Sunday, January 11, 2009

Party at the Movies like It's 1999.......

Jason over at Jamais Vu has had a brilliant idea: to compose a blog retrospective of 12 of the best films from a decade ago, one short meditation on each film per month of 2009. The goal is to examine some great films with the added perspective that ten years can offer. And it's only that much more appealing since several of the years since then have been cinematic duds (I would argue that 2007 was a similarly excellent year for film; Jason makes the case for 2001 as another great year).

Either way, I'm piggy-backing on his idea (read: stealing it blatantly), and I will also compose a little ode to an interesting/important film from one of my favorite movie years. I'm really looking forward to seeing how this all turns out. Jason and I have a tendency to see media culture from similar vantage points, even if we tend to come to different conclusions about how it works. Case in point, both of us believe that 1999 is the best year in American film in our lifetimes, although (as you'll see) our list of favorites (or at least important films) is slightly different, and I suspect that we'll have slightly different approaches to the films both of us will be discussing. Honestly, I think this is the kind of project that bloggers as a community should do more often, rather than reserving the dialogue (often one-sided) for year-end best-of lists (I'm obviously not exempt from criticism here).

In any case, here is the rundown as I'm writing about them (which diverges a bit from Jason's list):

January: Election
February: The Talented Mr. Ripley
March: South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
April: Fight Club
May: Office Space
June: Three Kings
July: Magnolia
August: The Limey
September: The Matrix
October: The Insider
November: Eyes Wide Shut
December: Being John Malkovich

I'm really sad not to be writing about eXisTenZ or Go or Audition (or Dead or Alive or any of the 27 other Takashi Miike films from that year), but this seems like a solid list (and I didn't discover Miike until around 2003 or so, anyway). More than solid. I actually love every film I've listed here, and it's unusual to see a list so long from a single year. In any case, I should blog about Election in the next week or so, and I welcome others to join in on the conversation.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Coming Soon: Best Films of 2008

The standard end-of-year list will arrive sometime later in the month. I was able to compose last year's list right on the new year because so many of the great films of last year arrived before the awards season crunch: if I recall correctly, both Zodiac and Eastern Promises were even Spring releases. And, despite the fact that I missed out on some truly great films when I composed the first draft of the list (we'll see some of those notables in a blog entry in the next week or so), I already had to whittle that list down considerably to get it to ten.

This year, on the other hand, has not been quite so giving cinematically. Only two films so far that have really swept me off my feet, with only a few others that are even pretty great. A lot of this has to do with the fact that 2007 was one of the great cinematic years of my lifetime (1999 was the best, and there'll be plenty more on that as well!), and 2008 could hardly hope to match it. A lot of it also has to do with the aforementioned scheduling of releases: I simply haven't been able to see a lot of the "2008" films that I think will actually be good since they haven't arrived in my small mid-West town yet. Hopefully, this state of affairs will change in January, and, if not, well, I'll charge ahead anyway!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Best Films of 2007 #1: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Now that we've rung in the new year 2009, just when it's really time to start reflecting on the best films that 2008 had to offer, it's about time I finally wrote a bit on my favorite film of 2007.* Actually, it was just returning from a highly acclaimed film from this past year that will not end up in this year-end praise-a-thon that reminded me that the task had gone unfinished. And, since the latter film reminded me of the better earlier one, and since both films are really about looking backward and understanding our cultural legacy only in retrospect, it only seems appropriate that I would open this post by discussing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

I had had the utmost confidence that I would love this film when I had first read about it about couple of years ago. David Fincher is among my favorite filmmakers, and his previous two pairing with Brad Pitt are among my very favorite films of all time (Se7en and Fight Club). Fincher was also in top form: his Zodiac, one of my favorite films of the previous year, is just looking better to me over time, and I'm convinced that I'll think of it as his defining work at some point in the near future (if I'm not already there now). Sure, the premise of Button, adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a man who ages backward, seemed a bit gimmicky at first, but I had confidence that this was precisely the kind of fantasy that Fincher would be able to transform through his misanthropic, Kubrickian vision into a dark meditation on how memory defines experience, on how entirely contingent circumstances define social life.

