Friday, February 24, 2012

The Lorax speaks for the Mazda CX-5 SUV and other links

---"I used to speak for the trees":  Lorax shills for the Mazda CX-5 SUV

---Roderick Heath on Tree of Life

---The Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy files

---ABCinema

---Everything is a Remix: Part 4 System Failure

---Denby's "The Artists: Notes on the Lost Art of Acting":

In the annual, routinized procession of contemporary movies—thrillers, teen horror films, digital spectacles—“The Artist” stands out as a fresh piece of work. Hazanavicius plays with our sense of how odd silence is; he intrudes sound like a stealthy predator into the bizarre, immaculate world of noiselessness. In the movie’s most striking sequence, Valentin has a nightmare: he dreams of a sounding world, but he cannot speak—his screams come out as dry heaves. But, apart from a few such brilliant bursts of invention, “The Artist” is an amiably accomplished stunt that pats silent film on the head and then escorts it back into the archive. The silent movies we see in “The Artist” all look like trivial, japish romps. (“Singin’ in the Rain” teased the silents the same way, sixty years ago.) Certainly, there’s no art form on display whose disappearance anyone would mourn. Hazanavicius’s jokes are playful but minor, even a little fussy, and after a while I began to think that the knowing style congratulates the audience on getting the gags rather than giving it any kind of powerful experience. “The Artist” lacks the extraordinary atmosphere of the silent cinema, the long, sinuous tracking shots, the intimacy with shadow and darkness. Well, you say, so what? The movie is just a high-spirited spoof. Yes, but why set one’s ambitions so low? The movie’s winningness feels paper-thin, and, as Peter Rainer pointed out in the Christian Science Monitor, “The Artist,” with its bright, glossy appearance, looks more like a nineteen-forties Hollywood production than like a silent movie.

---the subtleties of The Descendants

---feminist Pixar?  The clip from Brave

---women directors missing from the Oscars and Wonder Woman!

---tips for guerilla filmmaking and connected documentarians

---how to survive a bad day on the set

---Google's motto at one time: "Don't Be Evil"

---the Kill Bill files

---End of the Century: the Story of the Ramones

---trailers for The Suicide Shop, Sound of Noise, MarleyDorothy and the Witches of Ozand Friends with Kids 

---one problem with BASE jumping off of mountains

---Lena Dunham's Girls:

AVC: Your films and the show are very much about sort of aimless 20-somethings, and yet you are obviously anything but. How do you tap into that aimlessness?

LD: I think I definitely feel it. And even if it doesn’t exactly manifest itself in my professional life right now, I definitely feel just that confusion, that, “What am I supposed to be doing, and how am I supposed to be behaving? What is my place in all of this?” I definitely—when I first got out of college—was, “Should I be trying to write for a magazine?” And of course, all of my career plans were completely things that are extinct, and I was like, “Should I try to write for magazines? Should I be a novelist? Should I try to join a band?” Of course, there was no “Should I go to med school?” And I’m still, in the show, kind of processing an earlier experience of confusion. With the movie—it was very immediate—I made the movie after probably the least focused, most searching year of my life.

---the Military-Entertainment Complex

---"There are good reasons for imagining sterile environments in stories about the future. Space travel requires eliminating things that might float around in zero gravity; clean lines feel "modern" because they contrast with the accumulated mess of everyday existence. But isn't accumulated mess what defines us as individuals? Forster thought so, and figured we'd grow isolated without it — so, almost a century before computer geeks got around to it, he imagined Skype and the iPad:

`The round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her. 'Kuno, what is it, dearest boy?' 'I want to see you not through the Machine,' said Kuno. 'I want to speak to you not through the Machine. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I want you to pay me a visit, so that we can meet face-to-face.' "

---lastly, "We, the Web Kids" by Piotr Czerski

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Cromantic studio product: 6 notes on McG's This Means War

1) Two addlepated CIA chucklehead spies, Mutt and Jeff, I mean FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) vie for the affections of Tweety Bird, I mean Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) in a film that left me brooding on the intersection between acting, identity, and branding.  Have we reached the point where people have become pure, shiny commercialized products?  Steven Zeitchik points out that This Mean War has been in studio development since 1998, one year after Titanic's original release. So, if nothing else, such glistening  empty fare might have a few things to say about the contempt through which the 20th Century Fox studio executives view the American Cineplex-going audience.

2) The title appears to refer to one of Bugs Bunny's favorite expressions: "Of course, you know this means war!" I can understand the logic of that, since the movie resembles a live action cartoon.

