Saturday, June 25, 2016

"No one cares about reality anymore": 9 notes on Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups

Terrence Malick won't/has contempt for/dislikes shooting a scene, and that's what I found myself brooding on while watching Knight of Cups on Blu-ray. On one level, this omission makes for a more gnomic movie in which voiceovers sound like oracles, but there are clear problems with the practice. Apparently, Malick did not write a screenplay for Knight of Cups, so much of the time, the actors did not know what would happen in the next non-scene. I took pleasure earlier in the year in piecing together links that explored the extreme filmmaking legend/emperor with no clothes dichotomy of Malick's critical reception, so I felt unusually ready to appreciate the movie, which sometimes resembles an ad for its own profundity. Some notes:

1) I did enjoy the film more than I expected to, in part because individual sections, such as a montage of Los Angeles billboards, are stunning on their own, with much credit due to Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography.

2) So how does a Malickian non-scene work? For much of the film, Christian Bale (screenwriter Rick) strolls about LA or Las Vegas looking pained as he encounters groupies, parties, the occasional homeless person, the gorgeous interior decoration of apartments, top notch ocean-view hotel rooms, skyscrapers, etc., all seemingly designed, perhaps, as A. O. Scott pointed out, to make us jealous. Occasionally, women like Cate Blanchett (playing a former wife, Nancy) and Natalie Portman (Elizabeth) join him, but then we usually don't get to hear much of what they might be saying. Since these stars have nothing exactly to work with except for a major filmmaker egging them on, they often come across as uncertain about what to do. Perhaps Malick likes for them to be spontaneous, but it also leads to overacting. Portman no sooner arrives than her character starts to weep because she (as we learn in the voiceover) has become pregnant, and she doesn't know whether Rick or her husband is the father. I imagine that Malick ultimately cuts out the sound of much of the film's improv dialogue because it turned out to be banal and repetitive.

3) Also, whenever Malick returns to erstwhile major characters later in the movie (such as he does with Rick's dad played by Brian Dennehy), whatever significance Malick may want us to feel doesn't work at all. Here's where coherent earlier scenes would have really helped keep the film from drifting into self-important abstraction.

4) Malick loves to film the ocean crashing on the shore. After awhile, we know that the stars of the movie, as much as they avoid the waves initially, will eventually get their Giorgio Armani designer clothes wet, because what else is there to do? One can then think of how the water meets the sand, and all of its metaphorical and cosmological significance.

5) What of the tarot cards? As each section of the movie divides up under titles like "Death," "the Moon,"and "the Hanged Man," etc., I kept thinking of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which is also a collection of metaphorical fragments that hints at further metaphysical depth.

6) Due to the lack of real scenes, characters end up being vaguely dramatized ideas. Antonio Banderas appears in one party scene as a fun-loving hedonist who samples women like ice cream flavors. He dances on the edge of the pool, and, of course, ends up romping around in the water fully dressed as all of the beautiful people look on. I had difficulty believing that we were ever really meant to accept Cate Blanchett or Natalie Portman as characters at all. They are, instead, stars, like Freida Pinto, happy to not have been cut from the movie altogether. In this regard, their beauty operates more like a brand--they heighten the movie with their star power regardless of whatever vague motivation that each non-scene may have. Having Portman show up late in the movie makes sense--she's worthy of a later entrance given her comparative star wattage.

7) Actors do twirl less than they do in To the Wonder (2012), but there is one blonde stripper/actress named Karen (Teresa Palmer) who dances around in every scene much like Sarah Jessica Parker did in L.A. Story (1991). 

8) Occasionally, Malick juxtaposes the human-made spectacle with a natural one, cutting from a massive state of the art multi-screen concert to a desert mountain landscape so that we can compare and contrast the beauty of each.  At times, the grand long shot visual style of the movie (always happy to turn up and focus on a helicopter or a jet flying overhead) reminded me of Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960), where the composition of the shot keeps commenting obliquely on the scene and the characters (when it isn't overwhelming them).