To some extent, the film delivers on that promise. It's not a bad film: the mix of digital and traditional cinematography is often breathtaking, and the digital effects are even more seamlessly incorporated into the narrative than they were in Zodiac. This is a film, more than most others, that genuinely uses its special effects in service of the kind of narrative it wants to tell, and in that regard, because this narrative is so absurd, they warrant even more care to allow for a suspension of disbelief. A tall order, and the film accomplishes it beautifully. The actors are also all in fine form here: Cate Blanchett has never been more winning, and Brad Pitt here perfects the kind of passive observer role he's been crafting since the beginning of his career.

But notice here that while I'm discussing how well-crafted the film is, I'm not saying a whole lot about what ends toward which craft was directed. And, sadly, the reason is that there isn't a whole lot there. The narrative itself makes a lot of gestures toward some heady issues: the social constructedness of race in America's history; the aforementioned interrelation of memory and experience; the recognition of the contingent circumstances that cause personal experience to become explicitly political. Although, in these regards (as well as in its picaresque structure), it seems to be stealing a page from the equally mediocre yet more annoying The Jerk. A whole lotta critics are comparing the narrative to screenwriter Eric Roth's narrative for Forrest Gump, but it actually reminds me much more of a less fanciful, and thus paradoxically less hard-bitten and pragmatic, version of Tim Burton's similar deathbed fantasy Big Fish.

But I digress. What I really want to get at here is that Benjamin Button is in some ways the opposite of the previous year's Brad Pitt vehicle, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Where Fincher's film uses its gorgeous imagery and its busy and absurd narrative to make gestures to such big ideas, Andrew Dominik's film uses equally gorgeous (if simpler) imagery and the pregnant silences of its narrative to speak volumes more about such issues. For instance, while Benjamin Button uses a Hurricane Katrina subplot to no discernible end (even as such a framing device could have fit perfectly with the sloppily laid out ideas about race, social context, and the governmental intervention into the personal set up in the first hour of the film) other than as a beautiful image that has been evacuated of its social import and thus rendered inert, Assassination uses barely-spoken conversations and nearly still images of nature and of Western interiors to articulate a complex understanding of how a mythic vision of the West had to be displaced by "civilization" (or encroaching governmental policies) even as that very mythos helped to create the kind of "civilization" we have today, defined as it is by the myth of the rugged individual's pursuit of commercial gain. And while Fincher's narrative makes such hollow gestures in the service of a rather schmaltzy, saccharine love story, Dominick's makes such sublime gestures in the service of a genuinely heartbreaking and intellectually astute gunslinger tale in what is perhaps American film's definitive contribution to cinematic genre. In other words, Fincher seems to be up to Danny Boyle's old tricks that I had complained about on a previous occasion (although, as we'll see, his Slumdog Millionaire seems to be a move in the right direction for him), while Dominick has crafted the kind of imagistic tone poem about America's cultural memory that I had previously only believed possible in films like Terence Malick's Days of Heaven or The New World. He has crafted, in other words, one of the very best films of its year, in a year that produced at least seven or eight of the very best films ever made.

* Actually, as you'll note in one of the early segments of my best of 2008 series coming up, I did have another favorite for 2007, but I didn't actually get around to seeing it until the next year rolled in. Dedicated readers could probably guess what it is anyway, since I've written about the film before.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Going Rogue: Acting and Cinematic Authorship

A couple of weeks ago I watched a film called The Whole Wide World, about Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonya writer Bob Howard's contentious relationship with Novalyne Price. The movie itself is kind of terrible: adapted from the latter's autobiography, the film's screenplay is basically two hours of overly-obvious exposition through stilted dialogue and rendered even more obvious by some painfully literal cinematic analogues for some of the ideas expressed through the words. Thus, we get long meditations over the process of writing and falling in love, visualized on screen by a constant barrage of sunset imagery, all against one of the most syrupy, saccharine scores I can remember....