3) A triumph of style and flash over content, This Means War practically does its own marketing research for itself as you watch it.  It has all of the thematic heft of a detergent commercial. In fact, in one scene Reese and her perpetually sex-talking best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler) discuss Lauren's woebegone lack of a love life as they shop in a grocery store for washing detergent. I spent much of the movie wondering what Reese was doing. Is she shifting her brand identity from Oscar-award winning actress to . . . what exactly?  A cute blonde with very white teeth?  Since her star persona still has some depth and intelligence, she resembles a bit of shag carpeting in a great expanse of linoleum.  Did she want the world to see her as someone worthy of being fought over by two wisecracking machine-tooled, but otherwise indistinguishable dudes?

4) Meanwhile, how does director McG (of the Charlie's Angels franchise) depict the CIA?  One sees lots of screens. As the movie goes on, McG likes to add in more screens per shot in the CIA headquarters as if the film was weirdly lampooning de Palma's screen-within-frame compulsions in the first Mission: Impossible (1996). As the two agents hire on spies, plant cameras and microphones in Lauren's apartment, and eventually observe her tiniest movement in order to win her love, all of this egregious peeping tom behavior does briefly give them pause.  When Tuck can't decide whether to call all this snooping creeping or romantic, FDR settles on "cromantic." When Tuck and Lauren (spoiler alert) actually manage to have PG-13 sex one evening, McG lines up 5 agents to watch as if a sheer accumulation of gawkers would somehow give the moment more heft. The fact that Lauren might have some concern for her privacy never occurs to anyone. Snooping and market research all go together.  Meanwhile, the two agents are simply too lightweight to torture a suspect, even though Tuck once threatens a bad guy with some pliers.  Where would be the fun in that?

5) McG likes to throw in various cinematic references as a sop for critics (?) or perhaps so the movie can flatter itself with unlikely correspondences to classic films of yore.  At one point, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid appears on Lauren's flat-screen TV so we can associate the witty banter of Redford and Newman with that of the two chuckleheads on screen. At another point, Lauren proves her smarts by insisting that The Lady Vanishes is "second-tier Hitchcock" (I found that enough reason to dislike the This Means War right there). At yet another point, FDR attempts to impress Lauren by recreating the famous gangster and his girl walking-into-the-nightclub Steadicam shot of Goodfellas (1990). Since McG liked to make similar cinematic references in his Charlie's Angels movies, one can wonder at the naive LA consistency of his visual style.  He likes sunny backlighting for blondes, race cars, people jumping out of airplanes, buffoon bullies primed for takedowns, and comically exaggerated Japanese stereotypes (as if some odd strain of Breakfast at Tiffany's floated in the back of his subconscious).  He also likes to flatter his actors by shooting them in a close-up when a medium shot would flow better in the editing.

6) McG likes for every scene to sparkle with flair, color, and silly fun, and he always makes sure that his wafer-thin characters care. Even given Chris Pine's good looks (the blue in his eyes seemed heightened), Tom Hardy's bee-stung lips, and Witherspoon's ever-flashing white teeth, I kept feeling like one of those people in ads who must choose between the glossy packaging of different-but-basically-the-same consumer products.          

Friday, February 10, 2012

impunity links

---Psycho Siri

---"`There is only one language in cinema.'--Hitchcock said this to Truffaut back in the day. You know, when they scream in that shower they’re screaming in Tokyo the same way they’re screaming in Paris. It isn’t the language that’s making them scream. It’s not the words, man. It’s the pure cinema that is effective. And when you’re speaking with the images, and you’re putting those images together, they way they’re supposed to be put together, then you’re speaking the language. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Serbia, or in a fucking igloo with Eskimos. You’re speaking that one universal language, and that’s the language of the cinema. And that’s holy.” --Abel Ferrara

---A Day Made of Glass 2

---"Senior ranking US military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the US Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable.  This deception has damaged America’s credibility among both our allies and enemies, severely limiting our ability to reach a political solution to the war in Afghanistan.  It has likely cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars Congress might not otherwise have appropriated had it known the truth, and our senior leaders’ behavior has almost certainly extended the duration of this war.  The single greatest penalty our Nation has suffered, however, has been that we have lost the blood, limbs and lives of tens of thousands of American Service Members with little to no gain to our country as a consequence of this deception." --Daniel Davis

---NBC would like you to watch, please

---"The Future" by the Limousines

---Dave drove a Ford

---McWeeny's bad experience at the theater

---"a culture of impunity now pervades America’s political and business elite at the expense of those who can’t afford to properly defend themselves"

---situationist films

---the best movie posters

---"By now, there can be little doubt that government retaliation against whistleblowers is not an isolated event, nor even an agency-by-agency practice. The number of cases in play suggests an organized strategy to deprive Americans of knowledge of the more disreputable things that their government does." --Peter Van Buren

---Julianne Moore in Far from Seven

---Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film

---Kaufman's visual rhetoric compendium

---chez Clooney

---The inner workings

---Owen's The Conundrum

---Sofia's new ad

---trailers for This Is Not a Film, The Bourne Legacy, The Aggression Scale, Iron SkyRed Lights, and The Story of Film

---how to hide from Google

---ravenous eating from Perfect Sense

---"So if the Big Five companies are not using their additional earnings to increase production, what are they spending their money on? The answer: They’re buying shares of their own stocks and investing in politicians to maintain the policies that led to their enormous profits over the past decade."

