Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Abyss Gazes Also

 Maybe the only slasher trope that the original Psycho didn't invent is the killer's point-of-view shot (often accompanied by heavy, excited breathing), spelling impending doom for anyone caught in its gaze. As soon as an imperiled teenager appears in such a shot, they are dead: to be filmed is to be killed, which is why slashers always toe the line of sadism. That's a sin Alfred Hitchcock was endlessly accused of committing, yet he doesn't indulge this particular technique in Psycho, perhaps because such shots, despite their horrible intimacy, exist in large part to emphasize the mystery of the killer's identity. This kind of explicit ambiguity would not at all have suited Hitch's own exquisite contradictions: while his killer is not what (s)he appears, the impact of that revelation is entirely predicated on a false certainty introduced into the audience mind. Mrs. Bates has to exist beyond all doubt for her non-existence to shock; the director's manipulation of mystery relies on misleading the audience as to not only the answer, but the question as well. ("Well, if the woman up there is Mrs. Bates, who's that woman buried out in Greenlawn Cemetery?")

The audience, after all, is as much on the hunt as the killer in endlessly mysterious, under-the-surface cinema like Psycho, and those movies which play most wickedly with that hunt for information are regularly counted among the medium's finest. Yet even the most narratively opaque of such oblique teasers usually hint that something, some force, character, or the director her/himself, lies in wait behind the curtain (in Mulholland Drive's immortal words, "he's the one who's doing it.") Not so with Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake of Psycho, nor his subsequent Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005), thoroughly self-negating works that leave their many mysteries pointedly unsolved. Contradictions abound: these are movies with potentially intriguing content but are devoted to establishing context, obsessively stylish auterist statements that nevertheless count the Author among their many victims, long-take observances of bodies in motion that seem horribly aware of how soon those bodies will stop dead. All three are rooted in cultural flashpoints of violent death (the Columbine massacre, Kurt Cobain's final hours, Psycho itself), but Van Sant elides what we think we "should" be seeing of those subjects, emphasizing repetition and physicality over controversy as his characters are consumed by an increasingly existential restlessness: they walk and walk and walk and never seem to get anywhere, much like the director himself. Indeed, it's Van Sant's own struggle that defines the non-dramas: these movies (purposely) have little to say about their ostensible subjects, but they thereby become full-length tributes to the struggle of artistic expression and originality. That all three Nothing-Films blatantly fail to resolve that struggle makes them unquestionably frustrating, but also brave, and more than a little tragic.

(I'm skipping Van Sant's Gerry (2002), usually considered part of a stylistic and conceptual trilogy with Elephant and Last Days; while Gerry is beautiful and intriguing in its own right, it lacks the cultural raw material that grounds these other films, and so leaves itself little to deconstruct. While Psycho, Elephant, and Last Days generate suspense by trapping their "something" subjects in Van Sant's well-honed "nothing" aesthetic, Gerry is all nothing, and so remains critic-proof, which after the richly deserved collective sneer that greeted Van Sant's Finding Forrester, may well have been the point.)

Psycho was advertised (and villified) as a shot-for-shot remake of the venerated Hitchcock original, and while that's not entirely true, it's difficult to reevaluate Van Sant's take without acknowledging the expectations inevitably coalescing around such an audacious project. Which is as it should be: Van Sant's Psycho is a film utterly inextricable from its audience. The new Psycho is visually slavish in its devotion to the original, but also to the audience's relationship with Hitch's classic. Watching the new version is a process of communing with the old, the (mostly) identical framing and editing reviving sense-memories for those of us who've watched Janet Leigh get slashed apart far more times than can possibly be healthy. That wunderkind cinematographer Christopher Doyle replaces the original's stark black-and-white compositions with brilliantine, often gaudy shades of pink, orange, and green if anything only enhances the surface tactility of the new Psycho's borrowed images, forefronting their newness while subtly emphasizing the purposeful superficiality of Van Sant's project. Meanwhile, the uncanny familiarity of these sweeping camera moves and tersely delivered lines, while dampening any possible suspense regarding the story itself, creates its own kind of tension: when and where will Van Sant break the pattern? How will he make Psycho his own? And as the movie continues, resolutely refusing to answer these questions, another one creeps in: is there anything to this remake, or does Van Sant really mean for us to leave his vision of Psycho with nothing?

