REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JUNE 2010
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
I actually have very little to add to my Nashville Scene review, except to say that Poitras successfully walks a fine line between turing al-Bahri into the ideal tragic figure and simply allowing the facts to take shape around him. That is to say, The Oath can at times start to resemble a film that is unfairly organizing itself around dramatic principles, in order to heighten the impact of al-Bahri's numerous shifts in attitude, strategy, and honesty. But in fact, what we are witnessing is a man being backed into a corner, someone who eventually shows himself to be willing to stop at nothing to save his own skin. In the course of doling out the facts, the many sides of al-Bahri come into focus -- jihadi, peaceful convert, caring brother-in-law, callous bystander, and eventual stoolie for the U.S. military. It would have been equally easy for Poitras to portray al-Bahri as an opportunistic buffoon, but instead The Oath regards him with great compassion. Fortunately most of us will not be tested in the way that he was, and so we will never know for sure how true we'd have stayed to our own convictions (or how steadfastly we'd have stood by family) in a similar situation. One thing is for sure, however. Samir Hamdan becomes "emptied out" in the detention and trials progress, becoming less and less of a single human being than an idea, an abstraction. Much like the Jose Padilla case, the label of "terrorist" becomes the ultimate trump card, effacing many of the most basic questions that our judicial system would ask before going forward in the prosecution of any defendant. The one bright spot, and to Poitras's credit one that The Oath displays quite clearly, is the vigorous defense Hamdan received by military lawyers, as committed to defending Constitutional principles as any ACLU attorneys.
Nothing in the world of film distribution is ever left entirely to chance -- there are too many people's investments on the line. So I think it is rather telling that Shirin, another of Abbas Kiarostami's quasi-experimental filmworks which is much more of a piece with 10 and Five, has begun to see the light of day, after languishing in artfilm limbo for two years. After all, Shirin now emerges on the power of Kiarostami's vouchsafe of narrative rebound with his latest film Certified Copy, and so we can, in some sense, look at Shirin (so it might be presumed) without the panic that greeted 10 ("Has the master gone mad?") We know that "the rough patch" is over, or at least not absolute, that we along with Kiarostami are out of the woods and so we can spend some time with a difficult film like Shirin as we would a curio from a spate of bad behavior since corrected, an old silver flask or the odd, undiscarded scrap of porno. Funny, then, that Shirin is the most fully realized Kiarostami effort since 10, and far superior to his other pseudo-avant-garde outings (Five, Roads of Kiarostami, 10 on Ten). It's also in many regards the one most shaped by storytelling, organized along a narrative arc that flowers not through its visual enactment but through its secondary and tertiary impact, the micro-drama of an unseen spectacle eliciting reaction from an internal audience who are, quite literally, the film's screen. Shirin consists almost entirely of Falconetti-like close-ups (generally pitched between a straight-on angle and around 30°) of women in a darkened theatre audience watching a performance of the 12th century Persian epic "Khosrow and Shirin." Shakespearean in tone and redolent with the atmosphere of Greek classical literature, this cornerstone of the Persian repertoire is a romantic tragedy of starcrossed lovers which ends in double suicide, much like "Romeo and Juliet." Kiarostami trains his camera on the closely-gauged reactions of 114 women spectators, each given a short but adequate amount of time to register a legible emotional reaction to the dramatic action. The sound of the performers onstage continues uninterrupted. Shot breaks exist solely to shift our gaze from one woman to the next.
Kiarostami's project, as you might expect, contains a degree of sociological discovery befitting a watching-film so structurally arranged. Older women, for instance, tended to become more emotionally responsive to "Khosrow and Shirin," whereas the youngest girls had fewer obvious expressions of deep abiding interest, much less catharsis. Of course, this speaks to the typical questions of maturity being a prerequisite for the appreciation of certain works of art, depicting as they do certain situations that young people haven't yet had to endure. But in the specific context of Iran, there is the additional layer of generational disconnect and the interrupted transmissions of artistic heritage following the 1979 revolution. Younger viewers will have a far more attenuated view of "Khosrow and Shirin," as a work from a reactionary culture that holds both fascination and confusion. But this raw data, the facts of who could conceivably react to what and how, is of course only a small part of what makes Shirin intriguing. As Bela Balazs liked to remind us, the human face is a vast field of psycho-muscular activity, and only the cinema is capable of capturing the drama that unfolds on this private battleground. Kiarostami has upped the ante, in a sense, by creating the unique situation of conflating "audience" and "actor," building a film around spectatorship as a visual event. This isn't unheard of. Sharon Lockhart's Teatro Amazonas is only the most recent among many well-known examples of this strategy. But Kiarostami's audience is comprised of actresses. (They include Niki Karimi, Leila Hatami, Mahnaz Afshar, Soraya Ghasemi, Golshifteh Farahani, and in a surprise appearance, Juliette Binoche.) And so, in responding, they are also performing, for the film Shirin. Our access to "Khosrow and Shirin" as well as to Shirin is mediated through a series of discontinuous performances of varying levels of attention, engagement, emotional extremity or withholding. And so, Kiarostami and the actresses are also returning signals about our own levels of engagement back to us, from that flat, impenetrable screen. As a sameness sets in, as our ability to pull in information from the visual track wanes and (at least in my case) we close our eyes and listen to "Khosrow and Shirin," the ability or inability of our own responses to measure up to the ones on screen becomes a nagging concern. But then, those women are all acting. But then, so are we. The screen of Shirin is a flat surface that acts as a site of exchange, a locus of energy that both frustrates legitimate narrative desires -- the play exists in our space, the offscreen Z-axis, somewhere we both are and can never go -- and provides one way out of the Plato's Cave of cinema. After all, we're watching flickers, they pretend to stand in for our viewing, and as we come to believe in them, and their false pleasure on our behalf, we see that we too are shadows on the very same wall.
