Sunday, December 30, 2007

Best Films of 2007 #2: Gone Baby Gone

Ben Affleck's directorial debut is the best private investigator film since Chinatown. I realize this probably doesn't say a lot: the genre has been reduced to self-parody and grotesqueries since Altman made The Long Goodbye. But the film nevertheless carries with it an earnestness in its desire to recover the past -- some past, any past -- and work it into a future that will at least appear less damaged than it really is, and in that sense the film uses its noir origins as a matrix through which to literalize these national concerns about morality and family values as passed down through the generations in terms of an investigation about a desperate junkie's attempts to recover her missing daughter. Like other noir masterpieces which transform national political anxieties into an investigation by seemingly unscrupulous detectives into family affairs (and Chinatown is really the capstone of this tradition), the plot becomes extraordinarily complex, but this narrative noise doesn't sound off at the expense of a more melancholy complexity in how this plot translates into moral grey area of our current political climate.

What makes the film remarkable is how Affleck deftly collapses that moral grey are into the narrative itself, interpreting the screenplay in starkly literal terms that avoids the ham-fisted allegory that could easily have been applied to the story by a lesser director and cast. In this literal-mindedness, the film directly poses these questions constantly in the characters' dialogue. Whereas Zodiac convincingly portrayed a world in which people use their conversations as a way of sidestepping major ideological concerns, this is a film in which the characters realize that the world is too screwed up to take such evasive measures. And each character is played so earnestly by the cast (Casey Affleck and Amy Ryan are absolutely brilliant in the kind of reflective melancholy and indifferent anger they bring to their roles) that the film never feels condescending in the way the characters speak about such large issues (in the way that, for instance, Death Proof sometimes does and The Kingdom always does). This is a difficult film that, even in its apparently climactic moments, doesn't let anyone off easy for the kinds of choices that reverberate for years into the future.

Best Films of 2007 #3: Eastern Promises

Early in David Cronenberg's latest, the patriarch of a Russian family of organized crime tells his grand-daughter that, in order to play the violin properly, she must make the instrument "weep," a beautiful tableau of a family life observed in wonder by Naomi Watts's outsider midwife character. The scene pulls off a fascinating reversal, though, in casting her as the outsider to this seemingly normal scene of family festivities, as hers is the position of the resident London intruder into the exoticized lifestyle of apparently successful immigrant outsiders. But the apparent success she witnesses -- and the quaint tableau of grandfatherly Old-World-style instruction to which it gives rise -- only exist because of the more insidious reversal his advice implies. The world she unwittingly steps into is one in which inanimate objects are invested with human feelings at the expense of understanding how actual humans in general feel. When Viggo Mortensen proclaims obliquely, wryly, knowingly that he has "heard" of "sentimental value" that gets applied to objects (like a motorcycle, in this case), he's tipping his hand that he's never felt it: to occupy and rise up in the world in which he lives, one sees the life of objects themselves. But in recognizing how such objects add value to human life, they necessarily misrecognize the fundamentally arbitrary ways in which real people affectively invest in them.

The film is permeated with such concerns about the value of objects and the even more important values attached to them by people, and it's smart enough to carry these complex questions about affective versus monetary value to their logical (if completely absurd by normal standards) conclusions that human life itself becomes an object that is arbitrarily given "sentimental value" that can easily be forgotten or negated by its value as a commodity. In this way, an infant can essentially become a trading chip between mobsters and Scotland Yard, and a young girl can be traded for a case of brandy (in a comment chillingly delivered in an offhand manner). Even more frightening, a man-turned-to-object must renounce his entire personal history, reducing himself to a naked heap of meat that famously reveals itself as such in the most realistic fight scene in film history. That Cronenberg suggests that such patriarchal codes of objecthood and value (codes which reverse what it means to be inside and outside) are the result of a hyper-masculine attempt to preserve such codes from anything that might queer them turns Eastern Promises into a complex film unafraid to examine the big picture.

Best Films of 2007 #4: Zodiac

Like No Country for Old Men, David Fincher's latest is much more about the experience of watching the film than about anything that the movie ostensibly markets itself as. It's certainly not a serial killer film, for instance. While many critics have pointed out that this is a dramatic turn away from his first great movie, Se7en, they rarely note that Zodiac is its antithesis for any other reason than generic expectations alone (the latter film is not a horror film, they posit, and I personally am not really convinced that the former is either). In any case, Se7en concerns the actions of a killer whose murders are ciphers from God, all existential subtext circulated in the characters' philosophical conversations about what the murders mean; it's something of a fable on the order of Camus's Myth of Sisyphus, as the detectives realize the futility of saving a world that has become a kind of Hades. Zodiac, on the other hand, is entirely about the ways in which the murders are objects to be examined not for their content but for their context, a remove from the earlier film which allows the detectives and reporters on this case to realize that the killer's ciphers are not important for their meaning so much as they are important for how they fuck with the entire nation's infrastructure.

