Posted by Charles Reece, December 20, 2009 09:02am | Post a Comment

I can't imagine thinking through Hitchcock, Hawks, Queer Cinema or Horror films without Robin Wood. He was the humblest (his critiques were always in a state of potential revision) and most plain-spoken of all the great theoretically driven critics (never letting theory or dogma dictate his own reactions). Although he did tend to overuse the "to not love movie x, is to not love cinema" (e.g., Marnie), that was part of his charm. Truly one of the good guys.

Summary of his career.
David Bordwell's obit.


Coming Down in a Puff of Smoke: Up in the Air (2009)

Posted by Charles Reece, December 13, 2009 11:51pm | Post a Comment
"Hey, little girl, don't you know he's the devil / He's everything that I ain't / Hiding intentions of evil, / Under the smile of a saint. / All he's good for is getting in trouble, / And shiftin' his share of the blame. / And some people swear he's my double: / And some even say we're the same./ But the silver-tongued devil's got nothing to lose, / I'll only live 'til I die. / We take our own chances and pay our own dues, / The silver tongued devil and I." -- Kris Kristofferson


Unlike my blogging confrère, I somewhat ashamedly enjoyed Juno, but primarily for the comically pathetic character played by Jason Bateman. He's an artistic dreamer compromised by the bourgeois constraints of making an upper-middle class living. He's also the only basically decent adult male protagonist in director Jason Reitman's three-film oeuvre (perhaps due to being written by Diablo Cody, rather than the director). That is, Bateman's character still has some idea -- no matter how illusory -- of making music for something other than its exchange value. If his new film, Up in the Air, and first film, Thank You for Smoking, both of which he wrote, are any indication, Reitman's more interested in the bourgeois male who serves as the beguiling, devilish proponent of Capital. In the earlier film, Aaron Eckhart (who's always been the artier house parallel to George Clooney) plays the chief propagandist for Big Tobacco with absolute zeal, completely committed to the libertarian ideal of capitalism as being best when it's amoral -- let the consumer qua homo economicus make up his own mind. That such corporations pay big bucks to the rhetorical charms of such men puts the big lie to this idealization. Eckhart's character never goes beyond being a fascinating evil in the film, which keeps the audience at a distance from him, making it clear one should put identification on hold. It's for that reason that the attempted dramatic turns fall flat, even though the movie ain't half bad. This time around, Reitman places the capitalist devil in a romantic comedy, using the most seductive of contemporary stars, Clooney.


While Clooney gets compared to Cary Grant a lot (and for good reason), one thing he's never had is a role as good as the ones HitchcockHawks and their writers used to supply -- at least, until now. Ryan Bingham is Clooney's Roger O. Thornhill, a complete narcissistic asshole with whom, nonetheless, you can't help but identify due to his charisma and tragic disposition. Whereas Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman provide some phony absolution for the adman Thornhill at the end of North by Northwest, Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner remain true to the letter(s) of their character (which might as well be 'R.O.T.,' with the 'O' standing "for nothing"). Ryan is a hatchetman for corporate downsizing, who uses his silver tongue to do what corporate bosses are too cowardly to do directly. In the manner exhaustively detailed in Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided, he uses the depraved double-speak of the positive thinking movement to make employees (supposedly) feel good about being canned -- as if it's a chance for a new beginning, rather than being cast off alone into the void. He's also a part-time self-help guru for management, who's devised a nihilist philosophy that justifies his own inability to connect with humanity except through a miserable way of making a living:

By justifying his life's work as that of the lonely Charon's, ferrying the formerly employed across the river to another plane of existence, Ryan provides succor to management types who might feel bad about firing so many during a recession. The comedy begins when he faces his own potential downsizing by a recently hired Ivy-League graduate, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who's developed a series of flowcharts, scripts and internet software which makes his job capable of being done more efficiently by remote (over a computer screen). Since Natalie's internet approach doesn't possess the simulated warmth of Ryan's person-to-person equivocal skills, the company pairs them out in the field to improve upon her algorithms. In a rare instance in a Hollywood film, a character-too-smart-for-his/her-own-good is actually smart. Natalie's means-end philosophy of life makes for the perfect counterpoint to Ryan's more jaded solipsism. Both have difficulty interacting with others as ends in themselves. 

