REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, DECEMBER 2009
All films from U.S.A. unless
seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short,
under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
Night Mayor (Guy Maddin, Canada) [s]
It's an intellectual ritual undertaken with such de rigueur formality these days it almost seems like a compulsory floor exercise. Anyone writing about non-mainstream, largely image-driven film must undergo the gauntlet of polite curtseys, explaining why no term is really satisfactory. "Avant-garde"? An old military term! "Experimental"? Sounds like my films aren't finished? "Personal film"? What of my highly rigorous, mathematically-derived cinema? "Non-narrative"? But everything tells a story, even if it's the story of its own stubborn refusal to do so. Et bloody cetera. But quite some time ago (1974 to be exact), German theorist Peter Bürger actually put forth a historically specific argument regarding what could properly be called an "avant-garde." While it is an excruciatingly facile simplification of a sharp, nuanced argument, I can provide the crux of Bürger's Theory of the Avant-Garde in a few brief sentences. Bürger's contention, borne from a critical engagement with Duchamp and Dada, was that an avant-garde needed to specifically critique the very institutional conditions that conferred value upon artworks, i.e., the foundation of "Art" itself as a social act. For Dada, that was the museum and the cultural apparatus that supported it. Of course, eventually any gesture can be subsumed by the institution and slotted into an expanded taxonomy of what official Art is, so avant-gardes have expiration dates. They are, basically, "whens," not "whats."
If we fast-forward to 2009 / 2010, we have of course witnessed the birth, death, and wholesale incorporation of numerous avant-garde gestures and micro-flourishings. What seems worth retaining from Bürger's working definition is a strong sense that, if we accept it as a given in our present late-capitalist arrangement that most artists will of necessity maintain some kind of relationship with cultural, educational, or corporate institutions (however attenuated those relationships might be), then it remains her or his responsibility to enfold a basic understanding, if not a thoroughgoing critique, of those grounding institutions into the works themselves. That is, a work that reflects critically upon the social / economic / institutional conditions that make its existence possible can, in Bürger's strong sense of the term, be designated as an avant-garde intervention. In these terms, Guy Maddin's short film Night Mayor is exemplary.
Night Mayor, like many of Maddin's other works, is a kind of steampunk-and-kinetiscope alternate history of the moving image. Many of Maddin's best works have been commissions, and all have reflected on their status as texts connected to specific institutional histories. Night Mayor was commissioned by Canada's preeminent cinematic institution, the National Film Board, on the occasion of its 70th anniversary. Maddin's film is nothing less than a hypothetical "road not taken" in the foundation of a Canadian national image-bank, a revision of the NFB's mission against its committee-driven, centrist sensibility and toward a visionary lunacy explicitly recalling the renegade science of Wilhelm Reich and Nicola Tesla. Following Maddin's para-autobiographical essay film My Winnipeg, which in many ways was a true "nightmare," we return to an older scene which, to our eyes, is much more like a dazzling dream. The "Night Mayor of Winnipeg," who narrates his own tale, is Nihad Ademi (the performer using his real name), a Bosnian immigrant to Canada who, in this alternate reality, has invented an early form of television he calls the Telemelodium. This device harnesses the light of the Aurora Borealis, reinterpreting it as transmittable light and sound impulses (much the same way film projectors use an optical sound strip) which he then "beamed" across Canada over the telephone lines. "I show Canada to itself," Ademi repeats. Using the "false" lights of the Aurora, Adema says, he paradoxically displays the truth.
In the course of things, Ademi's children help operate this TV cinema, and the energy that circulates between its hub and the Canadian people results in the Telemelodium generating its own unbidden desires, such as seeing Ademi's youngest daughter naked. Ademi is concerned, he says, but this is the will and desire of Canada coming through the machine. The parallels to Reich's orgone energy are hardly accidental, but routing them through an entire nation via telecommunications is certainly beyond even Reich's wildest dreams. Along with these saucier images Ademi displays mundane objects -- a non-narrative serialism that provides a radically different model from the Film Board's in terms of "showing Canada to itself." Instead of the tradition established by founder John Grierson, which favored lightly poetic educational documentary, with some experimentation (Norman McLaren, Arthur Lipsett) kept safely across the hall, Maddin is returning to zero and wondering whether a richer, wilder, less institutionalized history of visual Canadiana might have been possible, if, instead of working to establish an institution, the Film Board's artist-workers had been more invested in subjecting art's institutionalization to ongoing revolution. Alas, even in Maddin's fantasy, it was not to be. Ademi, taking his place in the long line of marginalized visionaries (including Philo Farnsworth, the actual inventor of TV!), is shut down. In the final moments of Night Mayor, the Canadian Feds destroy the Telemelodium, on the grounds that it jams the nation's phone lines. Ademi is despondent but still cannot bring himself to speak in anger against his adoptive country. "They don't know what they're doing." These words could be Maddin's, the consolation of a young radical who learned to stop worrying and love the National Film Board.
