Sunday, September 25, 2011

Red noir: 8 notes on Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive starring Ryan Gosling

1) Why do people dislike Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive? Because they think it's pretentious? Because Ryan Gosling's Driver is both hero and villain? Because of Refn's chaste treatment of the movie's central romance? Do viewers dislike the violence, especially since Drive has a tendency to crush heads? Perhaps they dislike swooning over Ryan Gosling just before he gets covered in blood?

2) Drive is all about the satin scorpion jacket, the leather gloves, the 1973 Chevy Malibu, the elevator, the parking garage, the lulling '80s-style synth pop music, the cinematic myths of L.A. noir, and the color red. Refn makes movies based on his fetishes, and he's quite open about that. As he says, "I just make films based on what I like to see, on what arouses me, and not try to analyze them, because if I do, then I can destroy it."

3) While watching Drive, I kept thinking about Taxi Driver (1976). Both films are operatic, moody, characterized by doomed love, city streets, and seedy apartments. Both feature Albert Brooks.

4) I also liked all of the meta- aspects of Drive, the way it tends to artistically reflect back on cheesy Hollywood conventions just as Godard did in Breathless (1960). Driver's daytime job of stunt-driving for the movies prepares us for an "actual" chase scene further on. Another scene involving Gosling and Ron Perlman on the midnight surf strongly suggests the fight scene just before the nuclear climax of Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Also, Warren Beatty's momentary display of fear in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) came to mind when Standard (Oscar Isaac) hesitates in the car before robbing a pawn shop. As Bernie Rose, Albert Brooks ironically sums up this theme when he says, "I used to make movies. Sexy stuff. Some critic called them European. I thought they were shit."

5) As long as we don't consider the criminality of his getaway driving too closely, the Driver is a kind of knight, a lone figure of integrity in a landscape of morally compromised Los Angeles scum in the tradition of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe in detective novels such as The Big Sleep (1939). At the beginning of The Big Sleep, Marlowe comes across "a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair." While Marlowe's heroic sacrifices can appear ludicrous in such a scummy context, he persists anyway, semi-bemused by the absurdity of his position. In Drive, we can see the family resemblance to Marlowe when Driver risks everything to help Irene (Carey Mulligan). As the garage-owning boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) says to Driver, "I know a lot of guys who mess around with married women, but you're the only one I know who robs a place to pay back the husband."

6) Drive is also all about masks and hiding. In his review, Jason Bellamy compared the Driver to a shark (and Refn admits that he intended the opening robbery scene to give us a feeling of being surrounded by sharks as the Driver seeks to evade the police in his silver Chevy Impala), but the Driver reminded me more of a possum, hiding his car behind a semi or underneath the spaghetti freeway as the police helicopter search light flashes around him. The Driver enjoys disappearing into a role, both in his job as a stunt driver for the movies, and in his disguise as a basketball fan walking out of the stadium. He is elusive, quiet, observant. As he did in Lars and the Real Girl, Gosling knows how to appear detached and yet present. The Driver's side job as a getaway driver has trained him in how to look inconsequential. He intrigues us in part because he knows how to blend in.

7) James Sallis' 2005 novel Drive has much in common with Albert Camus' The Stranger. Both writers strive to raise noir thriller conventions to the level of art. Driver shares with Camus' Meursault a visit to the rest home of his recently deceased mother. Both men are unassuming, disinclined to talk, fatalistic, existential in their acquiescence to circumstances.