The answer may lie in one of Van Sant's few original adjustments. Sam (Viggo Mortensen) notes with pleasure that Marion (Anne Heche), distracted by their implicit sex, forgot to finish her sandwich. Van Sant suddenly cuts in to a close-up on said sandwich being eaten instead by a passing fly, whose buzzing momentarily dominates the soundtrack. The scene proceeds familiarly from there, but that shot sets up the whole Psycho project in miniature. If you'll forgive the indulgence: Van Sant is that bug, literally the fly on the wall in Hitchcock's towering edifice of a movie, gnawing away at the pristine surfaces of the original work only to find they're hollow on the inside. There's nothing to actually learn from Van Sant's Psycho, no trenchant insight or philosophical statement beyond the (occasionally dated) broadsides of a decades-old thriller. By momentarily asserting authorial control with this unexpected cutaway, Van Sant ends up emphasizing how little authority he has over Psycho; he can only play around at the margins. Far from the arrogant appropriation it was assumed to be, Van Sant's Psycho is actually a funeral procession for the artistic ego, genuflecting to the diamond-hard core of the original even as it muddies the surface.

And so goes the film. Van Sant inserts other cutaways during the murder scenes, but these shots (silvery clouds, a car reversing toward some cows, a blindfolded woman turning slowly toward the camera) exist only to demonstrate their own artifice, again establishing Van Sant's voice only to admit that it's hollow. These edits undermine suspense, but given the tightness of Hitchcock's scenarios, that's really all Van Sant can do; the meaninglessness of the cutaways become perverse tributes to the original Psycho's perfection. After Doyle colors in the lines, Van Sant's job is reduced to tossing in these intentionally arbitrary fragments, which hint at some greater meaning but collectively add up to nothing. Yet this strategy fits the material: as Raymond Durgnat argues, Psycho is a story of blind spots and "mental lapses," driven by the twin-piston engine of police-procedural pragmatism and visceral, violent irrationality. As such, Van Sant's meaningless shots are perhaps heir to Hitchcock's red herrings (stuffed birds, nudie magazines, an old record), a strategy which also crops up in Van Sant's Elephant, another film that refuses to unearth a cogent inspiration for murder. Hitchcock's emptiness points toward the folly of attempting to explain away Norman Bates' vicious id, while Van Sant's void acknowledges the doubled folly of recreating that non-understanding. The latter director ends his Psycho by openly admitting his helplessness: the camera cranes away from Marion's car being dragged out of a swamp, focusing instead on the gorgeous hills and mountains surrounding the Bates Motel, a shot with no precedent in Hitchcock's Psycho (see the video above). We wait, seconds passing, for something to appear, some hint at what Van Sant has been after all along, some flicker of originality. We get nothing: the soundtrack warbles, the mountains sit, and Van Sant finally cuts to black. You can almost hear him laughing.

After Psycho bombed, thus proving its own point (you can't go home again), Van Sant remade some money with the execrable Finding Forrester before abandoning all pretense of studio largesse, recommitting himself to the arthouse world that midwifed his career in the mid-1980s. Yet early Van Sant works like Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho, for all their emphasis on subjectivity and near-autistic alienation, still engaged with something resembling the real world: an indie-by-necessity American underground populated by the sort of strung-out lost souls collectively memorialized in Slacker. That stilted humanism had all but dissipated by the time Van Sant returned to The Kids Today, replaced by a creepily calm acceptance of the violence his new films framed as both inexplicable and inevitable. This may go a long way toward explaining the generally baffled reaction Elephant received when it opened stateside, Palme d'Or in tow. The controversy that greeted Van Sant's Psycho was an insular, self-satisfied kind, a cultish community resisting any attempt to replant hallowed ground. The unease engendered by Elephant, a re-enactment of the Columbine shooting, was something very different, and to be honest, I've only recently come to terms with (and come to love) a film I despised on first viewing. Psycho and Last Days, by virtue of their subjects, are prime vessels for the questions about artists and artistry that drive Van Sant's controlled dissolution of cinematic meaning. Elephant's own hermetic tendencies aren't quite so easy to forgive, as its subject doesn't lend itself as easily to extreme aestheticization; surely Columbine deserves a more respectful and realist treatment, something closer to the "truth" of the massacre? Van Sant and simpatico cinematographer Harris Savides don't alter the hypnotic, tracking-shot-laden framework they experimented with in Gerry at all for Elephant, and many interpreted this aggressive stylization as overly distant from, or even insulting to, the memory of the tragedy itself. Again, the question: if Van Sant is just playing with his toys and has nothing new to say about Columbine (as he most certainly does not), why make the movie at all?

Of course, just as with Psycho, the forefronted aesthetic of Elephant ends up removing Van Sant's presence, not emphasizing it. Savides' smooth camerawork (like the film's classical soundtrack and softly glowing lighting) makes no pretense to photographic realism, even as it taps in to the steady rhythms of the eternally wandering characters. It's worth noting that Elephant was filmed in a decommissioned high school; the place itself is dead, just as the characters are already dead, and so the director may as well be dead too, haunting Elephant's infinite corridors while lamenting his inability to stop the approaching massacre. Van Sant named Elephant after the Alan Clarke film of the same name, both casting mass murder as the "elephant in the room" that no one wants to talk about, but Elephant is ultimately more commiseration than condemnation: Van Sant can't find a way to talk about it either, and he finally stops trying. Elephant is suffused with a horrible awareness of what's coming for these average kids on this seemingly average day, but this knowledge expresses itself silently, never breaking the hypnotic power of Savides' tracking shots. His camera obsessively stalks Van Sant's typically waifish students as if desperate to unearth any detail that might explain the slaughter, but no such magic bullet can prevent the real ones from slamming home.