Time was, I could probably begin a review like this very simply, establishing a framework for June 17's flaws just by noting that it's television, and asking rhetorically how ambitious we could honestly expect it to be. But that dog won't hunt anymore, not in this, the Second Golden Age of Television. So really, even though Morgen's contribution to ESPN's 30 For 30 series is actually quite strong, its lapses into convention are extremely telling. Even in this, the age of The Wire and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and Curb Your Enthusiasm and 30 Rock and any number of other truly innovative fictional shows, for the most part nonfiction TV has remained a bastion of expository classicism. Even high profile HBO productions like Burma VJ and Trouble The Water, excellent though they are, exhibit formal conservatism in the pursuit of other, more radical goals in terms of content. (I would cite only two HBO Docs as displaying any real formal audacity: When the Levees Broke and especially Iraq In Fragments, although I believe the latter was independently produced and purchased later.) Somehow the perception persists that intelligent viewers, who not only will accept but clearly crave innovation in televisual storytelling, will run in the other direction if faced with modernist technique in documentary. (But then, maybe the networks have it right. I recall gritting my teeth several years back while some professors at a dinner party lavished praise on Martin Scorsese's PBS series The Blues but singled out Wim Wenders' highly speculative, fragmentary contribution, The Soul of a Man, as being "weird" and violating "historians' ethics." If I'd had a dish of potato salad, I would have fallen asleep face-first in it.
So in light of what he's up against, all praise to Brett Morgen. I didn't care much for his treatment of the Chicago 10 in the film of the same name, partly because I felt it displayed a muddled attitude toward its subject. But it also permitted itself some snarky presentism, the freedom to (re)cast the Yippies as Theatre of the Absurd without any sense of a justifying critique. Part of what makes June 17, 1994 a much better film in every way is that, on the level of both form and content, Morgen clearly has an analysis, one with which we can at least take issue. This is "vertical history," a single day as a time segment that not only yokes together and interrelates disparate events in the world of sport (the World Cup kickoff in L.A., Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Knicks and Rockets, the Stanley Cup victory parade for the New York Rangers, and most significantly, Arnold Palmer's final appearance at the U.S. Open, and his subsequent retirement from the non-seniors pro circuit), but finds them bizarrely subsumed beneath one bizarre master media event: O.J. Simpson's Bronco chase. To say that Morgen's film is compelling "within the constraints of the assignment" is churlish, but undeniably true; the selection of this (hyper-) active day in sports news allows him to consider not just the events themselves and their awkwardly differential import (although Morgen accomplishes this, too), but to turn the gaze back onto the media itself. Sports reportage comes under a certain amount of scrutiny. We see Bob Costas, Tom Brokaw, and their respective producers negotiating exactly how to cover Game 5 alongside the developing story of O.J.'s possible suicide (which really looked plausible at the time), Costas doing his best to finesse the seemingly questionable taste in going ahead with sports coverage in light of the Simpson tragedy. Of course, Morgen gets some mileage here from magical hindsight. There's nothing less tasteful than the O.J. saga, and focusing on virtually anything instead of that self-aggrandizing maniac, celebrity acquittee / golfer and author of If I Did It could hardly seem inappropriate. (Elsewhere, we hear baseball announcers, covering a significant game for Ken Griffey, Jr., make a tasteless joke about the O.J. murders.)