All of which makes Vincent D'Onofrio's performance as Howard that much more surprising and amazing. Seriously, this is a bad movie, but I would recommend it to most people because his utterly weird performance is truly something to behold. I had never really been able to gauge whether acting can be good in a bad movie before, and originally this blog post was going to address that very topic. But then I realized that it's not that his performance is that amazing in of itself: I mean, it is amazing, but this is actually partially because the rest of the film is bad... This is less about a good performance in a bad movie than it is about some even more potent questions about the relationship of acting to auteur-ship of films themselves. D'Onofrio is great here not because his performance is so great in spite of the film: he doesn't transcend the words written on the page for his character to speak, adding a depth to them that wasn't there before. Rather, he utterly hijacks the picture every time he's on screen and authors it in a manner that ironically undercuts where the rest of the film is heading at any given moment.

For the moment, I'll think of this phenomenon as an actor "going rogue," to echo the ways people write about how Sarah Palin consistently performed against the script given to her by the Republican Party in a way that essentially re-authored what the Party stood for for a large portion of the voting public. I could obviously be wrong about this, but I can't recall any critical writing that systematically examines how this works in film with actors, although I often read popular critics who write about a "wholly unique performance" (or something along those lines), a performance that seems to go against script. Jason has recently tried to re-think the ways that auteur theory can be integrated in with star theory, suggesting that P.T. Anderson essentially amps up a star's standard persona to point out how the star performance itself is a sales pitch to sell the auteur's work. But the above case presents something different: this is hardly an auteur film, and it seems instead as though the not-quite-star has instead authored the film (or, at least those parts he's in).

Nevertheless, it seems to be a fairly common thing. I haven't fully theorized how this all works yet, but perhaps a few more examples now might help me to consider in future how this all works. D'Onofrio had a huge role in the film (if not exactly the lead), but this frequently happens with smaller parts as well, in which a singly strange performance brings the film to a screeching halt for a scene or two and sends it in a different (oftentimes better) direction. So, for instance, Brad Dourif (who's just brilliant in everything anyway, from One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest to Deadwood to the voice of Chucky in the Child's Play movies) in the crappy American remake of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse (I feel that remakes should be the subject of a future post actually, since I've always been something of a defender of them, but it's just getting out of hand lately!). He has a single scene as a "Thin Bookish Guy" in a diner about midway through the film, giving exposition that explains all the nonsense that's been killing those poor kids from CW shows. The performance, however, is indescribable:

I imagine Dourif getting the script and getting the part. Since it's a walk-on role that only takes a day to film, Dourif is unaware that the film is meant to be a serious horror flick, and quite reasonably reads the laughably bad script as a comedy. Bizarre hilarity ensues, and the crew just leaves it in the movie because they can't afford to shoot it again with another actor since they're trying to get this done as quickly and cheaply as possible to get it out for the winter doldrums.

Oh, and then there's Jeffrey Combs in The Frighteners. Combs has built his career on weirding up various movies, most notably the Re-Animator series, which would be nothing but some seriously great gore effects without him. But here he takes a small role in Peter Jackson's first major Stateside release and transforms an already brilliantly self-conscious horror film into high camp:

[Note to YouTube posters: please don't add anything to the beginning of clips that you post. Please please please just let us watch the clip!]

Or, my favorite example in recent years. When Jim Carrey received the screenplay for The Number 23, he probably noticed that the first line of the pivotal "thriller" novel that he reads throughout is "You can call me Fingerling," remembered that Joel Schumacher was the guy who put nipples on the batsuit in the movie in which he had encouraged Jim to strut around in a Kermit-green leotard, and did the math: this is supposed to be a comedy...

