Catwoman.

FD: Why?

W: She's drawn more directly from the comic books.  She has more personality.  Her sexuality and charm puts a fun spin in a movie lacking  that kind of playfulness. She acts real timid as a maid until Wayne figures out that she's a thief and then she abruptly changes persona when she  escapes from the manor. She plays a victim screaming in a bar to disguise her role in that violent situation. She has that Oliver Twist/Robin Hood kind of subversiveness.

FD: Any last thoughts?

W: This series makes cash grabs like The Amazing Spider-Man look terrible, because in the latter there's no passion in the moviemaking, and the villain (the Lizard) is so predictable and stupid. You can directly compare this film to The Avengers, which is all about fan service, a charming romp. Joss Whedon is good at making witty, focused, and (at least initially) intimidating movies. The Dark Knight trilogy is all about putting an emotional, character-driven, and darker spin on the superhero genre. I like Batman more than any of those heroes because he has gravitas, he's complicated, an anti-hero--a vigilante in a more real-world scenario.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

corporate end time links

---Charlie Brooker's Newswipe

---playing a Hitchcock heroine

---Tarantino Women

---"the internet is full of liars, cheats, and charlatans who want only one thing: your attention"

---"But what all these climate numbers make painfully, usefully clear is that the planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. `Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices,' says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. `But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It's what they do.'

According to the Carbon Tracker report, if Exxon burns its current reserves, it would use up more than seven percent of the available atmospheric space between us and the risk of two degrees. BP is just behind, followed by the Russian firm Gazprom, then Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell, each of which would fill between three and four percent. Taken together, just these six firms, of the 200 listed in the Carbon Tracker report, would use up more than a quarter of the remaining two-degree budget. Severstal, the Russian mining giant, leads the list of coal companies, followed by firms like BHP Billiton and Peabody. The numbers are simply staggering – this industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they're planning to use it." --Bill McKibben

---an interview with Susan Sontag

---8 iPhone apps for filmmakers

---"short films are the new proof-of-concept"

---what Jodie Foster learned from Robert De Niro

---The Art of Logo Design

---"Reading about Indiana’s `fiery' hydrants elicited one of those slightly eerie moments when it feels as though we are living in the future. While the slow drift toward the corporate end times may have a long backstory, we are drawing closer to a cultural relationship with products and mass entertainment that once existed only in speculative fiction. (Of course, this is natural: as time progresses, the world rightly, and often unfortunately, begins to resemble what was predicted by the most brilliant and imaginative artists of the past.) In Infinite Jest, Wallace’s wry and, at times, cloying repetition (often in the form of acronyms) of all those goofy year titles is one of the many ways in which he uses a hyperbolic marketing-crazed future to satirize his marketing-crazed present. The book’s most memorable argument—that entertainment will eventually become so captivating as to be debilitating, and even deadly—is of a kind with many moments in fiction in which people of the future destroy themselves through their urges to consume. It is a key element in literature ranging from science fiction to literary theory that as the barriers of individual consciousness degrade we absorb a kind of shared cultural consciousness full of corporate junk. In this version of dystopia, advertising becomes more pervasive, consumer culture supplants traditional culture, and language itself, from place names to common nouns, is subsumed by the things we buy and sell." --Ian Crouch

---The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of 12 Monkeys

---The Family that Dwelt Apart

---the opening titles of Se7en

---"most ‘pure’ movie thrillers, especially when you think of Hitchcock, are either fantasies fulfilled or anxieties purged. The 39 Steps is one of the few, if not the only one, that does both at the same time."--Robert Towne

---Jim Jarmusch: a Retrospective

---Wes Anderson's commercials

---"Mike is no exception. Not only does he dance at Xquisite; he balances the books. He manages two construction businesses and hopes to start his own custom furniture company. In the movie's central scene Mike attempts to sweet-talk a bank officer into granting him a small business loan; it's the first time his charisma proves unsuccessful (all his savings are in cash), and it hints at his comeuppance in the final act. The scene also reveals the barriers to upward mobility in the current economy, which is what Magic Mike is really all about. The most surprising thing about the movie is its prosaic view of working life: for every titillating striptease, there's a reminder of the unglamorous work that goes into the show (constant exercise, resewing the hems on thongs, massaging the strippers with spray-on tan)."  --Ben Sachs

