Friday, October 6, 2017

mother!, and the pesky issue of humanity...

Dir: Darren Aronofsky
Viewed: from an old but sturdy seat at the Central-Kino in Mitte, Berlin

Sean:

Some filmmakers have spoken about the one moment or scene that perfectly captures the spirit or intent of their movie. Eighteen years ago Mark Cousins used his show "Scene by Scene" to put the pliers to David Lynch and get the slippery auteur to speak directly about his intentions, with limited success of course. My favorite moment in this interview is when Lynch compares a film to a duck. I'm paraphrasing here, but it goes something like this: when you look at a duck everything about the animal's appearance points toward its eye. It's all swirling around this one bit.

The same can be said for a film. And just like the eye of a duck, the center-point needn't be in the middle. Screenwriting guides will tell you that the main conflict of the plot should be established in the middle of the movie, but the one scene that really captures the story in a nutshell can be anywhere. In my experience, however, you're likely to find the eye of the duck towards the end, when the movie seeks to transcend everything it has worked hard to establish.

For Jason Reitman, he made Young Adult with one scene in mind -- this was his eye of the duck:



We had spent 90 minutes with a character on the precipice of maybe learning a lesson and here she is being validated for every fucked-up motivation she's had. It's a powerful scene and since the whole movie is a dark and cutting look at human values, it is indeed a perfect representation of the entire movie.  

Part of a critic's job is to find the eye of a duck in a film, and it could certainly be different scenes for different people, depending on the interpretation and what a viewer is getting out of the movie. Searching for the duck eye is actually a great way to suss out the intent of the movie and figure out how successful it was at getting there.

This brings us to Darren Aronofsky's mother! (and thanks for sticking with me on the long and winding road), a movie that has been getting raked over the coals by press outlets that seem intent on giving voice to the worst aspects of our relationship to film. It's led to such wrongheaded articles, by people with no concept of how to engage with a movie that's even remotely challenging, never mind recognizing a duck eye. But before I continue that rant, let's not make the same mistake and neglect to actually talk about what mother! has to offer.

More than most, Aronofsky loves a good allegory, especially one that pokes around the big ideas of religion. PiThe FountainNoah, and now mother!, all dive deep into a heady mix of faith and obsession, the kind of stuff critics love to pick apart. But unlike The Fountain, a movie that may have a stronger message behind its abstractions, mother! is cloaking its message with an allegory that leaves little to the imagination. If it isn't apparent to you by the end of the movie that the main characters are God, mother earth, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, then I really must assume you're unfamiliar with the Bible and possibly the very idea of an allegory altogether.

However, contrary to what some critics might suggest, being vague or mysterious in your art or storytelling isn't a sign of intelligence. And even though mother! is rather aggressive with his central message of how insane people can be in their mistreatment of earth, the movie still leaves plenty of details open to interpretation.

mother! starts off with all-consuming flames, and then the rebirth or renewal of the world complete with a new mother earth, Jennifer Lawrence, waking up in bed. She's still busy rebuilding the big house she shares with Javier Bardem's "Him", the creator -- in this case a poet of some renown, though we get the idea that it's been a while since he's done anything of note. He's frustrated, and she might be a bit worried about the bedroom aspects of the relationship but her love is still strong. We know this because every so often she grabs hold of something and we cut to a scene of a beating heart, one that shrivels up to something resembling a piece of coal by the end of the movie.

The love is lost as Bardem's Him becomes increasingly infatuated with humanity, which shows up first in the form of Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, our aged Adam and Eve, or as the movie credits them, Man and Woman. Bardem loves the stories Man has collected over the years -- the living he's been through. The trouble is, Man is dying and it's the reason he went looking for God and knocking on his door. Soon, the two sons of Man and Women show up, arguing over the last will and testament of their father and as the story goes, Cain doth slay Abel and things only get worse from there.

From the moment Man is given a warm welcome by her husband, Lawrence's mother earth is not comfortable with the way things are heading. These people are disrespecting her rules and being quite condescending about her and her work -- behavior that only intensifies after the death and the permanent mark that human blood has left on the house. But Bardem is infatuated and invigorated by these people. Soon, mother earth is pregnant with the son of God, and when Bardem finally writes some new words, he becomes an instant superstar with hordes of people showing up just to touch Him. These impassioned fans start taking pieces of the home, building shrines and eventually rioting and blowing each other up.

While the violence increases, Aronofsky gives us one of those bravura scenes of technical marvel that pops up in his movies from time to time. As our pregnant mother earth is beaten, bruised and bloodied she stumbles from room to room, trying to find safe haven but only encountering more anger, despair and destruction. It reminded me of the scene in Being John Malkovich where we scramble and tumble from room to room within the actor's psyche. But instead of memories and traumatic events, we move though humanity's decent into warfare and oppression. Then, finally, the son of God is born and you can probably guess how well that turns out. As for the very end, let's just say it involves oil reserves.

Critics look forward to the new films of certain directors because there are some that practically guarantee you'll be given something to work with. Unless your name is Rex Reed, you see it as part of your job to engage with the film and unpack what it has to offer, and Aronofsky is a reliable purveyor of capital-"C" Cinema, for good or ill. As I mentioned before, there isn't a great deal to decipher in mother! as it is clearly a blast of vitriol at our history of mistreatment to the planet we're on. But of course there's more to a movie than it's message, and there's still plenty to discuss about all the ways it succeeds or fails in its delivery of that message.

But what's being discussed is not how unpleasant the movie might be due to its monstrous depiction of humanity, it's CineScore, a service that might be useful for predetermining US box office results, but is about as useful to determining quality as a thumb in the eye. Here's a headline from yesterday's news cycle: "Darren Aronofsky Defends 'Mother!' After 'F' CineScore," which is accompanied by the subtitle, "Director admits polarizing film is not for everyone."

If a new Michael Haneke movie got an F from CineScore, it would no doubt have led to a couple days of some snarky articles and a whole lotta whatevs. And the same should happen here. After all, Darren Aronofsky is the man behind The Fountain, fer chrissakes -- his middle name might as well be "not for everyone," but maybe The Wrestler caused people to forget his pricklier early works.

On the other hand, there's a perfectly obvious reason a CineScore F has made such headlines: it's a movie with Jennifer Lawrence, the actress who's captured hearts with Winter's Bone, The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook, but has recently been capturing more shrugs with Joy and Passengers.

I'm not so sure how many CineScore obsessed articles would be written about a mother! that didn't star Katniss Everdeen, but I'm sure it would be far less. As it is now, new articles are still being published regurgitating Rex Reed's willfully ignorant suggestion that it's one of the decade's worst movies and as I type this the subject is still Vulture's most popular topic. The article called "Let's Talk About the Ending of Darren Aronofsky's Mother!" is so emblematic of what's wrong with people's relationship with movies today that I feel my stomach twisting into a knot when I try to read it.

"Was the baby thing a step too far?" "Was it necessary to have the mob yell gendered epithets at Mother?" These are actual questions published in an article associated with New York magazine -- an article that can't come to any conclusion at all about who the characters are or what the movie is about and only wants to wring its hands and fret about how loud and violent the movie got. And judging from some of the comments in this piece, I'm seriously doubtful that the person actually watched the movie from beginning to end. Maybe this Vulture writer really isn't aware that people in church line up to eat "the body of Christ" every Sunday. For the movie itself and selling tickets, this is ultimately an example of "no such thing as bad press," but for intelligent discussions about movies, it's some horrible bullshit. Looking around at any of the recent articles is a painful reminder of how dearly The Dissolve is missed... every... single... goddamn... day.

The questions one should be asking are about Aronofsky's intentions for these brutally intense scenes and how successful he was at pulling them off. As a piece of angry cinema that lashes out at the hubris, folly and ignorance of humanity, I'd say it's rather effective. It's a noble statement to make and I don't think he's at all interested in making it in any sort of elegant or delicate fashion. And for a movie designed to hit you over the head, it's beautifully shot, even if, in typical Aronofsky fashion, there's far too many close-ups. I'm not sure the guy knows how to shoot a conversation without shoving the camera up an actor's nose, but many scenes of Lawrence zipping around the house are expertly framed and fill the movie with unease, tension and dread in a way that feels rather effortless. Certainly the whole conceit of mother! makes his often clunky, theatrical dialog sound a whole lot better. This was something that plagued Black Swan, even if it the stilted lines were intended to reflect an altered dream state. I still don't think all those laughs were intentional.