The romance is provided by Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, who's like Cate Blanchett with the sex appeal of Veronica Lake). She's pretty much a female version of the Ryan character with some nondescript corporate job that keeps her in the air nearly as much his does him. Their layover-based affair begins through a comparison of frequent-flyer miles and prestigious credit cards. Instead of turning homicidal as it did in American Psycho, this one-upmanship is the "beginning of a beautiful relationship," where Ryan has finally found his mental and existential equal. It's also the first time Clooney has ever encountered an actress playing someone who isn't there for him to simply dominate with his charisma. (If this were the classic Studio-era in Hollywood, Farmiga and Clooney would go on to star together in another 5 or so films.) The problematic difference between the two characters is that she keeps her business and private life separate, whereas he isn't much more than than the protective mask he's created for his job. While the dialog is every bit as clever as that of the classic Depression-era romantic comedies, the film proves to be more modern in its approach to how easily one can cast off such masks. 

A true classic of the Ought decade

How to Dramatize with a Hammer: Precious, Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

Posted by Charles Reece, December 6, 2009 10:04pm | Post a Comment

"Why so hard?" the kitchen coal once said to the diamond. "After all, are we not close kin?" Why so soft? O my brothers, thus I ask you: are you not after all my brothers? Why so soft, so pliant and yielding? Why is there so much denial, self-denial, in your hearts? So little destiny in your eyes? And if you do not want to be destinies and inexorable ones, how can you one day triumph with me? And if your hardness does not wish to flash and cut through, how can you one day create with me? For all creators are hard. And it must seem blessedness to you to impress your hand on millennia as on wax. Blessedness to write on the will of millennia as on bronze — harder than bronze, nobler than bronze. Only the noblest is altogether hard. This new tablet, O my brothers, I place over you: Become hard!
-- Zarathustra, quoted in "The Hammer Speaks!" from Friedrich Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols

The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement. 
-- Manny Farber on what he called "Termite Art"

I wasn't going to see Lee DanielsPrecious, figuring it would be a bunch of liberal claptrap about the struggle of an inner-city black teenager overcoming adversity to make the rest us feel better -- something along the lines of what Manny Farber used to call White Elephant Art. That is, the big Hollywood message films of old, the style and substance of which now tend to be relegated to the Sundance circuit due to multiplexes focusing on big budget spectacles (albeit, such films are making a commercial comeback, cf. Sandra Bullock's current star vehicle Blind Side, or Will Smith's recent Happyness). But, being on a Sam Fuller kick, a recent Fresh Air review of his new box set piqued my interest by suggesting that Daniels was carrying on in the exploitative, knee-to-the-groin style of the Termite master. Rather than practice a nuanced argument in his films, Fuller would pummel you with so many messages (the difference between textual and subtextual mattering little) that any overt ideological points would become buried, challenged or eaten away, leaving you bewildered as to what exactly he was trying to say. Consider his critique of racism from Shock Corridor, where a black patient has taken on the oppressive iconicity of white supremacy as a defense mechanism, donning a Klan hood to repress another black patient:

There's no subtlety in the scene, but it defies any easy categorization. It manages to be both vile and comical at the same time. The insightful Dave Chapelle did a twist on this in his show where he had a blind, black Klansman spouting white power slogans, never having seen his own reflection. Was Fuller deadly serious with this sort of exploitation, or did he see the comedy in such lurid, almost literal, metaphors? I'm not sure, which is why I can't stop watching his films. I bet that Chapelle could see the humor in Precious, though, which, despite being promoted as some monumental indictment of urban destitution by producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry (leaving the former "breathless," while the latter could only say "powerful"), is as comically exploitative as anything Fuller ever came up with. If you're the type who regularly bursts out laughing during an Aronofsky or Von Trier film, then this is the movie to see. Precious, in fact, borrows the Von Trier formula for existential drama: heap so many social tortures on a female character until the only plausible reaction can be be a hearty, absurdist laughter. Any social realism hinted at in the trailer disappears in the first 10 minutes when you see Precious get knocked unconscious by a bottle her mom throws, resulting in a nightmare montage with boiling pigs snouts and dad's hovering gut as he expresses his "love" for his little girl. 

There's just about no current stereotypical urban plight not foisted on the character of Precious: illiteracy, aids, welfare, obesity, teenage motherhood, Mariah Carey, etc. Where Requiem for a Dream just comes across as pretentiously goofy in its approach to drug addiction, Daniels and his scenarist Geoffrey Fletcher create a dark comedy of ill-manners (which might or might not be intentional). Precious's relation with her mother is the evil distaff version of Sanford & Son, in which mom constantly berates her as a "dumb bitch" who needs to "forget school" and get her "fat ass down to the welfare office." This is punctuated with mom attacking her with the aforementioned bottle, a frying pan and eventually a TV set.