---Walter Cronkite's greatest hits

---"I think that it is a different climate today. I do not think Oliver Stone gets JFK made today. Unless they can make JFK fly. If they can’t make Malcolm X fly, with tights and a cape, it’s not happening. It is a whole different ball game. There was a mind-set back then where studios were satisfied to get a mild hit and were happy about it; it helped them build their catalogues. But people want films to make a billion dollars now, and they will spend $300 million to make that billion. They are just playing for high stakes, and if it is not for high stakes, they figure it is not worth their while."  --Spike Lee

---trailers for The Devo Documentary, Sister, Bachelorette, The Master, Grabbers, Oz, and Gangster Squad 


Friday, July 13, 2012

Dark Knight links

---"The film, which the killer most certainly will not have seen beforehand, presented him with an opportunity; it did not urge him on, or trigger him into homicide, but it was, nonetheless, the occasion that he sought. He would have known that people had been talking of The Dark Knight Rises for months; that the excitement was mounting; that they would flock, in a good communal mood, to the first available showing. They wanted to be among the first to give their verdicts, before breakfast, and to talk about their triumph at work today. That is one of the social thrills that cinema, unlike TV, can still deliver, and long may it endure. It is the most hideous of ironies that an unstable individual saw that coming-together as his chance. His actions needed no model in a fictional monster, just a profound hostility to regular folk who had gathered, en masse, with their friends and their sodas, to have fun. The screen gave him a stage."  --Anthony Lane

---"Both literally and metaphorically, Holmes inserted himself into the spectacle at that moment, with a lovingly crafted soundtrack to match. By `spectacle' I don’t just mean The Dark Knight Rises, although it’s the biggest Hollywood tentpole production of the year. I mean the larger sense of the term, pioneered in the ’60s by Situationist philosopher Guy Debord, who argued that our entire culture and indeed all of Western society had become a form of performance (or `representation,' to use his word), in which the distinction between the symbolic realm and the realm of reality had been erased, and all social life was mediated by images and commodities. We live in The Society of the Spectacle far more today, in the age of the 24/7 news cycle and ubiquitous handheld electronics, than Debord could possibly have imagined in 1967, when he published his prescient little volume under that title.

Debord’s metaphor is a brilliant philosophical structure that can sometimes be taken too literally. Even the most cynical among us (I hope and believe) understands the real and terrible difference between ordinary people being killed for no reason in a movie theater and actors pretending to be killed on screen in a superhero movie. But here’s the point that got Jean Baudrillard and Karlheinz Stockhausen in such trouble after 9/11: Consumed via electronic media, as spectacle — and within the spectacle, to use Debord’s language — they look about the same. What happened in Aurora, like what happened at Virginia Tech or what happened in Manhattan in September 2001, `seemed like a movie,' as we so often say." --Andrew O'Hehir

---The Dark Knight: Nolan's Modernized Myth

---the Featurette

---"When Jonah showed me his first draft of his screenplay, it was 400 pages long or something,"says the director. "It had all this crazy stuff in it. As part of a primer when he handed it to me, he said, 'You've got to think of 'A Tale of Two Cities' which, of course, you've read.' I said, 'Absolutely.' I read the script and was a little baffled by a few things and realized that I'd never read 'A Tale of Two Cities'. It was just one of those things that I thought I had done. Then I got it, read it and absolutely loved it and got completely what he was talking about... When I did my draft on the script, it was all about 'A Tale of Two Cities'."