The film as a whole embodies this kind of investigative approach more reminiscent of social sciences than it is of literary criticism (note the contrasting motifs of the two films between the library and the movie theatre, between the location as a space in which knowledge is kept and the location as a space in which people live and act upon each other). The characters never contemplate the meaning of the crimes, but rather treat the entire affair as a series of actions and events with particular details to be used as evidence in relation to the larger social context from which they emerged. The killer works so well as a metaphor here because he has no referent, and, as a result, the existential dread is shifted from iconography and symbolism to the mundane chatter of the everyday that is used to maintain the illusion that our social networks cannot be breached as easily as the Zodiac killer demonstrates. In other words, the film has shifted from the idea of cinema as an object in which meaning is represented to us and toward the philosophy of cinema as a series of moments and spaces which present themselves baldly to a viewer. That it makes this clear through its own obsessive focus on period detail and its painstaking attempt to make everything relative to how people experience the sights and sounds of that period (for instance, a different actor portrays the Zodiac at different moments to match the descriptions offered by witnesses) makes this film an incredibly sophisticated statement about the cinematic experience.

Best Films of 2007 #5: The Bourne Ultimatum

Difficult to contemplate how good Paul Greengrass's spy movie is until you compare it to another heavily politicized action movie released this year, Peter Berg's The Kingdom. A movie that exploits children for cheap identification with characters killed in the opening terrorist sequence, this is the kind of rancorous stuff that has so many people annoyed with the way Hollywood attempts to comment on current affairs. The film asks us to be annoyed on behalf of our American heroes for an hour and a half as their illegal micro-invasion of Saudi Arabia is justifiably caught up in red tape, then promptly begs us to cheer along as they kill every Arab in sight with the slight evidence they were able to uncover from what Jamie Foxx brazenly and incorrectly identifies as the worst crime in the country's history (why, because so many Americans were killed in this instance?!). Then it expects us to think it's subversive since it pays two minutes of lip service at the end to the parallel desire to kill the "bad" guys held by Americans and Saudis. Problem is, we've been led for two hours to believe that we're simply right for wanting to kill those bad guys! I don't object on principle (like some critics do) to turning our current world climate into an action movie: I object to turning it into this action movie.

The Bourne Ultimatum, on the other hand, has a message that makes sense, and, more to the point, it hits the pulse of the current world climate in a way that I appreciate, personally. Yes, it's partisan politics thrown into the realm of cinema, but who are we fooling here by trying to suggest that they aren't the same anyway? Greengrass gives us some of the very best action scenes of the year, and it uses them to create an allegory about how we need to remember how to be good as a nation after a voluntary fall and an amnesiac plunge into a world in which the rules no longer make sense. In other words, it exploits our affect as any action film does, but it does so for the purpose of questioning how our desire for "action" translates into international suffering. This renunciation of the action film was the trend in general for the best action movies of the year (see also Live Free or Die Hard, Shoot 'em Up, Exiled, 3:10 to Yuma, and even, in its glorious parody of the action heroes who don't actually kill anyone, Hot Fuzz).

Best Films of 2007 #6: No Country for Old Men

This is probably the most discussed film of the year. I'm still not sure where I fall on this film or how I read it exactly, but this is perhaps the point. The film itself is a detached series of actions with no real commentary offered by the camera as to how we should sympathize with these alien creatures. And yet the film so frequently shows its characters in ways with which we automatically, against our better judgments, seem to empathize: it all seems like a curious commentary on how we generally filter out the actions we see in the world and randomly decide to invest affectively in certain people. Because of this curious commentary on how we see and invest in the world around us, the Coen brothers have offered up the most experientially bleak cinematic experience of the year. I'm not sure that makes it the best.

All the discussion about the film, making this weirdness so comprehensible, sometimes makes it difficult for me to determine whether the film is actually as great as everyone seems to assert or whether it is simply important in the context of the function of film criticism. The film is undoubtedly important, especially in how critics have used it to tease out ideas about what film in general is supposed to do, a goal so clearly apparent in writing these "best of" lists in the first place.

In this sense, I'm not sure that I can add anything to the current discourse that's out there right now, but No Country for Old Men is the rare and important film that causes a public debate as to what film is supposed to accomplish on a personal and social level. It's an essential film for that reason, whether all of the discourse results from the aesthetics of the film or from the vagaries of the critical establishment.

For a much better and more eloquent idea of what I feel like I'm articulating unclearly here, check out Jim Emerson's blog, in which he catalogues many critics' opinions of what the film is doing, his own response to Jonathan Rosenbaum's critique that the film is trying to be too "ideological." Emerson also participated recently in a phone conversation with other critics that has been turned into a podcast. And, really, this is only the tip of the critical iceberg. It's all pretty overwhelming, really, since this doesn't happen too often.

Best Films of 2007 #7: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

As one of the few people on the planet who hasn't read any of the novels (yet), I was completely blown away by this film. Order of the Phoenix is probably the first movie in this list that starts the trend of an achingly melancholic meditation on our current state of affairs (this trend will not let up throughout the rest of this countdown), constructing a world in which our hero's sense of being alone becomes thoroughly palpable (the absence of his parents has never seemed so present, and this is emphasized even more as he loses his last real relative) even as he surrounds himself with an admiring group of proteges with whom he can face his personal demons. But this is also a film that realizes that a genuine politics emerges from personal relations (that theoretical mantra about the personal being the political all too often misinterpreted in the reverse manner, that politics impinges upon the personal, only reinstating a destructive desire to separate the two). After all, throughout the course of the film, we see a government official respond to a personal grudge by constructing a security state at Hogwarts, using controversy around this kind of domestic threat to encroach unjustly on lands that fall under the sovereignty of other peoples seen as sub-human (the entire centaur sub-plot). All this in a children's movie!