All the actors in mother! perform exceptionally well, but especially Javier Bardem. Very few people could give the role of God as much grace as he does. And there aren't many actresses who radiate as much natural innocence, fertility and intelligence as Jennifer Lawrence. I've read some comments saying she's miscast here, but I think she's the first and last choice for this part. It's a hell of a demanding role and I think she nailed it. But I also can't help thinking that if audiences are walking away angry, it's mostly due to seeing an actress they love get stomped half to death. Indeed, this is perhaps as far from a crowd-pleaser as you're going to get.


And this may be where the movie doesn't succeed: at considering all the angles. Aronofsky has said that he wrote the movie in a fast and furious five days. Certainly, Werner Herzog would be proud -- in his conversations with writer Paul Cronin, the Bavarian says all movies should be written in a quick burst so that your movie will have a similar immediate and vital energy to it. Given the track record of Herzog's narrative work these past five years or so, maybe his writing advice should be taken with a grain of salt, but mother! has ended up with both the good and bad qualities you'd expect from a quickly written script. It does feel alive with that gonzo spirit -- there are moments when you think that just about anything could happen next -- and that's cinema gold, but when you're sitting with this movie afterwards, it's not hard to imagine some simple second draft ideas that could have made it slightly less misanthropic. Sure, it's a movie condemning humanity to a certain extent, and I'm all right with that, especially given the state of things today, but where's the one or two followers that are the tree huggers and the Aronofskys? Did I miss them? Or maybe they ended up on the cutting room floor? Either way, they could have played a slightly larger role, just so I don't have to think that all of humanity is a hopeless mess.

Before I hand it over to Padraic, I'd be remiss if I didn't offer my duck eye scene. One contender was  when Lawrence is trying to get a moment's peace in her bathroom and a grey haired man walks in. Lawrence, perfectly exasperated yells, "Get out!" to which the man replies with a sly smile, "Sorry, just exploring!" There you go. A small scene that captures much of the movie in a nutshell: mother earth fed up with people using excuses (in this case exploration) to ruin the last bit of perfect solitude she has. I laughed at this moment, and then I smiled when I saw that the grey haired man was actually his father Abraham Aronofsky.

I loved this little moment, but the real duck eye is probably the baby eating scene that seems to have upset so many people. People who, rather than engaging with the work and coming to terms as to why it's there and why it's so disturbing, simply think of it as problematic. But this does feel like the one thing it was all building up to.

Well, what say you, Padraic? I know you're not the biggest Aronofsky fan, but did this rank as one of the better ones or one of the more insufferable ones? And what did you make of the yellow powder drink and the frog in the basement. Those are two details I'm still pondering.

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Padraic:

First of all Sean, thank you for the scene from Young Adult. I saw that film in the theaters, but couldn't have told you a thing about it. That was a good scene.

For the duck's eye, any scene with Lawrence screaming or enduring physical violence would have to be it for the film and Aronofsky as a whole. From Tomei to Burstyn to Connelly to Lawrence to Portman, Aronofsky loves his abused women (I can't remember what happened to Weiz in The Fountain, but as you know I blocked most of that one out). Like von Trier, there seems to be something inherently appealing for Aronofsky about the idea of taking our precious Hollywood actresses and wringing them out, physically and emotionally. Our man Lynch does this too of course, but Lynch's whole purpose is to show what Hollywood does to young women. And horror films do it to sell tickets, and Lifetime movies do it to get easy viewers. I honestly don't know why Aronofsky does it.

On the responses to the film, I guess I am fortunate to have been away at a conference, almost locked in a basement, for the past week, so the only review or commentary I've seen at all was A.O. Scott's, which I think was about as charitable a view as you'll see. Is Cinescore regular people? Rotten Tomatoes has it at 68% so it can't quite be the critical pile driver you're describing above. Run down their list and you'll see plenty of mainstream critics who like the film.

And there are things to like. The film has Aronofsky's normal propulsive energy, which is by far the most appealing thing about his non-Wrestler films, and I agree that Bardem is genius casting: if anyone can be typecast as an idea, it's that guy. Lawrence probably is miscast here, if only because it's a distraction; I've only seen Winter's Bone and the Russell films, but it's clearly going to addle the Hunger Games people. But the acting is good, and the film is nearly impossible to stop watching and watch at the same time, which is a neat trick. The sound is extraordinary, and I was rarely bored - I almost fell asleep during in the moments after the baby's birth, but that is kinda what happens to Mother Earth too. I felt a lot of things at a level a bit below the surface, got a little bored when I realized the conceit of the film, but it picked back up and I was genuinely interested in what the cinematic apocyalpse was going to look like. I even got a bit sad at the end, as I thought back to "The Giving Tree." (An SNL paraody of Aronofsky's Giving Tree would be a hoot, but honestly, that book says more in a few pages than twenty of these things.)

I think what gets Aronofsky in trouble, however, are the claims that this kinda thing is capital 'C' Cinema. It's not. It's camp. It's technical proficiency. It's sometimes fun. But it's not really particular interesting on the level that I think you're claiming, and when judged by that standard, it's embarrassing. He's miles behind Haneke in the ideas department and von Trier has him licked in apocalyptic vision, and that's just the two directors who work in the same thematic realms. This is to say nothing of major auteurs like Lynch, Lee, Farhadi, the Coens, Anderson, Reichart, Assayas, Ceylon, Zvyaginstev, Linklater, and two dozen more. His obviousness really is problematic, because his films just don't seem to me worthy of that much introspection. As Sean Burns points out, Black Swan might only be good if you don't see it again. When the editor of The Onion writes your best film by miles, it might be a good time to put down the pen and do some great Kubrick-type adaptations. I too wondered what the yellow stuff was, but can't imagine how it would change the tenor and tone of the film. Actually, I don't really care what the yellow stuff was.

You conceded that the "burst" might be a problem, and that the film does not really present a balanced view of humanity (though I think there are a couple of Sierra Club types trying every once and a while to help), so I wont go too far in that direction. However. The central marrying of God and Earth and the environmental destruction are totally out of whack; the allegory is just wrong. When people (at least Christians in the West) were at their most religious, the planet was in great shape! The Middle Ages, for all their problems, were extraordinary for the planet. Population growth was static and worse during the plague. Serf labor allowed for easy crop rotation and the maintenance of common forests and fields. There was very little pollution, and the lack of decent sanitation left earth with all sorts of great fertilizer. Which means that in the film, when the crazies were most fervent for their "Poet," Mother Earth should be at her most relaxed. It's not exactly a major historiographical bombshell to point out that we started exploiting the resources of the planet when we stopped being particularly religious, but the film just totally misses it. This is why the misanthropy is misplaced and why the film tells us a whole lot more about Aronofsky than it does about people.


There is also: the fact that the film doesn't even bother to show God as different in the Old and New Testaments; the absence of God warning the people, even though the Old Testament is full of moments where God directly warns people not to do what they are doing (it should be Bardem warning the people to get off the sink); the complete romanticization of nature, as presumably Mother Earth was also Earth during periods of the Ice Age and when we were a boiling planet of lava; the odd God/Eve seduction which is hard to place with anything in any tradition; and finally, the just complete ignorance of scriptural tradition which places God's creation of nature as a place for people, as any real understanding of the beauty of nature has to start with the fact that there is not beauty without people to call it that. There is no nature without people; it's just stuff.

And as bad as the allegory is, this is the best the film has going for it, because any pretense that we might care about the story qua story, absent allegorical claims, falls apart early on as the film; it is just not an interesting or believable story at the level of people. Animal Farm is a great story because it's got a lot to say about the Russian Revolution, but it's also just a good story about animals. The story is what keeps Noah going, as the actual people doing stuff is pretty interesting (and the relative lack of violence and people in various states of degradation).

All this to say though that I'm not necessarily sure the big C is always what Aronofsy is after - there's a reason that most auteurs cycle through the same actors, or are content to cast actors rather than stars (here is where Paul Thomas Anderson really stands out). But Aronofsky obviously wants stars - he wants us to be thinking, "hey, that's Mickey Rourke (or Natalie Portman or Jennifer Lawrence) up there," all the time while we're also supposed to be seeing a character. I think it's fair to say that he wants attention, and he wants it beyond the arthouse circle. I also think it's fair to say he got it.