---lastly, "the graduate without a future" --Paul Mason

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Handling death rather well: Alexander Payne's The Descendants

Q: So, basically you're saying that The Descendants is one of the best films of 2011, and that The Artist is implausible bunk.

A: Yes. The Artist would be better with sound.

Q: Why does The Descendants work so well?

A: With many scenes heightened with gentle Hawaiian guitar strumming on the soundtrack and glorious ocean sunset scenery, The Descendants could resemble a sentimental Lifetime movie, but instead the film handles death (or the imminent death of its main character Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) who is in a coma) rather well, in part because no one in the movie knows how to confront death at all. While everyone else thinks that she will recover from the head injury, Matt King (George Clooney) learns of her "permanent" or soon-to-die condition from her doctor first, and it becomes his responsibility to tell everyone else, especially his two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who is in college, and ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller).

Q: Yes, that does sound sentimental.

A: But the twist is that Matt learns that his wife was having an affair with a real estate agent before she went into the coma, so in his rage to figure out who the guy is, he turns his knowledge of his wife's imminent death into a weapon. When Alexandra tells him about it, he abruptly and spastically runs across his ritsy neighborhood and confronts his friends Kai and Mark, forcing them to tell him who she was sleeping with.  When Kai initially balks at the idea, he tells her that his wife will die, and that she was "putting lipstick on a corpse" earlier during a hospital visit. The movie's unexpected switchbacks in tone between the humorous, the mournful, and the conniving (as Matt starts to spy on the agent) keeps the viewer off balance, therefore giving the movie an edge when it may seem merely elegiac.

Q: But who wants to see a depressing movie about death?

A: Well, The Descendants also emphasizes how life and death has more in-between states with modern medical science. I heard somewhere that Patricia Hastie lost 20 pounds in the course of making the movie.  Payne wields the sight of her becoming more and more emaciated on life support like a blunt stick. Characters arrive at the hospital to curse her out. Curiously, The Descendants succeeds emotionally in spite of the fact that we don't know her at all.

Q: What about all of those glorious sunsets?

A: Payne sets up a nice ambiguity of the way others view Hawaii as an island paradise early on, since Matt says "Fuck paradise" in the first voiceover.  What good does the myth of Hawaii do him with his wife in a coma and his children running berserk?  The movie keeps finding ways to make odd connections between the land and Matt's family (including his relationship with his ancestors).  Early on, he says "Somehow it feels natural to find a daughter of mine on a different island. A family seems exactly like an archipelago - all part of the same geographic expression but still islands - separate and alone, always drifting slowly apart."  It becomes Matt's responsibility to reunite his family as they all grieve over Elizabeth, and somehow it all ties in with his position as the main trustee over his family inheritance of 25,000 acres of prime untouched beachfront property.  He and a bunch of cousins are getting ready to sell the land and make millions, but somehow that decision gets associated with his handling of the family crisis.

Q: How?

A: I'm not sure. At one point, he says "Soon my daughters and I can just be normal citizens like everybody else, and these dead people will stop controlling our lives," but he realizes that just as he has to watch out for his daughters after being the "default" parent for years, he also has to come to terms with his ancestors who entrusted him with this land.  Payne makes this theme especially effective through his use of pictures of his great great great grandparents and other relatives on various walls (reminiscent of the way Hitchcock uses pictures in films like Psycho).  Over the course of the movie, and as the pictures accumulate in different scenes, one realizes that we all become pictures on some descendant's wall (if we're lucky).  The dead may control the living, but also the living can easily sell out the influence of the dead.  Payne shows us multiple shots of various resorts and beaches, but the underlying bleak message is that we constantly compromise and exploit what's left of paradise.

Q: So, in reply to all of the critics who claim that Payne has "mellowed" since his Election period, you find that The Descendants is careful, nuanced, and yet still quite disquieting as it confronts death head on.

A: Yeah.  The last deep focus shot is masterful in its use of mise en scene, bridging the three King family members under one blanket as they sit on the couch and watch, of all things, March of the Penguins out of frame.  Are we supposed to be depressed to think that's all they're watching? You can count two other scenes that involve blankets that prepare us for this one. I've not even mentioned the way Payne alludes to Benjamin's freak-out scene under water in the pool of The Graduate (1967) for Shailene Woodley's memorable moment of grief, and Clooney's astonishingly understated acting that at one point evokes Jean de Florette (1986) when he kneels down on his lawn as if beseeching the gods. Could it be that Payne actually alludes to Cary Grant in Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) when he films Clooney from the back of the head as the scene shifts in a match cut from outdoors to the hospital? (Scorsese includes an even more apt back-of-the-head match cut near the end of The Age of Innocence when Newland realizes that he's losing Ellen.)  When we see Clooney lounging on his side on the beach, are we supposed to be reminded of Grant on the beach at Cannes in To Catch a Thief (1955)? Perhaps I'm reading too much into that.