It's dark stuff, in other words, and a (good) sign of the times that we're educating our children in the often subtle and insidious ways in which our global and domestic politics actually operates. And in the image of our lonesome hero and his friends flanked by rows and rows of prophecies of the future (that resilient image of the crystal ball) as he steps up to fight wraiths who emerge from the shadows and yet who are all too familiar, we have a much more positive and complex image of conflict than is offered in some of the more deliberately "subversive" or "topical" films this year (see, for instance, the execrable The Kingdom, although more on that later). In the final reel of the film, Harry holds in his hands a prophecy which promises to unlock all of the epistemological problems and gaps that have led to this conflict, but he wisely tosses it aside in the realization that it is precisely the attempt to seal all knowledge and foresee the future in a single-minded way that gives strength to his enemies. That this happens just moments before a devastatingly brief death scene only punctuates how complicated this politics within the nexus of power and knowledge can actually get. In other words, the film offers an excellent example of a lonesome young hero, navigating the dark, labyrinthine depths of the current political climate, and making some of the ultimate sacrifices while doing so. In this sense, Harry Potter is not only a wonderful role model for children, but one to whom we can all look for guidance.

Best Films of 2007 #8: 28 Weeks Later

Danny Boyle's 28 days later... was a very good film: a genre exercise that made a pastiche of conventions in zombie films, allowing that pastiche to resonate in a larger social message. But the message itself felt more like a paraphrase of something much more complex: its message about the different kinds of violence we're capable of enacting under certain circumstances buried under the weight of its own attempt to universalize the message rather than to ground it in contemporary matters. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 28 Weeks Later, on the other hand, is a sweeping epic catalogue of the horrors that have plagued American society (strange, considering the London setting) in the past half a decade or so, a pastiche which uses our recent history as an analogue to those very same zombie movie cliches. The difference registers in the titles even: the former attempting a kind of narrative ellipses, a mere moment in an unending stream of atrocity; the latter title, shown on screen during a series of military reports, feeling more like a bureaucratic report of our current state of affairs; the former is all horror story punchline while the latter hearkens back to Congressional reports on terror which comment on what led us to where we are now. Boyle's film may be better in the long run, but Fresnadillo's is very much of this moment, and the experience of watching it is positively electrifying as a result.

It's more than a cliche to mention that horror films are the best barometer of our social fears (especially after breakthrough work on the genre by scholars such as Robin Wood and Carol Clover, and even a popular writer like Stephen King). But one can find an obvious successor to Romero's three great Dead films (the less said about Land of the Dead, the better) in Fresnadillo's epic, often using direct references to those films as a signal for the ways in which our social anxieties have evolved in the past forty years. Compare the casting of a black helicoptor pilot in this and in Dawn of the Dead, and you see in each film an angry statement about the way minorities are sent to die for our country in the military, but Fresnadillo's Hurricane Katrina tableaux of that pilot looking at a rooftop in the disaster zone with a plea for recognition of the life within adds a whole new contemporary resonance to that anger about race in America. The film says a lot with small moments like that one, brief images that speak volumes about our growing security state's failure to protect its citizens when protection really matters, and it always feels like it organically grows out of the genre itself rather than as an uncomfortable addition to it. As a riff on the cinematic past, the film is a revelation in its unbearable bleakness.

Best Films of 2007 #9: Ratatouille

When I first heard the description for this film, I honestly couldn't understand its purpose. An animated film about a rat who cooks at a five-star French restaurant seems to reach out to no demographic in particular: children probably wouldn't appreciate either the obsessive detail over food or the French setting (remember that the French chef in The Little Mermaid is sort of a villain) and foodies would be turned off by the animation, by that long-circulating (mis)perception that animated film is (to paraphrase The Hudsucker Proxy) "you know, for kids!"

But then I saw the film, and it's probably better than anything in the distinguished track record set by Pixar to date. About a rat who emerges from the sewers to become a master chef in the highly competetive world of French cuisine, the film is the only great film from this past year that I can think of that actually looks into the filth and grime of our current climate and sees a genuine hope for how creativity can sometimes alter the rules of the game. Obsessed with issues of quality and the trenchant demands of taste culture as it is literalized in the food world, the film brazenly suggests that quality can emerge from anywhere, and that this in itself must necessarily alter how we perceive notions of "quality" and "taste" actually operate along classed and gendered lines. But it also does so pragmatically, and somewhat insidiously suggests that this affective power can only be drawn through a creative harnessing of nostalgia for a simpler time and place. In this sense, a happy little film in which a rat uses a human as a cooking puppet perfectly fits into a cinematic year obsessed with an attempt to retrieve a past that is no longer possible, if it ever was.

