Thursday, December 1, 2011

Better Keep It All In One Place


I never linked to these other pieces I wrote for The Hairpin. Better late than later, I say.

"Preston Sturges, Can You Save Me Now?" tells you why it's important in these catastrophic times to watch the Sturges collection.

"A Letter to the 'Secret' Masturbator" is really actually exactly what it sounds like.

"Tips for Moving to Atlanta USA" was supposed to be funny but in hindsight--and given the concerned comment thread and the worried emails I continue to receive--it all just reads pretty pathetic. Doing just fine, world.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Black Swan and Banshee Wails

Black Swan may have never had a chance with me...wait, is this not the way you begin a persuasive essay? It's just that multiple sources told me the Tree of Life preview, which I'd waited to see in the theater (not on the internet), preceded the film. And then it didn't. And I realized that not only have I been waiting to see even the preview for Tree of Life since the moment vision first blurred and danced and finally steadied in my newborn eyes, but also that I was eager to see Black Swan most especially because of the promised trailer. The disappointment was crippling. I exhaled a desperate, "that's it?!" to the sold out theater as the feature presentation presented itself, which I'm sure was confusing to more folks than my two ladyfriends.

So if I came to Black Swan with narrow eyes and a sunken heart, Darren Aronofsky's brash dance nevertheless managed to disappoint me in surprising ways. Namely, it's a horror film that misses the horror.

Nina (Natalie Portman) loses her grip on the world as she trains for the leading role in Swan Lake. Anxiety and insecurity waltz her frail frame into some serious psychosomatic trauma, a fair few rages of jealousy, and pretty constant fits of perfectionism. An overbearing mom, a hateful past-her-prime dancer, a skeezy self-important coach, not to mention all that catty competition, push her toward self-destruction and insanity. You get the idea. And it seems Aronofsky was relying on just that sentiment: 'You get the idea--the overbearing, resentful mom who desperately throws her daughter toward the dream she sacrificed so long ago!...You get the picture!' and we all nod our heads because we all do know, so well, and it only bothers some of us that the cultural cache of the audience does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to characterization in this film. But there is real horror lurking in this ballerina's world and, at its best moments, Black Swan draws out that anxiety, that misery, that paranoia and claustrophobia, and holds it over us so that we suddenly begin to very much fear what will in fact come of this rapidly unraveling girl.

Nina sees herself in mirrors and in other people's faces. She looks down at a raw cuticle, blinks, and it's healed. Eyes playing tricks in the dark, in reflections, under pressure, and in her dreams put her world on unsteady ground where we blink and sway and nervously flit alongside her. Her mother's unrelenting nagging comes through a stretched and fearful grin. Her bedroom is a pink-paradise fit for a five-year-old girl with no older brothers. She sits on the train as an old guy makes kissy noises, touches his balls, and does that nasty thing with his tongue that's half implying oral sex and half just being a gross old dude. In these kinds of details, Aronofsky successfully flirts with a complicated and very real darkness in the first half of the picture. For there is no shortage of real horror built into the unassuming base of this movie. The kind of horror where paranoia grown from competition gives birth to catastrophic acts of vengeance. The kind of horror that leaves wispy women trying to perform extreme acts of athleticism as their blood sugar plummets and their vision blurs and they desperately try to recall the 1/2grapefruit they ate for breakfast. There's horror in the risks and traumas of performance. In the way dance so often capitalizes on girls’ obsession with body-image. In the endless infantilization of these women and in the power dynamics between them and their coaches. There's horror in after work sexual harassment. There are back-stages and long walks home and dark corners and the endless, excruciating fear of failure. This is all there, lurking in the background of Black Swan.

If only the film would've just stuck with the agitated details that describe this kind of horror, letting the tension build toward something frightfully insane and frightfully human. (Has anyone watched Cassevetes’ Opening Night recently? Because if there’s ever a woman who can walk that troubled line between wild insanity and deep down heart-wrenching human-ness, it’s Ms. Gena Rowlands. And here she falls apart on every stage imaginable and gives the concept of ‘performance’ layers I hadn’t yet approached… alas, this is another essay.) But Black Swan fails to embrace the natural horror of the ballet and the ballerina, jumping off the deep end into the unintentionally comic, the unbelievable, the cartoonish.

Does Aronofsky shoot this picture to the moon because he doubts there's enough horror in a less fantastical ballerina story? Or is he high on directorial power, wielding the weird and forcing the gore because it's a way to get a rise out of us? Either way, it feels a disservice to the dark matter beneath this film. You know what's scarier than stabbing people's faces with nail files and having jimberjambery cartoon knees and undergoing trashily special-effected metamorphoses? The quiet horror of the mind! This intricate, intimate system that can work on reality so subtly you have to blink and blink again and still sometimes aren't sure who you are or if you're even still really alive. Realizing, as you teeter, how close you were to the edge the whole fucking time. The terror of suddenly seeing your own fragility, as your feet, so firmly in a world you thought you knew, sink into unknown depths. But portraying this kind of drift toward nightmare takes gentle strokes where Aronofsky just empties a can of paint. Yes, Black Swan ventures beyond all dumbness. It lets go of any faint grasp it ever had on the real horror and delves into a world of shocks and awes where the audience at BAM could do nothing but laugh. I was with them but I was also kinda sad, I think because I sensed a good movie hiding in this garish shell. Indeed, I've seen and loved the exact type of movie I saw sneaking around, all its pretty potentials unfulfilled, in the background of Black Swan.

I'm talking about movies that push the commonplace into the realm of horror so that, in all our terror and anxiety, we look back for the source, only to find the stealth darkness emerging from none other than the mundane. Enter Jane Campion's In The Cut. Sure there's rape and murder and we don't know who done it and who keeps doin' it, but that grand suspense gives way to a more complex anxiety that pervades every scene, every note of dialogue, every shot. Fear--of sexual assault and murder, and then by extension, of dark alleys and leering eyes and becoming vulnerable to the wrong people--structures Campion's grim New York, alienating the main character, Frannie, from her simplest habits and sending the audience into a frenzy of untraceable suspense. Suddenly taking out the trash becomes a feat in this predatory world. Because this fear and anxiety is so general, it's impossible (for Frannie or the audience) to differentiate between truly harmful elements and just the shit of the world. As Frannie visits her friend in a seedy strip joint or attempts to deal with her nice enough but creepy stalker/neighbor, it's impossible to pinpoint the danger or detect how much of it there actually is. When a police officer invites himself into her apartment or says seriously sexy but also kinda weird stuff in a bar, we're on edge, unsure and so fearful of what he's after. The whole film resides in that gray area ruled by questions like, 'when do I scream,' 'when is this creepy guy a Real problem,' 'what constitutes following me home,' 'does that mean this person is untrustworthy,' 'is this guy dismissing my refusals,' 'am I being manipulated right now,' and finally 'oh my god does the person with whom I just had really wonderful sex not only disrespect me, but hates all women, and oh sweet christ is he also a notorious rapist and murderer.'