June 17, 1994 also demonstrates a pre-Internet media spectacle, although one that in many ways kicked off many of the tabloid tropes that would become the bread and butter of the Web. Morgen shows us the collision of live feeds, the miscues and dead time, the confusion of "developing stories," all the rough stuff that professional media has gotten so much better at concealing over the years. The 24-hour news cycle is, in part, a tool for maintaining the illusion of an all-knowing, full-tilt knowledge machine. And to this day, it really takes an event of the magnitude of 9/11 to visibly crack that facade. Morgen displays some of the helplessness of both local reporters and law enforcement in the midst of a phenomenon they didn't really understand. But there are lengthy moments during its hour-long running time that June 17 starts to feel like a copout, and these are its moments of clear, patient exposition. At several points, for whatever reason (network pressure? nostalgia?), the film diverts from its channel-surfing, hour-by-hour structure to deliver (for example) a linear excursus on the importance of Arnold Palmer to the sport of golf, and the meaning of his June 17th U.S. Open appearance to the man himself and his fans. I am hard-put to imagine how someone could miss this, even in the Debordian blur that is June 17, 1994, the film as well as the day. And perhaps Morgen is working overtime to set up his (rather flat) punchline in the credits, during which we see Palmer and Simpson brought together under different circumstances. In the end, Morgen is merely proposing a new method for TV documentary, and gesturing towards it. But without the full courage of his convictions, he stops short of delivering history-as-radical-montage.
I actually saw MacGruber referred to on one online forum (admittedly, with a question mark) as "the new Lebowski?" and when you begin to see things like that, well you know that standards have dropped, straws are all that's out there and poor suckers are clutching at them, etc. But indubitably part of what is now starting to (prematurely) cement this film's microlegend is its completely unfair bellyflop at the box office. (Need I point out that the current media moment's popular obsession with opening weekends and ticket sales -- this kind of stuff now just being a part of "entertainment news" and of presumed interest to fans instead of the purview of industry people like it should be -- has produced this underdog effect, a film's perceived flameout becoming a component in its cult fandom. But I'll leave it to folks like Henry Jenkins and George Lipsitz to puzzle this one out.) Granted, there are plenty of things about L'Affaire MacGruber that are perfectly predictable, most notably, why did anyone think Will Forte could open a movie? But, alas, it's really most likely a case of Lorne Michaels and the SNL machine fundamentally misreading their own place in the current landscape. There's a reason it's been ten years since they've made a movie out of a sketch, and it's not just because "SNL sucks." It's because no one watches "SNL" as such. Some people DVR it, but mostly it is a clearing house for lots of silly bits, most of which will be instantly forgotten. The ones that hit (e.g. Tina Fey's Sarah Palin, or the recent Betty White triumph) will be seen on blogs, Hulu, and in other a la carte repeat formats. The "L" word in SNL is a thing of the past; it's all just pre-viral video at best, filler at worst. And so making a MacGruber movie, to today's viewers, makes about as much sense as constructing an 85 minute narrative arc around "Dick in a Box." Or, maybe "SNL sucks." I mean yes, it's possible that moviegoers are at long last properly risk-averse when it comes to shelling out for feature films based on SNL sketches, since they almost invariably represent the comedic equivalent of a senile relative at the holidays. Endless meandering moves well past lack of mirth and slides headlong into embarrassment for all present. But interpretations such as this -- that Americans learned their lesson and avoided MacGruber in droves -- seem overly generous, to put it mildly. If any one explanation could be said to predominate in what, surely, now looks a lot like a perfect shitstorm, it's probably simple demographics. Much like the deeply flawed but undeniably worthy Idiocracy, MacGruber is a film that exhibits a concrete, unwavering vision. It bears few if any concessions to the round-robin test marketing method of buckshot joke assault that characterizes most high-concept Hollywood comedies. As a result, it's a film with a highly specialized audience, many of whom don't yet know who they are. How many young people even know who / what MacGyver is? Forte, Taccone, and co-scripter John Solomon nevertheless bravely charge into the breach, using the occasion of Forte's MacGruber character (yes, I know that phrasing sounds weird) to stage something approximating a full-fledged mock-up of a 1980s Cannon Films actioner. Once again, Taccone (a Lonely Island member) and his cohort run into certain difficulties, because rather than keeping the jokes flying fast and low, they let MacGruber luxuriate in the fetish of surfaces, the cheapness of backlighting or flippy hairdos, the editing motifs, all the little touches that are not, strictly speaking, funny. Or at least not in the way that shoving a stalk of celery up your ass [SPOILER] is funny. Add to this broad issue (we could call it the Simulacrum Factor) the sort of Sacha Baron Cohenesque sociological problem (for American audiences, anyway) that the broad, swing-for-the-fences joke-jokes in MacGruber (which, by the way, are usually quite hilarious) involve both queer desperation and a lead character whose casual repugnance, slowly revealed like a bracing running gag, makes Dabney Coleman look like Jimmy Stewart. It would be the perfect cult film, if it were just a bit better realized, and of course, more consistently funny. Still, there's a lot to admire here, especially from a kind of odd-duck, formalist / deconstructive standpoint. It's actually more interesting to see how a pushpin, a wad of chewing gum and a ballpoint pen stubbornly hold their own, refusing to add up to much of anything.