9) Knight of Cups may one day serve as a grand and magisterially detached portrait of our era, one in which the movie's hints of depravity and existential despair may not prove as lasting as its vivid depiction of Los Angeles design and its semi-satirical portrait of the rich at play. Even with the film's Delphic voiceovers and Christian Bale's pained expressions, human characterization ultimately does not appear to matter all that much. As Karen points out, "No one cares about reality anymore" anyway.

summer links

---"Summer has officially arrived, along with the mounting pressure to enjoy it before it passes. The filmmaker who most deeply investigated the contradictions of the sweaty months is Eric Rohmer, whose summer films contain placid surfaces rippled by violent speech. His characters are surrounded by beauty and inevitably beset by anxieties of how their time there is being wasted, ticking away." --R Emmet Sweeney

---You Are Awake

---"The trouble with the movies is that they so seldom get below the surface of a story and its characters, that their whole is rarely as good as the parts, and the characters of their players—Gary Cooper or Margaret Sullavan, for instance—are usually more powerful than the characters they play." --Manny Farber

---a four part analysis of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Nathaniel R, Kyle Stevens, and others on the Film Experience 

---"Streep made one small, but important, tweak at the table read. She changed Miranda’s last line, where she’s sitting in a chauffeured car with Andy, from 'Everybody wants to be me' to 'Everybody wants to be us.' On the press tour for Prada, Streep insisted that Miranda the movie character wasn’t based on Wintour. She said her performance was inspired by men, but kept their identities a closely guarded secret until now. 'The voice I got from Clint Eastwood,' Streep says. 'He never, ever, ever raises his voice and everyone has to lean in to listen, and he is automatically the most powerful person in the room. But he is not funny. That I stole from Mike Nichols. The way the cruelest cutting remark, if it is delivered with a tiny self-amused curlicue of irony, is the most effective instruction, the most memorable correction, because everyone laughs, even the target. The walk, I’m afraid, is mine.'"

---Matthew McConaughey Talks True Detective

---"De Palma went on, 'The studios gave us the keys to the kingdom, and we all made a lot of extraordinary movies before they discovered sequels.' He made the word sound repellent. 'But it’s a corrosive system. When I was working on The Fury, Frank Yablans”—who produced the 1978 film—'said, ‘Dino will pay you a million dollars to do Hurricane. Go see him right now.’ Dino De Laurentiis was an impresario of gaudy schlock. 'So I go to Dino’s office, and he holds up this picture of an island and says, ‘ Hurricane! You will live in my hotel and shoot it all!’ After I read this terrible script and was embarrassed that I’d been lured, I told myself, ‘You can’t stay here any longer.’" --Tad Friend

---Dave Adder of Typeset in the Future considers Blade Runner

---"Simply the Best: Blood Simple and the Fabulous Coen Brothers" by Danny Bowes

---trailers for The Birth of a Nation, American Honey, Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, I, Daniel Blake, Train to Busan, The Legend of TarzanThe Girl With All the Gifts, Keeping Up with Jonesesand American Pastoral

---"Whether the film’s influence extended beyond the movies and into reality is another question, but when the World Trade Center was attacked in 2001, it was often said that footage of the crumpling Twin Towers could have come from a Hollywood movie – and one Hollywood movie in particular. Joe Viskocil, the pyrotechnics expert who designed The White House explosion in Independence Day, went so far as to say that he felt partially responsible. 'I felt guilty about making my work look so good,' he says. 'I started thinking maybe I did my job too well, and it might have been the nucleus of an idea for someone to say: ‘Hey, let’s crash a plane into the White House.’" But no one else in Hollywood showed much remorse. Directors, Emmerich included, kept on knocking down New York landmarks as if nothing had happened." --Nicholas Barber

---David Fincher: From a Distance

---Whit Stillman's 10 favorite films

---Famous Actors as Famous Authors

---Dissecting Dialogue in Film

---"The Dawn of 'Just Me": Zack Snyder's Neoliberal Superheroes" by William Bradley

