Sunday, March 22, 2015

Atrocity montage: a review of Nightcrawler

As a fan of Donnie Darko (2001), I tend to view Jake Gyllenhaal's subsequent career in term of Donnie gets a double! (Enemy 2013), Donnie joins the Marines! (Jarhead 2005), and, now Donnie, looking thin and desperate, videotapes the victims of Los Angeles crime! Donnie Darko was kind of a superhero but also occasionally a creep, and Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) in writer/director Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler proves an unexpectedly savvy creep, well versed in the contemporary business argot of motivational jargon, quick to use terms like "high goals," "hard worker," "persistent," and cheesy acronyms like FEAR, which stands for "False Evidence Appearing Real." As he says,"today's work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. But I believe that good things come to those who work their asses off and that good people who reach the top of the mountain, didn't just fall there." His vocabulary is so stylized, he reminds me a little of Brendan in Rian Johnson's Brick (2005), only now the tough guy lingo of Dashiell Hammett has morphed into a nightmarishly effective pseudo-inspirational corporate-speak.

I enjoyed the sick sensibility of Nightcrawler. The movie raises the question: how is Louis Bloom's business rhetoric perfectly appropriate for a man who goes around videotaping the mishaps of the LA night and then selling them to the local news for profit? Both nightcrawling and business practices are built upon the victimization of the public, the easily duped fears of the middle class, and the heartlessness of the rich. If everyone makes it a habit of vicariously or directly using others to satisfy their cravings, why not use the newly bloody as entertainment? If we enjoy the lurid display of car crashes (as in J.G. Ballard's 1973 novel Crash), shouldn't we also relish watching people getting suckered by their employers, the stock market, and the banks?

The difference with Louis is that he recognizes what sells without being hampered by ethics or any antiquated notions about human compassion. He thinks like a movie or local news executive or a depraved director. What matters to him is the composition of the shot for maximum gruesome effect, blood and suffering as the root of postmodern-day aesthetics, and the infinite appeal of what morning news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) calls the spirit of what she airs: "a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut." Bloom understands what underlies many business transactions: the theft of people's rights, their health, their money, their attention, and especially their privacy. Louis also instinctively knows that the key to making a good profit is intimately tied to the heartlessness of that business deal. Those who survive in today's media economy know how to titillate the bored the best, or as a TV executive says, "What bleeds, leads."

Nightcrawler understands that "real" violence and victimization is the best currency, since we're already jaded from seeing too many fake versions in movies and TV. Ever dutiful, Louis assembles a video portfolio of his best efforts on his laptop, a kind of atrocity montage: "Horror in Echo Park," "Drunk Mom Kills Biker," "Nursing Home Nightmare," "Toddler Stabbed," "D.W.I. Crash Claims Four," "Carjacking Woman Dragged," "Headless Body in Carson," and "Businessman Shot in Garage." There's a kind of tabloid poetry in this list that celebrates how people are never more valuable to the media than when they are in the midst of getting killed. Like Robert Altman's The Player (1992), Nightcrawler celebrates the triumph of the lizard brain.

Friday, March 20, 2015

attentional commons links

---Akira Kurosawa - Composing Movement by Tony Zhou

---Feminine Beauty: A Social Construct?

---"David Fincher's Misdirections: The Movies Inside His Movies" by Sean Fennessy and Chris Ryan

---"Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.

What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an “attentional commons,” then we could figure out how to protect it." --Matthew B. Crawford

---making Bonnie and Clyde

---filmmaking tips from Albert Maysles

---creativity tips from Bill Watterson

---“The first step is the $3 short film. We’re in a place now where technology is so cheap that there’s no excuse for you not to be making films on the weekends with your friends, shot on your iPhone – we had a feature film at Sundance this year that was shot entirely on iPhones and it did really well.” --Mark Duplass