8) Drive is the most painterly movie I've seen since Children of Men. By handpicking Refn to direct, Gosling delivers something that's increasingly rare in popular media: a non-ironic study in cool. His every gesture, article of clothing, and hesitant, quiet, restrained line-readings (reminiscent of Body Heat-era Mickey Rourke) work in the same way that Refn's glorious shot compositions and lighting arrangements do (much credit is due to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel). As Gosling redeems himself for his shallow ladies man in Crazy, Stupid, Love, Refn strives to enrapture and mesmerize through his hallucinatory imagery. One can criticize Drive's plot for its triteness (I found the end disappointingly conventional), but the movie is all about technique--the way a scene builds suspense, the way blood can be prepared for with emergency signs, a toolbox, the red highlights of a Denny's restaurant's mise-en-scene. Driver's manner, his flash of menace behind otherwise tired, inexpressive eyes matches the lull before the next blast of a shotgun, or the roar of a car's engine. Refn convincingly turns tired noir gestures into visual poetry.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

data smog links

---REM plays "Radio Free Europe" on Letterman (1983)

---the Japanese tsunami from a car's point of view

---Elizabeth Warren's rebuttal

---11 firsts in cinema

---Jonathan Franzen's issues with the cell phone:

" . . . of all the worsening varieties of bad cell-phone behavior, the one that most deeply irritates me is the one that seems, because it is ostensibly victimless, to irritate nobody else. I'm talking about the habit, uncommon 10 years ago, now ubiquitous, of ending cell-phone conversations by braying the words `LOVE YOU!' Or, even more oppressive and grating: `I LOVE YOU!' It makes me want to go and live in China, where I don't understand the language. It makes me want to scream.

The cellular component of my irritation is straightforward. I simply do not, while buying socks at the Gap, or standing in a ticket line and pursuing my private thoughts, or trying to read a novel on a plane that's being boarded, want to be imaginatively drawn into the sticky world of some nearby human being's home life. The very essence of the cell phone's hideousness, as a social phenomenon--the bad news that stays bad news--is that it enables and encourages the inflicting of the personal and individual on the public and communal. And there is no higher-caliber utterance than `I love you'--nothing worse that an individual can inflict on a communal public space."

---Michael Atkinson on the restless career of Gus Van Sant

---"Adventures in European filmmaking"

---Agnes Varda discusses 3 early films

---"what would it look like if celebrities were poor?"

---Carl Jung's theories and A Dangerous Method

---"How Hollywood chooses scripts" by Scott Meslow

---James Salter on Hemingway:

"Hemingway was a handsome and popular figure in Paris in the early 1920s; there is the image of him walking down the Boulevard Montparnasse in his confident athletic way past cafés where friends call out or gesture for him to join them. He was married to Hadley, his first wife, and they had an infant son, Bumby. He was writing in notebooks, in pencil, lines of exceptional, painstaking firmness. His real reputation commenced in 1926 with The Sun Also Rises, swiftly written in eight weeks, based on his experiences going to Pamplona and his fascination with bullfighting. The characters were based on real people. Brett Ashley, in life, was Lady Duff Twysden:

`Brett was damned good-looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey.'

It’s written with exuberance—`racing yacht' with its connotation of fast, sporting, gallant, its aura of heedless days. Words of one syllable that hit you all at once. Lady Duff Twysden liked being written about. Harold Loeb, who was Robert Cohen in the book, didn’t. He was portrayed as a Jew who wanted to belong to the crowd and never really understood that he couldn’t. The portrait bothered Loeb all his life. He had been a friend of Hemingway’s. He felt betrayed. Hemingway was generous with affection and money, but he had a mean streak. `I’m tearing those bastards apart,' he told Kitty Cannell. He was fine if he liked you but murder if he didn’t. Michael Arlen was `some little Armenian sucker after London names'; Archibald MacLeish, once his close friend and champion, was a nose-picking poet and a coward. As for Scott Fitzgerald, who was a couple of years older, successful before Hemingway, and had recommended him to Scribner’s, Hemingway said he wrote `Christmas tree novels,' was `a rummy and a liar and dishonest about money.'