--“I say the same thing over and over again. If I can create a sequence where you’re gazing at a woman or following a woman, it seems to me like a basic building block of cinema." --Brian De Palma

---Happy and Townie by Mitski

---All Along the Watchtower, Explored

---Thought Leader Talk

---"I think when something is exciting to you, a picture or a piece of music, what’s exciting is that you’re hearing the latest sentence in a conversation you’ve been having all your life. When you look at a painting, you don’t just see that painting, you see every other picture you’ve ever seen. That painting is in the context of every picture you’ve ever seen." --Brian Eno

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"Be gone, or I will have you whipped": the pleasures of Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship

Adapted from an early story by Jane Austen, Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship is delightful, with Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon dominating most every scene she's in, but I was confused by certain aspects of it. To whit,

a) no superheroes battle each other.

b) the movie, which is weirdly not a sequel, does not end with a large explosion and a chase scene.

c) Kate Beckinsale does not wear black leather, jump out of high buildings (landing on her feet), nor does she kill a single Lycan as she tends to do in her various Underworld movies.

Instead, Stillman relies upon Lady Susan Vernon's wit and satirical bite to drive a Regency era comedy that moves fast with lots of horse-drawn carriages rushing back and forth between estates. Stillman prefaces scenes with flagrantly artificial introductions of characters where the actors stand before the camera while we read something written on them in fancy Austen-esque font like:

The Divinely Handsome
Lord Manwaring

Also, curiously, Stillman often leaves key characters, such as Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearain) out of the movie almost altogether, never bothering to waste a scene on a figure who serves the plot but may not be needed otherwise.

As a typical consumer of recent cinema, I am used to moviemakers spoonfeeding information to my distracted brain, but Whit Stillman makes Love and Friendship tricky, subtle, and occasionally hard to follow. I went to see it with two lady friends, and we have gotten into various arguments about it since. When I claim that I like the machinations of Lady Susan, they assure me that I should not, that she's evil and manipulative. As a man, I, too, am susceptible to her charms. Once one learns to look beyond the conventions of mostly upper class early 19th century society, one realizes that Lady Susan takes what she wants, and justifies her behavior smoothly afterwards. When she runs into a man she doesn't want to see, she says "Be gone, or I will have you whipped." Likewise, when she has an affair with Lord Manwaring and his wife Lady Lucy (Jenn Murray) understandably objects, Lady Susan points out that "If she was going to be jealous, she should not have married such a charming man."

Perhaps in part because the death of her husband has left her poor, Lady Susan comes across as more alive than her more moneyed hence complacent peers. Her former husband's brothers' wife Catherine DeCourcey Vernon (Emma Greenwell) becomes alarmed by Lady Susan's visit to her country estate due to her reputation as an effective coquette, i.e. her ability to do great mischief by getting most any man around to fall in love with her. Yet, Catherine also acts transfixed around Lady Susan, as if hypnotized by a snake. I enjoyed Kate Beckinsale's performance, in part because she proves that she does not need all of that tight-fitting black leather and slow-motion fight scenes in the gothic dark to hold one's attention. She can accomplish that well enough as a supremely self-interested player.

In an American movie, Lady Susan might've been a femme fatale along the lines of Matty Walker in Body Heat (1981) or Barbara Stanwyck's role in Double Indemnity (1944), but Lady Susan need not kill anyone either. She enjoys the chess-like strategizing of manipulating others for its own sake, much as the Marquise de Merteuil does in Dangerous Liaisons (1988). When Lady Manwaring manages to poke a hole in Lady Susan's deceptions by exposing one of her letters to Reginald DeCourcey, Lady Susan handily defuses the scandal by questioning Reginald's trust in her. If anything, she makes her ability to transfix everyone look too easy, to the detriment of Chloe Sevigny's role as Alicia Johnson, an American wife who mostly just listens to Lady Susan's confidences. In contrast to Chloe's previous work with Kate in Whitman's excellent Last Days of Disco (1988), her participation in this movie as Alicia is limited by her husband Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry), who, as Lady Susan puts it, is "too old to be governable, too young to die."