Funny -- when I decided a while back that I would refrain from reviewing each and every new release I saw, it was films like Ondine that I was letting myself off the hook about. Perfectly pleasant, well-acted and frequently lovely, it's also a film so fundamentally straightforward in its artistic aims that trying to wring argumentation out of it, or spend a lot of time poring over its modest virtues, just seemed like a "blood from a turnip" proposition. But then, with the benefit of hindsight, I had to acknowledge something. While I came to find Ondine no deeper and not necessarily any richer than I did upon immediately seeing it, I actually enjoyed it quite a lot more than many of the recent films I'd seen that, by conventional critical measure, were "better." There's nothing particularly ambitious about Jordan's film, but then, pace some of my harder-nosed brothers and sisters in the game of criticism, there's a place for Jordan's cozy, well-crafted upper-middlebrow cinema. Conventional storytelling is so seldom wedded to a sense of filmic space, or a sturdy but unobtrusive consideration of light and color, but films like The Crying Game and The Good Thief and even an overheated gewgaw like In Dreams consistently display this easy craftsmanship. Ondine is no exception. Drawn from Jordan's original script and with a healthy assist from the drained radiance of Christopher Doyle's cinematography -- the pounding waves and gray skies of the Irish seaside as a kind of electric slate color, an iPad screen just before going to sleep -- Ondine is a fable or fairy tale about the implausibility of such tales, about the decision to live inside myth in order to avoid difficult truths and (toughest truth of all) the fact that the fanciful enchantment of harsh reality is available only to some. Although there is a tentative hetero pairing between fisherman Syracuse (Colin Farrell) and "Ondine" (Alicja Bachleda) the mysterious woman he dredges up from the sea in his nets, the story is really seen through the eyes of Syracuse's daughter Maura (Dervla Kirwan). In Ondine, the young girl sees both a surrogate mother and a spark of the magical, the promise that all the stories and myths and literary figures that fill her intellectual life might suddenly cease to be condoned off from the dearth of hope (waiting for a kidney donor) and limited mobility (physical, yes, but mostly class-based) that characterize her daily life. That is, her imagination finally "caught one," as it were, and will hopefully set her and her father free. Jordan and Doyle actually emphasize this idea visually quite well. Ignatiy Vishnevestsky has already provided an excellent discussion of some of the meanings Ondine attaches to Maura and her wheelchair, as she races with a car (in the scene Ignatiy mentions) or in an extreme long shot in which Maura essentially battles the Irish landscape, conquering a dirt path like an athlete. As is the case when Ondine's non-mythical origin is revealed, these moments with Maura reflect the film's non-doctrinaire, decidedly pro-feminist politics of the everyday. While men may fetishize women, make them into the mythic ideals to which they themselves fall sadly short, women can perhaps use myth as matériel, the tools of the moment for negotiating unavoidable realities, uneven pavement, treacherous waters.
Goodbye, Modernism, Goodbye (Part One): This has been a surprisingly difficult film to review, for several reasons. First, any critic who has dared to question TS3's status as one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces of all time has been summarily lambasted on the Internet. In a signal of just how low our movie-culture discourse has sunk, many pasty-faced über-trolls are particularly miffed at writers who have (horror of horrors!) wrecked TS3's perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. (One such critic, my friend Jeremy Heilman, has been subject to some particularly vulgar ad hominem attacks.) But frankly, I don't care. My work flies well beneath that kind of radar. Secondly, my relationship to this film, all the Toy Story films, and really the entire Pixar output, is complicated, since it is triangulated through my young daughter's deep love for the Toy Story universe, the primacy of Woody, Buzz and Jessie in her imaginative life, and the nightly appearance of their stuffed-toy likenesses in her bed. In his very favorable review of TS3, Glenn Kenny speculated that "some concern troll" would eventually wonder in public whether the film was too intense for children, and while I won't exactly fall into that trap, I have indeed had a very fraught response to TS3 since first seeing it that has not gone away, one that is directly tied to the experience of watching it alongside my kid. The problem isn't "intensity," per se, but a series of mixed messages that actually point to rather serious script problems, particularly as relates to a muddled set of ideologies that Michael (Little Miss Sunshine) Arndt seems utterly incapable of micro- or macro-managing.
[MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW] Nola, who I tend to believe is a smart and sensitive kid, certainly picked up on this and found herself deeply disturbed by TS3, and not by the "intense" scenes you might expect. As is probably well known by now, the major theme of 3 is the end of childhood, as Andy (John Morris), the toys' owner and protector, is preparing to go to college. Will the toys go into storage in the attic, be donated to Sunnyside Day Care (which seems like a good idea at the time...), or be thrown away for good? Early on in the film, Woody (Tom Hanks) assembles the remaining toys, those few major cast members who Andy has kept in his old toy chest, mostly ignored, through the years. Woody, the leader, announces that he's "closing up shop," and it's time to prepare for storage. But it's noted that along the way, good toys, good friends, have been lost, including Wheesy the penguin, Etch-a-Sketch, and most painfully, Woody's girlfriend Bo Peep (Annie Potts). This sad reckoning is passed over with little or no commentary, and although it is admittedly brave to broach the topic at all -- even adult sequels have been known to drop principals with nary a word -- it is troubling and a bit emotionally implausible for Arndt to gloss this major point of family disruption. It was Nola who drew my attention to this, since this disturbed her more than anything else in the film. (She had a minor anxiety attack regarding the fate of "poor Bo Peep," and felt that it was her responsibility to acquire the Bo Peep toy in order to keep her in the Toy Story family, to correct Andy's "failure." That was a fun night, lemme tell ya.) Just in case this sounds like the special pleading of a haggard parent, I think we have to look at it in terms of basic plausibility. Aside from the need to keep Don Rickles and Estelle Harris is the cast, why on earth would even the most sentimental teenager maintain a specific emotional attachment to toys as generic and mass produced as Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head? Likewise, at the film's conclusion, when Andy is ceremoniously passing his toys along to their worthy new owner, Bonnie (Emily Hahn), his explanation of the importance of the three one-eyed aliens ("they come from a strange, far-away galaxy, Pizza Planet!") hits the ground with a thud. Really? He's honestly attached to that junk, as much as Woody, Buzz, Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and the others? It makes no sense, except in that those green moonmen must be around to serve several very crucial, very convenient plot functions.
This isn't the only time when TS3 seems to cheat logic in order to keep its narrative engine running, and some of the other instances of this tendency are more egregious in that they point to a devil-may-care attitude with regard to parenting and parental responsibility, an odd undercurrent that the film isn't really prepared to explore with any seriousness. TS3, even more that TS2 (from which it borrows several major plot and thematic points, as Heilman correctly pointed out), is about the importance of loved objects in our lives, how we cathect onto toys as pieces of our childhood and our personal history as well as outward spurs for our own expansive imaginations, extensions of our private selves. This, of course, is why Bonnie is the only appropriate new guardian for the Toy Story crew, and why the film is bookeneded with an epic adventure concocted in Andy's bedroom, on the one hand, and a wildly created play session between Andy (a born nurturer) and Bonnie, at the end of the movie. But then, why don't parents properly appreciate this? Andy's mom (Laurie Metcalf) can be seen videotaping her son at play, but then, as he's preparing to head off to college, she suddenly gets an inexplicable bug up her ass about the need for him to completely clear out his room. This leads to the mishap which lands the Toys in Sunnyside Day Care in the first place. But even more damning in this regard is the story of Lotso (Ned Beatty), the bitter, angry teddy bear who controls Sunnyside's toy community like a dictator.* We learn from his former friend Chuckles the Clown (our old friend Bud Luckey) that he, Lotso, and Big Baby belonged to a girl named Daisy, and that she and Lotso shared a special bond. However, in an incident that ought to ring false to anyone who has ever had a child in their charge for an hour or more, Daisy falls asleep at a rest stop during a road trip, and her parents pick her up and put her back in the car, leaving Lotso, Chuckles and Big Baby behind. Her favorite toys! What kind of negligence is this? (Were Daisy's parents the Drapers, by chance?) As the tale of woe continues, the three toys make their way home at long last (an obvious nod to Sheila Burnford's The Incredible Journey), Lotso discovers that he has been replaced by another Lots'o Huggin' Bear. At this point he comes to despise both himself and his owner.
And here is where the TS3's inconsistent plotting and muddled ideologies really begin to crack. Pixar films, invested as they are in classical story values, would never simply install a villain and expect us to take him at face value. He has to have a back-story and a psychological motivation. (Same thing with TS2's Stinky Pete, whose m.o. is nearly identical.) But what are we to make of the fact that it is adults who have created the economy of commodity exchange and replaceability, and children who are consistently taken to task for it? The toddlers of the Caterpillar Room are "too rough" with the toys, precipitating the initial conflicts at Sunnyside. (This problem is only partially resolved once Lotso is deposed and Michael Keaton's Ken takes over, as seen in the end credits.) Daisy, who most likely didn't even know she'd been given another Lotso, is blamed for infidelity. And Andy himself is held in suspicion by the Toys, aside from Woody, who never doubts his intentions, and Buzz, who remains sanguine in the face of uncertainty. Kids are given the message that they are supposed to love their toys, feel bittersweet if not guilty for outgrowing them, and regard them as precious and irreplaceable. But is this the world that Western capitalism has created for our children? Is this even the world that Pixar has created when we take our children through Target? The "evil" Lotso has a point, that most of the toys we offer our kids today are junk, they aren't made to last, and it's difficult to communicate to young people the distinction between quality and garbage, and why some things do deserve to end up in the furnace. On the other hand, TS3 seriously missteps when it swings for the fences of existential grandeur, clearly struggling to be the stellar conclusion to a Great Trilogy, and loses sight of basic audience address. When we actually have the Toys staring fiery death in the face, achieving some kind of Heideggerian Dasein, we're no longer within miles of "a movie that works on two levels." This isn't for kids anymore, and not even because it's particularly scary. It's just nonsensical. The Pixar crew has finally rolled, and is making movies for their vast critical fanbase, which is a bit of a problem. If, as I asserted earlier this year, that the last Shrek film displayed open contempt for children, at times TS3 becomes so clearly drunk on Spielbergian flourish that it practically forgets there are kids in the room.