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Sean:

Here's where I admit to having seen this movie again on a Tuesday night, to a much more crowded audience at the same theater I saw it a couple weekends ago, with five other people. And it was rather fun when the credits began rolling and the audience let out a collective groan, as if to say, "Thanks for ruining my night, Darren."

I think you brought us closer to what I wanted to get at in the first part, but kept tripping myself up with other thoughts on this film -- he's not deep enough for the Haneke and von Trier crowd and he's too abstract for the mainstream moviegoer. So he's the rare arthouse filmmaker who's really pleasing next to no one. You're right that it's not a big critical drubbing that Aronofsky's gotten, but it's a helluva drubbing from the mainstream entertainment press who've taken pleasure in rubbing his nose in an Cinescore F and picking apart his movie with all the delicacy of a spastic 10-year-old with a runny nose and a broken stick. I'd have no beef with an ongoing critical discussion of the movie, it's the avalanche of non-critical voices, with no sense of how to engage with art, that got to me.

Your first inclination is to put this movie up against the greats you listed, but on those terms, as you point out, it doesn't look so good, and it sure as hell doesn't fit in the multiplexes. So then it becomes this film that isn't good enough for critics to defend and is so pitiless in its worldview that even the small group of Aronofsky fans aren't going to come to its defense. Let's face it, the vast majority of audiences aren't going to enjoy watching a female character get physically and emotionally "wrung out" whether it's Lynch's commentary on Hollywood's mistreatment of actresses or Aronofsky's take on humanity's mistreatment of the planet.


When I rewatched the movie, a friend I went with was rather upset with the passive nature of Lawrence's character and asked if we really need anymore movies with these passive females, regardless of the commentary. It's a fair point, but it also reinforced my view of the duck-eye -- it's all leading toward this scene with the baby and her turn from passive to active. All these attempts at social etiquette and all this passivity was clearly intended to pay off by that scene of her causing the earthquake (or whathaveyou) and screaming something like,"You people are insane!" Those moments when she's fighting for her life in one room and one battle scene after another. and letting out those labor pain screams where everything gets all distorted -- really effective way of racking up the tension. And it's all designed to be this great relief when she gets fed up and burns it all to the ground. Or, you could argue that this moment is undercut by it being all too obvious to have the female character's actions and motivations hinge on her child being taken away. (What I learned through watching this movie with a couple friends is that if mother nature were an Irish lass, Adam and Eve would have been kicked out long before Cain and Abel showed up.)

But I will make one more effort to suggest that this movie isn't as simple as even the director seems to portray it. Aronofsky's willingness to speak up about his intentions was a mistake. There's a reason that directors ranging from David Lynch to Quentin Tarantino refuse to explain their own work, it totally colors the viewing experience in a way that isn't helpful to anyone. Tarantino is nobody's idea of a deep thinker but even he'll admit that he needs a few years distance from his work to make sure his subconscious didn't add a layer to the movie that he wasn't aware of. I think you did an excellent job, Padraic, of pointing out all the holes in the mother nature-God-humanity allegory; but I think the movie opens up rather nicely when you look at it as Aronofsky's self-critical take on the artist-muse relationship. The guy's gone through his fair share of broken relationships and to see this as his mea culpa -- of using his partners up and taking every last drop of love and inspiration before hitting the reset button with a new relationship -- is a bold admission. Maybe Aronofsky and Lawrence don't want to see it that way for obvious reasons, but it's hard to disregard it. In fact, it might save the movie for me.

The other reason I like this view is it shifts the pesky issue of humanity to the side a bit and puts the fair share of the villainy on God, if you will. (Given Aronofsky's admiration of Jodorowsky, I also like the twist of the director/god being the bad guy rather than the all-powerful-all-knowing savior figure.) Given Bardem's evil laugh at the end of the movie, this all adds up rather nicely. I believe this is how some of the early and more favorable reviews saw the movie, and at first I thought it was a rather limited interpretation, but maybe it's the element that holds it all together.

Like The Fountain, mother! is the kind of Aronofsky I begrudgingly admire. As I've said before, I like big swings that don't always add up to a homerun. Cinema would be better off with more Aronofskys and less of the unambitious arthouse twaddle that wins Sundance or gets nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Filmmakers need to feel like they can take chances and fall flat on their face without getting eviscerated for it, or else cinema is doomed.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Chase (1966)

Dir. Arthur Penn

Viewed from the couch, via Netflix streaming

Sean:

If you’re like me, you may have been living under the impression that The Chase, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda (among many others), was something else entirely. Maybe you saw the cover on an old VHS or DVD many years ago and imagined a movie much closer to The Getaway, with Redford and Fonda desperately trying to stay one step ahead of Brando’s tough but fair sheriff. Certainly, that’s the vibe that the promotional images were giving off.

I’ll admit it, this was my relationship with The Chase. Or rather, I actually thought I’d watched this movie some ten or twenty years ago, but when I started watching it again the other night, I knew during the credits that I’d been fooling myself. The first big sign was the words: Screenplay by Lillian Hellman, Based on the play by Horton Foote. I knew that Hellman, the controversial, blacklisted writer who wrote The Children’s Hour and aided the French resistance during World War II, wasn’t going to be the writer of the glorified B-movie I had in my head. What’s more, it certainly wasn’t based on a play by the writer of Tender Mercies.

Sure enough, as the movie gets going, we spend little time following Redford’s convict character, Bubber Reeves, and more time exploring the townsfolk of Tarl, Texas. This is presented at first as a very quaint and ideal American town, and it’s the movie’s primary business to then take this image into the alley behind the bar and beat it to a bloody pulp.

Why this movie is called The Chase is a mystery perhaps only known to Horton Foote, as a better name would be The Wait, or perhaps The Despair. What we have is a story about a town being shaken up when word reaches that Bubber Reeves has escaped from jail. We bounce from one person to another, picking up on clues about everyone's relationship to Bubber and how they may have done him wrong. Indeed, Bubber doesn’t seem so much of a criminal as an unfortunate patsy who ended up getting a raw deal. For starters, Robert Duvall’s sad sack banker quickly comes clean to Brando's Sheriff Calder about committing the crime that Bubber went to jail for. Naturally, Duvall is a bit worried that Bubber might carry a grudge and want to seek some revenge.

Before we go any further, it must be said that listening to Marlon Brando circa 1966 say “Bubber” is about as wonderful as you can imagine. It was perhaps the very thing he was put on Earth to do. Every one of Brando’s movies should’ve had a Bubber in it. Imagine Don Corleone saying, “My son had to flee the country because of this Bubber business!” Or Colonel Kurtz asking, “Well, Bubber, do you find my methods unsound?”

Marlon Brando, being thoroughly fed up with the jackasses in The Chase.

That’s not to say Brando isn’t fantastic in The Chase. This is, in fact, prime Marlon -- albeit a Marlon who isn’t all that interested in enunciation. There are a handful of moments when you can hear the ADR work Brando had to do in order to make his words a touch less mumbly. If you want to see the original version of the casually intense and borderline incoherent murmur that Tom Hardy has been taking to the bank, look no further than Marlon Brando as Sheriff Calder.

The Chase casts Brando as one of the few decent people in Tarl, Texas. As the rest of the citizenship decides to spend the day getting drunk and working up a violent fervor in preparation for Bubber’s inevitable arrival, Brando patrols the streets and tries in vain to keep the peace. But as the night goes on, the good sheriff’s job is made more difficult when a few of the drunk men start venting their violence on the black men in town.

In some ways, The Chase could be seen as a kind of horror movie, with drunk white men as this creeping force of evil with an unquenchable thirst for violence and desire to exercise their supremacy. In a film with more depth and subtlety, you might be able to cast these staggering, boozy monsters in a sympathetic light. After all, they’re likely acting this way because they’re being eaten away by guilt and fear. Interestingly enough, the movie factors in the growing sexual revolution, women’s lib and civil rights. These are all things that a weak white man would see as a threat to their power. So as much as Bubber might represent their past misdeeds, which they’d like nothing more than to shoot and bury, they’re also eager for any excuse to beat down the black man and demonstrate their alpha superiority.


