Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The enduring depth of the charmingly shallow: 4 notes on the pleasures of North by Northwest

1) In our household, Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) has always been held in particularly high esteem, although I prefer to teach Notorious (1946) and Psycho (1960). In terms of film technique, North by Northwest strikes me as comparatively shallow, a knock off variation on The 39 Steps (1935), although one could say shallowness is the point. Family members often quote various scenes, especially Eve Kendall's lines like "Plane travel vs. train travel. Rather innocuous considering he was a fugitive from justice. Who did he kill?" My son, who now teaches filmmaking, describes the movie as a series of set-piece scenes that often humorously lead to satisfying climaxes, with someone getting punched, or drunken humor, or motherly humor mixed with suspense. Given that the plot of the movie tends to want to kill off Thornhill through elaborate means, Roger is equal to the challenge, perhaps in part due to his career in advertising teaches him how to lie and adopt various personae fluidly. Hitchcock seems intent about torturing Cary Grant, as if in a kind of jealous reply to his fame and good looks, (which reminds me of the treatment of Emma Stone in the more recent The Favorite), yet Roger is something of an expert fraud, a man of surfaces in a movie full of allusions to other Hitchcock films, a man happy to become in the moment what the occasion requires, be it a red cap, a murder victim, a killer on the loose, a witness testifying in court, and/or a derelict son to his doubting mother. Is the beginning of Roger's drunken driving scene a reference to the various cliff-edge over water moments in Grant's "Suspicion" (1941)?

2) Among the set-piece scenes, I like the auction one especially in the way Roger subverts a social ritual of the rich in order to attract the police. An auction implicitly asserts the manners of the privileged class as it makes its artful purchases, but Roger undermines the ceremony until a woman says to him, "You're no fake. You're a genuine idiot," to which Cary Grant replies, "Thank you." The scene is not only very funny, it also shows how Roger is happy to play the cog in the fateful apparatus dictated by criminals and the CIA. According to the impossibly smooth Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), Roger will play a corpse next: "You're very next role. You will be quite convincing, I assure you." But Roger keeps finding ways to slide out of the storyline assigned to him. Roger embodies the disruptive element that revolts against the narrative he's in.

3) Just as the design elements of Psycho sometimes juxtapose the vertical old creepy house with the blandly modern horizontal Bates hotel, so does North by Northwest revel in vertical/horizontal dichotomies. For instance, at the very end of the movie, the scene switches from the cliffhanger conclusion on the cliff faces (ha!) of Mount Rushmore to the speedy horizontal of a train ride, where (again) Roger pulls Eve up to the upper bunk as a kind of nostalgic return to the interior decorations of their escape from the police earlier. So, the vertical and the horizontal keep switching off and accumulating on each other, even amidst the lewd joke of the final shot. The movie begins with the Saul Bass credit sequence's vibrant vertical lines of a skyscraper iconographically preparing us to upcoming heights of the United Nations building, the various floors of several luxury hotels, and, of course the attack of a crop dusting plane as it swoops down to try to assassinate Roger from above.

4) When I wrote earlier that the movie is shallow, it is also full of absences, given that the main earlier  McGuffin of George Caplan doesn't exist at all, as much as Vandamm's men look for him, as much as Roger stumbles into embodying him. The end of the movie keeps returning to the blanks in what Roger calls "that same silly gun of" Eve's. Why is there so much emphasis on fake bullets? Are they supposed to be like little George Caplans, creating lots of effects, but not really existing? Are we meant to associate Roger's fake killing at the hands of Eve with the actual assassination of Lincoln whose visage looks out upon Mount Rushmore? As Vandamm says in his last line, "That's not very sporting, using real bullets."

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood official trailer

"I’ve been listening to podcasts about the history of Hollywood, the transition from silent films to talkies, the advent of television, the musicals in the sixties, the directors’ era of the seventies. And now we’re talking about streaming services. I don’t want to act as if I’ve been around since . . .  silent cinema, but I see this as a huge shift in the way movies are going to get done, what gets financing. The studio system has tons of content, libraries of things that they can make movies of, but in a lot of ways they are hemorrhaging. They’ve become—much like in the twenties—these corporate empires that have taken over the artistic vein of moviemaking. We’re now in an era when there’s a flush of cash into streaming. But with an overflow of content, there’s a lot of garbage out there. Now I do see a lot of chances being taken for story lines, certainly documentaries, certainly giving some artists opportunities to make out-of-the-box story lines that I don’t think ten years ago would have been possible. But these types of films that Quentin is doing are also becoming endangered species."
     --Leonardo DiCaprio

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Smartphones and mental illness: observations from Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

From Cal Newport's new book: Digital Minimalism:

"Eliminating solitude also introduces new negative repercussions that we're only now beginning to understand. A good way to investigate a behavior's effect is to study a population that pushes the behavior to an extreme. When it comes to constant connectivity, these extremes are readily apparent among young people born after 1995--the first group to enter their preteen years with access to smartphones, tablets, and persistent internet interconnectivity. As most parents or educators of this generation will attest, their device use is constant. . . .