---the importance of Laura Dern for David Lynch

---time to write off the middle class

---trailers for J. Edgar, Urbanized, Man on a Ledge, and 1911

---Mad Men's cryptic opening title sequence

---Charlize Theron sells Dior with the reanimated dead, including Marilyn, because "the world today requires that a brand be hyper-present to break through the onslaught of data smog"

---replacing your hometown bookstore--Amazon's sweatshops

Saturday, September 17, 2011

"Where have you been, Whit Stillman?" and other links

---base jumping

---A. O. Scott picks Goodfellas

---Jim Emerson analyzes the history of the chase scene

---Kenneth Goldsmith considers how our relation to writing has changed:

"For the past several years, I've taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania called `Uncreative Writing.' In it, students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing. Not surprisingly, they thrive. Suddenly what they've surreptitiously become expert at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness.

We retype documents and transcribe audio clips. We make small changes to Wikipedia pages (changing an `a' to `an' or inserting an extra space between words). We hold classes in chat rooms, and entire semesters are spent exclusively in Second Life. Each semester, for their final paper, I have them purchase a term paper from an online paper mill and sign their name to it, surely the most forbidden action in all of academia. Students then must get up and present the paper to the class as if they wrote it themselves, defending it from attacks by the other students. What paper did they choose? Is it possible to defend something you didn't write? Something, perhaps, you don't agree with? Convince us.

All this, of course, is technology-driven. When the students arrive in class, they are told that they must have their laptops open and connected. And so we have a glimpse into the future. And after seeing what the spectacular results of this are, how completely engaged and democratic the classroom is, I am more convinced that I can never go back to a traditional classroom pedagogy. I learn more from the students than they can ever learn from me. The role of the professor now is part party host, part traffic cop, full-time enabler."

---women's medication ads

---the Sleepbox

---the Soderbergh oeuvre

---anatomy of a scene: Refn's Drive

---World War Z zombie evolution and "the nonliterary origins of zombie cinema" by Kyle Bishop

---"Where have you been, Whit Stillman?" Damsels in Distress

---"And too much testosterone is what causes men to commit unspeakable crimes like murder and rape and The Rock and Bad Boys."--Jeanne Marie Laskas

---Michelle I's history of yellowface

---Cozzalio weighs the pros and cons of The Help

---Hacking the Academy

---Shoshana's "Some Real Shock and Awe: Racially Profiled and Cuffed in New York":

"Then it was my turn. I got out of the car and was led, still cuffed, to a cell. `Are you serious?' I asked the officer, and he said yes. The heavy metal door was shut and locked behind me. Again, I asked what was going on and why was I here. Finally he said, they will let you know later. They are going to ask you some questions. . . .

After fingerprinting me and asking me about my height/weight/place and date of birth and so on, a middle-aged white cop with a beer belly and a flat top returned me–without handcuffs–to the cell. I waited, wondering if I would be spending the night locked up. I thought about the last words my husband said to me while I was still on the plane waiting on the tarmac, `They must have found out there was a Hebshi on the plane.' We joke about this at times, that because of my ethnicity I am being scrutinized but I had no intention of putting that out to the universe and making it happen.

I thought about Malcom X and how bravely and fastidiously he studied and wrote while he was in prison, how his solitude enabled him to transform his anger into social change and personal betterment. That’s when I decided to write this post. I needed to explain what had happened–was happening–to me. I was not going to be silent. Still, I wondered what my rights were, and though I felt violated and scared I wasn’t sure that our new laws protected me from this treatment."

---the ACLU on the continuing erosion of our civil liberties

---David Bowie advertises water

---Peter Bogdanovich remembers Hitchcock making The Birds

---Chuck Bowen appreciates Polanski, David Cairns' thoughts, and Tom McCormack on the apartment trilogy

---Harrison Ford talks to David Letterman in 1982

---Disney propaganda

---"I trained for a world that doesn't exist."--young and jobless

---if everyone knew and the film industry's 6 secrets

---trailers for Pina, Sarah Palin: You Betcha, Perfect Sense, Straw Dogs (1971), and The Awakening

---lastly, Daniel's thoughts on film blogging in Getafilm

Saturday, September 10, 2011

"No Treatment Protocol": Steven Soderbergh's Contagion and The Die-Off Scenario

I've been looking forward to Contagion all summer, but my anticipation hasn't had much to do with enjoying the threat of a major outbreak of an new virus, even if such a threat is genuine. I wanted to see the movie because it acknowledges human overpopulation and the likelihood of its stiff decline in numbers at some point. Scientists refer to the "die-off," a frequent occurrence when a species abruptly uses up its natural resources. It can happen with a microorganism in a petri dish, or with a population of reindeer, or with humans on Easter Island, who ultimately were obliged to dig up the corpses of its dead for food (leaving one wondering: who was dumb enough to cut down the last tree?).