While it seems incongruous to imagine a director's surrogate in a film that so devastatingly disarms authorial authority, it's worth noting how budding photographer Eli reacts to the sudden appearance of armed classmates in his school library: he snaps a photo. It's an understandable instinct, as is attempting to re-capture that moment on film, but Eli's static snapshot and Van Sant's moving image are both candles in the dark, illuminating only their own feebleness. They can dance around the edge of the void, gathering the stray details that Van Sant flits through near the film's climax, but we're never given the impression that these quiet incidents (bullies throwing spitballs, buddies watching Nazi propaganda, a stolen kiss in the shower) can possibly provide the end-all explanation for the massacre, and Elephant's formally wide open "thought machine" contains an implicit critique of the media hounds eager to provide a trite cause-and-effect excuse for Columbine. Van Sant avoids the mistake of hunting for a better answer to that "Why?" His approach touches on What, How, and especially Where, transforming high school into a constantly regenerating tunnel of reflective corridors, but Elephant ultimately eludes all such bedrock questioning. Two moments in the life of his adolescent killers illuminate Van Sant's essential uncertainty. Alex wanders into the cafeteria and picks out a tray, but then stops, frantically covering his ears as the crowd noise swells to an inexplicable roar. It's a simultaneously meaningful and meaningless moment, perfectly capturing Alex's alienation from the environment Van Sant and Savides have so memorably established, but constructed from the most obvious of cinematic artifices; after all, Van Sant's just turning the volume knob. There's no statement or revelation there, no unearthing of a emotional structure hidden beneath the surface. It's the same surface, only louder. Later on, Alex and fellow future murderer Eric are playing a video game, but rather than offer up the dreaded box as an incentive to kill, Van Sant turns his investigation inward: the game in question bears an unmistakable resemblance to Van Sant's own Gerry, down to the empty desert setting and the two wandering characters who eventually turn on each other. (Alex will later kill Eric in the middle of the massacre, wandering a lifeless desert of his own making.) Thus the director admits to having no control over his own creation, his authorial judgment reduced to a literal plaything, devoid of any consequence or meaning. It's just something to pass the time before the killing starts.

That's the overall point of Elephant, just like it was for Psycho: these subjects are exhausted, wrung of all possible worth, subjected to endless hand-wringing analysis and head-in-the-clouds cultural conjecture to the point where the only way to win is not to play. Marion Crane and the shooting victims are not only physically dead, they're conceptually dead, and Van Sant's slavish re-creative efforts in Psycho and Savides' attentive but empty long takes in Elephant serve as pointed reminders of that void. Remaking Psycho can't save Marion, and recreating Columbine can't save the kids: all we can do is watch as they die, again (back to Mulholland Drive: "this is all recorded.") Appropriate, then, that the final and most powerful chapter of Van Sant's Nothing Period (yes, that's pretentious; he's pretentious, I'm pretentious, you're pretentious, everyone's pretentious, let it go) should center on Kurt Cobain, a thoroughly exploited corpse even by pop music's standards. Though a lot of Cobain's appeal sprang from his sardonic self-awareness of the hoary, tired Rawk n' Roll mythology that he and his band were reluctantly perpetuating, his genre savviness didn't save him from carrying out that myth's suicidal conclusion, dropping out of the Nirvana Story even as he made it perversely complete. What better vessel for Van Sant's own full-length self-negation? Like Elephant (and unlike Psycho), Last Days curates a real-world death, but like Psycho (and unlike Elephant), the violence in Last Days is also a pop-cultural event, already more image than reality before Van Sant and Savides got their hands on it. The intuitive skill and measured compassion with which Van Sant threads these seemingly oppositional concerns reveal the fragile heart beneath the director's austere experimentation, making Last Days the full fruition of Van Sant's millennial aesthetic and probably his greatest work to date.