Best Films of 2007 #10: Paprika

Satoshi Kon's latest best captures the palpable fear of the destructive capacities of our imaginary that simmers beneath the surface of most of the other interesting films this year. The film concerns a terrorist who has stolen a device that can link up our dreams into a collective nightmare, and it has the conviction to suggest that the nightmare that erupts goes far beyond the original intentions of the terrorist who had originally spawned it. We see such an understanding of a clockwork terrorism which has popped a spring permeating the feature, as an animated parade of giant broken toys marches through a central avenue of the dreamworld, bursting through the seams of other individuals' unconscious, and breaking through into the real world as something like a childlike destroyer-god. More poignantly, the film enacts precisely the kind of horror it critiques: its most potent image of Paprika (a dream avatar for a female psychologist) pinned to a table like a butterfly, while a man reaches his hand between her legs to rip off her skin and reveal the doctor beneath, has itself invaded my own thoughts and nightmares, a testament to the film's faith in the power of film.

The film begs, in other words, for the kind of faux-pyschoanalytical interpretation that would level every cultural symbol onto the same social grounding, but it couldn't be more contemporary in its impenetrability outside of the proper intertextual and social context. Paprika is, after all, something like a spicier version of Akira, that anime which first burst the seams across cultural imaginaries by gaining cult popularity Stateside. But while that earlier apocalyptic fantasy opened with the image of a crater through which humanity can transform into something that is terrifying in its productive capacity, Paprika suggests that it is the terrifying productive capacity of humanity as it exists now that causes such a crater, closing in its final minutes with loving shots of a canyon in Tokyo created by the dreamworld's attempt to breach reality. The film demonstrates a curious self-hatred of its own artifice, closing with the hope that such artifice can only be recuperated through the kinds of illusions we create everyday when we're in love. The film is a poetics of melancholy, a smart literalization of the ways in which personal aspirations can become political through relationships which necessarily rest upon an earnest belief in the lie of our own illusory selves.

"Americanization" and the Function of Critical Vocabulary

I got into a fairly heated debate with my brother earlier about the term "Americanization" when we were talking about national cuisines. During the conversation, I had casually mentioned that I hated the term (a passion which is, I suppose, never really that casual), and I was inexplicably unable to defend my reasons for this. Part of the reason, it turns out, is that I often have my own difficulties justifying the need for a more complicated critical discourse than the ones which are already popularly in place: in other words, the difficulty was defending the role of a cultural critic (particularly an academic one), something which I was apparently unprepared to do in regular conversation.

After thinking about it more, I can say that the term "Americanization" does (at least) three things that are potentially damaging to the ways in which individuals identify themselves in relation to other cultures and their own: it tries to stabilize two particular identities while suggesting a monolithic appropriation of one of them.

An example to bring this into significantly less abstract terms: I study Shakespeare and the uses of his works in contemporary American youth culture. It would only be too easy for me to suggest a model in which "Americanization" would be a key term (to say, for instance, that Baz Luhrman's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet is an Americanized version of the play). But to suggest that youth culture is Americanizing Shakespeare would be misleading in three ways:

1) It suggests that there is a universal "American" identity which simply doesn't exist,
2) It suggests that there is a stable idea of what "Shakespeare" is that can be Americanized, and most insidiously,
3) It suggests that this stable American identity entirely co-opts or appropriates this stable Shakespearean identity fully, that there is no Shakespeare left in American youth culture that is not Americanized.

All three propositions are incorrect. All three can have dangerous consequences. When I stare blankly and stupidly at my brother's suggestion that the average person doesn't need a more complicated understanding of this process, I'm really staring at my own inability to bridge that seemingly unbridgable chasm that exists between the academy and what he calls the "average Joe" in the popular sensibility.

"The critical categories that we have work," he says. "They describe a cultural process in a way that is important and which does reveal something about the way that other cultures are economically exploited by the U.S." Brief pause. "And try talking about how this process is more complicated to jihadists who have a genuine reason to hate America as a whole because of this process of Americanization!"

But such an example merely demonstrates how deadly such a binary logic can be: it is precisely a response this slippage between "Americanization" as a critical discourse and the perception of "Americanization" as a social process that results in such a reductive, violent attack on a national culture. My brother is correct in asserting that the distribution of a critical vocabulary doesn't materially affect our social relations: but we can certainly feel the material, often-violent reverberations when that critical vocabulary is misapplied in pragmatic situations, reducing enormously complicated histories into either/or propositions.

We constantly see how American pundits' discussions can turn just as ugly when they discuss their perceptions of how other cultures are appropriating American culture: such reductive assumptions about how cultures relate to one another are at the heart of our worst public debates about issues such as immigration laws and the "need" to officially set English as the national language. It's all reactionary bullshit that trades on the worst assumptions that any cultural hybridity poisons the "authenticity" of our culture. (Not incidentally, "authenticity" is another term that needs to be discarded from public discussion altogether.)