---how Batman became a "post 9/11 allegory for how terror breaks down reassuring moral categories"

---the Dark Knight/Dragon Tattoo trailer

---"The explicit presentation of class politics diverges drastically from the rest of the Batman films, suggesting that Occupy has penetrated Hollywood. This theory gains credence when we learn that Nolan wanted to actually film at Zucotti Park but didn’t out of respect for the movement. But his film nonetheless celebrates a reactionary hero. This is irreconcilable, which explains the nationalist iconography, where the fetishized nation becomes the only ideal sacred enough to justify Bruce/Batman and his interventions. The two constitute a loop: the Nation allows Bruce to exist while Bruce enables Batman to save the Nation from Evil (the gas-masked super-villain) that must be excised."

---The Batmobile

---"Fascinated with architecture, the filmmaker describes the rises and falls of his characters as if they are elevation points of a blueprint plan.  He also presents the trilogy almost as a tale of different levels — the heights of the city, the street level and the underground of caves and sewers. Dark Knight Rises presents a story where greed, hypocrisy and false justice bring down the city’s bridges, stadium and the houses of government."

---"Michael Caine, in a memorable quote, was to claim that Superman was how America saw itself and Batman was how the rest of the world saw America."  --Roger Clarke

---infusing "adolescent ennui with adult gravitas": the triumph of "dark" marketing

---"Batman and Gotham: A Deeply Dysfunctional Love Story" by Adam Rogers

---the bank robbery scene of The Dark Knight

---"I enjoy Chris Nolan's work in general, but I watched the Blu-Ray [of The Dark Knight] and it has a thing where you can go to any scene in the movie and go to the making of that. There's nothing that has ever made me feel less like a professional than watching Chris Nolan's group at work. The remote-control miniature cars. Just every technique. The rehearsal of flipping the semi-trailer end over end in the middle of the desert before they blow it up in Chicago... There's one scene where a guy jumps off the top of a skyscraper — they rehearse the jump but for the actual thing they did it CG. 'But for the rehearsal you did jump off the building?' 'We have it as a reference.' Wow. Chris Nolan is quite great. My favourite is Memento, but I'd like to learn how to do these things."  --Wes Anderson

---In the Cut, Part I: Shots in the Dark

---"Instead the disappointment comes from the way the picture spells out lofty, serious themes and then ... spells them out again. What kind of hero do we need? Where is the line between justice and vengeance? How much autonomy should we sacrifice in the name of security? Is the taking of innocent life ever justified? These are all fascinating, even urgent questions, but stating them, as nearly every character in The Dark Knight does, sooner of later, is not the same as exploring them.

And yet stating such themes is as far as the current wave of superhero movies seems able or willing to go."  --A. O. Scott

---Pee-Wee Herman's version

---"Though the latest Batman flick, written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, can’t be blamed for some of the catastrophes that have soured Bush’s favorability – a capsized economy; a troop-mauling, money-sucking, never-ending war; lies, damn lies and violations of the Geneva Conventions, etc.-- The Dark Knight is likely to go down as the most pro-Bush-policy blockbuster to ever come out of Hollywood. Working together, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Roger Ailes would struggle to come up with anything so slyly propagandizing."  --Jason Bellamy

---the soundtrack

---the Dark Knight dance

---"Heath Ledger closed himself off in a hotel room for a month to get into character for the Joker. He worked on his voice and personality, all while keeping a diary to chronicle the Joker’s thoughts. He also designed the character’s makeup with some mascara and grease paint. Ledger said Sid Vicious and the thugs in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange inspired him, while costume designer Lindy Hemming looked to scraggly musicians like Pete Doherty, Iggy Pop, and Johnny Rotten."

---The Dark Knight's War on Terrorism by John Ip

---"The Joker is unpredictable and can’t be reasoned with, nor does he have any broader goals except to create chaos and destruction. When I saw the movie Funny Games and watched an interview Michael Haneke, I was struck by something he said: To paraphrase, he said that we as individuals have personal spaces that go unsaid but are accepted by almost everyone. When people violate this personal space, the results can be terrifying. In a similar fashion, the Joker upends the genre conventions of a villain in that he has no inhibitions and refuses to hew even to the ultra-basic moral code of criminals (see: the opening scene). When a character has no values that you as a viewer can relate to and hold on to, the results are extremely disorienting. This unmoors our basic assumptions of the person’s capabilities."   --David Chen

---a history of Batman on screen

---@KeyframeDaily's roundup of The Dark Knight Rises links

---At times, the [Dark Knight] sounds like two excited mattresses making love in an echo chamber." --David Denby

---"'In any year, but especially in this, a particularly weak year, there's nothing out there which compares to The Dark Knight. It must transcend your petty big box office biases since it has already changed the way we think about movies forever. It's more than the best movie of the year, it's one of the best movies ever made. Snub it and there will be consequences.'