Please allow me to illustrate this gray zone beyond all necessary illustration with the sincere intention of, at some point, bringing it all back together: Last year I was riding the subway when a smarmy Wall St. wannabe drunkenly approached me on the 2 train. He got in my face, trying to talk to me about god knows what and I did my usual, notably insincere halfsmile&nod which is decidedly unconfrontational while also trying to communicate something like, 'you sicken me.' And I just kept doing the halfsmile&nod even though he got more and more demanding. When he took a brief break to examine his coat buttons, I, having just seen a different Campion film as a matter of fact, decided that if he came back over for another go I wasn't going to grant him my Midwestern/feminine passivity. I was tired of acquiescing to vulgar shit. And just when I was thinking, 'Yeah, Fuck This!!!' guess who decided to saunter back over. As promised, this time I met his advances with a solid, loud, "You're done talking to me now. You need to step away from me and not speak to me anymore. You need to leave me alone now." This provoked the classic, "Can't a guy talk to a woman anymore?!?! What the fuck!?! What the fuck is your problem?! Fucking ice queen!...yatayatayata." An older woman rolled her eyes and shook her head, smiling at me. A couple of teenage girls gave him the stink eye. The dude next to me held his cello closer and inhaled audibly. As the guy's lips got closer to my ear and he started to tell me things I didn't even know about my own vagina, I looked in his dim, angry eyes and gave him another, "You need to step back and not say another word to me." He then stood very close to me, waited two stops, then, when the doors opened, punched me in the head and ran off the train before I could peel my face off the subway bench.

My brother, who seems to love me very much, said I should have maced that motherfucker. Or at least moved away. But if I moved away or maced the guy every time that kind of initial harassment happened, I'd hardly ever get to sit down and my whole neighborhood'd be rubbing their eyes. When do you mace. When do you move. Living in this gray area is pretty horrible and, as it turns out, makes a heck of a horror movie as well. In The Cut takes one woman’s New York, her everyday anxieties and mistakes, and renders it as horror. Campion uses the classic thriller--its narrative lines, its lighting, its sense of duration, its visual language--to uncover the terror that undercuts a whole bunch of female experience (not to mention, gay experience and the experience of every other one of society's targets).Which is to say, In The Cut plays around in the thriller genre to say something about human beings and how we get along in this world (as does Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining, for a few other examples, with all their effed-up relationshipping rendered horrific).

For a while, it looked like Black Swan was going to try to work this angle, making the very ordinary elements of this ballerina's world slowly skew toward the terror that was in them all along…leaving the grander, more cliched delusions in favor of a subtler, realer deterioration that says something about anything...but most especially something about lady experience since this is the area in which the film is ostensibly working. Among all of the ballerina/female-world horrors flitting through but ultimately going unexplored in Black Swan, the hypocrisies and incompatibilities in dominant notions of femininity is most notably left uncharted. This is especially frustrating since the issue is pretty much served on a platter by way of the black swan / white swan dichotomy in Swan Lake.

White swans are precise, graceful, delicate, passive, sweet; black swans are wild, radiant, impassioned, unrelenting, and strong. Black swans are the type to steal white swans’ princes away with trickery and bounds and leaps and dark sparkly makeup. As the Swan Queen, Nina must play both the white swan and the black swan. So here we have two female archetypes and one ladygirl who’s gotta play both roles. This reminds me of, um, every girl who consciously and subconsciously bends her ear toward our culture’s declarations about what a girl should be, only to find two (if not more) wildly competing definitions. Be the gentle white swan, perfect and careful and quiet and bad at math! But also be the black swan, dangerous and sexual and powerful and wildly talented at any old thing your crazy eyes cast upon! Be predictable and spontaneous. Be self-sacrificing and impassioned. Button the top button but get a tattoo. Be the virgin and the whore and the homemaker and the artist. Be trained your whole life as a white swan and then suddenly (when we tell you to) emerge as the black swan. But above all, be punished for being either or both.

Black Swan speaks on this dichotomised femininity by having characters say 'black swan' and 'white swan' next to each other about 4 million times, by having a brazen girl and a fragile girl and dressing the former in black and the latter in—you guessed it—white, by showing duel reflections of the coach when he first says 'black swan/white swan,' and by any number of other visual cliches. We have the care-free black swan character juxtaposed with the frigid Nina and we have a world that's asking too much of a girl. But for all the apparent references to this dichotomised femininity and the trouble it causes, none of them reach deep enough to explain the finale of horrors. We see ample signs of Nina’s distress (cuticles!!#$%@) but we never see her heart. We see evidence of a home-life and a career that would drive anyone mad but we never really see how it’s taking its toll. We never feel her motivations or meet the terror that summons her delusions. To my mind, if we had been given the chance to meditate, through the lens of the thriller genre, on Nina's everyday anxieties particular to her gender and experience, we might have found this black swan / white swan crisis truly horrifying. Why is the world too much for you, Nina? Though you reside in a thriller flick, might they be the same reasons I’ve found the world to be at times nothing short of unbearable? Are your everyday negotiations of self and swan a terror all their own?

Maybe Black Swan really never did have a chance with me. Aronofsky was never gonna spend his thriller blockbuster exploring gender, sexuality, and ballet culture, nor do I think he’s got the formal chops to do it to my liking anyhow. But I searched for the horror of the everyday lady experience anyway because I’m so tragically starved for the chance to see my lady life mindfully illuminated on screen. I’m so starved for movies that can help me navigate the gray moments before the punch and help me peel my face off the subway bench after it hits. So when Nina takes her last swan dive, I’m left mourning only Black Swan's missed opportunity and the perpetual interruption--nay, robbery--of my due catharsis at the movies.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ladies Are Computer Programmers Too and Even the Vast Majority Who Aren't Are Still People: The Story of How We Invented Facebook Before Zuckerberg

Cowritten with Maya Dusenbery

The Social Network (you know, the facebook movie!) sprinted through its story with enough dramatic acceleration and high-voltage quipping to keep us pretty much rapt for its entirety. But it sure ain't the defining film of our generation, and not a responsible one at that, and here's why:

1. That's a stupid thing to say about a movie in general and a really weird thing to say about this movie since ambitious young nerds have been innovating, fighting, and reaching for power since time immemorial and their stories have also been told for about that long. It's just that this is about the internet. The same old arc applied to a new pixelated interface is the same old arc! People seem to think that just because this is about facebook it's "emblematic of its time and place" but the creation story is a familiar one and the way facebook has changed our relationships to one another goes relatively unexplored. Those larger questions hover in the backdrop of dueling nerds but the repeated shock and awe at facebook's success doesn't get at the real social transformations of the current age. This movie could say something interesting about the social complexities of the facebook age but it's kinda just about Harvard boys sparring and high-fiving over a good idea.

2. And we also really hope that The Social Network isn't emblematic of our time because, if that's true, there's really no place for us here. Because we're smart girls. Apparently smart girls' only role in this world is to spur entitled boys on to greatness with a sharp tongue lashing or, when they're at the top and feeling down, reassure them of their humanity. Every other female character in the movie is a twittering, bong-hitting bimbo with no ideas, hardly any words, and if she has a personality, it's an inexplicably crazed one. So don't call this our movie or a movie belonging to anyone on our social-scape because all the girls we know have ideas of their own right along side their male peers...not below them on their knees in a bathroom.

3. Further, Harvard in 2003 looked a lot more like our smart-girl world than the crudely misogynistic old boys' world depicted here. Many have pointed out how far the movie departs from reality--from the invention of Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend and the elimination of real influential female relationships in his life; to the fact that the initial project, facemash, had women and men and didn't seem to be an act of breakup-revenge; to the invention of Zuckerberg's final-club obsession. That Sorkin and Fincher felt the need to make this story more male-dominated and the world in which they exist more sexist--that these misogynistic elements are necessary ingredients for successful drama--is perhaps most indicative of our current culture's expectations. While the film is being praised for its contemporary insight, its most revealing commentary on the facebook age is an inadvertent one--the assumption that the we, the audience, want to see this particular story of age-old gender stereotypes and tired narratives.