What causes this die-off can vary of course. I confess that I like to have long discussions about bleak planetary possibilities with a Chemistry professor friend of mine over lunch at a Chinese buffet restaurant. Since the earth cannot readily sustain itself without the human population dropping to approximately 1-2 billion, what will happen to the approximately 5-6+ billion? We tend to prefer peak oil theories, the way the coming decline in the amount of oil will cause civilization's collapse, but of course a major new virus will do as well if not nuclear war or what-have-you. As a part of this discussion, I tend to enjoy movies that find ways to depict this grim world view: Children of Men (mass-sterilization), Collapse (peak oil), and now we have Contagion.

In Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh blends horror, medical thriller, and disaster elements that evoke a kind of die-off, but the movie ultimately (spoiler alert) shies away from fully facing its implications of societal breakdown. I admired the film's cool dry intellectual tone and alienating imagery (lots of glass, body bags, Hazmat suits, etc.), but I felt let down by the compromises of its third act. Faced with depicting a mass unravelling of the civil order, Contagion flirts with riots, mass graves, rampant crime, and survivalist stockpiling within bunkers, and for awhile I enjoyed the suspense of watching the brave people of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) trying to outwit this viral villain before it kills off so many millions, but the movie doesn't have the inclination (or the time) to fully depict the collapse of our justice system, the government going underground Dr. Strangelove-style (or online), and people starving once our transportation system gets snarled up due to mass quarantines.

Beyond those larger questions, the filmmakers of Contagion have to decide which characters can remain alive long enough for the audience to identify with them. After he abruptly loses his wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) and son to the contagion, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) proves immune to the disease, so he watches marauders break into the upper middle class suburban home across the street and possibly kill its owners with rifles (we hear the gunfire). When he goes with his daughter to the grocery store, he finds sick people looting it, so he can't take anything for what's left of his family. Still, even given this sense of things getting out of control, Soderbergh depicts the Emhoff family's plight mostly in terms of an extended suburban imprisonment as they wait for a vaccine.

And what about the blogger Alan Krumwiede (played with such delicious seedy abandon by Jude Law)? For some reason, I did not care much for Contagion's negative stereotyping of the alarm-sounding blogger (he distributes an early viral video of a Japanese man collapsing from the disease in a bus). Alan turns out to be prescient about the crisis, especially about the speed of the virus' exponential spread, but he's also greedy, opportunistic, and a profiteering liar. As Dr. Sussman (Elliot Gould) humorously points out at one point, "Blogging is just graffiti with punctuation." Why can't movies portray bloggers as heroes with a valid voice amidst larger forms of corporate propaganda? Alan is instead an annoying caricature eager to trumpet the death of print media, but he also predicts how unreliable the media will become in this die-off scenario because no one in the higher levels of government or the media will want to speak the truth when all it will do is cause riots and further undermine what's left of the civil order. What's to stop CDC officials from trying to rescue their loved ones from a soon-to-be-quarantined city before anyone else fully understands the extent of the problem? I can imagine that the media in the midst of a major crisis would become very strange, a mockery of any kind of journalistic integrity, and the internet would become even more of a mass misinformation machine of rumors, paranoia, and only occasional small inklings of truth.