 Yikes. So much for the integrity and diversity of critical discussion -- but what might those consequences be? Perhaps... death?!?!"  --Jim Emerson and Josh Tyler

---the evolution of the icon

---"It’s my general proposition that Nolan is always playing a double game in these movies. He’s trying to deliver a faithful and canonical Batman story,and he’s pursuing his own agenda, which could be called subversive or allegorical, and which sometimes comes into conflict with the larger mission of mass entertainment. What I see in the Dark Knight trilogy so far is a critique of American ideology, and specifically the ideology of individual will and individual heroism — the basis of American politics since the Puritans, and also of American cinema — delivered by an outsider and in highly paradoxical fashion."  --Andrew O'Hehir

---"I'm batman."

---"For a film that supposedly flinches away from violence, The Dark Knight addresses Two Face in a startlingly head-on manner. Dent's appearance in the second half of the film is profound evidence of the impact of violence on an individual human life. Dent's plight, given real emotional heft by both the screenplay and Aaron Eckhart's sensitive performance, is externalized in the violence done to his face, and here Nolan confronts the horror with raw physicality. This is not the cartoonish, outlandish Two Face of the original comics or, Heaven forbid, Tommy Lee Jones. The right side of Dent's face is a mess of raw, exposed muscles, bone, and nerves, making it impossible to ignore the character's origins or the violence done to him."  --Ed Howard

---"the most breathtaking moment in the epic finale of the Batman trilogy is when Michael Caine weeps"

---The Dark Knight Rises interviews

---"Like any number of small- and big-screen thrillers, the film’s engagement with 9/11 is diffuse, more a matter of inference and ideas (chaos, fear, death) than of direct assertion. Still, that a spectacle like this even glances in that direction confirms that American movies have entered a new era of ambivalence when it comes to their heroes — or maybe just superness."  --Manohla Dargis

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Baditude and the cartoon cartel: 8 notes on Savages

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter . . . 

1) I guess I shouldn't have read Don Winslow's novel Savages before seeing the movie. His breakthrough 2010 crime thriller uses line breaks for emphasis much like a poem does, only with more expletives. Much of the time, the smart-ass, in-your-face, snide attitude of the novel keeps it engaging. Winslow likes to juxtapose opposites, so the two marijuana-growing entrepreneurs' personalities provide a study in contrasts: Chon has the proto-fascist, quiet-but-lethal Iraq War vet "baditude" whereas Ben is peaceful, contemplative, and Buddhist. He likes to spend his massive ganja profits on good humanitarian causes in Africa while Chon provides the violence to protect their business. Ben and Chon could live happily high ever after in Laguna Beach, California with their orgasm-loving, blond male-fantasy girlfriend named O (after Ophelia) in a Jules et Jim-esque threesome except that the Mexican Baja Cartel wants in on their operation. Some choice quotes from the novel:

a) "And this is what most Americans don't understand--that most upper -to middle-crust Mexicans think that Americans are uncivilized, unsophisticated, uncultured, rambunctious rustics who just got on a lucky streak back in the 1840s and rode it to steal half of Mexico" (106).

b) "The savage is the world of pure raw power, survival of the fittest, drug cartels and death squads, dictators and strongmen, terrorist attacks, gang wars, tribal hatreds, mass murder, mass rape.

The less savage is the world of pure civilized power, governments and armies, multinationals and banks, oil companies, shock-and-awe, death-from-the-sky, genocide, mass economic rape.