The austere framing, disorienting edits, and extended tracking shots of Elephant return whole in Last Days, but Van Sant isn't using them to gather together a diffuse, alienated community this time; Cobain stand-in "Blake" (Michael Pitt, whose pale beauty has never been put to better use) has the camera all to himself, and never quite figures out what to do with it. The first shot finds Savides hanging back, keeping an anonymous patch of Northwest woods between lens and subject (object?) but we can still make out Blake puking, inaugurating the film's relentless focus on physical collapse. We then follow him stumbling, skinny-dipping and pissing before he ever opens his mouth to sing: "Home! Home on the range..." Like the noise Alex faces in Elephant's cafeteria, Blake's song reinforces his isolation (with Cobain-ready sarcasm), but it also introduces conceptual breakdown as a parallel theme to bodily failure. Just as with Eli's pointless photography in Elephant, Blake's artistic impulse is a cul-de-sac, his creativity looping back on him instead of providing him a way out, an apt description of Van Sant's filmmaking. (Also like Van Sant, particularly Psycho, Blake's choice of "Home on the Range" hints at a dearth of original spirit.) Last Days' primal scene (see the video above) remains Blake's last-ditch attempt to find solace from his restlessness in music, looping together a series of furious but stunted riffs in the hopes of finding revelation. He's left with noise, intriguing but empty, compelling in the moment yet failing to resonate once silence returns. The camera seems to know how pointless this all is, and hangs back as if embarrassed, planted outside the house and peering in at Blake's rage from afar. It's this balance of crawling intimacy and pointed distance that makes Last Days so utterly unlike most rock biopics, providing an engrossing image while working to devalue as much as possible the implicit truth-value (truthiness?) of that image. It's an intricate shell-game of a movie, one that the similarly conflicted Cobain probably would've loved--but then Last Days is utterly free of such assumptions, and is all the more powerful for it.

Reminders of the real Cobain drift in and out of the "narrative" like pollen, but since Blake ignores them (not saying a word to a bandmate on the phone, flinching from a Kim Gordon stand-in's anger regarding his neglectful parenting), why shouldn't we? If Blake is a zombie, Cobain himself is a ghost, but one that barely even bothers to haunts his mausoleum. The aura of self-consciously pointless pilgrimage hangs over Last Days, just as it did the recreated shocks of Psycho and the re-imagined high school hallways of Elephant, and as with those films, the subject of Last Days is hiding in plain sight, shambling in center frame in shot after shot, yet sapped of all meaning and trajectory. For a movie about oncoming death, Last Days is remarkably suspense-free; the liminal limbo state of Savides' images gives them the feel of an eternal present, moments floating around each other, occasionally touching long enough to produce something resembling a "scene," but mostly just following each other, one carefully lit and framed shot of rooms and hallways and trees after another, until he's finally dead and the movie can end. We see a mysterious figure in red wandering the grounds the night before Blake's body is discovered, but Van Sant again chooses to silently acknowledge our expectations of potential foul play before moving on, rather than provide false closure. The ghostly figure always reminds of the "monsters" in the criminally underrated The Village, another movie in which generic expectations are inextricable from the text. But while Shyamalan expertly upended those expectations, leaving film, characters, and audience alike in a fascinating existential quandary, Van Sant simply leaves us looking, and all we get is a body. Many have criticized the moment when Blake's spirit emerges from his body and ascends, but I doubt he gets to heaven. Like Psycho's aforementioned final frame and Elephant's closing shot of a clouded sky, Last Days' quiet epitaph memorializes the infinite nature of Van Sant's hallowed uncertainty, hinting at a final summation of all the film's drifting loose ends but denying the cathartic closure we're used to in stories about death. Instead, I get the terrible feeling that Blake's spirit (no less "real" than Blake the person, a stilted representation of the unknowable end of a long-dead man) has been condemned to keep on wandering, traversing the same damningly empty spaces Van Sant and Savides set up for him, never finding anything, never even knowing what he's looking for. While these movies find Van Sant utterly shredding his own artistic identity, their endings may reassert his presence after all, if only as a ghost.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Now I Notice the Streetlamp's Hum

Trying to keep intros brief, for a change! This is a list of movies that capture a very specific mood I enjoy, in art and otherwise: feeling alone in the midst of a giant, bustling city. If you too enjoy that feeling (or stories about that feeling), you should watch these movies. There, that was succinct. Now I may devote my shapeless ramblings to the films themselves. I has the focus! (Or something resembling it! Or maybe not. You tell me! Oops, I've fallen into a tangent and I refuse to get up. It's very shiny down here!)