---Francois Truffaut and His Influences

---Cinematographer Featurette: Rodrigo Pietro

---"our enemy is engaged in a crusade against the West; wants to establish a world government and make all of us bow down before it; fights fanatically, beheads prisoners, and is willing to sacrifice the lives of its followers in inhuman suicide attacks. Though its weapons are modern, its thinking and beliefs are 2,000 years out of date and inscrutable to us."  --Peter Van Buren

---Cinematic Rude Awakenings

---This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

---"The new documentary springs from the 2010 eponymous book by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. The film (and the book before it) lays out how the fossil-fuel industry funds talking heads to sow confusion about climate change in a deliberate imitation of the successful doubt-sowing tactics of the tobacco industry. That industry famously employed experts in public relations, starting with venerable PR firm Hill+Knowlton, to cast doubt on the idea that smoking causes lung cancer or that nicotine was addictive, tactics that delayed regulation of the tobacco industry for decades.

Sowing these doubts ensured at least 50 years worth of profits on tobacco and condemned millions of smokers to a premature death in the U.S. The success of that effort has led a host of industries with environmental or health problems—asbestos, chemicals, coal and pharmaceuticals, among others—to adopt this playbook to protect their profits.

There may be no bigger PR problem than climate change. The fossil-fuel industry perceives it as a war on coal and oil. So step one in the successful tobacco playbook is to suggest that more data is needed to confirm any link between the carbon dioxide spewed from fossil-fuel burning and global warming." --How to Win Friends and Bamboozle People About Climate Change

---"A Pantheon of One's Own: 25 Female Film Critics Worth Celebrating"

---Knowhere Reel

---Raiders of the Lost Ark Boulder Scene

---"These compunctions notwithstanding, I will put forth a tenuous definition of the vanity film. It is the work of an outsider which assumes the privilege of an insider, which asks 'Why Tom Cruise and not me?'—then doesn’t stop to consider the myriad reasons why not. Rather than recognizing and working within the limitations imposed by the circumstances of its production which separate it from the Big Time, the vanity film refuses to admit to the existence of these limitations, as it denies the effects of age, and all laws of plausibility. It originates outside of show business, and embodies the egotism without which there can be no show business. 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,' per Ecclesiastes—a statement which someone, I forget who, noted logically includes itself in the condemnation."  --Nick Pinkerton

---What Are the Best Parts of a Film Noir Story?

---a clip from Clouds of Sils Maria

---The Origins of Auteur Theory

---"in a major American city, the criminal justice system perceives a large part of that city's population not as citizens to be protected, but as potential targets for what can only be described as a shake-down operation designed to wring money out of the poorest and most vulnerable by any means they could, and that as a result, the overwhelming majority of Ferguson's citizens had outstanding warrants. " --David Graeber

---First and Final Frames

---trailers for Catch Me Daddy, Tomorrowland, It's Me, HilaryCobain: Montage of Heck, San Andreas, Paper Towns, Sneakerheadz, LifePixels, and The Leviathan

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Self-absorbed men with beards: a review of Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip

Jason Schwartzman plays the young author Philip Lewis Friedman in Listen Up Philip. He just published his second novel, he lives (at first) in New York City, he's one of the hot new notable writers under 30, and he's an insufferable megalomaniac who holds our attention with his total lack of consideration for others. If he were to be at all nice ever, the movie could lose our interest quickly. Philip begins by dressing down his former girlfriend for being late for a luncheon get-together, so he passive aggressively refuses to give her a copy of his new novel. He storms out of the small restaurant before similarly scolding a wheelchair-bound old friend at a nearby bar. In the latter case, Philip brings up a "Declaration of Principles" that they had written together a long time ago, an allusion to Citizen Kane, and throws it contemptuously in his beer. The movie is full of scenes like this. The viewer wonders if Philip's writing is worthy of all of this grandstanding. He's the capitol A Artist as a little bearded jerk.

