Monday, October 22, 2012
Saturday, October 13, 2012
When the screen faded to black and Ben Affleck's name appeared, everyone clapped. Renata Adler notes in 1968 that clapping for a movie is a peculiar gesture, "quite different from what it means in live theater." Who are you applauding? Nobody is there to hear you clap except the rest of the audience, and you. This was quiet, as applause goes. This is Ashland; audiences are gentle folk with multicultural pretensions. We listen to NPR. For us, Mr. Affleck had moved in just the right ways in his turn on the stage; he affirmed our concerns, and successfully navigated our national shame to give us a patriotic happy ending that we could approve of. For that moment, the audience basked in the communal warmth of their shared appreciation. I'm in basically the same boat as far as qualms, but I'm one of those prideful people who can't bear to participate in a crowd. I felt at once superior and pathetic for getting up to leave--passing relaxed, vaguely postcoital smiles that I envied and reviled--as everyone else stayed for the rest of the credits.
I gather that Affleck feels a similar mixture of pride and shame about his country's involvement in Iran. His movie opens as a grave documentary, with footage of the Iranian Revolution. A voiceover narrates Iran's history up to 1979. The Shahs. The democratic election of a president. The period in which (the narrator tells us proudly) Iran's oil was their own. The U.S. installation of a new Shah (here the narrator's voice turns bitter). The 1979 uprising against this Shah. It's not that I disagree on any particular point (I'm not informed enough), but I have to wonder why this bit of exposition is here. This is the story of getting American "hostages" (actually they're just hiding out in the Canadian ambassador's house in Tehran) out of Iran. It's an American story. This five-minute introduction to a place that throughout the rest of the movie must at all costs be fled is the lefty equivalent of a hail-mary. Without it, the audience would not have clapped, but only enjoyed, somewhat guiltily. Affleck is atoning for his privileged Americanness in a popular style: by having fits of reaching for the experience of who he isn't.
The experience that the movie can't show becomes quite clear when the actual movie begins with a crowd of Iranian protesters storming the U.S. embasy. Affleck's direction in this scene exercises admirable control, but this I think is because he's straining to resolve it in a politically correct way. It flicks back and forth between the panicked Americans in the embasy, and the crowd. The crowd is a crowd: impossible to sympathize with, because this kind of sympathy has the individual as its basic unit. What can an American director who wants not to offend anyone do, when given Americans under a siege of foreign righteousness? I suppose you can push the onus of morality onto individual irrationality, which is to say you can do away with moral thought entirely. To protect the embassy there are some policemen of some sort or other, in full riot gear, with tear gas launders. Their commander tells them over the radio to "only use the tear gs a last resort--I repeat, as a last resort only." Cut immediately to tear gas canisters being launched into the crowd.
What is the point of a movie that on the one hand refuses to be overtly political, and on the other refuses to be a drama--something it seems to view as being of inadequate importance? One might equally ask what is the point of Affleck's taut montages, in which he smashes all the locuses of tension together? A man behind me during one of these breathtaking multiscenes said "interesting juxtaposition." It was. All at once, prisoners are sent to a firing squad and almost but not quite executed, a press event Hollywood party in which the actors read the terrible Argo script aloud proceeds gaily and vapidly along, and some other thing that I can't quite remember. I'm sure it was important. But that's the trouble. Shouldn't I remember, if this meticulously edited sequence--in which audio from all three scenes piles up into a cacophony-- really made an impact? I remember a similar, simpler technique in Lord of the Rings: while on the raging battlefield millions die at a king's strategically poor orders, this king eats cherry tomatoes alone. He makes quite a mess, spurting tomato juice with every bite. Cutting back and forth between these two things, the king's minstrel sings a plaintive song. It was memorable because its moralistic meaning was too unmistakeable. Affleck's crucibles of disparity are just the opposite. The justaposition is interesting, and not at all obvious in its intent, but all I can do is scratch my head, and feel inexplicably somewhat moved.
The script, likewise, aims away from the head toward the heart, but politely fires a very small calibur. Hearts pump with and are revealed by epistles, and this movie's heart is written on a postcard to Affleck's character's son as he goes to the airport. "Sorry I missed ya, buddy-man," he writes. He tried to call him for his birthday, but nobody picked up. His son's absent presence is the tiny looseness from which narrative flows. As the direction is restrainted, so is the world these characters inhabit. When Affleck's character is on the phone with his son (someone who is nerver on screen), there's a needful lapse. His son is telling him about school, but his voice mutes out as Affleck spaces out, staring at the television, on which Planet of the Apes is playing (his son is watching the same). He's listening, but all we get is emotional content. The idea to make a fake movie as a cover to rescue the Americans stranded in Iran comes to him during a swell of love for his son.