The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh)
The exclamation point signifies everything! Earlier in the year I wrote a piece about Soderbergh for the German magazine Cargo, mostly responding to Che, a lackluster slog that seemed to emphasize its own pseudo-formal pointlessness. The article turned out sounding a lot more negative on Soderbergh than I intended, although my main point -- that he's the paradigmatic auteur of neoliberalism and its anti-ideological shuck and jive -- is one I stand behind. But there's something I forgot to emphasize with equal vigor, and I should have. Soderbergh's best films reflect an ambivalence toward power and affluence, the awkward toggle in consciousness of a man who travels in the best circles but obviously wasn't born into money and had to use wits, charm and raw talent to nab that elusive brass ring. If Soderbergh's best and most interesting films possess a crypto-autobiographical edge, we might read them as retaining, yes, a degree of awe toward money, power and fame but a whole lot of ironic bemusement as well. Granted, this never radicalizes his films. In keeping with neoliberal branding, this detachment becomes another auteurist mark of excellence that can just as easily be ignored by those whose feathers it might ruffle in a more unassimilable context. But this isn't a bad thing in and of itself, since it helps to display and dissect a kind of goofy wonderment that's the flipside of an (admittedly exhausted) axe-wielding anger at the Powers That Be. Soderbergh communicates not only a kind of gee-whiz pleasure at being set loose on the system to spin his skewed tales of late capital. He also successfully represents certain half-oblivious misfits whose bull-in-the-china-shop failure to conform becomes a different form of critique. For every suave Danny Ocean or Karen Sisco, there's an Erin Brockovich, a Chelsea the escort, and a Mark Whitacre.
Whitacre (Matt Damon) is the focus of The Informant! He's a whistleblower who alerts the feds to an illegal price-fixing scheme at Archer Daniels Midland, the Big Agra megacorporation at which he himself is a rising-star vice president. When speaking to his FBI contacts, Agents Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Paisley (Alan Havey), Whitacre explains that he's willing to expose the scheme, and put himself at personal risk to do so, because, shucky-darn, it's the right thing to do! Exclamation point! Never ones to look a star witness in the mouth, the feds take Whitacre at face value, which is a mistake The Informant! in no way allows its viewer to duplicate. Damon's squirrelly, clean-scrubbed facade of a performance, which finds Whitacre constantly taking a half-second thought pause before answering any question however benign, eyes darting around to case the friendliness of the room, is one clue that something's up. Whitacre's inane voiceover, constantly plying us with irrelevant, faux-Deep Thought queries ("How does a polar bear know his nose is black?"), is a formal slowburn, gradually challenging us to laugh outright at our presumed point of identification. But Soderbergh's peppy use of mid-90s faux-paneled, cocktail-hour mise-en-scène, the brisk camerawork and Marvin Hamlisch's fingerpopping score, all encase The Informant! inside Whitacre's cracked vision of himself as a suburban sophisticate, a razor-sharp genius playing double-agent and duping everyone in sight. At the same time, his fundamental Midwestern decency emerges as well, a continual point of his undoing. Yes, Whitacre was bipolar, but The Informant! speaks to the insider / outsider schizophrenia that makes Soderbergh's keenest films achieve their often-unseen edge. Whitacre's self-delusion can play as broad comedy, but only because he went through the fire and triumphed. What Whitacre actually represents in the overall fabric of the Soderberghian worldview is the double-consciousness that always contains the germ of self-annihilation. Big business gets things done, and millionaires' cinema provides undeniable pleasures for those who make it and those who watch it. But Soderbergh's game is clear; he'll never not be the anarchist who snuck into the party. Che showed us that he will never really lob the molotov. But he's something just as valuable, more along the lines of a fastidious, tech-head Hunter S. Thompson. Steven Soderbergh is our man on the inside.