Listen Up Philip looks back on Schwartzman's career-defining work as Max Fischer in Rushmore (1998). My respect for the latter film increases every year as I frequently teach it in film class. Max has much of the same arrogance and occasional creative insufferability as Philip, but Wes Anderson leavens his portrait with Max's underlying grief for his deceased mother that takes the form of his infatuation with Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). A school teacher at Rushmore Academy, Rosemary tells Max (since he's in high school) that she's clearly too old for him to think of being in any kind of romantic relationship. Max keeps fouling up his relations with Rosemary, Herman (Bill Murray), and others as he tries to manipulate them into playing parts for his own ends, but Max also gets to keep directing plays and therein lies his redemption. By speaking through the last play in code (and also by arranging to have his former friends in the audience), Max can save through art what he cannot fix in his life normally.

In contrast, Philip never gets to use his fiction-writing as Max uses his plays, as a means to resolve his creative talents with his devastated relationships. Listen Up Philip stubbornly refuses to allow us to like Philip ever. What defines an artist is his/her extreme sensitivity, which can often appear to others as just rudeness (as in the case of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)). While I admire writer/director Alex Ross Perry for uncompromisingly sticking to his grim aesthetic, the movie kept making me think of how Noah Baumbach might have treated similar material with more humor, as in his impressive debut Kicking and Screaming (1995), a movie about a would-be author facing life after college. Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale has an elderly self-absorbed and bastardly bearded writer figure played by Jeff Daniels who is very similar to Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), the Philip Roth-like mentor for Philip Lewis Friedman. Baumbach appears more constrained by the autobiographical elements of The Squid and the Whale, making it one of his less likable films.

Without humor, the prickly portraits of artists like Philip and Ike in Listen Up Philip have no release valve. They harden into the inhuman, men who are incapable of treating others (usually would-be supportive women such as Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss) another Kane reference (?)) as anything more than worthless. At times the movie comes across as unintentionally comic as Philip moves from one doomed relationship to another. Yet, in Philip's defense, he keeps publishing new books and they appear to be good. In its French New Wave fashion, Listen Up Philip is strong enough in its inbred New York Indie way to make me want to read one of those novels. The title of the film ultimately proves ironic since Philip will never listen, and that's why we love him.  

Friday, March 6, 2015

screentime links

---A Hard Day's Night opening--multicam screentime version

---Red and Yellow and The Wes Anderson Collection, Chapter 8: The Grand Budapest Hotel

---"There are people (e.g., Kaplan, 2012) who want to open up a long overdue conversation about slavery in the United States, but who insist that the proper way to do so is with sober, serious ruminations on the historical realities of slavery and its aftermath: not with foul-mouthed, blood-soaked bits of commercial entertainment. We’ve got nothing against sober, serious debates about racial politics—the nation could stand to have more of those—but we cannot fully accept this particular line of argument.

For starters, we reject the assumption that popular culture is an inappropriate ground on which to wage serious political struggles. 'The popular,' after all, is one of the major sites where such battles have been waged for decades: far too long now to pretend that it doesn’t matter in this regard (Berlant, 1996; Grossberg, 1992; Hall, 1981; Kipnis, 1992; Penley, 1997; Radway, 1997; Rodman, 1996). It’s true that 'the popular' isn’t the only place where such debates need to occur, and that many (though by no means all) of the necessary solutions to the problem of systemic racism need to be implemented in other spheres. But if anti-racist critics refuse to fight on this turf, then they—we—are effectively ceding it to the other side. Which, in turn, almost certainly means that we will lose those struggles. 'The popular,' after all, is often the site where people’s hearts (rather than their minds) are won or lost. And we will not win the fight against racism simply by appealing to people’s intellects.

We also reject the assumption that this conversation can only take place in polite, bourgeois language and contexts.[8] We’re not interested in chaotic free-for-alls, where everyone shouts as loudly as they can, nobody listens, and nothing is ever resolved. But the topic at hand is ugly, brutal, and painful. It demands a sense of outrage and anger—especially if we’re still struggling with the topic 150 years after the formal end of slavery—and to pretend otherwise is to diminish the scope and the importance of the problem.