Meanwhile, Contagion's "realism" also happens to feature beautiful movie stars such as Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet. As CDC Dr. Erin Mears, Winsett works hard to to quarantine the sick within stadiums before she abruptly contracts the disease. Winslet then shows integrity and convincing heartbreak and regret when talking to CDC head Dr. Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) about how she cannot help anymore. As she says she sorry, she looks out of her hotel room at the military convoy driving past on the empty streets below. Still, there's no particular reason why Marion Cotillard would play Dr. Orantes, an investigator for the World Health Organization, aside from the fact that she's French and can shows pangs of conscience when her character gets kidnapped for some vaccine. I can imagine that some might take pleasure in Gwyneth Paltrow playing the unaware villain who first spreads the MEV-1 virus across Hong Kong, Chicago, and Minneapolis during a business trip. When you factor in Fishburne with his Matrix gravitas, and Matt Damon's earnest performance, the collected star wattage of the cast is both pleasant and a bit distracting. Were they all willing to cut their usual fees for the cause? As in the case of any large-scale disaster film such as The Towering Inferno, Contagion doesn't have much time to develop any particular story arc, so we don't get the in-depth characterization that we are accustomed to receiving from these actors. They enhance the movie, but they don't seem particularly needed.

Beyond all of the Hollywood glitz, Contagion does display a nice grasp of the terminology and the cold medical tone needed for such a story ("no treatment protocol," "transmission," "social distancing," "triage," "cook your samples," "incubation period," "ADHD," etc.). Soderbergh knows how to quarantine his characters behind doors, within sealed hospital rooms, and inside taped body bags. Also as the one-time director of Kafka (1991), Soderbergh understands the subtle Kafkaesque implications of our institutions (the press, the CIA, the government) not knowing how to handle this crisis without bumbling, repressive measures of their own.

Steven also conveys the confusion, the rumor-mongering, the despair, and the many fears of this situation well (fears that are not far removed from our current worries about economic crises, spiraling debts that threaten government default, terrorism, and so on), but when it comes to fully facing the realistic concerns of an out-of-control pandemic, Contagion blinks, if only because the likely outcome of its story is still too bleak for a Hollywood movie that depends on a pseudo-happy ending for profits.

Contagion is mostly good at diagnosing our contemporary fears and what may follow, but not at fully confronting its implications. That movie still needs to be made. As Kafka wrote, "Our art is a dazzled blindness before the truth: the light on the grotesque recoiling face is true, but nothing else."

Friday, September 2, 2011

Generation limbo links

---Mark Romanek's post-apocalyptic hamster Kia ad

---el Empleo

---Twin Tower Cameos and Pankaj Mishra's take on Jason Burke's The 9/11 Wars:

"Reporting from a range of settings - the slums of Casablanca, Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains, the valley of Kashmir and the streets of Fallujah - Burke has witnessed the first decade of the 21st century at a level where its proclaimed slogans seem farcical, the instigators of wars, civilian and military, more absurd, and reality altogether more surreal. The long patient sentences of The 9/11 Wars are suffused with the melancholy of a man who has learned a great deal from long exposure to atrocity and folly but does not expect to be heard. Still, you feel, this account of painfully familiar events should have been prefaced with a statutory warning. Writing his 800-page play Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind), during the first world war, the Viennese writer Karl Kraus warned in a preface that his contemporaries would not be able to bear it – and not just because of its length. For the play was `blood of their blood', presenting as it did `those unreal, unthinkable years, out of reach for the wakeful hours of the mind, inaccessible to memory and preserved only in nightmares'. So does our own low, dishonest decade seem in The 9/11 Wars."

---the kitchen table of the future

---the fun of wingsuit flight

---Jennifer 8. Lee's "Generation Limbo":

"Meet the members of what might be called Generation Limbo: highly educated 20-somethings, whose careers are stuck in neutral, coping with dead-end jobs and listless prospects.

And so they wait: for the economy to turn, for good jobs to materialize, for their lucky break. Some do so bitterly, frustrated that their well-mapped careers have gone astray. Others do so anxiously, wondering how they are going to pay their rent, their school loans, their living expenses — sometimes resorting to once-unthinkable government handouts.