In the Mood for Love

Wong Kar-Wai's visual metaphor for love is breathtakingly simple: he films couples as if there's no one else in the world. His practically subconscious tragedies unfold in giddy, hazy urban haunts, most notably 1960s Hong Kong, yet crowd shots are few and far between; close-ups inevitably trap characters in corners, on the other side of windows, at the end of a seemingly endless corridor or alleyway. From Happy Together's simmering dance to Fallen Angels' final motorcycle ride (the latter seized upon and expounded in the last third of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's magnificent Three Times), Wong's obsessive yet fatally timid dreamers increasingly see no one but each other, ignoring the big city around them even as it hems them in. In the Mood for Love's central pair, Maggie Cheung's Mrs. Chan and Tony Leung's Mr. Chow, spend more time trying to carve out a space of their own than they do actually inhabiting it. Mrs. Chan is always ducking her nosy neighbors (with whom she is crammed in a terrifyingly claustrophobic apartment) and Mr. Chow can't help living vicariously through his perfectly honestly sleazy friend Ping, who doesn't bother, as the protagonists do, trying to emote purely through his eyes. Even as their romance builds, it falls apart, the shiny '60s surfaces (which Mad Men totally stole, because as Wilde said, that's what great artists do) turning more and more self-critical, more pointedly superficial. Wong's star-crossed lovers are only in love with the idea of romance, like the feverish fantasies they capture in their co-written pulp novels (the only lasting legacy of their time together, appropriately fictional, as Wong's sequel 2046 would make painfully clear). Neither is willing to make the dream real, to expose their romance to the city's invisible (but implicit) crowds, and that's always the catch in Wong's restless signal-crossings. His lovers inevitably fade back into their perfectly framed and artfully lit context, hardly putting up a fight, happy to be trapped in their time and place. Reality returns (witness the jarring documentary footage near film's end signaling the self-obsessed Mr. Chow's re-engagement with the outside world), though never entirely. Artist-in-his-own-right cinematographer Christopher Doyle inevitably recaptures each of them alone, posing as if for a self-portrait, as if aware of the camera and trying not to betray any emotion for it, and failing miserably.

 Eyes Wide Shut

Every plunge back in to Stanley Kubrick's last stand reminds me just how inexhaustible it is, constantly hinting at another interpretation, another way in to its bizarrely self-negating existential drama/patriarchal nightmare of stunted rituals, withered relationships, and infinite hallways (see also: The Shining). Of course, the joke of the title is on us. We'll never "get it" completely, because the characters, complicit in all the film's many sins, are all too willing to hide the story from us, tuck it away behind bland movie-star faces, wish it away like a passing fantasy or a dream that fades upon waking. (Of course, not all of them get to wake up: HIV-positive Domino, possibly-murdered Nick, almost-definitely-murdered Mandy.) At first, Doctor Bill Harford seems eager for a classic quest for truth, driven from his glittering apartment into the mysterious streets by his wife's confession to enjoying fantasies about other men more than she does the reality of him. Indeed, Bill's whole odyssey turns out to be a cautionary tale on the fallout between instinctively idealized images and queasy opaque reality, and Kubrick perfectly illustrates this dilemma in his claustrophobic vision of turn-of-the-century New York. Or rather, "New York," because as few critics failed to complain, Kubrick recreated Manhattan whole on set rather than filming on location, fitting the director's reputation for meticulousness. But there's a point being made here, too: Bill never finds the "real" New York he's looking for, just as he never solves any of the mysteries his journey confronts him with, just as he fails to save any of the aforementioned casualties of this New York's carnal black market, just as he wretchedly gives up trying to understand his wife's repressed desires (or his own, hidden even deeper), just as his smugly flawless identity falls to pieces when he can't get laid. There is no truth here, no answer to the film's endless implicit and explicit questions, just an empty man wandering an empty city, reflecting nothing back to him but his own handsome, famous, empty face, even when he goes masked. The film's closing reconciliation is the most hollow void of them all: they're back together, but only because they can't face the world alone. What can they do but hope to forget, shut their wide eyes, and fuck?

25th Hour

 So, how do you put a city on screen? Spike Lee tries for the outside of it and the inside of it at the same time, and refuses to acknowledge any contradiction; thank New York for delivering him. America's most undervalued filmmaker tries on an endless array of microcosms, metonymys, and metaphors (an astonishing majority of which work) for his fiercely beloved hometown recovering from the searing trauma of 9/11, but he nails it straight from 25th Hour's first sound: the snarling of a wounded dog, beaten and left for dead by the side of the road, in desperate need of help but ready to savage anyone who comes close. Hell, I was eleven on 9/11 and I still knew that's who we were as a country now, and we have since gone on to prove it, again and again. For all his reputation as an overblown grandstander, Spike finds a synecdoche for this national wake-up call in the intimate struggles of a lonely man wandering through NYC on his last free day before seven years in jail. Edward Norton's Monty Brogan is more ghost than flesh and blood, seeing wistful memories on every street corner, finding only regret and despair in his old high school, his father's bar, his friends' suddenly unfamiliar faces. The film's primal scene remains his stunning bathroom rant, condemning whole a montage of every given New York archetype, but the outward-bound rage inevitably circles the drain back to him, his alienation from and abandonment of his life and the people in it. Yet Spike avoids any one-for-one analogy between his protagonist's individual trauma and the collective horror of the terrorist attack; instead, the two feed off each other in unsettling and constantly surprising ways tying both Monty and Spike himself back into their wounded city even as they pretend to hate it. In Interpol's words, addressed to that same city in that same dreadful time: "I know you've supported me for a long time, but somehow I'm not impressed." New York has been a reservoir of so much fierce adoration and stubborn pride for its inhabitants for so long; it's heartbreaking to learn that it can't love you back, nor protect you from the wolf at the door. Our only hope is to reach out anyway, as Monty finally does near the film's end. As his dad drives him to prison, a kid in a school bus next to them smiles and writes his name in a fogged-up window pane. Monty responds in kind (as pictured above), just as his car pulls away; his future, like his city's and country's remains unknown, but this dog ain't dead yet.