I mentioned that Robert Duvall plays a sad sack, but that’s a bit of an understatement. He’s also the town cuckold as his wife (Janice Rule) is constantly taunting him and rubbing her affair with his coworker in his face. That coworker also has a wife, played by Diana Hyland, whose performance as a pitiful drunk so closely resembled Shelly Winters in Lolita that I had a hard time believing it wasn’t Ms. Winters.

The one woman who doesn’t come across as grotesque is Sheriff Calder’s wife, played by Angie Dickinson with terrific poise. She really makes her scenes with Brando feel natural and lived-in. It’s one of those roles that could have easily been overshadowed to the point of nonexistence, but Dickinson makes it clear that she’s the one keeping Calder sane amidst this town of deplorables who don’t deserve his help.

Dickinson is also a big reason why the Big Scene in The Chase stings as much as it does. When Bubber does find his way home and tries to reach out to his wife (Jane Fonda), all hell does break loose and Brando gets pounded into meatloaf. This scene was remarkable for a number of reasons. As the monsters descend upon the sheriff’s station, Arthur Penn is able to generate some great suspense, which he then turns into a scene of such violence that it might as well be a scene out of Funny Games.

Digging into The Chase’s history, it’s significant to realize that Arthur Penn would follow this one up with Bonnie and Clyde, a movie that would use violence in a far more thrilling manner. But it’s not hard to imagine that audiences in 1966 were horrifically repulsed by the extreme brutality of this scene in the sheriff’s station. Had there been anything like this in a mainstream movie? Wikipedia has a citation-less comment that Brando had referred to this scene as an example of method acting, and it certainly looks like he got at least one or two very real bruises.

Jane Fonda, commiserating over drinks, with Bubber's best friend.

The history of The Chase is full of unhappy remarks by Arthur Penn, but I feel like time may have improved this ugly little movie. It’s not perfect by any means. It’s yet another movie where Robert Redford is woefully miscast. The man has zero menace and he looks like he just stepped off a surfboard, not out of a Texas prison. So you have an entire town scared about this wanted fugitive coming to town like he’s the boogeyman, and you cut to Redford who can be covered in dirt and still look like a cuddly golden retriever.

But despite the fact that both Redford and Fonda are about as far from being Texans as can be, what you do have are two bleeding liberal hearts that are fully devoted to the story at hand. These are two actors who were at the forefront of Hollywood’s protests against war, racism and corruption in the 60s and 70s. So when everything goes up in smoke at the end, you do get the sense that a good portion of idealism was being set ablaze as well.

All right, Paddy. I’ve gone on long enough. What did you think of The Chase? Were you familiar at all with this one?

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Padraic:

Great call on this one Sean. While not exactly a lost classic, there is an extraordinarily good movie in here, occluded only a bit by the decision to market it as a tense "chase" film when it should really be a Williamsesque, or Lettsian, pot-boiler about the serious oppression in small towns. Not since The Lottery can I recall a story where the town's underlying violence is so well exposed.

Not having read the novel, I have to imagine that Bubber is just a device, but that by casting Redford it was required to add "action-packed" sequences to the film. I actually think Redford acquits himself pretty well here given the material and the obvious issue of Mr. Handsome playing a rough-and-tumble Texan con named Bubber, but there's just no action to the action sequences that interrupt the first half of the film. Redford might as well be practicing for his All is Lost scenes here, as we just see him by himself for long stretches, doing not much of anything. It's a major relief every time we get back to the hothouse of a town, and all its lecherousness, racism, and insanity.

What makes the film work I think is just how the moral failings of the town never seem to arrive in the way you think they will. In particular, the robber barons of the town, Val and Jake Rodgers, are both intricately more in depth and sophisticated than you might imagine in a Redford/Fonda movie. James Fox as the son Jake is particularly good as he looks like central casting of a spoiled brat, but turns out to have a deep sense of caring and friendship; watching him you can believe that it isn't a lot of fun to grow up a spoiled rich kid. Even more amazing is that his father is redeemed as well; maybe he does have a great sense of noblesse oblige and is going to build a great college!

These well-rounded figures play off what is also a carefully wrought social dynamic, where the depiction of oppression of African-Americans and Hispanics is (I think) pretty novel for 1966. We don't get a feel-good liberal account or a classic Hollywood ignorance, but care and attention to the lives of black people. Joe Fluellen's Lester is well-drawn for his limited role, and the film departs the main narrative in many instances to see how everyday black and hispanic folks live. It's not integrated by any means, but the film makes a good case for this. With all the craziness going on in Tarl, black people would likely do well to simply stay out of it. As we hear in the opening scene, when a young black child wants to intervene after a murder, his mother offers sage advice: "Let the white men take care of white men's troubles."

All of which brings us to Brando's Calder, the great enigma of the film, who should be the white man to take care of the white man's troubles. He is neither really hero nor anti-hero, but a man who pays a serious price for what might seem to be a limited sin. While the opening scenes sets up Calder as a potentially corrupt cop, he subtly undercuts this as the town's drama intensifies. Even in moments where he could play hero, Calder says things like "I'm not patrolin', I'm just looking for an ice cream cone," a line that sounds kinda cool until you realize he should be patrolin'. Calder's failure to commit to being a good guy sherif - even when he is a good guy - is what ultimately leads to problems. He becomes known as a corrupt cop not because of explicit actions but because he's too apathetic to combat the charges. It's his protection of Luther that gets him in immediate trouble, but it's the longstanding rumors that really do him in.

As strong as his character is, the film benefits as you mention from a number of great supporting roles. The scene where Duvall's Stewart learns that Bubber has been released is about as expertly shot as can be imagined. Penn makes a great cut to Janice Rule just as she's about to deliver the line, and there is a great take of Duvall's reaction when she tells him. It's a simple conversation, but it's loaded with drama.


This stupid grin is kinda the stupid grin of the whole town in The Chase. In what is a great sendup of the 1960s "what's wrong with the kids" vibe, it's the drunken adulterous adults who are living the decadent life, with their heads held high only because they have blacks and hispanics to look down upon. Damn if this thing doesn't feel true today.

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Sean:

Well stated, Padraic. You're right about how The Chase often goes the extra mile with characters most other movies would be content to make a one-dimensional plot point. Val and Jake Rodgers are more complex than the usual small town big-wig, and whether or not this really comes across, or why it's of any interest, is perhaps getting to the point of why Arthur Penn didn't think the movie worked. 

The audience is given the chance to see the Rodgers beyond their public personas, while at the same time seeing what the Rodgers name means to the local white collar folk. To Joe Lunchpail, Val Rodgers is the town Boss, and he's got Brando's Sherif Calder squarely under his thumb. This chaffs Calder to no end and, along with the fact that the town is full of Grade A Morons, it's a big reason he'd rather be anywhere else than Tarl, Texas. The fact that Calder, and the audience, knows that Val Johnson is a good citizen at heart just adds another very human layer to the theater being played out in The Chase. Is this all laid out in an engaging way? Is too much for the average viewer to track? 

As for Calder's work ethic, I think you may have misread his line about the ice cream cone. I think he was patrolin' his ass off that night and that line was just a bit of sass being thrown at a wiseass drunk guy he'd like to lock up for public intoxication. (It also sounds like it could have been one of those lines Brando himself came up with.) But I do think he was constantly patrolling the town lunatics that night because on more than one occasion he comes flying into the frame out of nowhere just in the nick of time, like some erstwhile superhero. I believe his line was to say, Naw, I'm not keeping a close eye on you -- go ahead and do what you want, it's not like I'm gonna continue to watch you until you pass out and I can stop worrying.

Marlon Brando's Sherif Calder, being followed by some Grade A Morons.

I see Calder as the guy that's undone by his pride. He's far too good for this town, excellent at his job, but stuck not being able to be as good as he'd like to be. Bubber's jail break is all of Calder's chickens coming home to roost. I'm not sure if we find out exactly why he's so indebted to Val Rodgers, but every guy in town knows the story and it's practically neutered him. Calder's ruin is that he still wanted to take care of this situation himself, either out of pride, stubbornness or perhaps genuine concern for Bubber and the belief that he could help him out. There may have been a version where Calder's plan worked out, but come on... doomed! 