And Chon knows--

They're the same world" (131).

c) "Dawn finds them--

                Check that---

Dawn doesn't `find' shit--dawn's not looking. (The only redeeming quality of the universe, Chon believes, is its indifference)" (170).

2) After enjoying the novel, I went to see the movie. While admiring the Rastafarian cinematography that kept finding ways to use red, green, and yellow, I immediately found a problem with Taylor Kitsch cast as Chon with a bunch of fake scars on his face. I had not only just seen him in the confusing John Carter, but he had also just starred as Lieutenant Alex Hopper in Battleship. Alex sucks up to Admiral Liam Neeson in a movie that itself sucks up to the Navy. To see Kitsch now as an expert veteran "killer" is a bad joke in casting.

3) Aaron Johnson as Ben makes more sense, since he appears the more sensitive of the two, and Blake Lively has no problem playing a fantasy California bohemian. Benicio Del Toro's Lado (the major "savage" henchman for the Cartel) sports a distracting Elvis pompadour, and his version of the Mexican bad guy came across as mustache-twirling cartoonish. While the Lado of the novel proved cold, blunt, and largely indifferent to female enticements, Oliver Stone's version seems patterned on movie stereotypes of the Mexican villain
 who leers and drools over the woman in distress.  

4) Soon enough, the Cartel kidnaps O, leaving Ben and Chon (who sound like they should be selling ice cream) desperately trying to figure out a way to get their beloved O back. The film tries to be transgressive by being in favor of decriminalizing pot (with Peter Tosh's "Legalize It" playing in the soundtrack) and by having John Travolta (a corrupt DEA agent named Dennis) say that the drug will be legalized soon, but Stone is so busy catering to stoners, he doesn't seem to want to acknowledge the irony of his two bare-chested heroes getting high just when O disappears. While the novel gradually has Ben and Chon work out elaborate ways to fool and steal from the Cartel, the movie only has time to sample some of these techniques before adding on a (spoiler alert) jaw-droppingly bogus and indecisive double ending which ruined the movie for me.

Some other cinematic rules of thumb that Oliver Stone violates:

5) Do not destroy plausibility just to make a better scene.  Is it likely that the Cartel would have a Pre-Raphaelite print of Ophelia (along with some blood) on O's cell wall?  No self-respecting kidnapper would bother to use a literary allusion as interior decoration--but it looks good.  Would the Cartel Queenpin Elena (Salma Hayek) invite O over for a nice private dinner at her ranch? Given that she may have to kill her at any point, probably not. Would Elena show up for a hostage trade-off?  She doesn't in the book, but again, for the movie, it makes for a better scene.

6) Do not cut out Uma Thurman's role as O's mother for a bogus and lengthy alternate ending that also has a Yuna cover of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" burbling sweetly and sentimentally over the soundtrack.

7) Do not pad your attempts at toughness by making references to Quentin Tarantino movies.  Like Reservoir Dogs (1992), Savages includes a moment where a man douses another one in gasoline, but whereas the former provides a great study in sadism, the latter descends into gimmicky torture porn. In Pulp Fiction (1994), Samuel L. Jackson takes a bite of a man's cheeseburger to emphasize his cruel hit-man ownership of the situation. In Savages, Lado invades John Travolta's (or Dennis') home, grabs his sandwich, removes the tomato slices, and then chomps on it. In both cases, the borrowed noir brutality ends up caricaturing Tarantino, although Stone's inclusion of Travolta (who was also in Pulp Fiction) in the latter scene proved amusing.

8) Ultimately, Savages' pseudo-hip machismo cannot face the darker implications of the novel. In reality, the highly organized Cartel makes for a daunting enemy because, as noted in The New York Times, they "reap $18 billion to $39 billion in drug sales in the United States each year." In the words of a former undercover DEA agent, they "control both the Mexican and the US border, because they have the money to do it. America is more addicted to drug money than they are to drugs. There is so much money." By compromising the ruthlessness of the Cartel for cinematic effect, Savages betrays the bean-counters' paranoia at Universal Studios. It goes to prove that even with its druggy transgressionsSavages is in the business to reassure us.  It's not nearly savage enough.      