Innumerable academic cultural critics have posed alternative ways of understanding how cultures interact that pushes us beyond the paradigm of cultural imperialism or Americanization (Stuart Hall, Lawrence Grossberg, Arjun Appadurai, Hardt and Negri, and Iwabuchi all come immediately to mind, not to mention the many others I can't think of off the top of my head), but I think that the Shakespearean scholar Bryan Reynolds offers an interesting, immediately recognizable model for how these interactions can occur. Reynolds suggests that these "transversal encounters" (his jargony term to denote hybridity) are similar in structure to how empathy works on an interpersonal level. If I empathize with someone, I obviously do not fully become or appropriate the other person's emotions or identity as I do so. But I am also not fully myself, either. I am something different, and, if the affect is strong enough, I am forever changed. So it happens in empathy, so it goes in inter-cultural relations: nothing is ever fully appropriated so much as it becomes a hyrbrid that somehow manages to change both cultures. Sometimes these changes happen for the worse (the kinds of economic exploitation traditionally associated with Americanization, for instance), but they often transform the public sphere in valuable ways that allow individuals to negotiate how they relate with others (with Google's unforgivable deal with China, we see the genuine fear that international means of information distribution can cause as it relates to the political public sphere). More consciousness of these complexities--complexities that the "average Joe" already understands so intuitively in inner emotional life--within our public critical discourses is necessary for developing a more peaceful interaction between cultures in an increasingly complicated globalized setting. I'm not necessarily suggesting that a higher public profile for cultural critics is the answer, but it's certainly one avenue of routing our cultural pedagogy.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

10 Best Films of 2007: Runners-Up and Other Distinctions

This was an incredibly good year for film. So much so that there is a very clear overflow of films that I either haven't had a chance to see or films that were still excellent (even if not able to be slotted arbitrarily into the top ten itself). Here are a few of the films that fall into those categories.

A List of Films I've Notably Missed: I’m Not There, There Will Be Blood, We Own the Night, American Gangster, Diary of the Dead, Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, The Darjeeling Limited, A Mighty Heart, Atonement, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Juno, Michael Clayton


Knocked Up and Superbad: Judd Apatow's two film productions (the former of which he directed as well) this year have catapulted him into the ranks of Entertainment Weekly's "smartest people in Hollywood," but these films demonstrate more than just a savvy awareness of key consumer demographics. Critics who lump this in as a sweeter version of the gross-out sexual-hijinks genre repopularized by American Pie miss out on how he navigates modern romance in the same frustrated manner as Woody Allen used to do when he still had something to say.
Breach and Live Free or Die Hard: Billy Ray's film is a spare procedural "true story" of a security breach in the CIA that offers the keen illusion of objectivity, subtly pointing to how the seemingly objective cinematic eye can never pin down anything with certainty without the imposition of subjective laws. The latest adventure about John McClane goes the other route in detailing its own national security breach, using its balls-out action template to say something the domestic cost of our war on terror.
Shoot ‘Em Up and Hot Fuzz: While both of these films are overt parodies of the action genre typified so well by Die Hard, they couldn't look or feel more different. Edgar Wright's film is a sophisticated mix-tape of a movie, the most joyful game game of "spot the reference" in any pastiche, perhaps because it still feels so coherent and caring toward its characters (it lacks the snark of something like Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, for instance). Michael Davis barely holds up a pretense for coherence, making an action vehicle with the kind of madcap insanity that John Woo or Ringo Lam used to make. It also has the distinction of using the most glorious counter-intuitive casting logic of any film this year by casting Paul Giamatti as a menacing hitman.
Black Snake Moan: For three-quarters of its running time (until it takes on the tone of an earnest Gospel song rather than the blues riff it had been), this is a much better approximation of the grindhouse experience than Grindhouse. Equally a mixed bag as the two movies that comprise the Tarantino/Rodriguez project, this one at least has the strength of its own convictions, however potentially misogynistic and racist those convictions are: this is a movie that genuinely believes in the chain that acts as its primary exploitation trope: those chains that tear apart our flesh and bind it together.
Black Book: Unfairly castigated by critics who refer to it as Schindler's Showgirls, this is a film that is misunderstood both by its supporters and its detractors, mostly because they confuse this with the kind of prestige picture other Holocaust films are generally described as. Less a return to Hitchcockian form for Dutch director Paul Verhoeven after his two decade stretch in Hollywood, this is more of a throw-back to women-in-chains films (see above for this as well) and trash like Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS. Verhoeven has simply added his Hitchcockian obsession with obsessions into the mix, making this a smart thriller that isn't afraid to wallow in sex and shit (literally) for a better part of the running time.
Beowulf and Stardust: The two best fantasy epics of the year, in a year that saw a wealth of LotR and Harry Potter knock-offs, these two films redefine the nature of heroism in curious ways: the former by situating such heroism in the interactive experience of a digitized culture that finds such medieval notions of heroism oddly alien, and the latter by showing in detail how a hero is constructed and performed by a necessarily queer schema.
3:10 to Yuma and Exiled: This year apparently saw the rebirth of the Western, and James Mangold's is the most classically composed, even in its revisionism and in its focus on the aesthetics of self-narrative. And, while it has the best gunfights of the standard Westerns released this year, Johnny To's neo-Western set in contemporary Macau has its gunfighting anti-heroes strike the best poses before staging gorgeous gunfights that were almost cubist in their concerns with the spaces in which bodies move. Both of them feel like re-imaginings of The Wild Bunch, suggesting that the kind of nihilistic malaise we're seeing in film may be international.
The Host: Which brings us to the most spectacular monster movie released in years, a South Korean film that has the balls to point out that America's place in international affairs at the moment is as an ineffective clean-up crew for the messes we created in the first place. In other words, a film very much in Godzilla's legacy, but very much contemporary in its concerns about how to maintain traditional family values in the face of unspeakable crises and even more unspeakable solutions to those crises.