As you said, this movie hasn't lost much of its relevance, and it may even hold up better than most movies from its time. It may even be a capital-I important movie. It certainly did a number on me as I felt a bit of the old rotten despair after watching this one to the bitter end. But while it's ultimately effective, it's also too ambitious for its own good. Part of the reason we like it is due to the complex web it weaves, but there's a reason plays and books do this so well and very few movies do. It's not hard to imagine that Penn went to Bonnie and Clyde after this movie because here was a thrilling story that delivered a helluva message without juggling a dozen different characters and back-stories and all that literary bullshit. Cinema isn't the best place for The Chase, despite having a title that makes you think it's the best place. 

You mentioned those early scenes with Bubber jumping a train and stealing a bit of food. You get the feeling that those scenes, and the badly paced fire storm at the ending, were the only ones that couldn't be perfectly captured on a theater stage. Is that reason enough to transport this story to a movie screen? Certainly it still deserves to be seen by a wide audience, but I feel like there's another version of the movie that trimmed away some of the story and was a real pot-boiler.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

Dir: Matt Reeves
Viewed From: UA Theater, Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA

Padraic:

What is it with the titles of these Ape films? First you have what seem to be the redundant titles of the first two films: aren’t Dawn and Rise pretty much synonymous? Or at the least, not really a big leap forward? As Anthony Lane pointed out, at this pace one would have expected the third film to be called Breakfast of the Planet of the Apes. One might make the case that Dawn arrives, and then the sun Rises, but that’s not the order the films come in. How can something Rise before it Dawns?

I mention the titles for two reasons. One, the filmmakers might have realized this, so they give us a few updates to start the third film, eschewing the nifty technique in Dawn of having real politicians talk about epidemics and a spidery web showing the transition of the “Simian Flu” throughout the world. Instead, we get two sentences, highlighting that the Apes “Rise” out of resistance and how their civilization is at “Dawn” for the second. Ok, fine. But the second reason I mention the titles is that the final film’s title, War, seems just as misleading as the first two. After the extraordinarily well-crafted Dawn, which managed to show just how hard it is to create trust and mutual understanding in situations where violence is an option, I was expecting an equally nuanced and allegorical take on the toll of war, with the possibility of Caesar sitting back in the role of General, surveying maps, and sending his Apes to die as he realized that he is no longer a warrior but a decision maker. Or maybe not that exactly. But at least, you know, a war.

Instead of expanding upon the possibility of an all-out war between Ape and Man, set a dozen or so years in the future, where the screenwriters could imagine how the San Francisco conflict set the stage for a more global conflict, with Star Warsian levels of plot and movement, War goes small, intimate, and more than a little cliché. It’s not that the film does not have grand moments – Caesar is a great Moses, and it’s hard not to feel at least a little emotional at the end– but I’m not sure why the decision was made to abandon macro-sociological themes for dual psychological studies of Caesar and the evil Colonel McCollough. Or why after the first battle scene, which makes it seem like we’ll be looking at PTSD and the intense toll of warfare on soldiers, the trench-level depiction of warfare is largely abandoned? Or why it needed to become a Western, with a band of horse-riding Apes sneaking up on cabins, scouting across the mountains, picking up wayward travelers, and seeking revenge for a great evil? While Caesar’s scope is epic, War seems to tease out all sorts of ideas about goodness and family and revenge that might work in any context. It could be the The Searchers or 3:10 to Yuma or a dozen other films about the costs of revenge, but Caesar is not just anyone: he’s one of the all-time great leaders of cinema, and most of the things that made his character so great, like the showdowns with Koba or the marshaling of the initial army in Brian Cox’s sanctuary, had to do with the close exploration of how one leads men (or Apes).

And it really isn’t just the Apes. Dawn is my bet for the best of the series because it explored complex human leadership as well; Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus and Jason Clarke’s Malcom are believable explorations of what it would take to lead people in a post-apocalyptic world, and the subtle interplay between Malcom/Dreyfus and Caesar/Koba could be used in a political science class, a discussion of classic game theory, or military school.

The Evil Colonel McCollough and His Ape Collaborator
But in War Woody Harrelson’s Colonel is nowhere near as intriguing as a leader, despite his excellent speech on the spread of some variant of the Simian Flu that makes men mute (and also, potentially, sets up other sequels). There is an attempt at mirroring in the discussion of the two leader’s relationships with their dead sons, but the layering of so much awfulness onto his character (I can’t remember, does the Colonel drink?) and his men just seem forced, a way to once again reinforce the trilogy’s main idea that the Apes are better than us. But as Dawn showed us, you don’t need to have Manichean worlds (like Franco’s boring Saint and Oyelewo’s tired Satan from Rise) to make this point.

In what is probably the best example of how the film tries to force in all these ideas, it never makes a believable case for why the men need to enslave the Apes in the first place. How do they get them? By accident. Why do they need them? To build the Wall? Give me a break – even a leader as delusional as McCollough would recognize that devoting his manpower to oversee an enslaved construction force to build a wall constructed out of rocks and twigs is a spectacular waste of time in defending against an Army that is bringing attack helicopters, tanks, and the most spectacular set of snow gear this side of Hoth. I mean, nobody would spend that much time and effort on a pointless wall…well, okay, fine. But because the movie has decided in advance that it wants to explore the idea of collaborationist Apes, and produce cringe-worthy (in both senses) analogues to slavery and the Holocaust, it is forced into this absurd conceit. Why not have the Apes and a slightly less-fascist human offshoot forge a hesitant truce to defend against this great Army of the North (itself, by the way, never really explained; is the fabled Northern Army that lurks over nearly half the trilogy, then shows up for five seconds and is buried in an avalanche, from Canada? Is this what happens to Portlandians in the apocalypse?)? Going beyond getting revenge on a psychopath would be in keeping with the second film’s far more plausible scenario, and might even lead to more action sequences that equal Dawn’s tense pacing.

Bad Ape: "Easily the worst non-Franco character in the Series"
All of this is to say, however, that the film’s decision to give us a more personal and anguished Caesar, and to highlight better the actual emotional dynamics of friendship and family among the Apes, is well done in its own right. If this movie arrived sui generis, I would be far more impressed. I was happy to see more use of Maurice (like any person with a soul), and the decision to step back from the action to show his simple, well, humanity, with the mute girl, is a brave and rewarding decision in a summer franchise blockbuster film (less rewarding was the idiotic addition of Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape, easily the worst non-Franco character in the trilogy). It’s just that this seems to be the only thing going on, and while I appreciate smuggling a little psychological depth and feeling into an action film, the action still needs to be there, and the film produced nothing like the extraordinary Siege of San Francisco. Perhaps it was all about expectation. After seeing a film called Dawn that looked like a perfect allegory of War, I was excited for what a film about War could really do with such a great general as Caesar. Oh well, perhaps I’ll have to wait for Group Therapy of the Planet of the Apes, which will turn out to be the epic military showdown that I was hoping for. Thoughts Sean?

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Sean:

(Viewed from: The Sony Center CineStar, in Digital 3D)

Well, no matter the movie, it's good to be discussing the finer points of movies with you again. And it's also good to say that we're on the same page with this third movie in the rebooted Planet of the Apes series.

First off, you might be interested to know that here in Germany, the Planet of the Apes (or Planet der Affen) movies have all been given different titles, perhaps to avoid their clumsy and, as you pointed out, seemingly arbitrary nature. The first was called Planet der Affen: Prevolution; the second: Revolution; and the third: Survival. As you know, the titles of movies tend to suffer when they travel outside their homeland, but in this case I think you'd agree that these are all superior (or in the case of the first one, at least slightly less clumsy). Indeed, War is much less a war than a bid for survival after their exodus crosses paths with a sadistic lunatic. Actually, in this case, the most accurate title could have been Prisoner of the War of the Planet of the Apes.

I agree with you that one of the most frustrating thing with War for the Planet of the Apes is that they had so many opportunities -- they could have gone in any number of directions with this third one, and they chose to essentially rehash bits of Apocalypse Now, The Great Escape, Bridge on the River Kwai, and maybe some other gulag/prisoner of war movies. Now, you might be able to make a great Planet of the Apes/Apocalypse Now hybrid, one that even has Woody Harrelson in the Brando/Kurtz role, but this unfortunately isn't it.

What's even more frustrating, is that War starts out as a pretty solid continuation of Dawn. I agree with you that the preamble of text isn't so hot, but I didn't mind since following the backs of those military helmets, with "Bedtime for Bonzo" and "Monkey Killer" scrawled on them, is a perfectly effective intro. It says about everything we know, and the sounds of the jungle put us right into the would-be home of Caesar, Maurice and the rest of the remains of the Ape community.