The film would not be the same without Carrey as the protagonist. Not merely because of his star power, and not only because we as an audience are inclined to expect Carrey to be funny (as would be typical of a reading of the film through star persona), but because his performance itself has somehow re-written what this movie is meant to be. It is not supposed to be a comedy, or even a campy thriller. (And this would be a possible reading, since Joel Schumacher is something like a schlock auteur, making wonderful campy thrillers like The Lost Boys or Flatliners or Phone Booth pretty consistently throughout his career.) Rather, Carrey himself has become the auteur of this film, transforming it through performance in a manner not possible merely through writing, or editing, or art direction, or sound design, or any of the other aspects of film that routinely is assigned the most important position in authoring a film text. If I don't have anything particularly interesting to say about actors goin' rogue at the moment, at the least it should be a call to arms for more people to start considering the ways in which acting changes the meaning of film texts beyond the production and distribution aspects typically examined by star theory.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Shakespeare, "Inspiration," and Social Influence

Here's an interesting little video, a mash-up of forty cinematic "inspirational" speeches in two minutes, cut together to be a single, clichéd inspirational monologue:

Especially interesting to note is that it starts with Braveheart, perhaps the most iconic of modern cinematic inspirational speeches, but that it cuts late in the clip to Branagh's performance of Henry V, which, aside from being basically the same speech, is also the grand-daddy of every single one of the monologues the clip cites. Obviously, we could make the point here that a great deal of Shakespeare's cultural legacy today is the kind of schlocky/hacky "inspirational" writing that we see in all of these clips, from The Muppet Movie to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Lord of the Rings to Charlie Brown to ... well, we get the point. Certainly, this implicit critique of "Schlockspeare"--that it is an apolitical shift away from some of the meanings that could be applied to Shakespearean texts--is the kneejerk reaction some scholars of Shakespeare in popular culture would have after seeing this.

A couple of problems with that interpretation of this legacy, though. For starters, there's the assumption embedded in that claim that Shakespeare (even cinematic Shakespeare) is a better cultural object than the schlocky films (or even film moments) that make up his legacy: Henry V is inherently more meaningful--or, at least
more meaning can be applied to it--than can be applied to, say, Street Fighter or Bring It On. After all, if we don't make that assumption, and instead assume that Shakespeare was doing the same thing then as these other cultural objects are now (only he did it first!), then we have to re-examine in a fundamental manner questions of cultural value that still make Shakespearean scholars nervous, even though it's something of a dead horse in other disciplines. In other words, we would need either to elevate popular culture or to lower Shakespeare to it.

After all, one of the standard lines of argument about what the St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V does is that it actually critiques precisely the kind of inspiration it offers. That Shakespeare is somehow commenting on how Henry is exploiting specific structures of feeling associated with an emerging nationalism and an older brand of masculinity in order to inspire his motley crew to battle:

It's a theme Shakespeare returns to frequently, most famously Marc Anthony's rallying of the plebs in Julius Caesar. But again, I feel that the assumption is often that Shakespeare is smart enough to make this argument, even as he exploits these very structures to great effect on his own audience in the theatre. And, of course, the other assumption is that these speeches in these other films are derivative of Shakespeare, but reduce it to a schlock that doesn't have the same kind of self-awareness.

But, check out the following clip from Animal House (also excerpted in the above clip):

The John Belushi clip is truncated slightly, but I think the comparison still holds. In both scenes we see a perceived leader assert his leadership by voicing an artificial and inappropriate appeal to history, by re-asserting rhetorical clichés that would already be familiar to his audience, and by subsuming rational argumentation to a more affective logic grounded primarily in masculine values. They're doing pretty much the same thing in their very commentary on how such "inspirational" rhetoric causes social influence with vast consequences (the result of both speeches is literal battle, after all). In this sense, can we really continue this artificial difference between Shakespeare and his cultural descendants?

Well, sort of. After all, while I think we should probably agree that there really isn't a great deal of difference in terms of the "meaning" carried in these cultural objects, the cultural value each carries is still very different in spite of the fact that they all have similar formal effects. In other words, Shakespeare and Animal House have different cultural effects on a larger scale. Part of the purpose of my dissertation is to point out that, despite much cultural critique that deconstructs ideas of high or low cultural value, Shakespearean critics are still on to something by suggesting the different values inherent in Shakespeare, although not for the reasons they would believe (they're merely repeating the same assumptions that the rest of society already holds to a large extent).