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, U.S. / Germany)
Okay, I think I get it. Now that he got Kill Bill out of his system, QT is revealing heretofore unseen weirdness. Death Proof was tight, sharp, and often hilarious (as well as deceptively complex on a structural level) but now, Tarantino is making flat-out bizarre, tonally wonky films and daring his fanbase to tag along. The good news is, they are. (U.S. box office: $120 million and counting.) But if you really start taking Inglourious Basterds apart, you'll see that there is a shocking amount of negative space, remarkably placid longeurs, and a willingness to explore genuine stiltedness in conversation, to a degree that, if you'd quizzed me beforehand, I would have declared unthinkable in an American hit movie. The opening scene is a fine example: we know, from the moment LaPadite (Denis Menochet) sees Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz) speeding up the road in the far distance, that this is a showdown between a ruthless Nazi and an innocent man. (Granted, at this point we don't know much more than this.) But Tarantino and Waltz -- who does this throughout the film, part of the brilliance of his performance and why his polyglotism is more than just a keen stunt -- apply the drawn-out diction of non-native speech as both a tension-ratcheting tool and as a semi-Brechtian strange-making device. This accomplishes a few quite fascinating things. For one, it simply heightens the already acute awareness that the lion's share of Inglourious Basterds is talk, talk, talk. We feel we're being set up for a silence-shattering jolt of ultraviolence (something alone the lines of Takeshi Kitano's chopstick move in Fireworks), but the violence never "breaks out" this way. It more "rolls out," as the logical next step of a slow, methodical process (which in itself shows that Tarantino "gets" what is fundamental about Nazism). For another thing, it lends undue weight to each word, as we would expect in the life-or-death scenarios being depicted. Tarantino lets his performers enact the physical pressure of speech-under-duress. Hence, the horrible / hysterical, too-long cackling when Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) tells Landa she broke her leg while mountain climbing, or the extended disquisition on the provenance of German accents in the barroom scene, when Lt. Hicox (Michael Fassbender) gives himself away. This scene is a pip, partly because it doesn't sell the Nazis short (if there was one thing they knew, it was origin!), but also because in this scene of attempted infiltration, talk itself is treated as the deadly medium, like heavy water flooding a reactor. This permits Tarantino to consider theatre and performance within the context of received WWII history, the place where the thing and our understanding of the thing collide.
Usually with Tarantino, specific films and directors show a clear historical imprint on the finished works. But Basterds, paradoxically his most explicitly cinephilic effort ("Operation Kino," with the help of a turncoat Nazi, does in fact destroy the Nazis, giving the decisive win to the Jews rather than the generally white-bread "Greatest Generation," who weren't that interested in anti-Semitism all told), settles for sidelong citations of Sergio Leone and Aldo Ray. No, most of its work is achieved by burying itself in the atmosphere, the physical comportment, and the open / closed spatial dialectics of "the World War II film" as a generic idea, a broadly available concept from our shared film language. Basterds marks its significant difference from that history not only by its affording pride of place to kick-ass Jews, but by treating the European Theatre of Operations, in tactical and/or cinematic terms, as an arena of language and wits, where brute force can only carry one so far. It takes both American brawn and European eloquence to win a war, and to make a Tarantino picture. The Basterds are successful and infamous, and their most notorious and effective member, Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) barely talks, instead bashing in skulls with a baseball bat. ("Donny, we got a Nazi who wishes to die for his country. Oh-BLIGE him!") But when drawn into Operation Kino, they are virtually worthless. Their success, then, is a result of their existence as the Nazis' very concept of the Unimaginable , since, in the twisted faux-Nietzscheanism of Mein Kampf, the Jew embodies the effete, puny apotheosis of the European liberal intellect gone genetically unchecked. Tarantino's joke is that Col. Landa embodies the very qualities of decadence that Nazi thinking equates with Judaism (which in turn accounted for his success as a Jew-hunter, up to a point....and so it goes).
In a well-reasoned review with which I happen to disagree, Jim Hoberman articulated the views of many, who believe (remember, I'm paraphrasing) that Tarantino cheapens the memory of WWII and redoubles the violence the Nazis stood for, by creating a revenge-centered countermyth wherein the Jews behave with all the viciousness of their Third Reich persecutors. (This perspective has much in common with Godard's objections to Schindler's List, as a "rebuilding [of] Auschwitz.") However, I think that this strict historical-switcheroo interpretation must be made more complex, and the doublings and substitutions I sketch out above might be a way to think about this more psychoanalytic dimension of Basterds's project. The paranoid fantasy of the Nazis was one of Jewish invisibility; they had to be rounded up, tattooed and emblazoned with the Star of David so they could be isolated and killed. Tarantino reverses this paranoia by insisting on Jewish hyper-visibility. At the start of the film, Shoshana Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) and her family are hiding under floorboards. Landa compares them to rats. By the finish, she stands bold like Metropolis's False Maria, an angel of death, "the face of Jewish vengeance." Likewise, the Basterds are legend, and feared as such. Tarantino's Jewish characters are not high-toned WWII-era versions of Charles Bronson. Rather, they stand forth as literal Resistance, resistance to their inscribed place within another's perverse fantasy, resistance to the smooth operation of a mechanism that invented their "invisibility" and "cunning" so as to inflict a warped new form of visibility upon them. As Freud will tell you, paranoids are always projecting what they are onto the Other, and if anyone exploited actual invisibility and mainstream infiltration of the larger populace, it was the postwar Nazis, many of whom went onto productive and even lucrative careers in German and Austrian politics and industry without detection. (This problem was a key instigator of both the New German Cinema and the Baader-Meinhof Group.) So, when Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, hamming it up) stops the fleeing Landa at the border to carve the swastika into his forehead, this is not simply "payback" for the tortures of the Holocaust. It is the return of the Nazis' own repressed, the emergence of the ultimate sadism transfigured into a branding which, though inflicted from without, might just as well have burned itself from the inside out. (To borrow Guy Maddin's words, Landa receives his "brand upon the brain.") In some greater sense, Raine (and of course Tarantino) are postulating not just an alternate end to World War II, but to the peace as well, wherein Nazis' desires were fully visible and their latent masochism, the greater need to submit to something or someone stronger (read your Kracauer! read your Adorno!), could be liberated, a libidinal economy free at last. Last shot: Raine looks into the camera, as if we've accepted the swastika. We don't know who in the hell is who anymore, only that something much different than the 20th century is being imagined for us. "I think this just might be my masterpiece."