Even, the first bits of Harrelson's Col. McCollough is effective stuff, the first thing we hear of him is over the com, telling an outnumbered soldier to take out as many as he can before he dies. And then a few scenes later, we see McCollough doing his own dirty work, face painted black and trying to disappear back into the night after killing all of Caesar's family, except for Cornelius. This scene was really strong, if a bit predictable. Harrelson's eyes locking with Caesar's eyes... This movie was fantastic on the big screen, in large part because of how well it captures the character's eyes throughout. I'm not completely sure how untouched the eyes are in these motion capture performances, but it really doesn't matter -- whatever they're doing it works like gangbusters. When we see Maurice connect with Nova, the orphaned girl who's succumb to this mysterious voice-robbing mutation of the Simian Flu, it's a beautiful thing that once again relies on the eyes of two characters connecting and recognizing what lies beneath.

After Caesar's small posse picks up Nova, the movie does indeed take a wrong turn into this other thing, this prisoner of war movie that could be politely referred to as a bit of a slog. Now, even though there are more than a few alternative paths this movie could've taken, I think I understand the logic behind the choice.

The first two movies give us human perspectives as a way of bringing us into the story. In the first it's James Franco, realizing how special Caesar is. In the second, we're Jason Clarke, trying like hell to broker peace between humans and ape. After the brilliance of Dawn, we can now see War from Caesar's perspective as he tries to lead his people to a safe place and not succumb to the Koba mentality after losing his wife and son.

I think it's a testament to Dawn that this POV is a comfortable place to be -- but it's perhaps too comfortable, or more to the point, too familiar. War's mistake is that it tries to make this most of this shift to seeing things through Caesar's eyes by cooking up the worst possible thing for him to see -- not only most of his family killed, but 99 percent of his tribe locked up in a concentration camp. Of course it's terrible, and it's effective up to a point but, as you point out, it's all undercut by how muddled and nonsensical McCollough's plan is.

When Willard met Kurtz in the jungle, Kurtz asked him if his methods appeared unsound. Well, McCollough's methods are indeed mind-boggingly unsound. Even by the end of the movie, when every twist has been revealed, it still doesn't make a lick of sense; not in a deranged Kurtz way, not in a supreme evil Nazi way, not in a egocentric Jonestown way, not in any way that makes it the least bit compelling. If one were to be generous to the movie, you could say that McCollough's nonsense is intended to make him all the scarier -- that there is no logic at play and it's like some horrible nightmare you can't escape from. That might work in some other movie, but it doesn't fit in here.

You mention the speech McCollough gives to Caesar, is it a nice bit of acting, but I'm not even sure Harrelson is fully on board with the narrative the Colonel is putting together. What's this guy's end game? One minute he's trying to kill the Apes, and the next he's using them to build a makeshift wall in a couple days to protect against a full military assault? He tells Caesar that he stumbled upon the migrating apes on the way to the compound, so is that when he got the idea of building the wall? Is it really a better idea to use these apes than to kill them? This isn't like one small group of apes, this is every single ape in Caesar's tribe - the whole kit n' caboodle! Maybe, if he took out the lot of 'em, the military might be a little less angry about McCollough's methods.

But the biggest logic loop here is how loyal his soldiers are to him. We're led to believe that the military is after him for killing his own men after they've become infected, but this is also the exact kind of thing that might turn at least a few soldiers against their commanding officer. I might buy into his troops being brainwashed, but for that to happen, he has to have some sort of grand vision. What is this Alpha-Omega all about? The soldiers chant something like, "We are the beginning of the end." By the end I was wondering if they were all on a suicide mission? Are they trying to fight this plague somehow, is this fight bigger than killing all the apes? Who the hell knows.

It felt like this "Preacher" soldier was going to be at least one guy to snap out of it, perhaps realize they're doomed and start a mutiny in the name of God. Even though the movie seemed to be making every effort to set up this kind of arc for Preacher, it never materialized. Likewise, there are these "donkey" apes that work alongside McCollough's soldiers. This started off as a fruitful concept for a number of reasons, but again, once you realize McCollough has gone rogue, it all makes very little sense? I can understand them working for the larger military and helping take down Caesar. After all, they are the leftovers from team Koba, so there's some logical motivation there. But once they're in this rundown compound the logic begins to quickly dry up.

Even if you grant McCollough the sense in not killing Caesar when he first gets the chance, and using him to help break the spirit of the other apes in building this pointless wall, it doesn't explain why he doesn't kill Rocket when he shows up to help break Caesar out. At that point, it should of been about breaking Caesar's spirit more than anything else. But again, much of it makes little difference since the reason for having these apes around in the first place doesn't make much sense. Indeed, the more you think about it, the more frustrating it becomes.

Having said all that, I must add that this movie's 3D work greatly impressed me. I was rather apprehensive about going to this screening since the Sony Center is an ungodly and inconvenient place that I normally try to avoid. It's like a cathedral to consumerism in the heart of Berlin. It's all a bit depressing and this theater always costs more than any other, especially when the 3D surcharge is added. But in this case, the 3D was a rather beautiful enhancement. It actually managed to be a subtle effect this time around as it served to highlight the scenery and details that make these movies so amazing to look at. I'm not sure if the presence of these apes makes you pay more attention to their eyes (I think with cats and dogs we also tend to focus more on their eyes, searching for emotions) -- whatever the case may be, the 3D only made these eyes and faces more impressive and enhanced the viewing experience, rather than detract from it, as it has in most cases. As frustrating as the plot was, it was always an impressive spectacle.

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Padraic:

Pre-Revolution, Revolution and Survival are so much better. Thank you.

The spectacle was great too, which is why I am still surprised that Dawn was such a hit on my 2007 Dell laptop. It's no surprise why this one did so well with critics, winning over even noted curmudgeon like Anthony Lane, given how much effort and thought went into the CGI. I have no doubt that when a future Mark Cousins does a "Story of Film" 50 years out, War will be a major piece of how actors started to be phased out of movie making, or at least how CGI came to resemble art.

And I absolutely agree with you about the helmets - very clever and seemed to fit right in with the rising xenophobia (zoophobia?) that humans were having about the Apes. Even more reason why it was such a disappointment to see that they were just a whacko neo-nazi splinter group. And to build up preacher as the guy who doesn't get it I reinforces how dispiriting the film is, in ways I don't think are necessarily fair to humans.

You are a brave person for diving so far into the logic (or "unsoundness") in the film, but I don't really think there are good answers for your questions: the filmmakers, in their quest to layer (or, in this case, belabor) the film with analogues, are forced to turn people into monsters, without any convincing psychological explanation. There are indeed things that turn men into monsters, history is replete with them, but the film never bothers with the hard and complex work that would make a group like McCollough's possible.

All said, it was still a marvel, and I'm sure it was especially good in 3D - believe it or not, the only 3D film I've still ever seen is Love! And while the Sony Center sounds a bit scary -  Google refers to it as "Vast Contemporary Entertainment Complex," which sounds like a translation of a Chinese downtown entertainment district - I'm guessing it wasn't the worst afternoon. Certainly a case of expectations running a bit high, but some day studios will realize that finding depth in CGI films isn't about just making them depressing and basing them on classic tropes. Great assome  elements were, it seems all the creativity was used up in naming those helmets. Cesar took this conceit about as far as it will go, but I'm still going to hold out hope that we're not at the mountaintop yet.
The lovable Maurice

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Pairings





In the beginning of Notfilm, a “kino-essay” on the unlikely 1965 collaboration of Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton, writer/director Ross Lipman remarks that he has never enjoyed films about film. The reason: they cannot approach the work itself. With regard to his own film – a fascinating if at times academic (in the bad way) look into the creation of a 24-minute short – he may be right, as neither Beckett’s Film nor the making of the film come close to approaching even the minor individual artistic triumphs of Beckett and Keaton (indeed, some of the best parts of the movie are the old clips of Keaton or the TV versions of Beckett’s plays). It is the work of an insightful, competent researcher, and if it played on TV would almost surely be the most interesting show for a week, but it’s not great art.