Beware: spoilers follow!

Make no mistake, this is modern day blacksploitation, which always bordered on empowerment and stereotyping. In one scene, they have the rotund Precious running down the street, chomping on fried chicken after having stolen it from a local grease pit. It's pretty much impossible to reconcile the conflicting thoughts this scene elicits: it's played as a comic respite for the films darker moments, but it recalls the infamous racist stereotype of blacks and fried chicken, while critically suggesting something about the unhealthy dietary constraints determined by the impoverished inner-city economic situation (where shitty food is the most affordable). Plus, are we supposed to find humor here, given that the theft was initiated by Precious' mother not caring enough to feed her girl at home?

Even more in defiance of safe categorical judgments is the treatment of Precious' first child from her father (she's pregnant with his second through the first half of the film). As she explains to her teacher at an "alternative school" that she's attending to get a GED, her daughter doesn't think too well, is stupid, so is referred to as "Baby Mongo," never having been given a proper name. The film veers into Harmony Korine's territory in using a child with Downs Syndrome to play the part. Precious is learning to read and write by expressing her thoughts in journal, which she turns in to her teacher for written responses. So there's a prolonged scene, backed by schmaltzy music, that cuts between Precious in a hospital bed (after giving birth to her second child) and her teacher, who's lying at home on her stomach with feet in the air and pen to mouth (like Gidget thinking about a crush on a boy) as they discuss in voiceover Precious' decision to take care of "little baby Mongo." Finding humor in this is likely related to how funny one found Gummo. Regardless of ironic detachment, it is without a doubt tasteless and insensitive. But to react to this stuff in a purely straightforward manner, as a literal portrait of the urban poor borders on seeing them as savages, rather than as destitute. Perhaps Oprah felt such scenes function as parody of bourgeois caricatures when she decided to fund it. Because surely she doesn't share the same views of poor blacks as the average conservative radio talk show host. No, that would mean Marx was right about money eroding meaningful cultural distinctions.

I could go on, but suffice it to say Precious is indeed hyperbolical drama in the tradition of a Fuller or Aldrich, where social issues are delivered like a series of grapefruits to the face. If atomic energy were still a front-page worry, Precious would've been afflicted with radiation poisoning, too. Nuance means here that there wasn't enough time to fit in drug addiction and prostitution. If Kafka's depressing narratives are funny, why not this? What keeps the film from being the kind of ridiculous miserabilism that Von Trier practices (where you laugh at him, not with him) is the character arc of Precious. You actually do get emotionally invested in her struggles in this absurdist universe, like an attachment to the protagonist in an existentialist novel. Upon learning she has aids (of course), she accepts a life that isn't ever going to improve; a new misery awaits her in every act. She's both Sisyphus and his rock, taking pleasure in the fact that no smug government worker trying to help her could endure what she does. Von Trier's characters remain slaves to their own misery, whereas Precious becomes a hardened, Nietzschean heroine (a character type born of hyperbole, I might add).

A Rumpus Orange: Where The Wild Things Are & Bronson (2009)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 18, 2009 10:28pm | Post a Comment

I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in bed. (My bed stood with its foot towards the window; in front of the window there was a row of old walnut trees. I know it was winter when I had the dream, and night-time.) Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up. My nurse hurried to my bed, to see what had happened to me. It took quite a long while before I was convinced that it had only been a dream; I had had such a clear and life-like picture of the window opening and the wolves sitting on the tree. At last I grew quieter, felt as though I had escaped from some danger, and went to sleep again.
-- Sergei Pankejeff, the Wolf Man


I caught what might be called a double-feature of the Id this weekend: Spike Jonze's long-awaited adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are (co-written with Dave Eggers) and Nicholas Refn's adaptation of the long-waiting life of Michael Peterson, Bronson (co-written with Brock Norman Brock). If little Max hadn't eventually come back to the comforting constraints of familial order, then he would've found out as Peterson (aka Charlie Bronson) did that society is always ready to force that order on him.