Now having said that, there is one more, quite vital layer to this onion. In a rather undeniable way, none of this matters all that much. I don't mean that in the throwing-up-of-hands, "this film is critic-proof" sort of way. And as we've seen quite dramatically, a great many people care very intensely what critics think of this film. No, my point is this: Toy Story has become such a part of the cultural landscape, and such a part of our imaginations and our children's imaginations, that these characters and their stories, both textual and hypothetical, expand well beyond the confines of the films themselves. Part of this is cross-marketing, but I'm not even talking about that. I watch my daughter play with her Buzz and Woody and Jessie and the others, and I watched her in the aftermath of the disturbing first viewing of TS3 reconfigure the story to suit her own imaginative and emotional / psychological needs. She now has plush figures of all of Lotso's Sunnyside minions, such as Twitch the bug (John Cygan), Stretch the octopus (a startlingly underutilized Whoopi Goldberg), Chunk the rock-wrestler (Jack Angel), and her favorite, Sparks the robot (Jan Rabson), and in her pretend universe they're all good guys. She skips over the Lotso parts, just like she'll fast forward over "The Emily Song" in TS2, or watch it, depending on her mood. Every kid does this. But here, we're talking about a fictional lifeworld that demands deep personal reconfiguration and reinterpretation on the part of its young audience, because it has so insinuated itself into the domain of their cherished images. TS3 tips its hand in the end when, watching through a slit in the "college" box as Andy and his mom reconcile to his leaving home, Woody recognizes the need to make his own break. We see that Woody has essentially been Andy's father, something that never would have occurred to us until this very moment. (This in itself is a bizarre oversight; what else is Tom Hanks for?) And so in terms of our collective ability to care about these computer-generated "Toys," as well as our reflexive impulse to appropriate their adventures for our own needs and uses, they provide a comfort which, unlike actual, physical toys, is not tangible. Can these images be a kind of "father" to us? Or at the very least "the father to a thought"?
In a now-classic blog essay occasioned by the release of Avatar, Jim Emerson articulated the problems with the new 3D fad. Most notably, he talked about how current 3D technology eliminated the very concept of the bounded rectangular frame in cinema, a crucial element in composition, framing, meaningful camera movement and even mise-en-scène. Emerson also discussed how 3D forced the viewer to look at certain things within the image, taking his or her freedom. I don't like 3D, but the second time I watched TS3 I viewed the first half in 3D just for reference's sake. I must say, the use of the technique was admirably negligible; nothing much popped out or flew at the screen, and really all that was "added" was some exaggerated planar depth. Unkrich and crew had to deliver a 3D version but obviously didn't care all that much. So, what's more of an assault on the integrity of the text? Following Emerson's logic, with which I am in total agreement, the modernist notion of an integral film-text, with bounded borders and interpretive freedom, is on the ropes. But here, we have an attitude of "the bounded text" as being just one option, alongside "the half-assed 'popping' text," and the much more important viewer-response text that the three Toy Storys have elicited from our collective memories, by their very indispensability as contemporary myth. They crisscross our TVs and refrigerator doors, our shopping baskets and our bedtime tuck-ins. So in the end, I come away from Toy Story 3 supremely nonplussed. It's a fairly decent grown-up entertainment, but often a pretty lousy children's film. It flies off in numerous directions, some quite beautiful, others possibly irresponsible. But in the last analysis, so what? It's bigger than all of us.