4. So okay, this film doesn't tell our stories or even particularly truthfully reflect the world it's purporting to describe, but we'll hold that against it only through point #3. We love tons of all-boys narratives and totally believe in their right to exist and, furthermore, often think they have good things to say about the cultures they reflect, but this is not one of those movies. The Social Network casts a critical eye on a lot of the contemptible traits of its world: the elitism of Harvard, the ambition of the start-up company game, the immaturity of emotionally-stunted computer geeks, even the superficiality of social ties in the facebook age. But the misogyny of its world somehow escapes the critical gaze. Aside from the two women who bookend the film and "drive the action only from the sidelines," the film is populated with out-of-focus, muted, anonymous, often under-age girls whose only purpose is to embody the sex, fame, and power that all the men in the film are ultimately reaching for. What a fucked up gender dynamic. If the film had wanted to critique this dynamic in any way, as it does the rest of this world's debaucheries, well then it could have:

Let the camera linger in the girls' bathroom after Zuckerberg and his co-founder receive their blowjobs, instead of instantly cutting outside to the boys' smirks. Who knows if we would have found something less bubbly and excited than the rest of the film's images of femininity.

Bring the stoned teenage blondes into focus when Justin Timberlake tells them, as they dizzily loll and giggle, that it's time for another bong hit. What if they shared a half-worried look about how the night was shaping up?

Give us 6 more lines where boys trip up on their own sexist assumptions--like when one boy has to ask another, in so many words, if he means 'students' when he says 'chicks' or when Zuckerberg asks his arch enemies, the Winklevi twins, what their girlfriends thought about facemash and they reply, "I don't know; we should probly ask them."

Give us any kind of reason a girlfriend would hatefully burn a gift. Her being a bitch is not a reason.

We're not asking for The Social Network to be The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants with a little Waiting to Exhale thrown in; we're asking for any kind of third dimension in the wall of giggles and boobs that composes the film's background.

When Stephen Colbert asked Aaron Sorkin why there are so few women of any substance in the film, Sorkin’s response was startling direct: “The women are prizes.” First, let’s take a moment to appreciate how absurd it is that this qualifies as an answer. Oooooh I see! The women are the prizes and everyone knows prizes are, as Colbert says, “high or drunk or bleeping guys in the bathroom!” Frankly, that much was already clear. But it doesn’t answer the key question: Either the filmmakers are so totally A-okay with a world where women are considered nothing more than prizes, or they were attempting to critique that culture. If they were, they needed to do something (like any of the helpful suggestions above) to show that the women, even when serving as prizes in a male-centric film, are also human beings. And ultimately they failed to do that.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Long Overdue: PolkmasTales

1) I love my family
2) I wish I were Arnaud Desplechin
3) Check this out

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Failed Entertainment


This morning I ventured up, up, up Manhattan to Columbia University's LeRoy Neiman Gallery where several of James O. Incandenza's short films were playing on loop in a lonely room. The video tapes ran simultaneously in a tower of 26 VCRs, the chords of which all led to a television and a door knob. To change the channel and switch to another video, you could turn the knob with a satisfying click. If you turned through the channels quickly so that a half second of a various small flames from Various Small Flames filled the screen, followed by a flash of Too Much Fun's failed post-conceptual standup routine, followed by the snowy revelry of Baby Pictures of Famous Dictators--Escatong, followed by a cracked and bewildered brick from The American Century As Seen Through A Brick--the effect was schizophrenic. And if you just sat very seriously and stared through each video, swallowing each image whole before daring to turn the knob, well then the experience became alternately eerie and meditative. Which is to say, I think that old eccentric, that filmmaker and tennis guru and scientist and headmaster and dad, Incandenza, would have been proud or at least pleased, though he may not show it. And though I really don't know, I think David Foster Wallace--author of Infinite Jest and father of all its characters including the madstork himself, Incandenza--would have liked this Columbia film project too. It seems in line with something the book was doing; indeed, A Failed Entertainment: Selections from the Filmography of James O. Incandenza contributes, to my mind, to one of the most exceptional aspects of Infinite Jest and DFW.

The book gives us a world complete, a gift DFW manages through various exercises of genius and with no shortage of love. Here are two of the things that DFW does...or really, one thing that gives birth to another. He gives us a ton of information (those of you who haven't read Infinite Jest probably have still heard of its hundreds of endnotes and its 1079 pages) that extends outward into the book's hypothetical universe. To some (very foolish people) all this information, much of it descriptive and non-narrative, appears excessive, or worse, indulgent. But DFW's 25 page charge through the mechanics of a favored school-yard game, or his tireless medical and colloquial etymologies, or a methodical description of carpet, or an endnote correction to a character's language or ideas--all of this builds a universe that breaks free of literary limitations to mirror the structures of reality.

Because with each breath our existence initiates a million points of contact with a zillion objects and ideas and emotions and people and microscopic matter! So that to glimpse something of the world is to step back from the narrative we've created for the moment, or for the day, or for a lifetime and see the overwhelming web of stories that surround us--the story of this green blanket over my legs, and the idea of growing nails as an act of willpower, and the picture of my mom and what her 80s perm was all about anyway--and when we see so many of these histories rise up around us, the idea of a linear story with narrative boundaries and a guiding principle of pertinence, well this loses all meaning. So but Infinite Jest then, finds something like the fabric of the universe in all its endless referencing and acronyms and characters and objects and spaces. There's a human thought behind every building, an evolution behind every gesture. The ideas and facts in the book branch in every direction, circling back on themselves and then taking a new path. The whole project is rhizomatic, not arboreal, and in the curious nature and quantity of its content, is convincing such that the reader unwittingly becomes confident of facts left unsaid, people unmentioned, and ideas untouched. And it's totally fucking incredible. Like taking all the world in a breath. And yet DFW locates the source of this unbridled efflorescence, always, in the human souls that most concern him, so that in fact, we are blessed with a plot to boot. But, I stray.

So for me, James O. Incandenza's filmography was always more than a list of phony films in the endnotes of Infinite Jest--those films already existed for me in some sense. Because everything the book touches and, like I said, even some things it doesn't, are called into existence. Which is why it was so awesome when those good kids at Columbia decided to put together this show and bring these films into another dimension. Among others, Tim Lawless' adaption of Zero Gravity Tea Ceremony and its dance of steel and china and liquid is certainly something to celebrate and Brendan Harman's Cage presents a stunning collage, but this is almost beside the point. Their final beauty is their position in the universe; Here lies another tangled, winding branch extending from Infinite Jest, this one finding its bloom in a dark room way uptown.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Obvious Child and I Had an Abortion

Happy 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade! Last week I was lucky enough to celebrate the right to abortion with two films, Obvious Child by Anna Bean and Gillian Robespierre and I Had an Abortion by Gillian Aldrich and Jennifer Baumgardner. The first--a 10minute rom-com about a lady (Jenny Slate) who finds herself pregnant after a totally charming encounter with a very sweet dude--presented abortion as a necessary procedure, one event among many in this lady's life, and as a logical decision for her. And how refreshing to see abortion removed from the highly politicized and abstract realm it usually resides and brought down to one lady's rom-com reality. Importantly, this little movie did all this while avoiding a nonchalant tone; the prospect of her abortion left our main character calling her mom, trying to calm her own nerves, needing to talk to her friends, and trying to navigate a new romantic relationship, but it refused the sensationalism that so often shrouds a woman's decision to abort. And afterall, when 1 in 3 women are having the procedure at some point in their lifetimes, abortion deserves a story that refuses the abstraction and sensationalism of morality plays. So that in Obvious Child, there were the kind of jokes, sincerity, mindfulness, and frankness rarely afforded to pregnancy or abortion in general (and almost never on film), which felt wonderfully close to the way that my friends and I are working to deal with all sorts of political issues that are truly personal.