`We did everything we were supposed to,' said Stephanie Morales, 23, who graduated from Dartmouth College in 2009 with hopes of working in the arts. Instead she ended up waiting tables at a Chart House restaurant in Weehawken, N.J., earning $2.17 an hour plus tips, to pay off her student loans. `What was the point of working so hard for 22 years if there was nothing out there?' said Ms. Morales, who is now a paralegal and plans on attending law school.

Some of Ms. Morales’s classmates have found themselves on welfare. `You don’t expect someone who just spent four years in Ivy League schools to be on food stamps,' said Ms. Morales, who estimates that a half-dozen of her friends are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A few are even helping younger graduates figure out how to apply. `We are passing on these traditions on how to work in the adult world as working poor,' Ms. Morales said."

---Inkling by Wacom

---Don Lett's Westway to the World

---Sheila considers the Bang Bang You're Dead school of acting:

"But the other thing, which is how I started this post, is knowing how to inhabit your body, and make the character visible to the audience. Without seeming like you are telegraphing, with a series of tics and deliberate gestures. Maybe because of the dominance of television, with its reliance on closeups, and the medium of film, where the story is broken up into tiny pieces, many actors go straight into television without theatre training. When you’re in your closeup, you need to be able to bring up the emotion required of you. But the “waiting for your closeup” school of acting can also generate lazy actors, or actors who have never had to build a character, through gesture and posture and mood and shape. But when you’ve seen a great live performance, so much of it is in the full-body. I remember Natasha Richardson’s wildly flapping armsduring her final rendition of “Cabaret”, the adrenaline and panic of the character breaking out of the cool flapper exterior. I will never forget it. I remember Christine Ebersole’s delicately drooped shoulders in Grey Gardens, her hands cupped around her face dramatically. I was in the front for Natasha Richarson, and I was in the back for Grey Gardens, but in both cases, the gesture was big enough for the cheap seats. I remember Kathleen Turner’s heartrending scream of “Oh, NO!” during Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as she fell to her knees, clumsily, awkwardly, the complete shattering of a woman. It was one of the most awful (as in brilliant, nearly unwatchable) moments of live acting I’ve ever seen. I will remember her gestures in that moment until my dying day."

---Eric Slate's "Technoslave"

---hanging out with Natalie Wood, Mike Nichols, Jane Fonda, and friends (thanks to @nathanielr)

---questions for Mr. Cheney:

"You admit to having had `a beer with lunch' before you shot Harry Whittington in the face on a Saturday afternoon in 2006. Was that all the alcohol you consumed before that accident?"

---Serena Bramble's The Mystic: An Appreciation of Nicholas Ray and Rosenbaum's study of the director's work

---"our future full of relentless and painful oil-induced recessions"

---"Ai Weiwei finds China's capital is a prison where people go mad"

---Zombie's Day Out

---Jaron Lanier on the "Local-Global Flip":

"...if you're adding to the network, do you expect anything back from it? And since we've been hypnotized in the last eleven or twelve years into thinking that we shouldn't expect anything for what we do with our hearts or our minds online, we think that our own contributions aren't worth money, very much like we think we shouldn't be paid for parenting, or we shouldn't be paid for raking our own yard. In those cases you are paid in a sense because there's still something that becomes part of you in your life, for all that you did. ... But in this case we have this idea that we put all this stuff out there and what we get back are intangible or abstract benefits of reputation, or ego-boosting. Since we're used to that bargain, we're impoverished compared to the world that could have been and should have been when the Internet was initially conceived. The world that would create a strengthened middle class through what people do, by monetizing more and more instead of less and less. It's possible that that world could have never come about, but that was never tested. If we are absolutely convinced that this third way is impossible, and that we have to choose between "The Matrix" or Marx, if those are our only two choices, it makes the future dismal, and so I hope that a third way is possible, and I'm certainly going to do everything possible to try to push it."

---Kevin Kelly wonders about the new impossible

---lastly, Art of the Title appreciates Captain America: the First Avenger's closing credits