Friday, December 28, 2007

10 Best Films of 2007: Overview

It's that time of year, when critics professional and amateur (or, as in this case, professional critics of a different stripe) chime in with passionate pleas for an "objective" look at the very best that cinema had to offer in the past year. Beyond a kind of preview of the awards season chaos to ensue shortly (if they aren't challenged by the writer's strike, that is), this is a strange effort to create a canon based on a quality that ultimately gets tallied and statistically weighed to give added weight to what are fundamentally subjective portraits of what represents a film of "quality." Just as many critics weigh in with half-hearted critiques of the ideology behind these lists each year as critics who weigh in with half-hearted attempts to justify that ideology on its own terms. Others, like Ted Pigeon, will comment on the social value that this kind of public forum on the nature of taste holds for us, and I tend to agree. Top ten lists aren't merely an effort at canonizing the "great films" of any given year: they are an effort to examine precisely those values that we label as canonical in any given year, and this is a politics of contemporary concerns that is too important to wave off in an ill-fated attempt to subvert the authority of the critical establishment.

Thus, in that spirit, I've cooked up a list in twelve volumes that will hopefully speak to those conerns that go into determining what we value and what we devalue this year. To start it off, I've provided a brief overview of those concerns below, an analysis of what critics at one time called the zeitgeist of our cinema before the term became passe for its univeralizing tendencies. I can only say that this analysis is far from comprehensive: these are just some trends that I've noticed in the movies I admired personally this year. The next eleven volumes will count down will count down what I felt were the most important and personally affecting movies this year, starting with a short list of great movies that don't fall within the traditional ten, and then moving up to the "best." In each individual review, I'll try to point out where I think the film fits (or doesn't fit) into the general political mood that cinema established this past year, hopefully giving the list the kind of complexity and attention to difference that tends to characterize some of the more interesting lists out there. So, without further ado:

The best (American, mostly--due more to my own viewing habits than to the films themselves) movies of 2007 were generally characterized by the kind of quiet, resigned melancholy that also characterized some of the best American cinema of the 1970s. Beyond a similarity in tone, the films from that decade have come back to us as some kind of cinematic return of the repressed: how else to explain why Andrew Dominik would mimic Once Upon a Time in the West, why Billy Ray and David Fincher would riff on All the President’s Men, Ben Affleck Chinatown, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo Dawn of the Dead, James Mangold The Wild Bunch, Paul Greengrass Three Days of the Condor, and even, in Judd Apatow’s aesthetic trade-off of drug-addled slackerism for yuppified neurosis, Annie Hall. That many of the actors in those classics have moved on to crap like Lions for Lambs, Scoop, and The Bucket List (while the rest are, sadly, dead) only shows how irrevocably lost that cinematic past is in today’s world even as we try to mine its paradoxically cynical hope once again.

The parallel with '70s cinema makes sense, though, when one considers how eerily familiar and yet completely alien are the socio-political climates in which the movies of today and those of yesteryear arose. Trapped in an unpopular war which has spawned protests at home and abroad and stuck with an unpopular president unwilling to lead us to some, any resolution, we’re once again struggling to find some form of comfort or answer to our problems, one that just doesn’t seem to be available to us through the standard political means. Filmmakers from the left have started to take notice, producing films like Rendition which at least appear so misguidedly reductive and self-satisfied that they only serve to remind everyone why the new New Left is failing to strike a popular chord in middle America today. In this context, with all of this public angst bubbling to a frustrated and disillusioned surface, it’s no surprise that some of the biggest popcorn entertainments of the year have either parodied the kinds of heroes we wish we could still appeal to in earnest (Ratatouille, Hot Fuzz, Stardust’s deliberate queering of heroism, Beowulf’s unintentional version of the same) or have posed some of the toughest ethical quandaries on film in recent memory (the latest Die Hard film, the latest Bourne movie, the latest Harry Potter, the latest zombie film, etc.). Perhaps this is also because they often resurrect characters or tropes born of different cinematic environments and place them in today’s screwed up world. And perhaps not coincidentally, it’s the task of the one non-English film on this list to literalize all of the thorny metaphors that articulate issues of power and control (that politics of the personal) to the dreamscape of the cinema, vividly imagining how the constant terrorist onslaught on our collective imaginary results in a very tangible hole at the center of our political life.