The second, I Had an Abortion moves chronologically through a series of interviews with women who've had abortions. Starting with a story from the 1920s and traveling to the present through these women's voices, we see the contours of a political and social history take shape in the background. We don't often hear abortion stories which of course adds to the appearance that abortion is a hemogenous experience. This film effortlessly shattered that myth just by going to the source (ladies!) and listening.

If you know me (which, let's be real, you probly do if you're reading this), you know that I like to think about the way that film moves, how movies do the things they do, how their aesthetics make meaning, the way a movie functions in the world, etc. Obvious Child and I Had an Abortion have plenty of internal dynamics worth exploring but these movies' most impressive effect emerges from their simple existence. And that's something that isn't often true in the world of cinema. In a world in which the word 'abortion' is systematically avoided; in which shame and silence guard the abortion stories of most; and even our greatest reproductive rights activists sometimes can't help framing abortion as external, a right worth fighting for but ultimately another woman's problem***; well in this world movies that dare to be frank and honest about abortion experience have an unusually inherent meaning. Their statement is their existence. The details of content are almost beside the point. Their most generous gift doesn't have to do with aesthetic accomplishment or well-crafted arguments or anything else I am used to thinking about when working out how a film creates meaning--these films are meaningful just by being in the world.

Thanks so much to the filmmakers, NARAL Pro-Choice NY, and Soapbox Inc. for working to make abortion experience something we can talk about.

***Many people have written about the limitations of the abortion conversation, and one activist does so in particularly thorough and articulate terms: see Maya Dusenbery's writing at RH reality check and Feministing.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Life Lived in New Light: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fifteen minutes into Fantastic Mr. Fox I smacked a palm to my forehead, stunned by how much good ole-fashioned fun I was having. I'm still trying to figure out exactly how this movie charmed me into such a smile-filled stupor and so far all of my theories have led to some very serious statements about these lil' foxes and badgers and squirrels. Some very serious words, indeed, about all those stop-motion creatures crying in quarries and bounding to the Beach Boys.

Thusly, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a humanist venture, one that dares to stand up for and exemplify community and all the mindbogglingly beautiful shit we can do if we just find a way to hang together and live life. This is no new theme for Wes Anderson who has repeatedly asked his characters (and us kids who identify with them) to abandon the solitary, step out of the isolated tragedy, break from the loneliness and find some wild ride, share some primal scream with other equally lost souls. But in a really odd and totally magical way, Fox unites form and content to articulate Anderson's faith in humanity in fresh terms.

I'm talking about puppets here, people. The twitching whiskers, the nimble claws, the silent, sparkling tears melting to darken a fox snout--this movie is like nothing I've ever seen. Anderson and the army of craftsmen behind him were going for a "homemade look" and, coming from such an unwaveringly hip perfectionist, I expected Fox to look a bit clinical in its stylistic calculations. I figured that if allowed to make his pallet wholly from scratch, Anderson would delve so far into the world of patterns and coordination and symmetry and precision that Fox would fail to find the humanity we cling to in creations like Margot and Richie Tenenbaum or Max Fischer. I thought that without the limitations of the human face, Anderson's inherent will toward the indulgent would run wild and make me puke a little. But good gawd how wrong I was! The figures in Fox dress well, their faces wear honest emotion, and their comedic timing is impeccable, but you can feel the weight of human effort behind all of these minor miracles. They move swiftly through their animated world but each of their steps speaks of the arduous stop-motion machinery at work.

Perhaps Fox feels so special because my mind's tacit comparison is to the smooth stylings of Pixar and the sharp magic of the big Anime artists, but the importance of Fox feels beyond comparisons limited to the animated world. The craftsmanship, artistry, collaboration, time, and love that went into this film are recorded in its very texture, in the rush of falling water or a patch of mussed fur. It looks like these animals were cared for from their inception, their movements all careful, continuously affected by mindful human intervention. This world was raised by a whole bunch of human dreams! And the widespread energy and faith that made those dreams a reality seeps from the film's pores.

Great amounts of hard work always lurk somewhere in a film's final cut, but the forces of the cinematic illusion and the human actor work arduously to cover up the process, to present the final show as a complete, united work, like it was born whole. Fox bares its fingerprints proudly, joyfully (!), and the effect is endearing in a kind of whole-body way. It made me feel nostalgic but I don't know what for. And I think this human ingenuity, this hidden community of craftiness, and the lovely animated world it produces finds a perfect match in Wes Anderson's penchant for the sprint, the romp, the deep breath and plunge, the desperate reach for life. Mr. and Mrs. Fox's opening love-soaked mad dash to steal chickens is Royal Tenenbaum and his sweat-suited nephews' bus-ride/canon-ball/dog-fighting escapade in new clothes, but here, in the very texture of these lil' foxes' leaps and smirks, we find a remnant of the real-world dream lived--a communion of creativity. So that this time around when Wes Anderson told me I could do it all and have it all and really live if I just spread out my arms and flew, I was given a whole new way to believe him.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bright Star


Check out my review of Bright Star, Jane Campion's new film, over at the Auteurs Notebook. Hopefully I'll be posting more writing on Campion here at What Is This Light sometime very soon. Hopefully about In the Cut. Have you seen this thing?! A lot to talk about.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Losing Your Head and Being a Lady

In Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, Vero (Maria Onetto) drives down a dirt road in a little car, averts her attention in that awkward backseat-turn-around-reach, and hits something. We have reason to believe it's a dog because a dead dog lies in the road, but this film's penchant for eerie counterfactuals, for abstracted closeups, and for exploiting off-screen space, makes it just as reasonable for the hit creature to be a child or a nightmare. A ghost story of perfect disorder, Martel's picture maintains the aura around this strange car crash; the rest of the film offers up a post-trauma haze that makes routine a stranger and identity, ephemeral. It's a credit to Martel's filmmaking that the movie swallows the viewer with such force, constantly pushing on its audience that pesky Hitchcockian question: Why am I so scared?

Like all movies, The Headless Woman lies open to multiple readings, but its stylistic and narrative abstraction seem to especially invite lots of viable, coherent critical paths. [And, duh, that's a totally awesome thing about the movies (and dreams and life): that gestures and words and a camera's stillness or anticipation can articulate very different ideas simultaneously and that, it follows, we can strive to open ourselves up to and be literate enough to read these varied meanings. And of course this seems to be the fun of criticism.] And so let me just say, there's a big fat political allegory working through this nightmare by which a richer, whiter Argentine forgets or doesn't choose to remember how a poorer, darker Argentine disappears, and all of this calls up Argentina's tortured political past in subtle if specific strokes. But so let's just leave that interpretive path behind for the one that nobody else (feminist sigh) seems to care about.
The thing I'm most compelled to mull over: that as much as this movie is about forgetting it's also about becoming, and, quite pointedly among its many mystifying qualities, about the alternately warm and alienating experience of becoming a Lady. And more generally it's a kind of rebirth story, of coming out into a seemingly strange world made all the more strange by people's and objects' unsettling insistence that they are not strange at all. It's the world's cosmic, everyday assumption that Vero's butting up against, that assumption that a person's going to shower with her clothes off, remember how to do her job, or see the dog that makes the barking. It's this earthly standard that guides us through our days by constantly, subtly reminding us who we are and, alternatively, makes insanity's precipice so horrifying, makes losing your mind (or your head, as Vero finds out) so severely disorienting. But the world's expectation of us is of course not only sensory or physical, but--no less powerfully--also social, and a loss of one's social grip on the world conceives a similar sort of grave confusion. We see a version of this in life and on film quite a bit, often with the pop-psychological tag "mid-life crisis" attached to it, in which grown-people somehow catch a glimpse of the life they've been living and stand shocked, appalled, and instantly alienated by the rules that've directed their paths, by the world's expectation of them, and (perhaps most dangerously) by the swaths of committed people still following the rules and fulfilling the expectation. Stories about women and mothers and wives seem a natural inheritor of this narrative and cinema/world history brings some shining examples. The phantasmic abstraction of Lucrecia Martel's piece is far less deliberate than something like The Hours or Woman Under the Influence or even the what-the-fuck-am-I-supposed-to-do expression worn by a 22yr-old mother of four on the bus yesterday, but The Headless Woman is part of this lineage nonetheless.