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Werner Herzog, U.S. / Germany)
Early word on this, Herzog's second fictional feature of 2009, was pretty toxic. Co-produced by David Lynch and his Absurda imprint, My Son has been widely dismissed as (a) a David Lynch parody; (b) Herzog's disastrous attempt at a Lynch-inflected suburban surrealist piece; (c) some kind of unclear Herzog / Lynch collaboration, or maybe even a project begun by one filmmaker and handed off to the other at some point, possibly in befuddlement or disgust. It's here that I have to tip my hat to two of my friends, Mike D'Angelo and Theo Panayides, because they are among the few to have seen through the fog of misinterpretation on this, one of Herzog's most completely realized and thematically coherent efforts since his German heyday. (Indeed, My Son is far more Herzogian than the director's comeback film, Rescue Dawn, a film that seemed to win more than a few critics and viewers over to its cause by being so straitlaced.) But let's widen the frame a bit. If we consider Grizzly Man (to cite another clear triumph) to be Herzog's most fully realized documentary effort of this decade (and I doubt I'm alone in feeling this way), it's precisely because Herzog was able to locate and explore, to their fullest ramifications, the grand philosophical concerns that have dominated his greatest cinematic achievements and have defined his fundamental identity as an artist. As in Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, or Heart of Glass, we find civilization's struggle and ultimate failure in the face of raw nature, Enlightenment beaten back by the primal forces of earth and sky. In Kaspar Hauser, these states collide in the form of one puny man, to tragic ends. And again, in Tim Treadwell, Herzog shows us the folly of human arrogance in the face of indifferent nature in Grizzly Man.
Yes, yes, you say -- we've been over this. Fine. So, why are so many folks finding My Son, My Son so difficult to parse? Let's stipulate that certain elements of the film (based on a true story) do call to mind the Lynchian corpus. We have a straight-arrow, even naive police detective (Willem Dafoe) called to the scene of an apparent hostage crisis following the murder of an elderly mother (Grace Zabriske) by her live-in, part time actor son Brad (Michael Shannon). Herzog continually gives us slow zooms and tracking shots around the eerily still, cactus-and-flamingo laden suburban facade of the mother and son's San Diego home, lending them a kind of Blue Velvet / Mulholland Dr. cinematic presence, as a sort of "architecture-of-the-mind." The murder takes place over morning coffee. And as we learn more about Brad, we discover in some detail that he may have had some significant Oedipal issues, confusing his own relationship with his mother with the one he was charged to represent in his role as Orestes in Sophocles' Electra. His director Lee (Udo Kier) describes Brad's talent and anguish in detail to Dafoe's Hank, in great detail, serving as a kind of chorus for the film itself. Likewise, Brad's co-star and fiancee Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny) describes various instances of disturbed behavior on Brad's part -- a confused call from Tijuana, his unhealthy attachment to his mom during what seemed to be a date, etc. -- that should have tipped her off that something was wrong.