In this sense, astute observers may remember 2007’s cinema as a kind of hopeful postmortem of our murdered culture (notice how all of the top six films are actually about the failed investigations of some kind of crime). Filmmakers have echoed their own political situation and their own anxiety about the place of filmmaking in today’s world (with the ever-increasing rise of convergence technologies, the sudden awareness that the home market really determines the kinds of films that are made, and the ubiquity of the kind of pastiche-beyond-irony which characterizes the YouTube generation) both by going back to the well of great American cinema of the past and by turning their heroes into characters who are trapped by the past (not necessarily their own, either) and unable or unwilling to move into the kind of future that is forming before their eyes. The situation for these characters seems to be getting played out endlessly in our political discourse as well, in a coming election year whose only promise seems to be that we’re inevitably going to blow our chance for a fresh start once again. Our heroes this year (in politics as well as in characters like Ed Tom Bell in No Country, Patrick Kenzie in Gone Baby Gone, Robert Graysmith in Zodiac), in other words, are the latest version of what Nixon had termed “the silent majority,” mad as hell about the world but not mad enough not to take it anymore. Perhaps this is because, while the political scenarios abroad are so familiar, the wars taking place back home are no longer against poverty and institutionalized racism, but are, apparently, against abortion rights, gay marriage, and health care reform. The cultural landscape is vastly different, and, as a result, even some of our youngest heroes seem haggard and world-weary. At least we have Harry Potter (and, with any luck, at least a small percentage of his millions of young readers worldwide) growing into a genuine man of action.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Costs of Digital Technology

A few days ago, Michael Cieply of the New York Times reported on the literal rise in costs for film preservation through the constant changes in digital technology:

The problem became public, but just barely, last month, when the science and technology council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the results of a yearlong study of digital archiving in the movie business. Titled “The Digital Dilemma,” the council’s report surfaced just as Hollywood’s writers began their walkout. Busy walking, or dodging, the picket lines, industry types largely missed the report’s startling bottom line: To store a digital master record of a movie costs about $12,514 a year, versus the $1,059 it costs to keep a conventional film master.

Much worse, to keep the enormous swarm of data produced when a picture is “born digital” — that is, produced using all-electronic processes, rather than relying wholly or partially on film — pushes the cost of preservation to $208,569 a year, vastly higher than the $486 it costs to toss the equivalent camera negatives, audio recordings, on-set photographs and annotated scripts of an all-film production into the cold-storage vault.

It gets even worse. He goes on to report that the digital storage of film can can become completely unreadable, often in less than a decade. Compare this to the costs and efforts required to remove the scratches from traditional film stock.

This doesn't come as a huge shock to me. I've always attempted to temper the utopianism of technological advancement with a healthy understanding of the materiality of these technologies. After all, many people mistakenly believe (or at least tend to ignore) that the digital information that floats around online doesn't simply drift in the ether: it has to be kept someplace, stored in massive server somewhere. Anyone who has ever lost an important piece of writing due to a computer crash the night before a deadline knows all too well the dangers associated with the materiality of information.

But I have to admit that I didn't quite see this coming. The disparity in costs and the dangers of the loss of important cultural artifacts is shocking even to someone as pragmatic as me about technological matters.

Even so, I think this poses an important question: where exactly do we go from here? Should we attempt to continue the convergence of our digital technologies (distributing film in various digital media formats, turning television into digital code that can be downloaded onto a cell phone, etc.), or do we find an alternative route? Clearly traditional analogue film stocks had their problems, which we attempted to address with digital. And despite being relatively new as a dominant cultural technology, digitization is dominant enough that it is creeping into scientific discourses as the paradigm for explaining how the universe itself operates. Whatever comes next, will it be as alien to us 21st-century digital boys and girls as digital was to 20th-century analogue types? Thoughts?

Groundhog Day Revisited, Yet Again

It's the winter holiday season, so, naturally, I turned to Groundhog Day. There was the usual déjà vu in the realization that this is one of the very best romantic comedies ever, but the machinery of those generic expectations in the viewing experience work so well that I had never noticed until now how very odd the romance actually is.

About a third of the way through the film, when Phil (Bill Murray) says to Rita (Andie MacDowell) that what he "really want[s] is someone like you," I was struck this time how out of the blue the statement actually felt. I'm apparently not the only one: Bill Chambers notes how Phil's enactment of his godhood "entails wooing Rita (mostly because Andie MacDowell is second-billed)." There's a slight look of bemusement when Phil first sets eyes on her playing with her disappearing torso in front of the weatherman's blue screen, but it certainly couldn't be mistaken for a gaze of desire of any kind. And Phil makes the requisite dirty jokes to her early on about how much she was missing by sleeping alone, but we get the feeling that this is just Phil being Phil (easily mistaken for Bill Murray being Bill Murray). No sense of real need for her at all ... until he randomly decides in the middle of a diner that she is what he really wants out of life.

But the randomness of the decision is precisely what makes it so important: at a narrative level, the film easily would have ground to a dead halt at exactly that moment unless he had made the decision that would bring his day--and thus the film--to its climax. Only by making the absurd decision to latch onto something and to apply such meaning to it could he actually work toward forging (both in the sense of "creating" and in the sense of "faking") a narrative of himself that he could actually work with into the future. The manner in which he had previously identified himself had brought him nowhere in life, and the film's great conceit is that it literalizes this narrative dead end by forcing him to relive the moment in which he derailed over and over again. The movie is charged through with religious contemplation: sure, his suggestion that he's a god is played for laughs, but after a half an hour of existential questioning over the nature of our actions when they have no social consequences and after a morbidly hilarious montage of suicide attempts, the statement seems to take on a little more gravitas. In this context, it wouldn't be entirely out of place to suggest that the random choice to love Rita until the day he dies is the rom-com equivalent of Pascal's wager: it was the moment in which he earnestly decided to believe his own bullshit, and he eventually awoke (this kind of religious "awakening" is especially significant after the enormous amount of effort directed toward achieving that belief) to find that it was empirically true.