And so Vero drives away from killing something and it starts to pour and the haze descends and she's speechless. The world tries its mightiest to remind Vero who she is and, remarkably, almost all of the reminders are in some way gendered. The cosmic/social expectation here is that she's a woman and the reminders of that fact reveal themselves continuously and quietly, and in exceedingly everyday ways.

Groups of women absorb Vero in their seriously lady-centered stuff, all of which comes off as a routine that Vero, in some other well-adjusted state, usually helps to define. She and her girlfriends power walk around their boys' soccer field, decked out to stretchpant-visor-fannypack excess. Vero's mixed in with the pack, her arms swinging like the rest, but Onetta's stiff expression and slightly unfocused gaze betray Vero's outsider status. She's going through the motions in this women's world but she's a foreigner. Her skin and bones look like their working to keep her emotions internal, but her alienation is rendered external through the film's soundscape, a series of punctured silences that harken back to "the incident." There's a crunch and a distant bark that precedes one of the soccer boy's collapse. It sends Vero out of the walking pack of mothers and into the bathroom where she looks in the mirror and washes her face, trying to ground herself, to bring herself back to where she can go through the motions again.

Vero's mother, sister, nieces, and (to a lesser extent) the female maids watch an old family wedding video. They study the movie, recalling details from the day, how everybody looked and acted, who said what. Even granny remembers this stuff while Vero, as her distant expression forever betrays, exists outside of it. Left with the remote control, Vero rewinds and fast-forwards the footage, corrupting the vision of womanhood and the event (marriage) that historically has been paramount in defining it. In Vero's unsocialized hands, that vision becomes marred, disordered, unsteady--much like, as a matter of fact, Martel's filmic vision of womanhood.

So in these two scenes and a whole bunch more, Vero is swallowed up into these female cliques, assumed to be a social lady that enjoys and understands this social lady time like all the rest, who, by the way, seem to manage it with fast-talking, light-footed ease. And really, it's kind of beautiful. It's a warm and comforting place, these female spaces and conversations, only made chilly or disillusioning by Vero's varied hesitations and unfamiliarity. Here, the flip side of sudden, complete social alienation is the great reassurance that the good people around you will keep on loving you and treating you like yourself even when you're not. Maybe peanuts for being decapitated, but it's rather touching, this note of sisterly love amidst the unsettling confusion.

Beyond the grand assumption at work above (that she's a socialized Lady), the world around Vero turns vaguely pedantic, as if everything that surrounds her breathes some sort of feminine instruction. For one, she's presented a whole spectrum of womanhood throughout the film. In other words, there's ladies all over this picture--perpetually circling, crossing, carrying our headless woman--and Vero, distanced from her own experience as she is, is automatically positioned as witness to and benificiary of these diverse examples. A biker lady or fragile girl or nutty grandmother or law school student or put-together mom--all these models act as both specters and invitations, tacitly begging questions about Vero's identity as they dance around her. In a similarly instructional tone, the world around Vero drops odd one-liners all over the place that also push the issue. To name a few, people can't stop talking about her hair--they like it, they hate it, they run their hands through it, they apply things to it, she changes it. And then there's this awesome line that, though contextualized, still jumps off the screen: "the virgin's dirty, someone's handled her mantle..." And then there's the scene where Vero walks around a porch while the camera sits inside so that she's framed in one open window then another and another, her image and identity made multiple, made schizophrenic. The list goes on.

The men in Vero's life also seem like they exist to remind Vero--in, again, just very subtle, routine ways--of her womanhood or her impending socialization into the club. She alternately reaches for and runs away from the sexuality they summon. Her flee from her boyfriend's kisses as well as her desperate, sexual grasp for her boyfriend's cousin seem like searching gestures--Is this what I'm supposed to do? Is this who you are to me? A similar sentiment laces a teenage niece's love for Vero; the girl reaches out to Vero as an Aunt and then, navigating her own complicated teenage sexuality and femininity, as a sweetheart: Is this what you are to me?

There are so many ways for a person to get lost and Martel's piece is complex enough, smart enough that it seems to say something about them all. And yet this thing is so gentle, just pushing its focus slightly off and mixing up the world's pieces just enough to reframe Vero's routines as unnatural, peculiar. The nightmare emerges when Vero herself perceives these routines as unnatural and peculiar, and the horror descends when she realizes the whole world assumes she holds dear these same, peculiar routines. So that when the film ends with Vero pushing through a dark room full of the shadows of people she should recognize, we're left wondering who she is if not the woman the world assumes her to be and then horrified that she might be wondering the same thing.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Public Enemies: What a Movie-Loving Movie

The first line of my notes on Public Enemies trails downward across three lines in sloppy ink: "cut, cut, shot, grasp, speed, car, death." I've written a whole hell of a lot of shit recently and none of it have I found worth posting...or finishing...but there's something kind of awesome about this subconscious, written exhale...

I've had a taste of Micheal Mann in Miami Vice but I love this latest venture because it seems so concerned with doing things that can only be done in cinema. You're such a movie!, I kept mouthing back at the screen, which is to say that this film, just like Johnny Depp as Johnny Dillinger, likes fast things. That first line of my notes refers to a series of moments on the tail end of a jailbreak (the first jail break, that is...Yes, this movie is also a party!) in which Dillinger is leaning out of a speeding car, clenching a dying friend's wrist, and dragging him over the relentless dirt below. According to my mind and its faulty (or creative) memory of this desperate grasp, we see Depp's jaw, his eyes. We see hands and wrists and struggle. Along one of the frame's edges we see the curve and the heat from the speeding machine. We hear the roar--maybe an engine, maybe wheels on road, maybe altogether extradiegetic music--of a getaway. We see the dying man's face and the dust clouds that take him. But it's all splices and fragments--the edits so fast and the objects so close that the moment reads only in speeding shapes and anguish. In short, it's "cut, cut, shot, grasp, speed, car, death," precisely the sort of thing that happens nowhere but the movies, and only a handful of them at that.

Mann's camera also sprints at the hooves of horses, rides with a plane's propeller, and flees and dodges with the hunted. It charges through dark expanses straight into machine guns' sunny strobelights and it manically pulls and zooms as details in the distance dictate. And maybe this need for speed is to be expected from an action movie, maybe I could say the same things of the Dark Knight, but Public Enemies' obsession with unbelievably fast shit seems more a love of film (digital "film," that is) than of boyhood fantasy.