This particular brand of masculine sentimentality for the family holds throughout. Affleck's character and the fake filmmaker he hires (Alan Arkin) bond over the absence of their families, from whom they are both estranged ultimately, they think, because they're in "the bullshit business." In this movie, the bullshit business is lifesaving potential; the ability to create, believe, and convince others of narratives is survival out there in the public sphere. What they're saying is that their heroism tragically seperates them from domestic life. Which is nice for them because it's sad for them. How else to maintain such a sentimental attachment but absence? And how else to drive the creation of narrative but by this attachment? Besides, as Arkin's character says, "kids need the mother." One thing about a period piece based on a true story is that characters can say things like this without comment, cinematic or verbal.
I don't mean to suggest that the script or Affleck's direction are dumb. Rather, the movie's intelligence all goes into saying as little as possible.
Affleck is capable of trying to engage with the world. The Town wrapped its head around the phenomenon of how one becomes trapped in a place, a family, and a destiny, try as one might to escape it and its criminality. It's about a very particular place; I got the impression there was research involved in writing the script. Argo's script is too scary to direct because too potentially contentious. Affleck tries to tiptoe around Iran, however much time the camera spends there, because of how relevant the subject matter is right now, when two presidential candidates are debating about what to do or not to do about the country. He becomes much like the protagonist he plays--an escape artist.
He has a boyish face, with sharp rather than rough features--as angular as a young Bruce Willis, but open and gentle about the eyes somehow, especially in profile. Both can summon an immense, suffocating smugness, but Affleck has chosen to avoid doing so in this movie. Instead he is a man so conflicted he's taciturn, and rigorously maintains a neutral expression, just barely smiling when pleased. When their flight out of Tehran reaches altitude and the stewardesses begin serbing drinks, the six he's rescued cheer and embrace. He sits alone at a window seat and allows himself a tiny, sheepish, one-sided smile.
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Star Trek (the original) is nearly unwatchable. Thus it is populated with babes in costumes whose designer seems to grin lasciviously from behind the camera. When their bodies aren't giving relief from the creak of plastic gears--or if you prefer, the shouting of men--a particular kind of head shot is. The female guest star's face is in soft focus, and lit from a slightly oblique angle, so that her hair shines ethereally. Her face glows, and her glowing smile appears indeed from another planet.
While the rest of our heroes boldly go where no man has gone before--namely, portals--Uhura says "Captain, I'm afraid."
To a trekkie, it's already apparent that I'm really speaking of one episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever". (But that way of filming female faces holds throughout the series, I swear.) I began watching the episode because I know someone who is obsessed with the writer, Harlan Ellison. I was wikipediaing him, and discovered he wrote an episode of Star Trek. What really interested me, though, was that he hated the adaptation of his script so much that he went to court. I had to see what all the fuss was about.
Controversy could only bouy me so much against the sinking dullness of the show, however. I couldn't make it through the episode. It was one of those "travelling back in time screws up the present" plots. When it is revealed that what changes the future for the worse is the U.S. not going to war with Germany during World War Two, my cursor fled to the pause button. I longed for a non-butterfly-effect time travel concept, as in Kage Baker. At least when written history cannot be changed, jingoistic self-justification (whenever we feel national shame, it seems, we can always fall back on "but we saved the world!") isn't possible.
But anyway, I wasn't intending masturbate about taste. I haven't read Ellison's script, but I have a conjecture. When he wrote an episode for Star Trek, what was he expecting when it got aired? Star Trek is still Star Trek. Every writer has a rebellious streak of some sort--otherwise why write--but I think Ellison's was particularly strong. When he wrote an episode of Star Trek, he wanted it to exceed the bounds of what a Star Trek episode could be. He wanted to make something daring, perhaps with a bit of commentary on the show itself. He wanted to inject a bit of not-Star Trek into Star Trek, to give it a little life. So when he saw what ultimately made it to the screen, he was pissed. This wasn't the edgyness he had imagined.
I make fun, but it's perfectly understandable. (Although it does take a special kind of stubbornness to take Paramount to court four decades later for rewriting his script.) Even writing a piece for Bright Wall in a Dark Room, at least half my motivation was something along the lines of I'll show them! I felt that I was in some way shaking up the genre of BWDR. Such an attitude may be necessary, along with the idealizations that come with it.