Meanwhile, as everyone reels from "the most accomplished flirt in England," Tom Bennett as the upper-class twit James Martin proves hilarious every time he attempts to talk. I liked it when he brings up the 12 commandments and then tries to explain why he goofed. When he finds some peas on his plate during dinner, he says, "How jolly, tiny green balls. What are they called?" Stillman understands how Americans enjoy watching English nobility reduced by in-breeding, perhaps, to sheer fat-headed ludicrousness. Reginald DeCourcey proclaims James Martin to be insufferably "silly," but the man still has fun in his idiocy.

In the end, Love and Friendship works just as Lady Susan does, through its "captivating deceit," its "uncanny understanding of men's nature," and its insistent charm. Sometimes, even when we know better, we prefer the company of a knowing and beautiful fraud.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

anesthesia of the loudness links

---The American Dream in Film

---"Sequel after sequel has disappointed at the box office this year."

---Frank Zappa on fads

---the Strokes' "Drag Queen"

---a scene from American Psycho

---"X-Men, meanwhile, is iconography in reverse. No one — outside of their personal accountants — will associate Michael Fassbender with Magneto, or Jennifer Lawrence with Mystique, or James McAvoy with Professor X when they look back on their careers. These parts are IMDb filler; celebrity curios; walking, knowing smirks. If anything, equity-wise, X-Men roles carry a stigma: They’re pure paychecks." --Sam Donsky

---Beck's "Wow"

---"Our Brand Could Be Your Crisis" by Ayesha Siddiqi

---Notes on Pickpocket

---trailers for 11:55, Down by Love, Love and FriendshipThe Legend of TarzanRoadies, Carnage ParkThe Call Up, and Morgan

---"Ms. Eakin said spotlighting the range and diversity of female cinematographers underscored their strength. 'Everyone can stop questioning whether women can command a set and a crew and be creative and technical at the same time,' she said. 'We can and we do. We just need to get past it being this rarity.'" --Melena Ryzik

---a collection of Pauline Kael's reviews

---"The Video Essay as Art: Why Process Matters" by Conor Bateman

---"Rawness is fast emerging, in fact, as the central paradox of live streaming: The very intimacy and immediacy that make the medium attractive are also the things that make it almost impossible to keep clean." --Caitlin Dewey

---Brian De Palma's guilty pleasures

---Richard Hell's top 10 Criterion picks

---Cinephilia and Beyond considers Alien

---Stanley Kubrick: The Cinematic Experience

---"Such cruel paradoxes seem somehow built into Highsmith’s sapphic romance—written, as it were, into the fictional DNA. Highsmith, one might venture, was never able to rid herself of an ominous, dissipating sense of the pathological element in human life. Like a retribution, it was there in society’s repressive dictates and in her own psyche. These deep contradictions both undercut and intensify the nostalgic seduction supplied by the warm and glittery 1950s Manhattan setting. Carol and Therese seem to be forever swirling down Old-Fashioneds and double Gibsons, listening to Billie Holiday, and smiling a little too intently at one another. The Price of Salt, read straightforwardly, depicts the beginnings of the kind of relationship Highsmith herself could never enjoy. The novel is, I think, its author’s wish-fulfilment dream, but one in which anxiety-dream elements, the same stuff she transmuted elsewhere into bizarre suspense fiction, keep looming up like neurotic symptoms to invade the mise-en-scène. It’s a rarity—a love story lit by a weird, unwholesome, noirish glow." --Terry Castle

---"Sofia Coppola and the Female Coming of Age" by Allie Gemmill

---Intertextuality: Hollywood's New Currency

---"Watching Captain America: Civil War, in which positively nothing is at stake, I checked my watch 25 minutes into the film, sighing at the realization that there were nearly two hours remaining. How can audiences stand this? By submitting to the anesthesia of the loudness, I suspect, by comforting themselves with the knowledge that they are, at this moment, doing what culture expects of them. Seeing the “big” thing, the Super Bowl of yearly adventure epics." --Chuck Bowen

---What Makes a Movie Great?