For one, Mann doesn't stop at recording cars; he cinematographically dissects their movement and then elliptically recomposes it in the editing room. The resulting picture is of speedy things told to us in a rapid, engrossing visual language and it's this breakneck--but oh so precise!--dialect for which thinking-people love him. In Mann's strongest visual sequences, like the cut-grasp-death moment mentioned above, shapes and shadows imply their particulars and simple fragments evoke their complex wholes. Textures suggest depths, worlds. It's an aesthetic that permits machine guns, gangsters, and blood baths to dance. Totally deft, totally handsome, in these moments the film bends toward abstraction but halts before reaching ostentation and, in fact, never even deviates from its straightforward narrative objectives. And boy are these narrative objectives straightforward (GANGSTERS! LOVE!), and boy oh boy are they supported by some terrifically cliché dialogue, but this duality is almost the best part: You feel Mann's love for the movies shine both through his aesthetic creativity and his strict adherence to genre tropes and age-old dialogue. Strangely, I find his streaks of aesthetic experimentation and genre convention to offer a dynamic relationship, one capable of articulating a bank robbery in terms of sun-soaked entrances, piles of steps, and gangsters in flight while keeping us firmly, almost comfortingly, within the known quantities of Hollywood drama.

And still, this movie wouldn't do what it did for me--that is, convince me it was as concerned with film itself as I take it to be--if it weren't for the last 20, lusciously reflexive minutes of this thing. We learn Dillinger will go to the movies that night, either Shirley Temple or a Clark Gable gangster pic, and we know that the police will be ready for him. That afternoon he wanders into the empty rooms of the 'Dillinger Investigations Squad' of the Chicago Police Department. Some of the detectives are out looking for him and some are listening to a baseball game in the back of the office, but none bother Dillinger as he walks past the walls of pictures of himself and his various associates over the years. He's attending what can be read as his own last picture show. Indeed, we're not only seeing Dillinger stare at pictures of himself, but Johnny Depp stare at pictures of himself, for a mug-shot looks awfully like a head-shot and both men seem oddly present in this moment, linked, somehow, through filmic frames and photographic frames and us. A few short scenes later we're watching Depp/Dillinger watch Clark Gable seal his fate in Manhattan Melodrama. If the "public enemy or public star?" theme came off a bit too brashly elsewhere (when Dillinger is slow-motion waving to photographers and admirers from the backseat of a police car, for instance), it seems natural here with Gable's dashing presence winking at Depp's and vice versa. We watch Depp/Dillinger's face register the moment in all its layered existence, so that when the film Public Enemies grinds into slow motion, consequently pushing Clark Gable and Manhattan Melodrama into slow motion, we feel an awesome, if tragic, sense of synchronization. It leaves one with the lasting feeling that all the speed and agility of earlier verses was, like this last beautifully reflexive ensemble, working in the name of the movies as only a movie can do.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Nature of the Struggle

A tumble, a tussle, the cinematic couplet brought to me by the Dardenne Brothers (and my gross inertia toward all things anxiety-ridden) left me trudging through the night with a fair few bruises and a serious case of blurred vision. L'Enfant (2005) and Rosetta (1999) mark my official introduction to the Belgian duo, though I've had the repeated displeasure of reading "Dardenne-esque"--or a similar phrase of reference--stand in for analysis of movies that I like a lot. (Displeasure because I didn't know the referent and found that endlessly frustrating and just wished people would say what they mean. Now I know what they mean but still really wish people would just say what they mean.)

When I call this doubleheader a tumble and a tussle, I'm not working in metaphor: I really was inside a fight. L'Enfant follows Sonia and Bruno, a pair of very young, very new parents who are, to varying degrees, trying to march through life at the same speed and with the same levity and self-serving impulses, even though they've got this little blue package, who happens to be a nine-day-old person named Jimmy. Things get hectic when Dad sells Jimmy for cash, leaving Mom astonished and torn apart by the fact that Dad doesn't feel the connection to this baby, let alone the meaning and the weight of that connection, in the same way that even she--another child--does. And then there's Rosetta, a temper tantrum of a movie about a young lady who is just trying to fucking hold it all together: her trailer park home, her drunk and desperate mother, her jobs, her dinner, her shoes, her conviction to lead a "normal life." It's a constant war she's waging in which the stuff of the everyday--eating, working, sleeping--prove menacing, threatening and beckoning from some seriously dark places.

Even from this not-so-sensitive narrative summation you might see these films' potential to carry some harsh blows, to portray a battle ground of sorts. But these two films' physicality worked to spell out another dimension; this battle ground was brought all around us, pushing an innocent bystander onto that uncertain dirt and into the center of the brawl, whether she liked it or not. L'Enfant had more love built into the narrative and Rosetta more abstraction and grit, but both films---I am having a hard time thinking of them separately...how good of an idea are doubleheaders, really?---had both characters and cameras pulling and pushing and running and biting. Indeed, the camera trails it's unbridled subjects with the same ferocity exhibited by them, experiences the same conniptions of desperation they do. This is more than a commitment to a "hand-held look," it's a cinematographic (and philosophical?) choice to prioritize sensation over information. With every whip of a tree branch across "our eye" (the camera lens), with every door shut in "our" face, with every blurred sprint upstairs or across traffic, with every confused scuffle and surprise swipe at the head, with every shadow and jerk and jolt of vision, we feel like we're in the fight...or at least certainly not at the movies, where cameras and narratives are supposed to grant us special vision into things unseen, to illuminate hidden emotional and physical worlds and, through their illusions, bring us closer to things like "truth" and "reality." The camera is that thing that allows us to see and the process by which its images reach us is one perfected toward clarity--it's 24 frames per second, not 25, and there are focus options and multitudes of lenses and light meters and filters and editors to help eliminate any visual noise that might confuse the point. But here, with these Dardenne movies, the cinematographer's tools of clarity are used toward the opposite means, their mission inverted and pushed, at times, to the point of abstraction (...and sometimes distraction). The most straightforward example: the close-up, obviously used to give us a clearer, closer look at the details of emotion, is pushed too close here and used in abundance, so that a face can never fully be captured because with every little movement part of it leaves the frame--we're so close but can never get a good look. Fragmentation, blurs, smears, trails, assaulting sounds--all of it creates an abstraction of violence and anxiety, of struggle. And what is at the nature of this struggle? We search through these shaky cinematic pictures and can't find many deeper clues than the immediate circumstances, and sometimes even those are in the business of obfuscation: there's something terribly wrong with a stomach, but all we see is its smooth brown surface--one of the calmest images of the film; the stroller is often empty; a blue snowsuit stays firmly between us and the baby, the instigator; two big rocks shelter a hidden pair of boots. But even if we could see through the fog, as we do for a few brief, often tender moments in these films, even if we could see through the fragmentation and the abstraction and see things as their whole, still selves, even when we do see exactly what the situation is and even a way out of it--there's a forceful potential in this life for suffocation, in the face of which, redemption and hope tremble and hesitate. The dark pull is very dark. It beckons. Things are not going right. In both films' climaxes of action and anxiety, the metaphor for this potential appears as water, surrounding us, taking every crevice for its own, attempting to fill, suffocate and drown our most innoncent, or the most innocent parts of ourselves. These snarling characters struggle against this natural force; the nature of their struggle is a struggle against nature. They are battling themselves. And their redemption, however incomplete it comes, is sweet.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Le Quai des Brumes


Here in Brooklyn we're gladly gliding along the distant edge of summertime and hoping that all the must-see flicks screening in the next few months fall on rainy days. Not so with Port of Shadows (Le Quai des Brumes), which showed some nights ago as the second installment of BAM's Prix Louis Delluc series. Spring fever falling all over the place as it is, Marcel Carné's baleful sea, consuming fog, and augural sensibility had its work cut out. As dark and misty as 1938 France looked and as lost as Carné's fated were, Port of Shadows proved winning even in the midst of Spring's sun-soaked beginning.