The thing is, we can actually tap into this difference by looking again at the mash-up that opened this post: not all of these are war movies, after all. A good portion of them are educational inspirational speeches. In particular, Dead Poets Society stands out in this respect, as the film itself uses Shakespeare to make the inspirational message. I find it really interesting (and a possible avenue for future research) to see how the "inspirational" speech genre of cinematic rhetoric (created, in some sense, by Shakespeare himself) is a constitutive element of the "inspirational teacher" cinematic genre. This genre weirdly turns the screw on this mode of rhetoric by actually eliminating its own self-awareness (something that a film like Animal House obviously doesn't do), and in particular it eliminates this self-awareness by using Shakespeare in a pedagogical context to do the inspiring. No longer is Shakespeare in these films commenting on how easily audiences are led astray on the basis of a bogus affect, but instead is used to advance the argument that Shakespeare himself is just a genius that can inspire us through time, that it is the teacher's role to tap into that genius in order to inspire his (and it usually is "his") students in the same way. And then, what of something like the "inspirational teacher movie" speech that Steve Coogan's character gives in Hamlet 2? It seems to turn the screw yet again, by restoring a different kind of generic self-awareness and parody to how Shakespeare's cultural value is perceived....

Beyond all of that, we have to consider the distribution of these kinds of strategies of valuation: the fact that in a way, the mash-up is the perfect vehicle for these ideas, since so many of these films are really most identifiable through these inspirational moments in the first place. It's not that these monologues are merely there to inspire us emotionally (or even to inspire us intellectually to question the ways in which we are inspired), but rather to inspire us in another way that has to do with yet another kind of value: these monologues are the big selling points of these movies, and they are often front and center in cinematic marketing practices as a way of inspiring us as consumers to pay for these products (and don't think that this wasn't the case back when Shakespeare was doing it; he was the most successful playwright of his time due to savvy self-promotion). Ultimately, the key to "inspiration" in these films (especially in those films that use Shakespeare consciously within a classroom setting) is an attempt to teach (and I use that word deliberately) audiences how to respond to this convergence between cultural value and exchange value....

Monday, November 10, 2008

Alphabet Meme

There's a fun little meme going around on the nets right now in which I felt the need to participate, even though I hadn't been tagged really. I first found out about it at Only the Cinema, but it apparently started at Blog Cabins, and I suppose it's easiest just to steal their "rules" wholesale:

The Rules

1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet.

2. The letter "A" and the word "The" do not count as the beginning of a film's title, unless the film is simply titled
A or The, and I don't know of any films with those titles.

Return of the Jedi belongs under "R," not "S" as in Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the Jedi. This rule applies to all films in the original Star Wars trilogy; all that followed start with "S." Similarly, Raiders of the Lost Ark belongs under "R," not "I" as in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Conversely, all films in the LOTR series belong under "L" and all films in the Chronicles of Narnia series belong under "C," as that's what those filmmakers called their films from the start. In other words, movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release. Use your better judgement to apply the above rule to any series/films not mentioned.

4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number's word.
12 Monkeys would be filed under "T."

My own list turns out a little weird: obviously, this is not what I would come up with if I had been tasked with listing my favorite 26 films of all time. Some of the letters are also really tough: "X" especially, because it seems to be a breaking point for the whole process. If I'm being honest, I'll write down one of the
X-Men films, but I fear that this choice implies a lack of imagination, scope, and history. So do I go all pretentious and mark down the excellent Senegalese film Xala (which I've seen only once and barely remember) just to set myself apart from the crowd? Does this mean that I have to re-adjust the remainder of my choices to keep up with the tone set by that choice?

That all sounded awfully difficult, so I decided instead to be as honest as possible when I could be.... But my answer for "Q" still doesn't feel right......

Either, way, this list of mine reveals something: I have some pretty fucked-up tastes. Even with these restrictions, a solid ninety percent of these picks have some fairly sadistically violent elements....

The Apartment
Beetle Juice
A Clockwork Orange
Die Hard
The Exorcist
The Fly
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
House of Flying Daggers
In the Mood for Love
Jacob's Ladder
Kill Bill: Vol. 1
The Last Temptation of Christ
Miller's Crossing
The Nightmare before Christmas
Once upon a Time in the West
Singin' in the Rain
The Third Man
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
X2: X-Men United
Young Frankenstein

If you've read this, consider yourself tagged, and post a link to your list in the comments section!