There's something phallic about this conception of creativity in which one creates within confines but yearns to exceed those confines, and in so doing reveal one's idealized self in the difference. One pretends to want freedom from the confines, but without them one would not be able to create, nor would one want to. Ellison raged against the apparatus of his articulation. He saw too much of the apparatus, and not enough of himself. Despite the angelic face of its female guest star, the episode wasn't pornographic enough.
Monday, October 1, 2012
There is a horse. There is also a man, and his grandson in law. The first two die; the last lies on the ground so long after being beaten that it seems he dies, but he gets up. What else needs to be known? When the horse passes into view out the train window, a little boy cries "look!" Hitting it, presumably, was why the train came to a stop a few moments before, and why policemen hurried through the car. The eponymous Elena seemed to fidget when the uniforms clomped through, but then, she doesn't actually move much. I just know that she killed the aforementioned man, her husband, Vladimir, and therefore I imagine her pang of fear and guilt at the sight of the law. Anyway, in the extreme long view Elena--but not Elena--takes Vladimir may as well be the dead horse. Indeed, why does he die? For the sake of her grandson, who could die any day in a gang fight. Vladimir, who unapologetically cares for nothing but money, would have thought his own death a poor investment.
About perspective. The film begins and ends with a shot of winter tree limbs in front of Vladimir's house. The focus begins at the foremost branch, and very slowly shifts to the house's windows. Vladimir and Elena live in one of those brutally convenient modernist things that was once so outside the box, it became one. He sleeps in the worst part of it, she on a fold-out couch in the coziest room, truer to her class origins. The two of them met when she was nurse to him in the hospital, and it seems that as his wife she has carried on in this same capacity. Watching Elena go about her domestic duties is like a defanged version of Jeanne Dielman. She has less routine, and less time for her routine to explode, but explode it does.
When Vladimir tells her that he plans to write a will, that his daughter, Katya, will get almost everything, and that he has no intention of providing for her grandson, she takes his dishes (on a designer wooden tray) back to the kitchen and sets them down roughly, with a clang. The next day she furtively reads his draft; cut to her feeding carrots into a juicer, which sounds remarkably like paper shredding. It is alongside this frothy carrot juice that she serves him an excess of pills, popping extras into the cup with a kind of nervous whimsy.
Elena speaks, but she is understood through her actions, though the body language of her long, patient time on the screen. I fell in love with the head of this film, who does nothing but speak, and who happens to be Vladimir's pretty daughter. It seems not too shaky of a conjecture that Andrey Zvyagintsev, writer and director, fancied her, too. He imbued her with the whole of the truth-telling--and all the word play, to boot.
As the linguistic articulation of the film's cinematic distance, she, too, takes the long view. Her father accuses her of saying everything is pointless. She does. There is a bit of cheek, though, to her dire pronouncements. She's deadly serious, but so sometimes are the best comedians. Everything may be pointless, but people like Zvyagintsev would like to believe that there is a point in communicating why. I'm in the same boat.
One of the more memorable things she says is that one has children to suck the life from them. Of course, the opposite occurs--quite literally, if indirectly. Not that Elena's grandson wants the money that she goes to such ends to get for him.
As for Vladimir, he smiles and says that he's cheered up by his daughter's caustic words. So, I find, am I. These two scenes, in which with her tongue she first dispatches Elena and then Vladimir in his hospital bed following a heart attack, are the only clarity, and the only real mirth. Although, personally, I giggled at the bits of television that were chosen for the domestic scenes. After Elena kills Vladimir, she's watching people evaluate a new "sausage product." "I like No. 6. It's quite edible." "No 3 tastes very sausagey." Katya's verbal flaying, however, did more than elicit quiet giggles. I was warmed through.
"I barely see you, Katya," says Vladimir.
"That's because I'm standing against the light." (She's in front of the window.)
"I didn't mean it in that sense."
"Dad, you know that nothing like sense even exists."
"Looking at you, sometimes I think, that might even be true."
"So, it's OK that you barely see me."
Their dialogue goes on like this, full of puns and metaphor. Yes, this was the filmmaker's transparent philosophizing, yet its agile twists along words' axes thrilled me. I could've kissed her. Her father did. The consonance of these was, I admit, a little discomforting. Yet still my fervor is enough that I want to reprint just a bit more of the script here:
"You've always loved those word games."
"Games help children come to terms with the cruel laws of reality."
"Nope. Not going to happen. I'm not pregnant, if that's what you were asking."
"Too bad. It'd sort you out."
"I am sorted. Alcohol and drugs only on the weekends. It's clean living now. Of all the pleasures I'm still getting sex and food under control, but I'm working on myself, trust me."