It's about a soldier who deserts the front, ends up in a shady port-town, meets a cast of lost-souls--lost to alcoholism, insecurity, sin, youth and troubled youth, or just a mind's relentless self-rumination. He falls in love with one them, a seventeen year old lady who sports a transparent raincoat and, uniquely, pushes against her ugly circumstances to reach out for life. And then, as all of the film's wandering souls do (or will do, we are confident, even if it's many off-screen years in the future) our main man eventually meets a fate that seems writ on the impenetrable, engulfing fog. I'm not just talking about death and, in fact, am talking about a certain kind of life. Though I don't know so much about philosophical ideas of nihilism...or about very many hopeless things at all, it seems that the truly terrifying feature of a nihilistic perspective is not a sense of imminent death but a lack of agency and a sort of colossal claustrophobia in life. And I suppose this fate-writ-on-the-fog business in Port of Shadows is why, like a firm punch to the stomach, it leaves a lady, not sad, not disappointed, but out of breath. This also probably explains why the Vichy government implicated this movie in France's defeat by the Germans, for it seems, above all, war necessitates a nation's steady, deep breathing. (Carné's charming response to this accusation: "Does one blame the weather on the barometer?")

Carné puts forth a human landscape of lost and fated beings in lots of smart ways, so many I wish I had a copy of the movie (or at least some notes) so that I could tell you about all of them. To follow my intuitions from the paragraph above, very few characters make decisions in this movie (meaning, in their lives) and any life-altering decisions that do exist happen off-screen, affecting the plot only in their seemingly random implications for other characters. Consequences are broken from their Actions; Causes are uprooted from their Effects; Intentions are obsolete; the world and its blind populace is sloppy.

The tidiest example of this universe's randomness comes about a third of the way into the movie when an artist, one of the lost-souls at this strange port, commits suicide. Of course we don't see it first-hand, the event being one of the film's few big decisions; we only experience the event as a peripheral thing which frees up clothing for our protagonist. And that leads me to my second point of fascination about how this movie communicates a world so lacking in human agency: once our rough and tough, quick talkin' main man puts on the artist's clothes, people start treating him as the latter. As the soldier--donning the new civies and holding his new passport (also the dead artist's)--sets out, a friend reminds him not to forget "his" paint box and the soldier quickly scoops it up as if it had just slipped his mind, as if it were instantly and sincerely his hobby. Continuing in this vein, the soldier introduces himself as an artist, gets asked art-related questions, and even steals words from the dead artist's mouth...which, quite beautifully (and famously?) are something like: "I paint the things behind the things. When I see a swimmer, I immediately think he'll drown, so I paint a drowned man." The soldier's strange and unnecessary adoption of the dead painter's persona pushes along a broader thesis about human beings as basically what the world makes of them. There's nothing to us but projections thrown upon us from the outside; we're just messy assemblages of the world's vague impressions and this, lacking in purity and meaning, is a poor substitute for an identity... something along those lines. And so, the soldier adopts a dog just because it won't go away and everybody keeps asking if it's his. Mistakes, projections, illusions, delusions--this is how most "things" happen in this movie.

So how did this dark punch of cinema find such a comfortable home in this, the vibrant season of birth and re-birth? It was a strange thing: the film's plot, mis-en-scene, characters: they all point to the themes discussed--a world of fatalism and inevitability--but, the remarkable thing is, they do so downright gleefully! Mist meets celluloid with a warm embrace, casting a fuzzy spell over every corner of the theater. The French phenom, Jean Gabin, plays the soldier with a special kind of masculine gusto, one that melts around the edges into something soft and self-deprecating. With a loving hand from behind the camera, Carné holds his characters and their troubles dear, even as the wrought world around them closes in. And, perhaps most magically, this movie is really funny; a teenage girl howls with laughter as her boyfriend gets slapped across the face, and gangsters look like babies right before they cry, and seemingly sophisticated romantics make amateur mistakes. There are bumper cars! In short, there's passion pulsing through this film, entering from every imaginable angle and illuminating from the inside out. French critic Michel Ciment introduced the film by revealing the cast and crew to be, at every turn, the supreme talents of the day. From directing (that old so-and-so, Marcel) to music (Maurice Jaubert) and costumes (the see-through raincoat is Coco Chanel's [!], apparently) to the script (poet, Jacques Prévert) to the acting (in addition to Gabin, a sweet and sticking performance by Michéle Morgan in the female lead)--genius reined over Port of Shadows. And how queer, really: a group of the most talented artists joining together with commitment and sincerity to create a beautiful, effective film about the limits of human beings and the indomitable, if invisible, forces that govern them. Such creativity pouring into something that asserts the impossibility of true human creativity! Such mindfulness and intentionality at work in the articulation of a world where people's thoughts are rendered meaningless because nobody can make a real choice! It's a wonderfully odd relationship between the artistic world outside of the piece and its innards, one in which values and philosophies reflect and refract, bouncing between the two spheres to prove a higher point, a point I think quite appropriate to the precipice of Spring: even in the most dire of straights, when hope has deserted us and meaning evades the most desperate of grasps, if we can find a way to articulate that state of desolation, if we can just use our tools (even, maybe, muster a sense of humor), then we become something after all, meaning returns, and the world fills our outstretched hands like never before.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In Defense of Interrogation


The last three times I've mentioned that I have Blindness--Fernando Meirelles' 2008 adaption of the José Saramago novel--in my netflix queue, I've received variations of "didn't that go straight to video?" Well no, and in fact, I wish I'd seen it in the theater. There are a few disgusting choices in this movie as well as an intriguing expression of a familiar idea. There's something to be said about Blindness; we cannot stop at the surface, the surface, the surface.

Its plot charges through what happens when All Of A Sudden (!) everybody starts to go blind, epidemic-style. Of course "The Government" has to quarantine folks and of course that means things quickly shape up to Lord Of the Flies dimensions and of course our protagonists (Julianne Moor's cheekbones be poppin' and Mark Ruffulo oddly still pulls off Cute) navigate toward a new freedom. I'll account for the above sass by spelling it out: Yes, yes indeed well-read critics, here the movie sits contentedly with the trite. Blindness' plot serves up the apocalypse and when we feel the film using well-worn tactics, it might be frustrating, boring, or downright painful.

But here's something, I didn't want to watch just another bad movie about the fragility of humanity, so I didn't. Which is not to say that that cliché is not in motion here or that every film is just what we make it--I see the narrative stilts Blindness depends upon; I hear its corny lines; I don't emotionally comprehend a whole lot of the character motivation and I find the pacing of this project (either a crawl or a sprint) to be at odds with its goals--but with a case like this, my favorite people in the world do at least two things that was Rarely done in the critical reception of Blindness; they probe their discomfort or boredom enough to see if there's anything substantial at its roots and, with that accomplished, they ceaselessly look for the best or the most provocative emanations that the object, individual, or artwork has to offer. This isn't about obsessive interpretation nor is it about finding a way to straight praise, it's about seeing the world with an eye toward productivity and construction. It's about wanting to learn so badly that it becomes possible to acknowledge the things that we find dumb and the things that bore us, acknowledge why this is so, and work to push past them and to find something real to talk about. It's true, some films make this critical aspiration nearly impossible or, when exercised, sound naive and altruistic, but Blindness is not that film. With Blindness, it feels at once dangerous and boring to let certain lines in this cinematic drawing go unexamined. It feels dangerous and boring to stop at the surface.