Los Angeles Plays Itself, however, from the documentarian and professor Thom Andersen, proves Lipman wrong, as his collection of thoughts and musings about Los Angeles, combined with an extraordinary number of movie clips and other items, makes for a beautiful and insightful film, one that not only surpasses most of the films it quotes, but makes you want to see all of them again or, in many cases, like Messiah of Evil, for the first time. I’m happy I didn’t have access to a world of infinite steams, because I would have to go back and check out The Glimmer Man or The Replacement Killers, to mention just two films that get almost as much time as Terminator. Hell, after following Anderson’s keen eye for detail and setting, it makes you want to watch just about any movie. Immediately.

While Lipman’s Notfilm begins with a mystery (how the heck did Keaton and Beckett make a movie together), Anderson begins with a paradox. His concern is that Hollywood has come to define Los Angeles in the public imagination, both as a metonym for the city and through its selective description and portrayal of the town, but it has largely been wrong about the place from which it sprang. As Andersen notes (or proves really, given how forcefully he makes his case), directors from both California and elsewhere have chosen the beaches or the hills for the settings of films, leaving out the great middle who neither participate in the making of movies nor find themselves represented in the films (before Sean gets animated, he cites Jackie Brown as an exception). As he notes, just one in 40 Angelenos work in the entertainment business, and countless middle-class people (from Heat to Cobra) are depicted as living in posh hillside towns or beachfront properties when they could not possibly afford the rent. In Hollywood’s world, nearly everyone is white, travels with ease by car, and is involved with the entertainment business. You can argue with Woody Allen’s take in Annie Hall about the cultural achievements of the city (and Andersen does; there’s more than just making a right on red), but it largely reflects the vision of the place that Hollywood presents. In a shrewd response, Andersen notes that Allen's ignorance of Los Angeles comes from the same source as his ignorance of New York; he’s only interested in what the cultural elite of each place do.
While Hollywood’s portrayal of any city is almost necessarily skewered, Andersen makes the case that the people of his city have to suffer a double-whammy of sorts because the movies are made so close to home. In the first place, the city itself was re-appropriated to play “everytown, USA” because it was so close to the studios. Los Angeles become Main Street America, Chicago (in The Public Enemy!), Chinese Rice fields or, most improbably, Switzerland. Countless residents not only saw their neighborhoods repurposed, but saw incongruities in places they knew, like their home airport or train station being set in another city, or being destroyed in an apocalyptic event (as Andersen claims: “silly geography makes for silly movies”). In probably the best example of how Hollywood lies about Los Angeles, Andersen notes that one of the city’s points of pride – its extraordinary examples of modernist architecture – is turned against them by filmmakers. Once great and inspiring gems that argued for utopian ideals are transformed into locales for arch villains, most notably in L.A. Confidential, but also, most comically, in Jackie Treehorn’s lair with the Dude. And the final indignity: Andersen argues that the unsophisticated diminutive of “L.A.”, lacking the rythym and gravitas of Los Angeles might be the creation of the movies themselves.

As in the case of the Big Lebowski, you find yourself yelling at the screen for examples, and while most discerning film fans will quibble with a point or two – I wanted to see Andersen’s gloss on the Naked Gun, and was surprised to see only a brief reference to Boyz n the Hood - he almost always anticipates where you’re going. As soon as you start to think, wait a second, Lynch has done some pretty good L.A. films, there is Mullholland Drive. And though you have to wait forever to get to Chinatown, Sunset Boulevard, and L.A. Confidential, Andersen cleverly builds his narrative from mostly unknown films to the most iconic presentations. He also delivers dozens of dead-on appraisals of classic films, such as his take on why Blade Runner is so adored today in spite of its many nonsensical and incorrect predictions about the future. In a line so great I had to stop the movie to write it down: “Blade Runner represents a nostalgia for a past vision of dystopia that itself has become outdated.” If you like this, there are about three dozen more perfect apercus on classic films and actors (ok, one more: “Whenever there’s a disaster movie, there’s George Kennedy”).

Perhaps even more impressive than hitting the classics is the historical research Andersen puts into refuting some of the biggest lies told by Hollywood depictions, even in undisputedly great films. Blade Runner, for example, rather than giving us a dystopia gives us an urban planner’s dream: walkable downtowns, vibrant night activities, and an almost complete lack of car traffic. In Chinatown, the nefarious plot to steal the valley’s water is an inaccurate conflation of two periods of Los Angeles history, and the dirty dealing was not done in the secret records and archives, but on the front pages of the daily newspapers. L.A. Confidential similarly imagines a world of nonsense skullduggery, as Andersen smartly points out that the police had no need to be as underhanded and corrupt as James Cromwell’s police chief; the cops openly controlled the city and violated civil rights, a kind of policing that was not hidden, but celebrated. It is Dragnet Anderson argues, with its depiction of law enforcement as completely hostile to the citizens they are supposed to protect, that gives the true state of the L.A. police force (I’m serious when I say the whole 169 minutes of the movie could be on Dragnet). Not even Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is safe, as we learn that the highways were coming anyway and the much-vaunted streetcars were not so successful to begin with. Nearly every line is a lesson in history, if not film.

Given the vast number of sources that Andersen can draw on, it may be a bit unfair to compare Los Angeles Plays Itself to Notfilm, which has as its source a single film that, at least on first viewing, is just a little bit intriguing, a little bit boring, and a whole lot of confusing (the wonderful presentation at the Philadelphia International House showed Film first). Anderson has hundreds of movies to draw from; Lipman has one, and one that almost didn’t come about. What Lipman does have going, however, and what makes the film so interesting, is that while the film being made includes a certifiable genius of cinema (Keaton), it is actually made through a collaboration of three people with almost no knowledge of the medium. Beckett had never been behind the camera, director Alan Schneider had only directed plays, and the thing was dreamed up by Barney Rosset, the publisher of a literary press! While cinematographer Boris Kauffman came from good stock, Keaton is described by his longtime friend James Karen as basically being forced to sit around the set (without shade) while the novices tried to block out scenes and figure out the script. It’s so comic that it sounds like the set-up to a Keaton picture, which it basically is, except with Keaton’s formula of one part existential dread, nine parts comedy, reversed.

While the story of how Film got made is a good yarn – with the possibility of Chaplin appearing instead being one of many great What Ifs – Lipman does get bogged down a bit in details. His work to find Beckett’s voice and missing scenes from the film will make him a hero to academics and those in search of Beckettian trivia, but is it necessary to note that when flying to New York, it was so dark that the airport had to turn on the runway lights? Similarly, there’s a lot here on other work Beckett was doing at the time, and while the arresting Billie Whitelaw makes for a fascinating interview, she had literally nothing to do with the making of Film. The diversion to Leonard Maltin’s childhood memories are a wonderful light note, but do we need to hear him calling for his dog? More problematically, the interview with Rosset, whose memory is badly fading, leads to an ill-advised groping for artistic meaning.

While Notfilm and Los Angeles Plays Itself are obviously driven by the needs of their respective subject matters, they reveal that films about films might work best when motivated by the concerns of the directors themselves. Whether it’s Anderson, Zizek’s Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, or Mark Cousins’s epic case for innovation in The Story of Film, movies that begin with clear articulations and ideas might work better than film driven by curiosity. Notfilm makes a late, and entirely unconvincing, case for Beckett having anticipated the era of digital recording and projection (the “end of film”), but almost none of the first two hours points towards this conclusion and it feels like a grad student looking for a thesis in the hours before the paper is due. Andersen, however, has clearly lived his thesis his whole life, as the movie’s portrayal of his fellow citizens – particularly those who are poor, dispossessed, or of color – is the culmination of years of research, care, and thought. Though he might argue, all the sins of Hollywood’s past might just have been worth it, if for no other reason than to give us the beautiful act of redemption that is Los Angeles Plays Itself.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

On the Eye of the Beholder

As I was thinking about the Oscars these past couple months, it lead me down the rabbit hole of nostalgia. It's a subject that should be on the minds of many since it impossible to escape the glaring light of it in today's popular culture. (If having to wrap my brain around the words "Fuller House" means I get hours of undiluted David Lynch next year, maybe it's worth it?) But as I scratched my head over how the Oscars appeared to be scratching a nostalgic itch with Spotlight, it lead me to wondering how much our favorite movies of the past influence our tastes today.