Django is not a perfect film, nor is it a perfect representation of either the horrors of U.S. slavery or the realities of black resistance. But then again, no such perfect representation exists. Or could. For all of its faults, Django puts a much stronger, much more forceful condemnation of institutional and structural racism in the public eye than anything that, say, Barack Obama has managed to accomplish from the White House. We don’t believe that Django can fully resolve the political problems at stake here—that’s an impossible burden to place on any single film—but we do believe that it pushes the conversation along in valuable and productive ways." --Heather Ashley Hayes and Gilbert B. Rodman

---Action Women Movie Montage

---Mirrors of Bergman

---"Coppola doesn’t make teen feelings into allegory for auteur integrity. She’s interested in them for their own sake, and their own aesthetic terms: their bigness, their haze, how they’re communicated like a fever." --Sophia Nguyen

---"How to Make Video Essays" by Catherine Grant

---"Are we in the center?"

---“My relationship to the cinema was still rough, as it was constituted in an anarchic way. I knew contemporary films, but I had some terrible gaps, and I especially ignored all of cinema’s theory and this history: I’ve never even read Bazin. On the other hand, I was bringing my own ideas, with their naïve convictions, which, due to being at the dawn of a new period, wasn’t a problem, since everything was to be reinvented. And it was passionate to arrive at Cahiers when they had to start over: it took years to put everything back together. We made special issues on screenplays, actors, French and American cinema, just reconnect with what was going on.”  --Olivier Assayas

---Gone Girl: Back Again

---Cinephilia and Beyond considers On the Waterfront

---Danny and the Wild Bunch

---"In a digital landscape built on attention and visibility, what matters is not so much the content of your updates but their existing at all. They must be there. Social broadcasts are not communications; they are records of existence and accumulating metadata. Rob Horning, an editor at the New Inquiry, once put it in tautological terms: 'The point of being on social media is to produce and amass evidence of being on social media.' This is further complicated by the fact that the feed is always refreshing. Someone is always updating more often or rising to the top by virtue of retweets, reshares, or some opaque algorithmic calculation. In the ever-cresting tsunami of data, you are always out to sea, looking at the waves washing ashore. As the artist Fatima Al Qadiri has said: 'There’s no such thing at the most recent update. It immediately becomes obsolete.'" --Jacob Silverman

---Fassbinder's filmmaking tips

---"The film I wanted to make was less a story and more of a meditation. A film of graphic images and sounds that would work by suggestion, in which most scenes would be done from one angle, in one continuous take, without informational shots or dialogue or the usual emotional rhetoric of cinema." --Pawel Pawlikowski

---the floorplan and the single-take illusion of Birdman

---trailers for Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, Saint LaurentSelf/Less, Suite Francaise and Dark Places

---editing Don't Look Now

---“I don’t really like working. I work very hard at idleness. I’m able to spend months without doing anything and I’d like to end by doing nothing. I don’t know."  --Luis Bunuel

Monday, March 2, 2015

6 notes on the mysteries of It Happened One Night

1) Why one night? Peter Warne (Clark Gable) and Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) meet at night on the bus to New York, spend the night in a hotel, fall in love (perhaps) outside by some hay bales on a farm, and consummate their marriage when the wall of Jericho finally tumbles (a blanket strung between two beds in an auto camp). Which night is the movie's title referring to? The film never specifies. Later, Frank Capra moved on to much more straightforward titles like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Why is he being so indeterminate here?

2) Why do so many goofball Americans keep breaking into song in the course of this movie? Why do they sing so often with increasing derangement? Even Peter Warne sings while driving back from New York late in the movie (but he's fallen in love by then). The true oddball is a guy named Danker (Alan Hale, the father of the skipper in Gilligan's Island), who sings whatever comes to mind loudly and pointlessly after picking up Peter and Ellie in his jalopy. Did Frank Capra want to shoot a musical? Is all of the singing some sort of coping mechanism for the Depression? Lastly, does Cameron Crowe allude to the "Flying Trapeze" business in the "Tiny Dancer" scene in Almost Famous (2000)?