My first indication that his hyper-connected generation was suffering came a few years before I started writing this book. I was chatting with the head of mental health services at a well-known university where I had been invited to speak. The administrator told me that she had begun seeing major shifts in student mental health. Until recently, the mental health center on campus has seen the same mix of teenage issues that have been common for decades: homesickness, eating disorders, some depression, and the occasional case of OCD. Then everything changed. Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety.

She told me that everyone seemed to suddenly be suffering from anxiety or anxiety-related disorders. When I asked her what she thought caused the change, she answered without hesitation that it probably had something to do with smartphones. . . . She noticed that these new students were constantly and frantically processing and sending messages. It seemed clear that the persistent communication was somehow messing with the students' brain chemistry.

. . . the plight of iGen provides a strong warning about solitude deprivation. When an entire cohort unintentionally eliminated time alone with their thoughts from their lives, their mental health suffered dramatically. On reflection, this makes sense. These teenagers have lost the ability to process and make sense of their emotions, or to reflect on who they are or what really matters, or build strong relationships, or even to just allow their brains to power down their critical social circuits, which are not meant to be used constantly, and to redirect that energy to other important cognitive housekeeping tasks. We shouldn't be surprised when these absences lead to malfunctions."

Newport's book can easily boiled to one urgent lifestyle tip: Get away from your smartphone. The device is much more sinister and addictive that we can fully comprehend at the moment.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

“I love human beings as the monster, as the horror.” Exploring the Twilight Zone elements of Us

I very much enjoyed Us, in part because one can brood on its mysteries indefinitely. Here is Aisha Harris' thoughts on the Twilight Zone elements of Jordan Peele's film.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

"Take this pink ribbon off my eyes": 5 notes on Captain Marvel

1) Annette Bening's work as the Supreme Intelligence in Captain Marvel was almost enough for me to forgive her for starring in 20th Century Women.

2) It's not hard to root for Brie Larson. Now, two of the stars of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World have large superhero franchises, which only seems fitting.

3) In this short-attention-span-junkfood-saturated-with-media environment we live in where our phones devour hours of our attention each day with addictive devices and apps, one likes to think that the Marvel studio executives know what they are doing by now. But still, I find it ironic that we can take pleasure in watching Brie Larson assume her superpowers partially because Marvel movies have always starred male leads. It's about time that changed. The fact that she's not some hulking muscle-inflated stud grunting out pronouncements of arrogant male privilege can still delight, just as Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman did. Later in the movie, after many actions scenes that often involve fire bolts shooting out of her hands, Carol Danvers/Vers/Captain Marvel still takes a moment to help Nick Fury (a weirdly digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson) do the dishes. I don't remember Thanos doing anything like that in Avengers: Infinity War. As a star, Brie Larson remains recognizably human in spite of the corporate carpet-bombing synergistic media campaign swirling around her.

4) I did like the movie, and yet . . . how many unnecessary problems this film has. An early scene involves Vers and various Star Force Kree warriors infiltrating some planet on a secret night mission, and I could hardly tell what was going on as the green lizard shapeshifter people known as the Skrulls guerrilla fight Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) and his gang in the dark purple murk.  Then movie treats us to a clumsy dream/exposition sequence where Vers memory allows her to bop around her past life as she faced various challenges (a go-cart race, an Air Force bootcamp rope to climb, etc). Also, we see her drunkenly singing in a bar, and all of these skittering non-scenes are incoherently accompanied by some Skrull barking in a voiceover. I think that the Skrulls were mining her mind for some secrets concerning the Supreme Intelligence or something, but I can't imagine that green lizard men with large ears will age well.

5) Fortunately, the lighting and the humor improve once Vers crash lands on earth back in the 90s, in a Blockbuster Video store. Once she changes into a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and jeans, hops on a stolen motorcycle, joins the de-aged Fury, and sets out on her journey to learn just what those mysterious glowing early dreams mean, the movie finds its footing. There's a scene-stealing cat, many jet fights in outer space, No Doubt's "Just a Girl" playing over a slightly better lit later fight scene, and bolts of light-speed engine-worthy photon blast energy erupting out of Captain Marvel's eyes and hair. It's about bloody time.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

automate us links

---"I know the science is true, I know the threat is all-encompassing, and I know its effects, should emissions continue unabated, will be terrifying. And yet, when I imagine my life three decades from now, or the life of my daughter five decades now, I have to admit that I am not imagining a world on fire but one similar to the one we have now. That is how hard it is to shake complacency. We are all living in delusion, unable to really process the news from science that climate change amounts to an all-encompassing threat. Indeed, a threat the size of life itself."  --from David Wallace-Wells' "Time to Panic"

---"Children of Men: Why Alfonso Cuaron's Anti-Blade Runner looks more relevant than ever" by Stephen Dalton