But Herzog isn't Lynch. Few filmmakers in our era (really, few in history, apart from original surrealists like Cocteau and Buñuel) have been as devoted as Lynch has been to exploring the human unconscious, attributing Freudian motives to the fractured subjects peopling his dreamscapes. In some sense, My Son, My Son's diegetic world operates on this register as well, with Ingrid finding Brad's depression and mood swings troubling but indescribably seductive, Lee attributing Brad's erratic behavior to the quirks of a sensitive artist, and his own mother simply coddling him, protecting him from the inevitable clashes with reality that would have revealed problems earlier. Much is made of Brad's "transformation" following a trip to Peru, but this is clearly a red herring. Brad is psychotic, a sad victim of the chemistry of his own brain. This, in Herzogian terms, is Brad's "nature." However, as an upper middle class white male, Brad fell into a "support network" (beginning with his own mother) that interpreted his illness as difference, creativity, sensitivity, or a phase. These endless explanations form the "civilization" that Herzog sees as constantly attempting, and failing, to subdue certain incomprehensible aspects of life on earth. What's strikingly new about My Son, My Son is that this classic struggle is turned inward, but becomes no less anti-humanistic for that. If anything, it's more so. So if this film is indeed "Herzog doing Lynch," this means something rather bold, like Gang of Four doing Sigur Ros (or, I guess more prosaically, someone like Bruce Springsteen taking on U2 at their bombastic worst). That is, a set of possibilities completely determined by the material world are being used to explain "the freaky world of David Lynch." (Okay, I'm not sure why Verne Troyer shows up.) But Brad Dourif's recurring story about breeding the giant roosters is kind of the passkey here. This nutso redneck kept trying to beat Mother Nature at her own game, until he hit the brick wall of sterility. This is a bit like how Brad's world runs out of explanatory frameworks and eventually reaches its literal dead end.
Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)
Guess what? I'm going to piss most everybody off on this one, batting right up the middle. Because really, that's exactly where this reasonably well-crafted trifle is pitched, and there's not much sense in taking it seriously enough to get worked up about it. Granted, I can certainly comprehend the point of view of those who are disgusted by it (like, say, my Cinema Scope brethren) much more than that of anybody who's proclaiming it a goddamned modern masterpiece or a bracing look at How We Live Now. That "opinion" is patently moronic, but it seems to me that it's necessary to separate Reitman's cozy off-Hollywood dramedy from the grander claims being made on its behalf in an Oscar season characterized by the desperate flailing of studios crippled, creatively and financially, by the very global economic crisis that Up in the Air takes as its, um, "point of departure." Nothing out there is any good this year, so a halfway winning film about semi-recognizable adults is being oversold as Sturges 2.0, and we'd do well to remember the Canadian band Sloan and their joke about Consolidated vs. their fans. This is not by any means to say that Up in the Air, as a text unto itself, is guiltless, or doesn't bring charges of smarmy bad faith upon itself. It certainly does. Reitman's slick-hip Maguire-ish story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), corporate axman for hire, and his gradual abandonment of a philosophy of selfish isolation in favor of family and connection -- i.e., switching from being a perpetual traveler to forging a "home" -- is indeed tarted up with inexcusably mawkish, Laurent Cantet-for-the-USA Today-set inserts of "real" people (not actors!) addressing the camera and describing their emotions following the loss of their jobs due to downsizing. This spray-on gravitas is preposterous, not just because it's so clearly phoned in, but more importantly because these "real people" are there not to complicate The Ryan Bingham Story (what an actual art film would do with, you know, extra-diegetic nonfictional material), but to cement its home-and-hearth trajectory as American gospel. Everyone has been devastated by losing their job and identity, but thank God, family has been a constant source of support. Just like the lesson Ryan learned. (Apparently the music rights to Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush's "Don't Give Up" were too high, so a new song, by an actual downsized musician, closes out the film.)
The thing is, this home-stretch attempt at genuine relevance would be just a sour, if laughably offensive note, a sign of Reitman believing his own inflated press, if so many critics and Oscar prognosticators weren't taken in by its malarkey. Taken on its own merits, I submit that this unfortunate misstep into self-seriousness, which does little besides expose Up in the Air's inability to think politics or sociology outside of dominant ideological categories, would be excusable, simply because it's just a sign of what happens when middlebrow entertainment (either by misplaced artistic ambition or external constraint) presses too hard beyond its own station. None of this undoes the things Up in the Air does right, which extreme distaste with its overall trajectory can obscure. There is a pleasurably deft rhythm with which Reitman establishes Ryan's pre-crisis frequent-flyer personality which transcends mere hackwork. Clooney's balance of likability and smugness is matched with a poppy, swaggering bravado in editing, framing, and mise-en-scène, and this coalescence is the primary reason any of us are talking about Up in the Air in the first place. And, although certain of its genre moves are significantly overstated -- Vera Farmiga's Alex too carefully calls to mind the snappy byplay of tart 1940s Hollywood couples; Anna Kendrick's Natalie displays a youth and inexperience that veers into ridiculousness at times, making her level of professional achievement seem dubious by contrast -- both actresses and characters are given room to expand in ways that do resonate, particularly in light of the near-anaerobic first half of the film. While Natalie's first solo firing is, it's true, too showy a moment to fully achieve any organic truth, the scene is one of the few in the film which manages to evacuate all coolness and allow a universally stilted atmosphere to obtain. By contrast, Clooney and Farmiga are given a shocking amount of room in the wedding reception sequence, and while Reitman's use of sound does clue us in that this is not as unstructured a piece of filmmaking as he might like us to believe, the actors do come to life in an almost haphazard manner, leaving the film for a few minutes to exist as bodies in an open space.