Miami Vice

There's a moment (at 0:20 in the video below) in Michael Mann's stunningly gorgeous and sensual full-length adaptation of Miami Vice, when our heroic crime-fighting team is confronting yet another sleazy crook in yet another penthouse apartment about yet another crumb of plot exposition (the story tends to blur in Miami Vice, which is absolutely the point), when pseudo-protagonist Sonny understandably loses interest in all this talk and glances out the window. Mann fades out the conversation in the background, and we see what Sonny sees: an endless horizon, cinematographer Dion Beebe's DV ocean swallowing blue-purple pixels whole, a realm of infinite possibility and eternal emptiness. Miami Vice is dominated by such moments, when the gritty, hazy South Florida setting seems less a real city than a collective daydream, a gleaming aesthetic wonderland blown apart by impressionistic violence and reanimated by softly glowing sex. As Ryland Walker Knight notes here, Mann encapsulates his film's liquid whole in an early nightclub scene, "each body pushing its neighbor, everything tactile and in flux," but the subtle melancholy of Mann's digital landmark fully blooms when Beebe catches these recalcitrant cops and robbers alone, even when they're together, caught in the middle of thoughts and feelings they clearly never expected to have (and which Mann admirably refuses to spell out, blending the best of both observational and impressionistic cinematic techniques, always showing rather than telling). These are stolid professionals in an ostensibly stolid, professional movie, but their hips don't lie, and neither does the camera. Miami Vice is still a crime flick (easily the most genre-oriented movie on this list) but it doesn't look, move, or feel like one, and so the popcorn framework melts away, leaving behind image after image of bodies in motion against a malleable made-up Miami. It's a film of visceral moments, a masterpiece of the medium that is (for better and worse) the future of "film," yet Miami Vice is past as well as present and future. It feels most like a bittersweet memory, standard hidden-identity tropes refracted as a tribute to lives not lived, to the pleasures and pitfalls of walking alone in a city (and a cinema) that refuses to stand still.

The Tree of Life

Okay, this is cheating; the city scenes in The Tree of Life are brief. But the film resolutely refuses to stay still, to its benefit. Which of its many leaves (the death of a son and brother, the Big Bang, sense-memories of childhood in West Texas, the basic mechanics of family, the continuity of evolution, the inevitable mythologizing of everyday life, the release of accepting the unknown, the extinction of the dinosaurs, etc.) can possibly said to be central? What matters is the force, 2001-like, with which this vision of Creation (and Destruction) is evoked, and the unabashedly poetic approach that the ever-transcendental Terrence Malick takes to his first-ever urban setting sears the mind, I tell you. Those liquid skyscrapers and hazed windows are at once frozen monuments to human achievement and fragile testaments to time's march, and Sean Penn's Jack seems almost happy to lose himself in the stream. Critics and audiences who complained that his character lacked "depth" inadvertently got the point: for all Malick's deserved hippie reputation, he has increasingly confronted his characters with the cold light of clarity, making sure that Cap'n John Smith (The New World) and the various soldiers of C Company (The Thin Red Line) understand their smallness, as well as their potential to accept their part in some greater pattern. Malick habitually, obsessively (auteur-istically) represents this pattern as Nature, but by giving us just a glimpse of Jack's utter confusion and distraction in his high-rise labyrinth, the director reveals that the revelations he traces extend universally, from country to city, from raptor to human, from the beginning of time to its end. A crystalline tower is shot the same way as a humble sapling in the courtyard outside: from below, splayed against the sky, reaching and yearning and never quite getting there, as all Malick's spiritually restless wanderers have been from Badlands forward. We may feel alone at the top of a tower, its mirrored surfaces reflecting back nothing but our own blurred, confused faces, but we are still always carrying out the next fold in one of the film's many massive spirals, in water, in light, in stained glass. I'm a non-religious man myself, and I usually bristle at attempts by the devout to humble me and mine before their Ur-Father in the clouds, but Malick's unearthing of the divine in the eternal brings to me my knees, even if cinema is all I ever pray to.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Twitter Is Not Scary (Stop Pretending)

"You know what I blame this on the breakdown of? Society."   --Moe Syzlak, The Simpsons

All right, this sort of thing deeply, deeply pisses me off. It's become distressingly common wisdom (generally among people over the age of 40 and certain obnoxious younger people who desperately wish to be thought of as wise) that the Internet is some fiendishly apocalyptic Whore of Babylon destined to permanently alter--nay, destroy!--the way human beings relate to one another and process information from around the world and conceive of reality, etc. I use religious language because that's what this brand of Luddite jeremiad tends to evoke, which frightens me for reasons well beyond my personal nonreligious-ness. I know of no non-condescending way to put this: Twitter is not, in fact, the Beast of Revelation. Calm the fuck down.