Then again, the night scene in which everyone on the entire bus gleefully sings along to "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" demonstrates how anyone in Capra's world can take the limelight, even if for only the second verse. The essential democratic aesthetic of that scene stands out when you compare it to the many romantic comedies such as 27 Dresses (2008) where all the extras can do is look on as the two leads demonstrate their love over and over and over in one public forum or another, each audience on camera somehow legitimizing the one watching in the theater.

3) What's the deal with the water theme? After Ellie escapes from her dad's yacht by swimming away, she has trouble keeping herself from getting soaked in the rain en route to New York, causing Peter to say she's as "helpless as a baby." Later, Peter protects Ellie from getting drenched in a downpour by loaning her his raincoat. After the bus plows into a rainy ditch, Peter carries Ellie over a stream while lecturing her about proper piggybacking. Also, Ellie says she would like to be a plumber's daughter. Is Ellie's working class redemption a matter of getting baptized over and over? She learns of the ways of the common folk by having to stand in line at an auto camp before taking a shower. Did the movie's writer Robert Riskin have water on the brain?

4) What should we make of Peter's various lessons in proficiency? He shows Ellie how to properly dunk a donut in coffee (again, the liquid theme), given that she tends to overdunk and thereby threaten the donut with dissolution (just as she threatens to get overly wet early on). Later, Peter lectures her on hitchhiking techniques and proper piggyback riding (pointing out that Abraham Lincoln was a "natural born piggybacker"). He also gives Ellie a lesson in how men undress. Perhaps all of these lectures logically culminate in Ellie flashing her legs to get a car ride, thereby exposing the fundamental flaw in all of that masculine knowledge, i.e. "the limb is mightier than the thumb."

5) Throughout It Happened One Night, alcohol is used as a kind of salve, comforting Ellie at home when she knows that she's marrying the wrong man, providing Peter with a good drunk when his plans go awry, and even giving Ellie's father Mr. Andrews (Walter Connolly) a means to celebrate his daughter marrying the right man. We first see Peter drunk as he tells off his editor on the phone in front of his drunken newspaper reporter peers. Throughout all of this therapeutic tippling, is the movie celebrating the end of prohibition?

I also wonder how much the movie's enduring appeal may be due to Capra's Depression-era emphasis on hunger. Ellie begins the movie in the midst of a hunger strike that betrays her manipulative contempt for her father's control. In the midst of her revolt, she throws over a silver tray holding a steak dinner, but later, ironically, she deals with her gnawing appetite as she's obliged to sleep outdoors on a farm with Peter. We also witness a mother on a bus passing out from hunger after she and her son run out of money, a melodramatic scene that still shows how Americans had to get used to any stranger around them being ravenous in 1934. Peter handles the situation on the farm by grabbing some carrots out of the garden, but "spoiled brat" Ellie still refuses one. She takes until the next day to finally capitulate by sullenly eating a single carrot in the jalopy as Peter drives. Perhaps this undertone of starvation gives It Happened One Night its particular edge. The central couple have more fundamental drives to contend with than the usual one of falling in love.

6) As a kind of reverse Cinderella, Ellie cheerfully assimilates with the common man. Her pleasure in roughing it flatters the audience with the impression that the rich envies them. It Happened One Night posits that a cheap bus ride is preferable to all of the Great Gatsby-esque wealth of Mr. Andrews' mansion. What was once youthful rebellion now becomes a media show (during the would-be wedding with King Westley (Jameson Thomas) with Ellie's father's secret approval). The newspaper montage, the many headlines proclaiming Love Triumphant reminds me of similar claims to fame in Philadelphia Story (1940), Stripes (1981), Tootsie (1982) and innumerable other movies where the characters must enjoy or suffer a mass media amplification of their story to be worthy of our attention. Regardless, Peter never does appear to publish his inside scoop about the runaway heiress, and the real romance is (as far as we know) never written about. Instead, the couple disappears discreetly in Michigan. As the newspapers falsify everything, Peter and Ellie's love story is reserved for the movie viewers only.