Whether these are instances of savvy performers circumventing deterministic scripting and direction, we cannot say, but it seems to me that Reitman has hit upon certain complicated moments inside a very cut and dried middlebrow movie, and given the fact that this is only his third at-bat as a director, he may yet develop into an interesting auteur. Of course, the fact that this seriously muddled film is being praised as a masterwork, for all the wrong reasons, doesn't bode well at all. I'm sure the system will eat him up. But if I seems like I come neither to bury nor to praise Reitman and his film, it's ultimately because I see this tangle of contradictions as symptomatic of larger problems we're all facing at the moment. It's comical to me that anyone would look at Up in the Air and see a film that in any way analyzes the global economic breakdown, or the early Obama period, or whatever mess we're in. There was a film that analyzed all that, Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience. It's both odd and telling that in nine short months, the economic collapse has gone from subject of actual consideration to mere backdrop. But it's also fascinating that Up in the Air, a perfectly passable tale of yuppie asshole redemption, has become a critical lightning rod on par with a Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke movie. As if to completely sum up our present inside-out anti-conundrums, we're parsing a film that, at base, is about a man who organizes his own life according to trite, stupid metaphors. Up in the air, frequent flyer miles, airport to airport, what's in your backpack, yadda yadda yadda. Marc Augé's Non-Places as an inflight magazine. All that's missing is the hot towel. The dumb metaphors broke down, and were replaced with a slightly less dumb set of metaphors. When I was done, I threw it in the trash. It passed the time.
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
I've been debating whether or not to write anything about The Hurt Locker, given that I am one of the only human beings currently residing on Planet Earth who is anything less than enraptured with this film. Given this fact, I suspect my readers may be anxious to rip into any arguments I might make, and so the pressure's on to be 110% cogent and, where possible, support my assessment with concrete details from Bigelow's film. Am I prepared to do this? In an ideal world, a second viewing (preferably in a movie theatre) would precede any jump into the breach, but the world I'm living in, though many things, is hardly perfect. Having said all that, I do feel reasonably firm in the validity of my reactions, even though I do plan to see Hurt Locker again when I can. I'd like to at least give myself the chance to locate the magnificence so many others have embraced.
First of all, I think something should be said about Bigelow as a director, and her direction of The Hurt Locker in particular. The going line in the film and entertainment media is that Bigelow has been a criminally underrated master filmmaker for decades and has now delivered what may be her undeniable masterpiece. Her time has come, etc. A large part of the Bigelow mystique, especially among the egghead cinema cognoscenti, comes back to a few concrete elements that, we are told, make her work quite special. One, of course, is that she is probably the only woman in Hollywood making medium- to large-budget studio films, usually in the action genre. So one of the primary questions around Bigelow stems from feminism: Since Bigelow works in predominantly male genres, how does she tweak them or work against formula to create difference from the big-budget Hollywood model? The idea is that Bigelow brings a feminist perspective to ordinary projects, and leads somewhat directly to the other major critical truism about Bigelow: Her work as a painter has given her a uniquely formed compositional eye. Everybody is always looking for difference in Bigelow's work, assuming that it must be there, But both of these questions, while valid, seem to me to be consistently overstated in order to solidify Bigelow as a kind of pantheon figure.
What Bigelow does accomplish in Hurt Locker (and in Strange Days and Point Break) is an unusually fluid description of filmic space. This of course is vital, especially in action films like the ones Bigelow makes. Fluid editing and rigorously controlled "on the fly" cinematography all serve to generate a a coherent field of action. But the aspect of Bigelow's direction and Barry Ackroyd's cinematography that indicates that clearest delineation of space (and Bigelow's firm-handed mastery over slice-n-dice contemporaries like Bay, Schumacher, Petersen, and de Bont) has to do with intra-sequence and intra-shot maneuvering. More often than not, Bigelow and Ackroyd will pan and zoom within a single shot of an action sequence, rigorously redirecting our attention with a nearly mathematical precision. The Hurt Locker virtually slices the space of its activity out of the surrounding environment, the camera an intimate instrument wielded in a manner somewhere between that of a pen and a sewing needle.