Q: You probably are.

A: Shut up.  All I'm saying is--observe the subtle way the film is built. Alexander Payne is an amazing director.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"You must pay for everything in this world one way or another": notes on genre and justice in True Grit

I'm about to attempt to teach True Grit, so some blog posts concerning my evolving thoughts on both the Charles Portis novel and the Coen brothers' movie version seem in order. While I very much admire the novel, the more recent and highly respectful 2010 movie version does take some odd liberties with the storyline. (Why does LaBoeuf have to bite his tongue?) Some opening notes:

1) How does one compartmentalize the novel?  In his essay "Charles Portis: Study of a Cult Novelist," Joseph Parry finds that "Academics may have overlooked him [Portis] because of the regional humor in his novels and the difficulties in classifying his work into a neat genre." True Grit is mostly both a semi-parodic western adventure and a coming of age story.  At times, when Mattie praises her pony Mattie, the novel can resemble some sort of young adult variation on Black Beauty.

2) How does True Grit reflect the political turbulence of the period in which it was written (1968)? At one point in the novel, LaBoeuf confronts Rooster over his involvement in William Clarke Quantrill's bloody border gang during the Civil War.  As he says, "I heard they murdered women and children at Lawrence, Kansas.  . . .  Do you deny they shot down soldiers and civilians alike and burned the town" (158)?  Did Portis mean for the reader to make a connection between Rooster's shady background and war-time atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnam? (The My Lai massacre took place during the same year that the novel was published.)

3) What should one think about Mattie's Old Testament sense of judgment?  The entire plot of True Grit is driven by her Hamlet-like determination to avenge her father's murder.  As she says early on, "I would not rest easy until that Louisiana cur [Tom Chaney] was roasting and screaming in hell" (24)!  Later, when she chances upon some prisoners in transport, she claims that "They had ridden the `hoot-owl trail' and tasted the fruits of evil and now justice had caught up with them in demand payment.  You must pay for everything in this world one way or another.  There is nothing free except the Grace of God.  You cannot earn that or deserve it" (40).  In my 2010 post concerning the Coen brothers' previous film A Single Man, I explored how "how, even given the unknowability of fate, judgment can still be swift and deadly" in that movie. Does the Old Testament sense of morality in True Grit provide some tentative answers to the metaphysical ambiguities of A Single Man?  The Presbyterian doctrine of Election has something to do with Mattie's convictions.  In his editorial "Narrative and the  Grace of God: The New True Grit," Stanley Fish debates the question:

"The words the book and films share are these: `You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.' These two sentences suggest a world in which everything comes around, if not sooner then later. The accounting is strict; nothing is free, except the grace of God. But free can bear two readings — distributed freely, just come and pick it up; or distributed in a way that exhibits no discernible pattern. In one reading grace is given to anyone and everyone; in the other it is given only to those whom God chooses for reasons that remain mysterious.

A third sentence, left out of the film but implied by its dramaturgy, tells us that the latter reading is the right one: `You cannot earn that [grace] or deserve it.' In short, there is no relationship between the bestowing or withholding of grace and the actions of those to whom it is either accorded or denied. You can’t add up a person’s deeds — so many good one and so many bad ones — and on the basis of the column totals put him on the grace-receiving side (you can’t earn it); and you can’t reason from what happens to someone to how he stands in God’s eyes (you can’t deserve it).

What this means is that there are two registers of existence: the worldly one in which rewards and punishment are meted out on the basis of what people visibly do; and another one, inaccessible to mortal vision, in which damnation and/or salvation are distributed, as far as we can see, randomly and even capriciously. It is, says Mattie in a reflection that does not make it into either movie, a `hard doctrine running contrary to the earthly ideals of fair play' (that’s putting it mildly), and she glosses that hard doctrine — heavenly favor does not depend on anything we do — with a reference to II Timothy 1:9, which celebrates the power of the God 'Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.'"

4) Fish concludes with an appreciation for the Coen brothers' metaphysical sensibility: "The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up."  One can claim, then, that Mattie's Presbyterian convictions supply one answer to the questions about the seeming arbitrariness of the film's and the novel's vision of justice.

I'll write more notes on Mattie's voice, her negotiating skills, the novel's use of the "innocent eye," and the differences between the novel and the Coen brothers' movie presently.