For the vast majority of us, Hollywood played some sort of role in shaping the way we look at movies and what constitutes our likes and dislikes. These are the movies we are most exposed to at a young age before more exotic fare might be piped in from the open-minded sources we encounter as we grow up. And our high school and college years are so formative that I challenge you to show me a film fanatic who watched a new movie after they turned 30 and determine that to be their favorite film of all time. Such choices are made during the impressionable years of one's late teens and twenties, a prime nostalgia time.

Everybody knows first impressions are important. You could even break down some of your favorite movies simply by the impact and impression they made on you when you first watched them. A lot of this has to do with timing. Nowadays, the shock and awe of touchstone movies like Bonnie and Clyde or Pink Flamingoes can greatly depend on when someone sees them during their own filmic upbringing. It's sad but inevitable to see them lose some of their initial impact and for folks to require some Film 101 style contextualization if they don't catch them at just the right time.

This happens with some of the best and most cherished movies, since the ones that have the most impact and leave the biggest impressions are the ones that get carbon copied for years afterwards, diluting the very elements that made it special to begin with. Like many people my age, seeing Pulp Fiction at a theater in 1994 as an18 year-old was like freebasing uncut cinema - which is to say: it left quite an impression. 20 years later, my biased eyes think it still holds up but I have little doubt someone watching it for the first time today will get the same kick.

Now, I know sentimentality and nostalgia aren't exactly the same thing, but I have long carried the movie Flirting around as a sentimental favorite of mine. Like most of my favorite movies, Flirting happened to get watched at just the right time and, perhaps by no coincidence, the movie itself is steeped in nostalgia. I saw it on TV when I was 16 or 17 and it hit me as one of the most honest depictions of teenage awkwardness I'd ever seen. It made me wonder why there weren't more movies like this - a feeling I took with me to film school and still hold on to today.

These are the kinds of movies that add up to define us, our tastes and our reactions to the movies we see today - the movies that drove us to keep digging and wanting to see more. And no two people, even if they are the same age and received the same education and had similar life experiences are going to end up with the same taste in movies. Which means neither person is going to be any more right or wrong when it comes to appreciating what a movie has to offer.

I feel lucky that I was able to get an early exposure to a wide variety of films growing up and that my parents were pretty early adopters of the VCR. Most parents would probably wag their finger at letting a 13 year old kid watch a mix that included lots of David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, John Landis and repeat viewings of Evil Dead 2. My childhood and adolescence wasn't the best, but I do have some rose-colored nostalgia for sitting around with the family, watching The French Connection or Raising Arizona. For all of the various issues my parents had, and perhaps passed on to me, at least I got an all-inclusive love for movies out of the bargain.


As I inch ever closer to 40 years of age, I really do get the feeling that most of what defines my tastes in movies is pretty well cemented. They're not completely done evolving but I no longer have the omnivorous desires I once had and my patience for bad movies - be they ironically bad, so-bad-they're-good or simply dispassionate, boringly bad - is shrinking more and more every year. It used to be that I would watch multiple movies per day, but nowadays I average about three over the course of a week.

And this is where good film criticism comes in. I understand someone in their 20s who holds little regard for some pretentious, high falutin critic's opinion. Godspeed, since that person should go right ahead and devour anything they're inclined to regardless of what some critic says, that's what your 20s are for and bad movies go a long way to educate and help hone tastes and perspective. But that kind of stamina rarely lasts. Chances are, 20 years down the road that person is going to check in with the handful of critics they've come to rely on in order to decide what movies they're going to invest their time in.

In my experience, you'll never find a critic you will always agree with. (If you find someone you agree with 100% of the time then you might be reading this from a cult's shared computer - which is to say: you're probably highly impressionable and easily convinced.) Everyone who writes a review is going through the process of filtering a movie through a lifetime of experiences, influences, considerations and holding it up to whatever other comedy, drama, thriller, horror, or psychedelic freak-out the movie deserves comparison to. If the end result comes close to your own perspective even 50% of the time, that's a critic you might consider holding on to.

Realistically, no two people are going to see the same movie the same way. In fact, most people will bring a lot of internal and external static with them when they see a movie - and the choice of movie they make will often reflect their current disposition. Sometimes you feel like a comedy, sometimes you feel like an 8 hour Bela Tarr movie. But the lucky/unlucky professional film critic often doesn't have the benefit of picking and choosing which movie they get to review based on how rosy or bitterly nihilistic they may be feeling that day - but that's why they're professionals.


And that's why movies are magical. You can enter a movie theater, check your baggage at the box office and get caught up in someone else's story. I knew a guy at film school who, among other reasons, loved movies because he could enjoy two stress-free hours with his ex-wife and their kids. Whatever they were watching at the time probably rated a little higher in his perspective because when the lights dimmed and the movie started he could put the rest of his life on pause.

I think it's part of the professional critic's job to try and view a movie with clear eyes, separate from whatever else may be going on in their lives. I'm sure each and every one might have struggled with this at some point. But, despite what internet commenters might think, it's not part of the critic's job to remove themselves, their beliefs, personality or experiences. If a critic is a bleeding heart liberal or a stodgy conservative, that's the eyes they're seeing the movie with and that's what should be reflected in their opinion.

Maybe I'm stating some obvious points here, but everywhere you look (again, thanks/damn-you internet) people reading movie reviews are acting like they expect some dispassionate, personality-free review to simply describe the movie and tell them whether it is good or bad - like an opinion could simply be determined by a movie-watching robot that is programmed to determine craft, acting and intentions. Actually, a good review can spark epiphanies, debate, reevaluations, and, if your mind is open enough, the ability to see consider a movie through a outside perspective. This last example is what seems to get people really confused - yet, offering an honest, informed, unique and well-written perspective on a movie is exactly what good criticism is all about.


For those looking simply for thorough accounts of a movie's plot and some version of an unbiased opinion I suggest waiting for the wikipedia page to get up to snuff or sticking to IMDb. But more than that, I suggest taking a movie review for what it is - one person's opinion, not a threat to anyone's sensibilities. Hopefully a critic has the sense to clearly write why and how they came to their opinion so that hopefully, with a little thought on their part, the reader can understand where they're coming from. And again, there's a good chance it won't be the exact same place other people are coming from - but that's the nature of the beast.

I believe there is very little that is or should be considered universally accepted opinions regarding what makes a good movie. I think there's a certain level of craft we can probably agree on, and some ideas about what constitutes good acting and writing - but even these ideas aren't unassailable. All it takes is the right kind of movie to come along and people will be redefining these things once again. This is one of the many reasons I love movies, it's grown, morphed, mutated and continues to do so - and it would be really, really sad if there were some sort of universally accepted notions of what a filmmaker should or shouldn't do when they go about creating.

Anyone who is a fan of movies should understand this. The people who make movies, write about movies, or just sit around watching them in their spare time - everyone has their own sensibility, perspective and tastes. It can be a deeply personal thing because these things gets formed over a long period of time, starting when we're young. This is probably why, when we disagree about movies, we can get super emotional and defensive. It's like an personal attack on everything we stand for and all that we've been through, those very things that have created our tastes and perspective - the stuff that we hold dear, the nostalgic parts of our lives that made us who we are today.


At the risk of over extending my time on RFC this week, I want to give one more example. I can't pinpoint first time I saw Brazil, I must have been around 12 or 13, but it was one of those movies that made me feel like my mind was expanding while I was watching it. This vast, fully realized world was put in front of me and it seemed like anything could have happened by the time the movie ended. I was fully transfixed.

Fast forward 20 years and I now look at the impression Brazil had on me as the reason why I am more lenient and forgiving when it comes to ambitiously messy films. I'll watch a movie like Southland Tales and I'll easily be able to look past the scattershot storytelling to admire the gonzo, go-for-broke ambition it took to create its bizarro, original universe. So, if I were to write about the movie, I'd make sure to add that, nope, it ain't for everyone. I'll tell the reader the kind of glasses I'm wearing, the perspective that caused me to appreciate a weird and flawed movie and that they might want to pop on this pair if they're interested in watching it.

When it comes to talking or writing about movies, no one is right or wrong. It's all in the eye of the beholder. Nobody's going to show up with an answer sheet and start handing out gold stars. The only way you can mess it up is to come to it with a bad attitude, taking aim to rain on people's parades and, generally speaking, be a dick. Whether or not someone else's perspective matches yours doesn't add or detract value from either party. If you're thoughtful about it, and you express yourself that way, then chances are you'll get respect. And that's about the best we can hope for anyway.