There is a temptation to say that The Hurt Locker's problems aren't formal, but in a significant way they are. It's unfair to place too much pressure on the film's opening epigram from Christopher Hedges ("War is a drug"), but Locker's much-vaunted status as a different kind of Iraq movie is intimately tied to Bigelow's formal decisions. In essence, the film locks us inside its U.S. military protagonists' point of view, as the renegade tactics of SSgt William James (Jeremy Renner) move from cowboy recklessness to emotional instability and eventually emerge as a kind of respite from the drudgery of life on the homefront. James (the character name cannot be insignificant; Renner's character must undergo tests in order to achieve his hard-bitten pragmatism) butts heads with Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a far more conservative soldier who'd rather abide by the chain of command and abjure needless heroics, i.e. return home alive. Bigelow gives us views from the soldiers' eyelines, views from the sights of their weapons, from their mobile 'bots sent out to do prelim work on disarming IEDs, and of course views from inside the company and a kind of "embedded" vicarious kino-eye and ear. We are not asked to reflect on the larger aims of the U.S. mission in Iraq. Rather, Locker so completely identifies its gaze with the unit that we, the audience, "follow" their orders just as they do.
Make no mistake. I am not complaining that The Hurt Locker is elaborated from the point of view of American soldiers. I am also not complaining about its attempt to explore the human toll of the Iraq invasion from a standpoint more intimate than global geopolitics. But just as Bigelow's career has been interpreted according to those two truisms (feminism and fine arts education), about which I'll say more in a second, The Hurt Locker asks us to think about two problems in our own understanding of contemporary warfare, particularly in the Middle East with an all-volunteer Armed Forces. First, what does it mean to "support the troops"? Does The Hurt Locker really achieve apolitical drama by attaching itself to an exclusively American point of view, casting "hajjis" as shadowy, incomprehensible figures, like Indians in the old Westerns? The Hurt Locker treats Iraqis as target practice, or worse. What's more, Bigelow's "apolitical" approach explicitly asks us to step back and appreciate The Hurt Locker not as any form of statement but as a well-crafted entertainment, even a work of art. If we accept this thesis regarding Bigelow's crypto-Kantian aesthetic autonomy, then asking after the film's formal design with respect to Arabs, in particular their consistent position on the other side of our protagonists' ordnance and technology, is just churlishness. The "formal structure," or the "genre," has certain requirements, including faceless villains to dispatch across a specific spatial field. Ask more, and you're the ideologue.
This leads to the second question regarding The Hurt Locker's construction. If we are now uniquely suited to step inside the IED disposal unit and occupy their highly mediated yet viscerally dangerous environment, it is probably because he have done something very similar before, in first-person videogames. It's been said over and over again (even by the soldiers themselves) that modern warfare looks a lot like PSP or Wii. But with The Hurt Locker, that very aesthetic returns to us in a reinforced form. Bigelow's plunges into the Z-axis or her rapid but integral spans of time and space are uncharacteristic of cinema, but are de rigueur in contemporary gaming. Again, there is an entire discourse on the troubling nature of this confluence, and I'm not suggesting that Bigelow was somehow responsible for engaging with it. But The Hurt Locker is discouraging in that we find a Paul Virilio nightmare unfolding before our eyes: military technology has fashioned itself after cinema and videogames, and now the military aesthetic (a decidedly non-Kantian one!) is influencing cinema in turn. In a way, the film's narrative also demonstrates its creative debt to videogaming in the sappy subplot between James and the young Iraqi boy who cals himself Beckham (Christopher Sayegh). James forms a bond, the kid is killed, James is devastated, and then almost immediately another identical boy takes his place. Mark Boal's script seems to point to Iraq as a cyclical, pointless pursuit, and while James is clearly disturbed by this, the film moves on to the next set of POV military action.
If "war is a drug," then cinema probably is as well. Cinema, as a purely virtual pursuit, is a much safer addiction, but the problem with The Hurt Locker is that everything about its perspective, from its formal bones up to its macho buddy narrative marginalia, disguises itself under the aegis of political neutrality, "just telling a good story." To return to the Bigelow question, we can finally look at The Hurt Locker and ask ourselves, beyond her undeniable formal dexterity, does Kathryn Bigelow bring difference to the project in the way her champions seem to think? On the painterly front, I'd have to say somewhat, although not to the degree that others have claimed. The director does indeed exhibit an advanced understanding of spatial dynamics, but as compared with, say, Michael Mann's genuinely painterly use of color and form, or even George Lucas's command of cinema's sculptural dimension, Bigelow is no covert avant-gardist.