Katya does nothing but express her interiority, however sarcastically; Elena becomes a sublime object, despite how much time there is to watch and get to know her. In part this is because Katya--who has the last word on everything--distrusts her performances. "Listen, Elena Anatolievna. You're playing the role of the worried wife. You do that very well. Congratulations." I therefore contracted the same paranoid reading of Elena's every facial movement. This both made her fascinating to watch, and is rather unforunate. Vladimir by contrast is highly readable. For a little while the camera follows him about his day. He goes to the gym; he ogles girls. The only perhaps mystifying thing about him is his rejection of pleasure, which is a fairly mundane bit of father psychology.
Defamiliarizing the feminine is rather familiar. But then, I already admitted the origin of this scrutiny. Isn't this just how the wealthy eye the poor: with the suspicion that the poor are out to take their money? In this case, it's true. By the end, Elena's family have taken over Vladimir's house. But while the hysterical search for the actor behind the act may have a sound cause, there's no sense in it. Which makes me wonder about having watched Elena, during which I looked endlessly for signs of Elena.
Do you prefer your movie-going sensible or senseless?
Monday, September 24, 2012
Monday, August 27, 2012
Coolness has always slain me. (Who adds the awkward “ness” to cool but the uncool?) No matter how much older I am, unruffleable youths in sunglasses constitute a crisis of difference for me. Will they hurt me? How can they pull it off? How do they not betray their bluff? How dare they? The answer, of course, is quite simple, and quite impossible for me to understand more than notionally: they’re not me.
So it’s not surprising that in middle and high school, when the above crisis was a daily occurrence, I became attached to a film that integrated coolness with the identity I held at the time...
Sunday, August 12, 2012
But there I was in front of the Varsity (the sense of this name eludes me), looking at showing times. I had just sat in the cafe above Bloomsbury (a far less opaque name for a bookshop), poking laconically at my keyboard at about one sentence every five minutes. Two cups of coffee, somehow, had given me ennui rather than the characteristic ballooning of the ego. I kept blaming various things. It was one of those days. The coffee was bad. The thick smoke that turned the light yellow and the mountains charred and hazy made me tired. (That which claims things as parts of an identity protested with desperate confusion: but I like smoky days!) None of this changed the fact that I was undead, standing there in front of the theater. I saw that "Beasts" began in ten minutes. I looked at the other films. "Hope Springs", solely on the basis of its title--ew. "Moonrise Kingdom", STILL PLAYING--ew. "Savages", I'm not even sure what that is, but I guess Blake Lively's agent has found ways to try to keep her career from dying after the last season of Gossip Girl ends next year, although honestly I think it's the rest of the cast who might need to worry. Something with Jack Black--ew. I had not watched trailers for any of these. At least with "Beasts" I understood what kind of ew I was getting into. What the hell, I thought, I have a regular source of income for the time being, I'll spend $6.50 on ew. Who knows, maybe the trailer's barely obfuscated environmentalist moralizing totally misrepresented the film. Maybe I'd even like it.
There were some things to like. But my urgent need to urinate halfway through sent me to the bathroom, rather than willing myself to stay in my seat for the last 45 minutes. One thing I liked was the epigrammatic speech the fisherwoman cum voodoo practitioner cum mother to lost children gave to her little flock. She slaps a red mess of glistening red crayfish in front of the camera. "Animals are made of meat. You're meat. I'm meat." (She goes on to name a number of familiar farmyard animals.) The film is constantly daring the audience to be comfortable with their own fleshiness. This off-the-grid estuarine community appears to live solely on meat and booze. The ritual back at Hushpuppy's (the child star of the film, who I also liked) home is: Her father slaps a freshly slaughtered chicken on the grill, rings a bell and yells "feed up time!" She rushes off to eat, making her way among a chaos of chickens, goats, and pigs. In her voiceover narration she refers to everyone as an animal, not distinguishing humans. Actually, the voiceover is less narration than a collection of pithy, extremely general teachings, like a tiny, impractical Sun Tzu. She does, however, introduce her community in voiceover, known as The Bathtub. She says of this primitivist wet dream that "Daddy says The Bathtub celebrates more holidays than anywhere else," and we are given a montage of Bathtubians hollering from a parade float that could've been made at Burning Man, swilling booze, playing with fireworks. I was given the impression of people trying very hard to convince themselves they were having a good time, and I was not at all sure this was the intended effect. The music was joyful during these celebrations.