The film's lack of plausibility is not just a disappointment; the lack of comprehensible character motivation isn't just an annoying narrative failure; the empty valor and villainy thrown on characters isn't just silly. These aren't clichés to be bored by, but choices that prove problematic in the most terrifying and grotesque scene in the film. Oddly, nobody I've read says much of anything about the mass-rape scene lying in the dark center of this movie and, I think quite astonishingly, nobody even mentioned that it either shook them from their bored disposition or embodied their complaints with the film. The omission of the rape crime from the "critical" "discourse" (excuse the snarky quotes, but actually don't, just embrace them, thanks) around this film is strange; it seems only natural that the shortcomings of a film would become most apparent in the scene where the stakes are highest and, with Blindness--a movie with a lot of feces and crying and potential treachery, but very little actual violence--the stakes are highest (or the film asks the most of us) when, in explicit detail, eight women are brutally raped and beaten, leaving one woman dead. Here, the film is careless. Importantly, it's not the inclusion of a violent rape scene that I find so offensive--perhaps Saramago's novel pulls it off--but the reliance on action-movie tropes and the clichés of the Lord Of The Flies genre. When you're asking a viewer to watch gratuitous violence and torture, issues of plausibility, character and plot development, and the use of Hollywood/genre cliché become more prescient. What comes off in other scenes as something to scoff at here seems downright irresponsible, leaving (apparently only) this viewer wondering, "Wait why am I watching that terrified woman get screamed at, fucked, and punched to death with all the anger and force her male aggressor can muster?" Here's where it seems to really matter that I found the plot progression--often forced into awkward time lapse/montage sequences composed of visual queues that point at emotional impact without actually achieving it--unconvincing. In this scene it becomes important that the film seems to justify its movements by lazily relying on the audience's cultural cache of Apocalypse/Anarchy genre cliché instead of reinventing and freshly articulating the problems and motivations. We do not know the characters (both rapists and women) deep enough to understand how and why they are making these immense choices (the women "choose" to be raped because they are bartering for food) nor do we know them in a cursory, nameless, apocalyptic fable sort of way which would allow the film to completely abandon the story at hand in favor of a larger allegory. Instead, the film asks us to take these people and their choices seriously while giving us no depth of reason to believe them. It asks us to open up to and allow the most brutal of rape scenes to unfold, with the loudest justification being, "this is just what happens in these types of stories." To make matters worse, by the happy ending of the movie, we're shown three of these women's bodies showering, giggling, calling each other beautiful in all their carefree, sexy glory. Instead of cracking jokes about the cheeseball-factor of happy puppies and cleansing rains at the end of the film, maybe we could take seriously the idea of empty redemption and how that rears a particularly ugly head when we're asked to voyeuristically (framed either as if we're looking through a window or standing back in a dark room and looking through a distant door and stealing glimpses of bare, wet breasts) look upon the naked bodies that were so brutalized previously.

Consider me impressed that peoeple would rather whip out their quips and talk about the size of their yawns than touch this terrifying scene and its aftermath, which seemed to exemplify many of the criticisms pingponging around the film's reception.

I'd like to push my larger point--that there's no time for snarky bullshit when a film holds things (there's almost always something!) to unravel--from another angle.

As you may or probably don't know, this blog is turned on by light, which is to say, films that play with it, make it dance, shut it all the way out or drench a world in it--these films most definitely tickle What Is This Light's fancy. This fascination with light-tricks is (often) a facet of a larger love for cinema speaking on cinema, of formal and narrative self-referentiality whereby a film uses its medium to say something about its medium. Also in this self-reflexive category: concepts of seeing, blindness, and virtually any formal or narrative concept that draws comparison between extradiegetic actions and diegetic actions. This self-referentiality was part of cinema from its starting blocks around the world, became more complicated with the arrival of modernism in film, and grew more abstract as permutations of this cinematic modernism emerged. From this lineage we get not only things like Man With a Movie Camera (1929) or Haji Agha, The Cinema Actor (1933), but also all those New Waves around the world, and Rear Window's binoculars and Blow Up's camera, and Sunset Boulevard, and Caden Cotard and Esther Kahn's (astonishingly different) wills to experience through imitation. It's a rich and deep and sprawling history, one in which I see Blindness operating with intention and invention.

Enter Ben Polk, who said it best:
"I actually found Meirelles' dark, disorienting visual style appropriate and really powerful. The film's overwhelming whiteouts and blackouts, its chaotic closeups, the darkness and blur on the frame's periphery all serve to undermine our (the viewers') trust in our own vision (a fairly ballsy step for a filmmaker, I'd say) and allow us to share the characters' claustrophobic, radically unstable perceptual experience. Much of the film's power centers on explorations of this experience. There are moments of incredible delicacy, as characters grope and stumble through space or desperately reach for each other. And there are moments of suspense and even real horror as we share in their profound, frantic lostness.

So let me suggest, then, that blindness is neither symbol nor metaphor but the very subject of the film itself."

To continue in this vein, I felt this movie drawing a peculiar connection between the viewer and on-screen action. These people suffer from a "white sickness," a blindness of overexposure as compared to the dark universe usually portrayed. As Ben describes, this gives birth to a certain dark and bright aesthetic of confusion. I think this looks good but I also love the way this aesthetic operates; we don't watch the action unfold around these people as a normally-seeing, unaffected person might and, even with all the dark and bright washes across the screen, we also don't ever fully align with the vision of the afflicted. In one of the most beautiful sequences of the film, a woman walks into the ward calling for her husband. The screen is white but we see her outstretched, red-nail-polished hand come in and out of focus as if we and the camera are seeing from her perspective, with her damaged sight. But as we walk on, following her red nails through the white and listening to her forlorn call and response with her husband, the camera drifts and spins and, though the screen is still shrouded in white, it's clear this is no point-of-view shot; her delicate search extends from a separate body and finally both she and her husband come into the frame, burning at the edges with white, their hug celestial. It's beautiful and it exemplifies the third vision being created here: not the distant, untouched observer's, not the diegesis-bound blind, but a third perspective whose exact location is unknown. The vision granted us here is a gift, an expressionistic light-obsessed lens that allows us, quite miraculously, to at once watch the film from the outside and see as our protagonists do. With this single sight, both visual spaces are navigable. In a way, this type of third-party perspective could be argued for any number of films (we perceive a film as a rational outsider and as the insane person at its center, for example), but here, with the ultimate boundaries of light and dark, the Blindness' address to the audience feels explicit. Light literalizes this third perspective (or, really, vision) in a way that, to go back to the example, can't be done with the perspective of insanity; sitting in a movie theater, you can make me see white or experience a completely dark room but you can't make me insane. When the world of the film, when our lens goes white or dark, the extradiegetic Brooklyn 2am bedroom hits pitch black or lights way up. These light-tricks are a literal connection between me, Martha in real time, and the vision put forth by the film. To place this back in film's lineage of reflexivity, this can only be done at the movies. In what other medium would this strange vision, so dependent on light and movement, be possible? Concerned with various ways of seeing, Blindness is a movie that reflects and capitalizes on a special potential of its medium.

Here's hoping I found some version of productivity.