From the linked-to article: "Let's face it: we are losing the texture of reality." What? What? What in Darwin's name is this man talking about? What makes him think that surfing YouTube or retweeting a Washington Post article has metaphysical consequences that somehow prevent us from, say, looking at the sky, cooking a meal, or protesting a war? Shouldn't physicists, if no one else, come out of the woodwork to L so insanely OL at these losers (see what I did there?) who seem to think, even as transhumanism remains a fiction-bound stoner-dream (at least for the moment), that the mere existence of the blogosphere is all but re-twining our DNA? They can't all have been abused by IT staffers as a child. What could possibly be causing such mass delusion?

I wrote a thing about how I think the apocalyptic, techno-phobic mythology that has grown up around Radiohead (particularly their twin peaks OK Computer and Kid A) has gotten really, really overblown, to the point where the band is frequently treated as objective social philosophizers of the (ostensibly occurring) Orwellian fantasia that the dotcom boom hath wrought. Let's check the context here: Radiohead are indeed confirmed consumers of pop philosophy, and the era in which they recorded those two albums was besotted with a punchdrunk futurism epitomized by Francis Fukuyama's infamously misguided essay "The End of History." (I know, right?) Evidently, something about the "1" in 1999 changing into "2" for 2000 meant that everything was over, we were done, all of history's battles settled, the world is converging on liberal democracy and free markets forever, sit back, relax, and enjoy the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In Radiohead's native Britain, Tony Blair's oh-so-sensible rise to power abetted and extended this growing giddy certainty with a combination of vague multiculturalism and specific Western conglomeration extending its beatific tendrils worldwide. To which Radiohead (and Naomi Klein and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the respective fields of pop music, global economics, and astronomy/philosophy) quietly replied, "Oh, yeah?" But the band's point wasn't that computers are actually eating our souls, or something; it was more that we still have the same old negative emotions (anxiety, alienation, rage, delusion, despair) that we used to, and if modern techno-globalism can't save us from those, what chance does it have against war, bigotry, and poverty?

And that's my point: the Brand New Things may actually be less powerful than we think, at least in terms of permanently warping our relationships to everything that came before. After all, Fukuyama, Blair and Co. thought not too long ago that the world was being permanently transformed for the better. They were wrong, as 9/11 and the financial crisis made horribly clear for Americans (much of the rest of the world was probably never fooled in the first place). So what are the odds we're right in our newfound endtimes rhetoric about social media? I take comfort in numbers: just as there are countless millions of people (myself and most of my friends included) who have played and enjoyed a Grand Theft Auto game without thereafter shooting up our high school, there are millions upon millions of people who have used the Internet without becoming a numbed, superficial, overly-postmodern Web-hamster that cannot be trusted to perpetuate the whole durned human comedy down through the ages, if I may swipe from The Big Lebowski. There's another Simpsons quote that gets at the heart of this whole folly: "He used a teenage colloquialism. Get the tear gas."

Ultimately, whatever scares stupid people about the Twitterverse comes from the flesh-world, not independently. One can make the half-assed sociological case that Internet anonymity gives people less of a filter and doesn't force them to take responsibility for their words, but that's anonymity's fault, and that problem's haunted us forever. We've managed to cope anyway, at least to the point of being a species functional enough to invent the Internet. But now the ability to post hateful rants under the nom de guerre of "dudeskater1992" heralds the downfall of civilization? Aren't we getting a tad ahead of ourselves here? Doesn't the recent, painful but unsurprising, revelation that our fancy futuristic Apple computers are manufactured in sweatshops, in China, where the workers put in 18-hour-days on insufficient protein and are fired if they try to unionize, emphasize that a) the power dynamics of the pre-digital world are still very much with us and b) they ain't that great, so what exactly do you think you're mourning? The staggering irony with all this techno-phobic discourse is that it only makes sense if you conceive of the world in purely online fashion; once you confront the tenacious physicality of, say, sweatshops, the ephemeral world seems a lot less dangerous than the tangible one. After all, many of us wouldn't have learned of Apple's human rights abuses without the use of an Apple product. That's another bitter irony, but it's not out of keeping with the rest of our history, in which modes of communication and social/political power have been inextricably intertwined. I actually think we've become much more aware of that danger and more adept at prying the two apart: the Arab Spring is the obvious example, but there's also Mitt Romney, who would be getting much more sleep (or time nestled into his handy portable charger) in a world without universally accessible, instantly viral-ized video of him saying things that directly contradict what he said today. Let's keep in mind that the Internet offers us a dialectical opportunity, not a didactic one; there is a relationship between offline and online, not a one-way soul-magnet that leads to the withering of all things physical.