*[ADDENDUM: One final note on Lotso, both as written by Arndt and as performed by Beatty. I don't know why I missed this before -- probably because, with all the external trappings of the Great Escape prison break scenario, we were all deliberately misdirected -- but Lotso is not a "warden" or a "dictator." (Although Barbie's third-act interjection on the social contract is, admittedly, a very nice touch.) No, he is clearly a slavemaster, what with his elderly Southern cadence ("She don't love you no more!"), walking stick, and genial demeanor all too ready to turn on a dime should his "children" step out of line. "We have a way of doin' things here at Sunnyside," Lotso drawls, and we can see that the young slave-toys, essentially, have to work the fields of toddler abuse. You can keep your head down and take it (Chatter Telephone) or rise up, but the plan is that you either "pay your dues" (i.e., grow old and get rewarded for your servitude by becoming a "house Negro" in the Butterfly Room -- even the name has racial connotations), or you go out in a bodybag / Glad Bag. Arndt, clever film-brat that he is, is subtly working from precedent here. Robert Zemeckis's Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, another film about a fantastical, childlike world apart, employed a sly recoding of 1930s and 40s tropes for African-American otherness when dealing with the 'toons, and their geographical as well as psychological difference from "white" L.A. As scholar Mark Winokur has pointed out, "Toontown" was, basically Coontown, and the toons were an illogical race born to entertain. Within the supposedly ideology-free-zone of the children's film, screenwriters often feel free to call on deep-seated racial or even racist narratives, and while I don't think that is at all what's happening in Toy Story 3, what is happening with the Lotso figure, as is happening across the entire film, is that Arndt and Unkrich mobilize too many complex ideas without providing them adequate depth or leavening time, resulting in a superficially satisfying but undercogitated mishmash.]
"Twilight's like soccer. They run around for two hours, nobody scores, and its billion fans insist you just don't understand." (Brett Erlich) Ah, yes, but I think I do understand. It's all about taking the ridiculous throes of teenage hormonal Romanticism -- that variety that ennobles itself by so frequently engaging in false sublimation, treating the aching of the loins like the stuff of Abelard and Heloise -- with a deadly seriousness, which is nothing new. This is what Goth is all about, natch. But Stephenie Meyer's big score is her conservative turn, spinning sexlessness into the ultimate expression of undying love. Semi-stealth Christian Goth for the Millennial Generation, those who grew up with "Chastity Balls" and church-group "outercourse" discussions, and either struggle with this crap or look upon it with ironic nostalgia. Ch-ching! Buy that Mormon a double decaf. If one is to give credit where it's due, Eclipse is to be commended for letting some of this ironic distance seep into the fabric of the text, although it's probably as much for the test-screened benefit of dragged-along boyfriends as anything else. By this point, when "Twihards" are actively parsing themselves into "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob," treating their pop culture less like active-fantasy fandom than, well, a corporate retreat, you're going to need some self-aware badinage. "Don't you own a shirt?" Edward (wan Robert Pattinson) chides wolf-boy Jacob (bulky Taylor Lautner), a young man clearly even more enamored with his own six-pack than "Mike the Situation" from The Jersey Shore. Later, when Bella (slackjawed Kristen Stewart, about whom Maurice Pialat might very well have written The Mouth Agape) is freezing and requires body warmth, Edward must cede the sleeping bag to Jacob. "Face it. I'm hotter than you." Rimshot.
But these little adéquat mots can only do so much to assist a film which is, to all intents and purposes, dead on the screen. Much has been made of Mr. Slade, "a real director," improving the series, and while Eclipse and most other moving-image product is indeed better than the cheap slag that was the first Twilight film (I didn't see New Moon), there's still a general air of incompetence. The Bella / Edward / Jacob triangle alternates with an "action" plot involving a new evil vampire army killing wantonly in Seattle and heading to Forks to destroy Bella and the Cullens. When I say "alternates," I'm talking about primitive editing that not only annihilates pacing but spatially dislocates major characters. Here's Bella with Jacob, now here's the clan preparing for battle, and how exactly did Bella materialize on this mountaintop? Lots of that sort of stuff, and I address it not by way of "catching continuity errors" (my least favorite trainspotting game) but to underscore Slade and company's apathy with regard to basic craft, and its physical drag on a film which, dunderheaded as it is -- it's a glorified chase film, with more "do I nail Dracula or Bigfoot?" anguish -- would otherwise have been diverting enough. In a similar sense (that sounds awkward, but ordinarily I'd have said "vein" and, well, no...), Eclipse very clumsily shoehorns in backstory flashbacks for two Cullen vampires, in a manner which feels utterly halfhearted, as though neither the film nor the author (it's in the book, apparently) really understood what a formal sore-thumb this really is. But that seems to characterize this material inside and out: stock characters in a generic plot, with nothing discernible at stake except an endless set of emotive cues. How else to explain a fictive universe in which wars are fought over one of the most mundane, vacant heroines ever to be put on display, a disaffected Ralphs checkout girl who can't keep her mouth closed? Or the massive hysteria over the droopy-eyed plank of British wood who makes Hayden Christensen look like Al Pacino? Perhaps we're witnessing the triumph of Blank Screen Cinema, demanding that its audience fill in everything with its own overactive fantasy life. Has Bressonianism conquered Hollywood when we weren't looking? Good God, it's a New Model Army!