Monday, September 29, 2008


Paul Newman has died, and, with him, I think one of the very last of the Sixties rebels of classical Hollywood cinema. Sure, we still have some rebels around (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and Terence Stamp and Malcolm MacDowell and some others are still kicking, but they're really more of the '70s generation and are generally consistently making shit--check out the trailer for the television version of Crash, starring Hopper, and you'll see what I mean...), but Newman was the last of the truly iconic rebels of film in that period. He was every bit as much to '60s filmmaking what Brando was to the '50s and what Nicholson was to the '70s: and we know all to well what happened to Brando as he aged, and Jack is perfectly content to make crap like The Bucket List, totally complacent with his star persona, leaving us to ask (as his last decent character did), "What if this is as good as it gets?"

Walter Chaw over at Film Freak Central has an excellent appreciation of Newman which isolates what was so great about him as an actor:

Paul Newman’s death is shaking. I was more personally traumatized by the death of Roy Scheider, though, and I think that it has a lot to do with my not understanding Newman until I got a little older and got ahold of Hud and The Hustler and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - all those movies where he played fags and rapists and long-time losers that facilitate their girlfriend’s rape and suicide. Hardly matinee idol stuff, but that was Newman, right? One of the two or three most beautiful people to ever flicker on that luminous scrim and choosing to play assholes and miscreants (Cool Hand Luke, Hombre, and his Lew Archer and on and on and on) – that’s integrity. His films are the tumult and displacement of the sixties; he’s the sixties. Forget about bullshit like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting - Newman was fucking steel, man, the s’truth unfiltered.
Got it nailed for Newman as an actor: I think it even holds for his later work. Even if The Road to Perdition is a little too sanctimonious for its own good, Newman exerts a kind of rakish charm that melds so perfectly with the world-weary cynicism his character embodies.

Great performance, but even greater when we consider that (at least in his public persona) Newman never seemed to succumb to that kind of cynicism himself. As many of his rebellious compatriots of '60s radicalism steadily settled into a compromise with the status quo, we saw as Newman transformed his image as the screen's favorite "assholes and miscreants" into someone who was too world-weary not to try to save the world in some small way (and, seriously, hundreds of millions of dollars donated to charity through his Newman's Own line is not exactly "some small way"). It's the perfect melding of an antiheroic politics of representation with a quietly and casually heroic politics of giving.

Roger Ebert (to whom I'm warming up--I think losing the ability to speak has somehow given him a different and interesting new perspective on how to mourn what the media do in our culture, but that's a different post altogether) writes about Newman as a star persona:

We linger on such moments because movie stars are important to us. They represent an ideal form we are deluded to think exists inside of us. Paul Newman seemed to represent the best of what we could hope for. He was handsome, yes. He had those blue eyes, yes. Helpful in making him a star, but inconsequential to his ultimate achievement. What he expressed above all was grace, and comfort within his own skin. If he had demons, he had faced them and dealt with them. Is this my fantasy? Of course. That's what movie stars represent, our fantasies. His wife, children and grandchildren knew him, and which of us would not hope to receive such a loving tribute after we're gone? ("Our father was a rare symbol of selfless humility, the last to acknowledge what he was doing was special. Intensely private, he quietly succeeded beyond measure in impacting the lives of so many with his generosity.")

What I've written about Newman's transformation across the screen from rebel with a cause to subdued defender of a cause is most certainly a fantasy, one to which I imagine many subscribe. I've grown cynical enough that this has become a very easily-deconstructible thing, but I'll let the last vestiges of my idealism shine through to mourn him a bit and check out some of those movies of his that I never saw (Hombre comes to mind).


Incidentally, I've had a weird instinct to mourn lately in a manner that has never really been a part of my personality until now. David Foster Wallace was a young-ish writer with whose works I never got the chance to acquaint myself while he was alive, and now I'm tearing (slowly) through Infinite Jest.... There's sure to be a post about the work of mourning in culture coming up soon, but for now I have to perform that work myself in a more private manner.