---A Night at the Garden

---"At its peak the planet’s fourth most valuable company, and arguably its most influential, is controlled almost entirely by a young man with the charisma of a geometry T.A. The totality of this man’s professional life has been running this company, which calls itself 'a platform.' Company, platform — whatever it is, it provides a curious service wherein billions of people fill it with content: baby photos, birthday wishes, concert promotions, psychotic premonitions of Jewish lizard-men. No one is paid by the company for this labor; on the contrary, users are rewarded by being tracked across the web, even when logged out, and consequently strip-mined by a complicated artificial intelligence trained to sort surveilled information into approximately 29,000 predictive data points, which are then made available to advertisers and other third parties, who now know everything that can be known about a person without trepanning her skull. Amazingly, none of this is secret, despite the company’s best efforts to keep it so. Somehow, people still use and love this platform."  --Tom Bissell

---"Why I Quit Entertainment Journalism" by Phil Brown

Shroooms from C A T K on Vimeo.

---“Forget the cliché that if it’s free, ‘You are the product,’” she exhorts. “You are not the product; you are the abandoned carcass. The ‘product’ derives from the surplus that is ripped from your life.” The worst, though, is still to come, she argues, as tech giants shift from predicting behavior to engineering it. “It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us,” she warns; “the goal now is to automate us.”  --Evgeny Morozov quoting Shoshana Zuboff in "Capitalism's New Clothes"

--"It’s a great time to be someone who makes things because there are lots of places to go and they’re all hungry for content. That’s the good news. The obvious problem is how to draw eyeballs to your project against a level of competition that was unimaginable when I was coming up in the business. I would never have thought people would be targeted with so much content all day, every day. I just couldn’t have imagined it. Given it’s impossible to get eyes on everything, I think most people are looking for a filter. That can come in a variety of guises. It can be a filmmaker, it can be a genre, it could be a certain platform that you’ve become loyal to. Any of these things can help the viewer cleave their way through all of these options, but it’s hard. Like I said, it’s a great time to be making stuff. It’s just harder and harder to be the signal in the midst of all the noise." --Steven Soderbergh

---"Nolan Book 2.0: Cerebral blockbusters meet blunt-force cinephilia" by David Bordwell

---previewing Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

Sunday, January 20, 2019

surveillance capitalism links

---David Bordwell revisits Hitchcock's Notorious

---"The Best Video Essays of 2018" via BFI

---6 Filmmaking Tips from Barry Jenkins

---"The 50 Most Anticipated American Films of 2019" by Dan Schoenbrun

---Kim Morgan discusses The Long Goodbye with Elliot Gould

---"Under the regime of surveillance capitalism, it is not enough simply to gather information about what people do. Eventually, you have to influence behavior, beyond the simple suasion practiced by targeted ads. It’s not about showing someone the right ad; you have to show it at the right place and time, with the language and imagery calibrated for precise effect. You have to lead people through the physical world, making them show up at the sponsored pop-up store or vote for the preferred candidate. Armed with a veritable real-time feed of a user’s thoughts and feelings, companies are beginning to practice just this kind of coercion, which is why you might see makeup ads before a Friday evening out or why inducements from a personal injury lawyer might pop up on your phone as you sit in a hospital waiting room. When we want things — health information, travel schedules, a date — is also when we are most vulnerable, when intimate data yield themselves for corporate capture. 'The result,' as Zuboff notes, 'is a perverse amalgam of empowerment inextricably layered with diminishment.' We seem ever more exposed to and dependent on surveillance capitalists, our benevolent info-lords, but their operations are defined by opacity, corporate secrecy and the scrim of technological authority."  --from "How Tech Companies Manipulate Our Personal Data" by Jacob Silverman

---"What's Not to Love? The New Wave of Unlikable Women in Cinema" by Anne Billson

---"Edited By"

---"How Millenials Became the Burnout Generation" by Anne Helen Petersen

---Three Reasons: Harold and Maude

---"An unapologetically mean review, too, is a big swing, and the ultimate weapon for passionate but principled critics who want to love everything but will not hesitate to really, really, really hate something. A truly vicious pan, a merciless slam, a full-scale ethering is born of a righteous fury that can transmute into pure joy. 'The secret of the bad review is that you can get a lot of pleasure out of it,' A.O. Scott tells me, chatting via phone in late December. 'It is a kind of a dopamine rush. First of all, editors—especially editors at The New York Times—love it. They love bad reviews. And they’re fun to do because they give you access to a lot of writerly tools that are fun to use. You can be funny. You can be clever. What you’re doing is, you’re demonstrating your superiority to a thing that you’re writing about.'"  --Rob Harvilla

A FICTIVE FLIGHT ABOVE REAL MARS from Jan Fröjdman on Vimeo.

---Vimeo's Best Shorts of 2018

---"Elaine May" by Melissa Anderson