But beyond the abstract metaphysics of the film's philosophy, the decision works even more effectively as a kind of pragmatic meta-cinema. A scene can be shot any number of ways, a film can be edited any number of ways, a narrative can turn any number of ways unless choices are made to direct the film toward ends prescribed by the expectations viewers hold about the film's genre. Groundhog Day works both as an example of how this generic effect can work successfully and as a critical examination of its inner workings during film production. The entire premise seems to rely on the fact that Phil is the only person "on set" who actually realizes that he's in a film, that his actions can reverberate differently depending upon how he performs himself to his fellow actors. In this context, Phil is given multiple "takes" and we see Phil the method actor searching for his motivation (the weird choice to believe that he loves someone as bland as Rita) and researching the role in order to perform it in a way that meets everyone's expectations. This is a surprisingly slow process for him: Phil is kind of a dunce as an actor, first assuming that he's in a horror film, then in a raucous sex comedy (his seduction of Nancy and his John Belushi imitation as he eats a table full of cakes), then in an Ingmar Bergman film (his angsty suicides), then in a film of social awareness (his attempts to save the old homeless man). Only then does he finally settle on the romantic comedy genre, and it's still quite a feat to pull off the performance properly.

But even as Phil navigates his own attempt to revise his character's narrative according to his viewers' expectations, the film itself does something radical by allowing us to see this actually happen. After all, strip away the other elements and leave only the bits that genuinely fit into this genre, and you're left with only his final experience of Groundhog Day, which would be completely dull if not for the narrative chaos--that difference in the constant repetitions--that had ensued before it. In its subtle reveal of how film production works when it plays to audience expectations, the final version of Groundhog Day that Phil experiences becomes for us the version of Groundhog Day that could have ended up on the DVD I was watching. In other words, the film is highly critical of the ways that films give audiences what they think they want out of a genre film. This film reaches out for a higher purpose: to make the audience believe in those expectations as limits within which to improvise something more affirmative. And this is the Groundhog Day that really makes me believe in the kind of power that film has on a larger scale.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

DVD Technology and the Cinema Experience

Over at the Film Freak Central Blog, Alex Jackson recently posed the question of how DVD technology has amplified and potentially surpassed the traditional “cinema” experience. He offers Capturing the Friedmans and the special edition DVD of Platoon as examples of the ways in which the text of the films themselves become problematized, clarified, expanded upon, and, in somewhat of a counterintuitive manner, completed by the supplemental materials available on DVDs.

The question is one worth pondering, and his post seems to take a debate that has been running in literary critical and media theory for the past half of a century in a curious direction. At least since Roland Barthes proclaimed the critical shift from "work" to "text" (and perhaps even long before then), our critical rhetoric has frequently extolled the value of "opening up" texts, by examining how they operate within their own margins. It’s a theory that paved the way for major scholars today (see Henry Jenkins’s blog, for instance) to discuss fan culture, as one example, as a practice of consumer freedom, reworking “source” materials through our constantly expanding convergence technologies to make a “text” limitless, ever expansive in a way that allows for different kinds of political engagement with cultural objects like film. In this way, much recent cultural criticism has shifted away from the study of "objects" because they are too intimately bound up in the kinds of limitations that avoid inter- and extra-textuality.

Which, perhaps, brings us back to the original proposition. Because Jackson seems to be suggesting that, rather than the limitlessness that has been something of the norm in academic accounts of convergence technologies, it is precisely the limits which such technologies impose that allow a more important political insight into the way texts relate to viewers (it’s no accident, after all, that a punk critic fan of the avant-garde would choose such politically-loaded films as examples here). The idea of a limitless freedom has never really appealed to me: it is much more pragmatic to understand that fashioning a political identity (even a viewing identity) relies on a specific grammar, a code that closes off possibilities and opens up possibilities for intervention. In this sense, Jackson’s proposition is a nice corrective to some of the unchecked idealism going around in media and fan studies today, precisely because it opens up the possibility for a more pragmatic way to construct ideals about what film and other media technology actually do to us as we watch/interact with it.

An example to complement Alex’s own: the special edition DVD of Tim Blake Nelson’s O is fascinating as a cultural object. The film is extremely underappreciated, especially because it’s so up-front about its own adaptation from Shakespearean source material (but the question of adaptation is really a different issue altogether). But the DVD makes it even better. The publicity materials are alright, and the director’s commentary is appropriately reverential and humble about the social work it’s trying to do. But the real treat is the entire hour-long silent feature of Othello starring Emil Jannings. The film predictably focuses the action in a baroque court setting, while the white actor does his best black-face routine. The entire feature encourages the viewer to stare slack-jawed with the understanding of the kinds of representations Nelson was working against, what he had to subtract from our culture’s understanding of the Shakespeare play, even as the other materials explicitly inform us of what he was trying to add.

In this sense, the move toward seeing a film as an object, even as a different kind of object than we normally see it as, can allow us to better understand the kinds of connections it makes in its circulation across time. Hopefully we'll be able to practice this kind of criticism more consciously here at F-Bomb.