Maurice Sendak's tale is about as perfect as could be imagined, and Jonze hews closely to the book's essential truth, while detailing more of Max's home life, adding neurotic personalities to each of his mental chimeras and marketing his despair towards the type who's always pushing the bangs from the eyes and wearing a hood indoors (the hoodie being a more socially acceptable way of getting a few more years out of that wolf suit). Sendak probably did as much for making Freudians of us all as Freud himself, but we needn't consult Herr Doktor to get his point. As Jonze has it, Max drifts off to Lidsville after trying to eat his mother up by literally biting her. Seeing mom make googly eyes at her boyfriend was more than Max could stand. This event comes at the end of an already shitty day which began with his sister siding with her friends when they accidentally destroyed an igloo that he had built. Loneliness here results from feeling cut-off from the locus of control, of feeling ineffectual in his ability to curry favor with those more (emotionally) powerful than he (in desperation he jumps on a counter and cries, "feed me, woman!"). His mother calls him wild, so off he escapes to a land of feral desires. If the movie does anything more effectively than the book, it's in making the Puffinstuff menagerie grotesquely cuddly and fearsome, like keeping a panther for a loving pet provided you can throw it a leg of lamb fast enough. Max is king of the fuzzy-wuzzies so long as he can provide for their emotional needs -- not all that different from the maternal order he fled. Going wild turns out to be pretty similar to desiring absolute control -- a childish / bureaucratic / fascistic fantasy, take your pick. As he loses control over his wild things, Max comes to the adult realization that power is everywhere and nowhere, and begins to miss his mom. With a tearful goodbye to his imaginary friends, back he sails to his family where he can become a productive member of society. 

And daddy doesn’t understand it
He always said she was good as gold
And he can see no reasons
'Cos there are no reasons
What reason do you need to be shown?
-- Bob Geldof


At age 22, Britain's "most violent criminal" Charles Bronson (who initially took the name for his short-lived boxing career and then had it legally changed) began serving a 7-year sentence for armed robbery. The year was 1974, less than 2 years after Stanley Kubrick pulled his movie Clockwork Orange from the theaters due to death threats. With the exception of just over 4 months, Bronson has spent the last 35 years as a ward of the state, all but 4 of them in solitary confinement. This extended sentence has to do with his seeming love of violence for violence's sake, something like the performance art of an evil Andy Kaufman. As such, he's a child of Alex de Large, or an Agent Orange, that is, one whose real life lends itself to Kubrick's satire. Or, at least, that's how Bronson's director Refn takes it (some of Bronson's victims tend to approach his nature a little less abstractly). Therefore, Refn gives us Clockwork Orange's malevolent juxtapositions of barbarity and high-toned culture, gravitas and cornball pop tunes, with a comic book color palette and told through the wide-angled, symmetrical perspective of a demented narrator in clown makeup. Not exactly original, but like Cape Fear was to Hitchcock, livelier than most other films that don't steal from only one source. In fact, there are enough parallels between Alex and Bronson that telling the latter's life as a remake of Kubrick's film becomes an artistic statement: they share a vocation for ultraviolence; they come from solid, conservative and loving middle class parents; the State has tried penal, psychiatric and even artistic means to correct their moral deficiency; they both show a fondness for art, Alex with his beloved Ludwig van, and Bronson with his writing and drawing; and they were released back into civilian life despite the questionable success of those corrective procedures only to rediscover their true calling.

Kubrick's adaptation ends on a downer that Anthony Burgess' original does not because Chapter 21 was excised from the American version that the former had read, the age of 21 being that of adulthood in which Alex was to have sought redemption for his youthful sins. That doesn't sound like an ending the cynical Kubrick would've used even had he known about it, and it finds a counterexample in Refn's protagonist. Despite his size, Bronson never reaches Max's realization, much less Chapter 21. In demanding complete freedom for his base desires, he achieves it internally (as he periodically demonstrates to a mental audience) while being socially isolated through the most punitive means society can offer, a smaller and smaller box. Thus, his repeated demands for harsher imprisonment are shown to be paradoxically a dream of absolute power, a radicalization that doesn't look all that different from complete submission to authoritarian control. Imagine that.