Thursday, July 5, 2012

savage links

---Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game"

---the elevator scene of Drive

---"We are on pace to eat to death half of the other life sharing the planet with us."

---"The film scholar should see as much as possible and write about as much as possible. I take a transcendental view of the role of the critic.  He must aspire to totality even though he knows he will never attain it." --Andrew Sarris

---"We have a generation of individuals who are willing to take someone's life for fifty dollars, a hundred dollars."

---"Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO, said issues like climate change, energy dependence and oil/gas drilling are blown out of proportion. He blames a lazy press, illiterate public and fear-mongering advocacy groups for the bad light placed on the oil industry.

Climate change is a controversial topic that has been subjected to much debate. Tillerson said that fossil fuels may cause global warming, but argued that humans can easily adapt to the warmer climate. More specifically, he said that humans can adapt to rising sea levels and climate changes because he doubts the validity of climate modeling, which predicts the magnitude of impact associated with climate change.

`We have spent our entire existence adapting,' said Tillerson. `We'll adapt. It's an engineering problem and there will be an engineering solution.'"

---drone strike damage in Pakistan

---"Colors of Confinement"

---behind the scenes of Die Hard 5 and Blade Runner 


---every Pixar short thus far

---Oliver Stone: a retrospective

---Three Reasons: Down by Law

---"Unlike losing a job, the fear of losing the job you have is not a discrete, socially visible event. Your course of action isn’t clear because you don’t know whether or how the job loss will occur. Things like unemployment insurance weren’t meant for your situation. There’s no intervention mechanism. You may become paranoid at work – and for good reason. Some managers have been known to try to get employees to quit so that they don’t have to pay for unemployment insurance. The collegial feeling among workers can curdle into cut-throat competition."

---making A Clockwork Orange

---the title sequence of Boardwalk Empire

---trailers for Red Hook Summer, SellebrityCompliance, Dear Mr. Watterson, The Tall Man, The Sessions, Silver Linings Playbook, and Easy Money 

---Sergio Leone's Duel

---Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux

---@annehelen considers the rumors about Tom Cruise's divorce with Katie Holmes

---Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

---"Friedkin is happy to spend his last few free minutes before being whisked away fielding a few more questions. He is asked if there are any contemporary directors he admires. `Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers. And, eh... who else?' There is a very long pause. `Well, the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson.' He lets this hang for a beat before another director occurs to him. `I like Wes Anderson’s work. I think he’s an interesting and original filmmaker. But I’ve been most influenced by many others like Hitchcock, and Orson Welles, the French New Wave, and the English New Wave of the 1960s. Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger... those were the films that influenced me. The Italian neo-realists, and some of the American classic directors of the 40s and 50s like John Ford of course, Joseph Mankiewicz, and the directors of the musicals, like Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen. I know Mr Donen, and he’s still alive, I’m a great admirer of his work.'"

---Dennis Cozzalio picks his 4th of July movies

---Santigold's "The Keepers"

---how we die

Monday, July 2, 2012

A memory of a fantasy in a miniaturized world: Moonrise Kingdom's techniques

Moonrise Kingdom left me wondering about how Wes Anderson uses cinematic techniques to convey a story, how form and content go together in his work, how he uses multiple forms of communication (letters, maps, fashion, inventories, diagrams, allusions, tableaus, yearbooks, paintings, megaphones, etc.) to overwhelm the viewer with coded information that goes far beyond the most filmmakers' strategies. As Glenn Kenny writes,

"Even more so than in The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson is here working in the tradition of the filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The duo's The Red Shoes, I Know Where I'm Going!, A Canterbury Tale and so many more were examples of what Powell called `the composed film,' a movie in which each element was worked out to meticulously mesh with the other, a movie in which all of the art forms that inform movies -- painting, music, theater, sculpture, the whole lot -- are brought to bear with equal emphasis, a movie in which the contours of the real and the fantastic rub freely against each other to produce ... well, hopefully a kind of aesthetic alchemy. Moonrise Kingdom partakes of the traditions of, among other things, the fairy tale, the Looney Tunes cartoon and, yes, Shakespeare. One of the film's pivotal moments comes at nightfall, and the Britten-studded soundtrack offers one of the most beguiling musical moments from that composer's opera of A Midsummer Night's Dream: the fairies' song `On the Ground, Sleep Sound,' which assures that `all will be well.'"