Despite the deliberate gross-out provocations of the camera (look at all this meat), I think The Bathtub is supposed to ultimately look like a noble alternative to late capitalism. This story divides the world in two: the people in the city, and the people in the Bathtub. The plot revolves around the city people constructing a levee that raises the water level and sinks The Bathtub. It is this artifice to which Hushpuppy refers when she says that something busts. (That shot of the ice crumbling gets carted at the same moment in the film as in the trailer, to my disappointment.) The trouble with the philosophy that Hushpuppy develops of a perfect universe that busts is that, honey, the universe is always already busted.
The film points to complications in the future rather than the past. As our drunken Bathtubians try to put the world back to the way it was, everything just keeps going more wrong. They blow a hole in the levee with dynamite, only to find that their home is half dead and muddy after all that time underwater. Then the city people forcibly evacuate them with helicopters to a hospital. The Bathtubians soon escape from this nightmare ward where sick people are "plugged into the wall", in what I guess is supposed to be a triumphant rebellion against a civilizing mission. The busting of their home is mirrored in Hushpuppy's father's health. "My blood," he says, in a rare moment of nondenial, "is eating itself." Which is a poetic way to talk about an autoimmune disorder, but that, ultimately, is what grates: the artifice of these voices posed as authentic alterity. It is the "Forrest Gump" problem: having someone simple speak your half-baked philosophies makes them sound profound.
That, and how distant these characters ultimately are to us. Chances are, the audience lives in the capitalist world this community so vehemently rejects. Like a Jean Jeunet film, we are entrated to love this band of misfits. They're rough, drunk, and scary, and yet they're drowning in cute. The problem is, we may all be animals, but animals have this thing planted in the animal: a mind. This is a film convinced that the solution to the mind-body problem, and to every other binary opposition, is to privilege the other side.
It has come to my attention, via an article in Film Comment that I spotted while waiting for my brother to finish reading Backpacker in the periodical section of the public library, that Benh Zeitlin (the filmmaker, who I'm sure would scrupulously reject this title) may not have fashioned all of the contours of Bathtubian speech in the image of his own romantic vision of how simple folk should live. (Incidentally, there are a number of backpackers about town this weekend. The herd of Pacific Crest Trail hikers, brought on, as my brother deduced, by the recent publication of Wild, are all at this point in their journey. Four of them entered the library in the twenty minutes we spent there. They generally come in what I assume are romantic pairs, with tiny packs carrying virtually nothing. Their food is cached at several points along the trail. I still wonder at the logistics of this, just as the gritty realism of "Beasts" makes me wonder where they get all their booze and breakfast cereal to feed the chickens. Maybe I just can't handle magical realism. In any case, trade does not exist in this film, but its artifacts seem to undergird the Bathtubians' alternative society. This turns their moralizing about The Big Bad City, to my mind, like the whiny urgings of dumpster divers to bring down The System.) In this article, in which he is interviewed in New Orleans, he says he had to "revise toward the people"--that is, revise his script to the actors' lives, mannerisms, etc. (He also says that the film came out of an epiphany he had in Europe that he "didn't want to be an expat", yet he moved to New Orleans. As much as the article declaims Hollywood tendencies to exoticize that city, I think it's safe to say that those "clichés about black magic and magical negroes" are precisely why Zeitlin has planted himself there, and what animates the fantastical in "Beasts".) He likes to think of the process as "organic". He says "
I think it was hard for people, people who don’t know this city and this region, to understand how deep the roots go and how impossible it is to transplant what’s here to somewhere else."His film has failed to translate to "people who don't know this city" the deep roots of its characters, instead leaving them, well, floating. The mystery that drew Zeitlin to the Mississippi delta has been preserved, or missed entirely--your pick.
Yes yes, the beasts. There are in fact beasts, which occupy a parallel cinematic universe for most of the film, a bit like the hilariously nonsequitor dinosaurs in "The Tree of Life" (but then in that film, what isn't a nonsequitor). The Aurochs, tattooed on The Bathtub's resident earth mother goddess's arm, are said to eat people. They are, then, the animal that busts our supremacy over the animal world. They also look like pigs. Sort of cute, gentle-eyed pigs, with snuffling snouts. They have big tusks, yes, and they allegedly eat their kin (I know, I'm wading into a big pool of muck by selectively distrusting parts of the fictional world), as well as trample stuff. Anyway, they bow to Hushpuppy at the end. I guess we were expecting them to do something bad, seeing as they were loosed from the ice by the catastrophic storm (Katrina). I think I missed the point. I stopped following the metaphoric register about halfway though.