Taking the Lynch Meme Challenge: Canonizing David Lynch

Posted by Charles Reece, October 6, 2009 11:33pm | Post a Comment
No, I haven't given up on talking Inglourious Basterds to death; I'm almost finished, cross my heart. It's just that Dave Fiore distracted me with thinking about how I'd rank Lynch's feature films (The Grandmother and The Alphabet are probably my favorite shorts). Nothing will pull me into a conversation faster than my favorite living director. One thing I've noticed about my enjoyment of his films is that over time it's negatively correlated with my initial reaction: the less I liked them on first viewing, the more I like them with each re-viewing, and vice versa. Another is that I prefer the ratio-narrative Lynch to the one who lets his dreams/"ideas" take him wherever (granted, many, including Fiore, don't much agree that my preferred Lynch even exists). So, in order of my enjoyment/rewatchability/hours of mental masturbation afforded:

I. Lost Highway (1997)

Well, actually, it's the first half and finale with Bill Pullman's Fred Madison that place the film on top. For sure, LH contains some of Lynch's weakest moments: Balthazar Getty's Pete Dayton ("you liked it, hunh?"), music chosen by Trent Reznor (Bowie's "Lost Highway" over Payne's -- really?), and a menacing cameo by Marilyn Manson and Twiggy (about as spooky as W.A.S.P. in Ghoulies 2). Nevertheless, most of Lynch's major themes receive their fullest and most direct expression here: Vertig-inous duality (Renee vs. Alice), repression and oneiric escapism (the hallways, Fred's fugue state as a release from his impotence and murderous deed), and the demands of the always elusive Real (the intrusive mirror, phone calls, video tapes and, of course, Robert Blake's Virgil, the white-faced Mystery Man). Some poor casting and music supervision can't ultimately diminish Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford's perfect construct.

II. Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Fiore, myself and many others nerded out on the dvd a few years ago and I blogged about my favorite lachrymal scene here (no one makes me cry bucketfuls like Lynch), so I'll just repeat my basic refrain that the most amazing aspect to MD is the way it creates real emotion while fully acknowledging the artifice involved. Lynch is the master of melodrama, and this is his definitive melodramatic statement.

III. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

For my money, FWWM contains the scariest shit I've ever seen in film (particularly the first act with Chris Isaak and Keifer Sutherland). This is horror as it should be: ubiquitous and wide-angled. Poor Laura Palmer is trapped out in the open. There's no escape from the droning horror of everyday objects, neighbors and family. Ends with a message of Heideggerian hope: only God can save us. Well, ain't that kind of depressing.

IV. The Straight Story (1999)

I get teary-eyed merely thinking about Alvin Straight reuniting with his brother or sharing his war memories with another veteran in a bar. LH splits, FWWM goes in a circle and SS escapes these entrapments by connecting with others via a straight line. Clearly, Lynch has a multivalent view of humanity.

V. Blue Velvet (1986)

Pick the scab until it bleeds. HIs most surrealistic film. America never looked the same after BV: pop culture, suburbs, teenagers, and fire engines all were revealed to have a great deal of depth. Was there much point in discussing high versus low art after '86?

VI. Eraserhead (1977)

An accurate portrayal of having kids, but other than that I don't see why many consider this a horror picture. To me, it's like trying to focus on some simple task while on your favorite hallucinogen, but you can't stop laughing.

VII. Inland Empire (2006)

Created modularly as inspiration came to him, and it feels modular, never having any real connective tissue to the various segments. This is Lynch pulling his fish from the transcendental pool of Ideas. Anyone who wants to see him as a pure intuitionist will probably find this one a definitive text (along with E and the shorts). Contrariwise, IE makes a good argument for the role of cognition in the films at the top of this list: it ambles on too long, many scenes are repetitious (within the film and of previous films), and none of the really great moments (GRACE!) have the impact of those contained in his more structured works. I'd say he's got the TM blues.

VIII. Wild at Heart (1990)

Probably the greatest of Lynch's films when you're 18, but less so as you get older. That is to say, it's his most quotable.

IX. Elephant Man (1980)

A dialectic of social structure and the individual embodied in the gnarled form of a mutant outcast. Purely as a film, independent of auteurist thinking, this ranks higher than both IE and WAH, but since it's his Rebecca, I'm less likely to go back to it when wanting to watch a Lynch film. A great biopic, making it one of, what, three?

X. Dune (1984)

If you ever wondered why Kubrick didn't have his Starchild shooting lasers from its eyes, Dune provides the answer. After 8 or so attempts at watching this in one setting, I've finally stopped trying. I can't imagine a worse fit than a director who hates explaining anything with science fiction's most prominent example of technobabble. Bad enough that one doesn't even notice Sting's acting.

Oh, and as per the rules, 5 of my favorite non-Lynch films: Touch of Evil, Juliet of The Spirits, Playtime, Deadman and Rear Window<
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