Given its own tendency to inventory things like what Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jara Gilman) bring along with them during their escape into the woods, Moonrise Kingdom constantly invites analysis even though Anderson himself (understandably) tends to be vague about his creative process in his interviews. He claims that the genesis of the movie came from a period when he fell in love at approximately age 11. He scarcely spoke to the object of his affection (who remains nameless), so Moonrise Kingdom constitutes what he wished had happened, in other words, a "memory of a fantasy." He augments that fantastic element by having Suzy carry imaginary books in her suitcase, and by setting the story in 1965 on an imaginary island which one could only reach by ferry from the mainland. Anderson blends together the real (a Westinghouse refrigerator) with the imaginary (the Khaki Scouts) throughout the movie, and the effect could become coy and twee very easily, but Anderson's clear-headed emphasis on the detail keeps the movie grounded. Moonlight Kingdom is often dreamy but never vague, and the complexity of each shot keeps teasing the viewer with hints of deeper layers of interpretation.

Jim Emerson has neatly analyzed the movie's techniques to the point where he admits that he's not even writing the usual movie review. The film's techniques intrigue him enough:

"A miniaturized world, detached camerawork, symmetrical proscenium framings, a narrator who makes eye contact and would break the fourth wall if there was one: How many more distancing devices can we get? Well, the characters compartmentalize their emotional worlds through punctilious modes of communication (especially hand-written notes and letters with formalized closings, like `Signed, Suzy Bishop') and clipped, stylized speech patterns. (The policeman talks like a policeman; Social Services -- her only name -- talks like a manual from DSHS; the policeman talks like a policeman; the scoutmaster talks like a scoutmaster -- first he says he's `really' a math teacher and a scoutmaster second, but then he reverses himself in a way that's both mathematical and scoutworthy; the Bishops, both lawyers, bond through their legalese... Their language sets them off and identifies their membership in a tribe). The movie repeatedly uses split screen effects (there's that order-imposing symmetry again). And the binoculars through which Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) likes to look at things, because they make everything seem closer even if they aren't very far away to begin with. That's the metaphor for Anderson's style: looking close at the tiny details, but maintaining distance. The lens always separates the viewer from the view."

Suzy Bishop says in the movie: "I always use binoculars because it helps me see things closer, even if they're not very far away. I pretend it's my magic power."

Other questions and thoughts:

How does the Biblical story of Noah's Ark tie into the story? In the previously mentioned interview, Anderson shared that as a child he once participated in a production of Britten's Noye's Fludd (a church opera). In Moonrise Kingdom, Suzy and Sam meet during a showing of the selfsame opera.  Later, they don the opera's cat costumes during a climactic scene which also involves a flood hitting the island.

How much does Anderson's emphasis on older technologies like record players, tape recorders, and such tie in with what Nathan Jurgenson calls our "current obsession with the analog, the vintage, and the retro," i.e. the "fetishization of the offline"? 

Does Suzy's theft of library books tie in somehow with Mr. Fox's farm raiding ways in Anderson's previous Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)?

Couldn't one call Moonrise Kingdom a feature length meditation on symmetry in shot composition?  What is the effect when Anderson places a character in the center of a composition, instead of one side?

Anderson admitted that he was influenced by Norman Rockwell when he invented the Khaki Scouts. Really?  Normal Rockwell?

What is the significance of the tracking shot in Moonrise Kingdom?  How does Anderson's use of so many obtrusive camera techniques tie in with the major themes of the movie?  How much does Anderson, like Hitchcock, deliberately call attention to these techniques?  As Galya Kay writes, "Hitchcock pulls us into the story and then makes us aware of the artificial framework of that story." In Moonrise Kingdom, the children play records designed to educate them about classical music--once again, calling attention to how the art was made.