As for feminism, I think this is too unfair a question to even pose. This issue is one that is practically designed to demand more of Bigelow than of her contemporaries. Why should she be held to a different standard in the first place? Nevertheless, The Hurt Locker is ambivalent on this point. The macho theatrics between James and Sanborn display no critical undercurrent. The third member of the unit, Spc. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), has to overcome PTSD and shell-shock, which he does; his pencil-pushing superior officer and counselor, Col. Cambridge (Christian Camargo) lives down to his effete college-boy name. In other words, Bigelow's not deconstructing masculinity in Iraq. But in the penultimate sequence, after James goes home to his wife (Evangeline Lilly) and son, The Hurt Locker does provide an eerie insight into a psychological trait that may or may not be peculiar to masculinity but certainly has to do with a loss of self in high-anxiety performance mode. When we see James cleaning the gutters or pushing a shopping cart through the supermarket, the man is practically trembling, an adrenaline junkie dying for a fix. In the last shot, we see that he has indeed re-upped for another one-year tour of duty. If it's possible to extrapolate a more general American syndrome from James's addiction, The Hurt Locker could be said to conclude on a critical note. But why should we extrapolate? Everything that has gone before -- the James / Sanborn conflict, the serial organization of bomb after bomb, the narrow focus on the mission without consideration of the larger implications of the whole -- demands that we attend to each element within The Hurt Locker as radically particular (except for the Arabs, that is). Since this rapt attention to detail, and its concomitant unwillingness to connect things to one another, is precisely what accounts for Bigelow's "apolitical" triumph, there's no sense in devising a broad philosophical exit strategy at the final buzzer.
A Single Man (Tom Ford)
[SPOILERS] Glib though it may be to say so, A Single Man is a film directed by a fashion designer, right down to its very bones. Ford's decision to adapt a Christopher Isherwood piece may have been an attempt on the part of the first-time filmmaker to bolster his project with a dash of literary gravitas (albeit of the para-canonical, button-down gay variety), but it actually allows him to stumble into all manner of tonal gaffes, since there's no clear sense that Ford understands how to meaningfully represent the hamstrung mores of pre-Stonewall life. Depicting George (Colin Firth), an English professor now rudderless and suicidal following the traffic-accident death of his younger partner Jim (Matthew Goode), Ford mistakes jewellike fossilization for the outer vestments of art cinema. Most of the time A Single Man is dead on the screen, locked behind jagged modern architecture and glassy who-am-I reverberations, a visual echo chamber broadcasting the film's well-manicured night of the soul. Faced with the charge of providing a psychological correlative to gay male mourning, one which walks a Miramaxy line between acknowledging and eschewing the carnal memories of George's life with Jim, Ford chooses silvery underlighting, compositions that are meticulously mannered (but "tasteful," like a wall sconce), and a dominant visual idea -- all the color is bled from the images of George's grief-ridden, haute-bourgeois existence, and floods back only in memories of Jim and select present-day encounters -- that verges on the silly.
Add to this the fact that Ford's adapted script draws upon some of Isherwood's most unfortunate tendencies and, if anything, shines them up until they're even more on-the-nose. Certain of Single Man's key scenes -- most notably, the notification of Joe's death, George's college lecture on otherness, and George's defense of his homosexuality against claims of frivolity by his best friend Charlie (Julianne Moore) -- feel as though they were excerpted from an political pamphlet rather than a work of literature, and Ford does little to mitigate the pulpitry. Although I am a formalist by and large, and tend to evaluate films first and foremost based on their internal integrity, and A Single Man flails largely because these moments of George's "breakdown" are so of a piece with everything else in the film -- articulate, deliberate, fussily directed within an inch of its life. Everything Ford touches becomes painfully etched in its alleged understatement, emotions and clothes fundamentally equal in their meticulously recreated period detail. And yet, two things rescue A Single Man from utter irrelevance. One is Colin Firth's performance, with ekes actual meaning out of Ford's hornrimmed super-stylings. That Firth is capable of sussing out some genuine spark in George, which he is, speaks to the man's gifts as an actor. He turns these memes into half-swallowed, not-waving-or-quite-yet-drowning dispatches from a tightly wound soul, for whom anguish is now just one more facet of an existence kept largely repressed, less because of society's homophobia than because that homophobia and George's own public bearing have locked into place to generate a tragically complementary form of private self. And, sadly, the other has little to do with the film itself. However clunky and declamatory George's speeches may be, they still have purchase in our deeply warped society. I saw A Single Man the day that New York State voted to ban gay marriage, and it's impossible to listen to George's (and Isherwood's, and Ford's) excoriation of Charlie and her thoughtless dismissal of the eleven-year bond (can we just man up and call it sacred?) between himself and Jim, without considering the bigots, and the fact that we have to make this same boring argument again and again.
[NOTE: I took so long it reviewing this, and in reconsulting my notes, that I essentially botched the grade, about which I was decidedly on the fence and certainly would've dropped had I reviewed A Single Man -- or even thought about it again -- in a timely fashion. But the backlog just screwed with my head a bit, allowing Firth's strong performance to mitigate preposterous elements of the film that are clearly beyond the pale. The "ironic" ending twist is, of course, the capper. My apologies for the gaffe.]