One of the hazards of being involved in the study of experimental film and video is the question of differential judgment, that moment when the community of tastemakers seems, by and large, to see some great value in a film or body of films that, for whatever reason, you simply do not. All of us have cases like this, and unlike the world of feature-based film criticism, which bandies about words like "overrated" and "emperor's new clothes" like how's-your-father, we avanties tend to play it closer to the vest, as a matter of decorum. Now, in between the rip-snorting, tear-'em-a-new-one candidness of the art-film set, and the supreme tact of the a-g film universe, we have the domain of art video. Given its place as a kind of adjunct to the museum and gallery sphere, where, it's assumed rightly or wrongly, that much bigger money flows hither and thither, folks tend to feel a little less compunction about leveling some bracing, even downright nasty criticisms. This can be especially true when those barbs are coming from the direction of the film world. The ostensible excuse for, say, freely trashing Matthew Barney or shrugging at Doug Aitken megaproductions may be the glitz and the finance. But really, if these artists displayed a command of film or even televisual aesthetics, they'd pass the test regardless of which side of the street they hail from. (Sharon Lockhart is a perfect example.) In the end, too much artists' video apes the cinematic without ever feeling obliged to actually master its demands.
All this by way of saying, the art of Shirin Neshat has long seemed like a limit case for me, and one that has both troubled me personally and irked me as a viewer and critic. I have found her work simplistic from the very start, beginning with Turbulent (1998), the two-channel installation that essentially launched her public career. Other key works, such as Rapture (1999) and Fervor (2000), expanded the production values, the cast and location lists, but Neshat continued to fill out her first major trilogy on the basis of some very flat, dualistic ideas: Iranian men's stoicism and conservative conformity, literally over and against the soulful, creatively ambiguous tactics of Iranian women. Two video images, projected on opposing walls. A gallery space, posing a physical choice, a Manichean alignment. These works never really contained any surprising elements, nor did they ever threaten to overwhelm on the emotional level. Rather, they just sort of set up a tidy but scuttlingly busy image-dialectic wherein Neshat could be seen lending order to a certain kind of reality that Western audiences were very much prepared to accept as "chaotic." Neshat's star kept rising, and I really wanted to like these works. I went back to them again and again, hoping to see what others saw that I missed. But all I saw was bland self-exoticism, with a fashionably imprecise womanist overtone thrown in for "empowerment."
I hoped in vain that Neshat might make more emotional or formalist sense to me as a director of feature films. But in fact, Women Without Men is not so different from her installation shorts, aside from being far more diffuse and disorganized. Neither flesh nor fish, as the saying goes, WWM seems to spend the first half (or so) of its running time functioning like a kind of surrealist dreamscape, a series of loose female-centered vignettes that in themselves possess only the slightest narrative pretext. What they offer in its place, or so it seemed, was an open-form linkage between more or less typical Neshat short-works. The film begins in 1953, with the CIA-backed overthrow of Iran's democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and this is the backdrop for a number of occurrences centered on the lives of four women; to call them "stories" would be misleading. The film's first image is that of Munis (Shabnam Tolouei) jumping off a rooftop in a suicide plunge. The film returns to her earlier moments, but in doing so seems to let her "fly," the first of many magical flourishes. The second main character, a young sex worker named Zarin (Orsolya Toth) flees her brothel and lets herself float down a drainage ditch into what can only be described as a Tarkovskian glade. Not long after this, Munis, whose brother has buried her dead body, is dug up by her best friend, resurrected. Gradually, all parties make their way to the country house of Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad), the estranged wife of a general whose liberal values have led her to form an impromptu community of female outcasts.
At this point, however with the exception of one character's rather symbolic, accelerated death, the magic realism seems to break down without warning. Political realism, in the form of the collapse of the Mossadegh government and the Shah's takeover, dominates the remainder of the film, in a manner both dramatically awkward and formally improbable. It is entirely possible that this shift -- which may well be meant to symbolize the Shah's illegal and tyrannical clampdown -- makes perfect sense in Shahrnush Parsipur's source novel. But Neshat, whose handling of tonal subtleties and dramaturgical tasks is not exactly laser-sharp, delivers a host of strangely mounted, eerily stilted scenes which feel completely detachable, each, in the most charitable interpretation, implying an entire direction that Women Without Men might have gone under more seasoned stewardship. (This near-indescribable wrongness, wherein the film's constituent parts remain perched on the verge of disintegration, is something I've seen only in Werner Schroeter's later films, actually. But he was clearly doing it on purpose.) And so Women Without Men leaves me once again feeling a bit guilty for missing the "Shirin Neshat boat," wherever it is that craft docks these days. I will say this, though. The introduction of more explicit historical reference points are a welcome development in her work, even if the 1953 material remains undernourished and is in some way rather obviously "there" as a conscious echo of the Green Revolution. And Neshat's work, when it falls apart under the weight of its own muddled intentions, is a heck of a lot more interesting than the stuff that just sits there in the gallery, primly doing its thing.