So let's get physical (baby). We are dealing here with servers, monitors (of various shapes and portability), motherboards, assorted cables and fibers, the now age-old electrical grid, and signals. Even if the last one gives you a pre-atomic shiver of non-being, I see nothing in this arrangement that promises to rewire our brains along with our offices. Unless, of course, you add uranium.

And that's what most deeply angers me about this sort of fear-mongering. Should we be wary of unlocking the power to change, at will, how our species does business at the micro and macro level? Well, Harry Truman ordered tens of thousands of people incinerated, instantly, to make a point to their emperor, 67 years ago, so I think that ship has sailed. It's nothing short of arrogance to assume that today's inventions and innovations are going to be the ones that fundamentally throw society off the rails; it's hubris on a generational level that is, ironically, directly inherited from previous generations, all of whom were dead wrong. They were wrong about the telegraph. They were wrong about the telephone. They were wrong about the television. And they are wrong about Twitter. When I say they were wrong, I am not saying that those inventions did not have galvanizing, transformative impact (of course they did), but that they did not, as they were definitely going to, change the basic building blocks of how human beings experience and operate in the world, let alone do so in a manner that heralded the anti-Renaissance of human thought and culture. Get over yourselves. If this is the generation that brings the house down, it will be because of carbon and/or uranium, not silicon.

Monday, February 27, 2012

These Twisted Words

Eyes Wide Shut is simultaneously Stanley Kubrick’s most verbal and least articulate film (“I don’t even know what we’re arguing about here!”), which may go a long way toward explaining the bemused frustration with which many greeted the director’s last stand. To paraphrase Talking Heads, these people talk a lot, but they never seem to say anything. Misunderstandings pile up, declarations are continually repeated back to the speaker, confessions are agonizingly drawn out, and honesty is professed while covered up with lies. In familiar terms of communication and identification, the movie is an utter failure: hapless protagonist Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) remains largely impenetrable even as we catch vivid glimpses of his desires and fears, and all of the film’s many extended dialogue scenes seem geared more towards deceit and distraction than imparting information or establishing character. Yet Kubrick always had loftier goals than making the audience relate to the people onscreen, and his last film was hardly the first of his to deconstruct its own dialogue (Dr. Strangelove was full of idiots talking past each other).

Indeed, perhaps Kubrick’s most jarring strategy as an artist, nowhere better exemplified than in Eyes Wide Shut, is his denial of dialogue’s imprimatur of authenticity and truth. Words are the least reliable element of his films, the arena of pretension and pettiness, where all the dark conspiracies and failures of identity that haunt his films are covered up or wished/washed away. Still, that doesn’t mean that Kubrick’s words are meaningless. Without a hint of naturalism in his storytelling or visual palette, Kubrick is free to wield dialogue like any other element of Eyes Wide Shut’s dense, stylized mise-en-scène. Just as the film’s cavernous sets and vivid colors seem horribly alive, so do its words possess weight well beyond their speaker’s intentions, and one way to get at those hidden meanings is to pluck individual drops from the film’s stream of words and examine them with eyes wide open. Here are some attempts at doing so:

“I’ll never understand why you walked away.”
“Really? It’s a good feeling, I do it a lot.”

This is, to my mind, Bill Harford’s first step into hell. In a film full of rich abstraction, Nick Nightingale stands out as a sturdy and instantly familiar archetype: the crooked friend who gets the blinkered protagonist into trouble. Both men are ultimately defined by their careers, as emphasized by their reunion at Victor’s party; the fact that Bill is a doctor and Nick is not is discussed as though they are members of different species. (Remember why Bill is even at this party: “This is what you get for making house calls,” of the dubious type he performs for Victor upstairs.) Bill, the sturdy careerist who got through med school, will nevertheless spend a lot of time walking away over the course of this film, away from his wife, yet also away from temptation, finding himself more and more alone on a journey that seems to be heading toward self-abnegation rather than sexual fulfillment. By contrast, Nick seems fully independent, readily admitting that his band sucks, easily leaving his wife and kids to go on the road (whereas Bill can barely cope with walking down the street), yet equally defined by his piano playing as Bill is by medicine. “You gotta go where the work is,” Nick says, and is happy to be blindfolded for it. He’s used to playing for an audience, where nothing is for real and anything you glimpse when the blindfold slips is as inconsequential as images on the silver screen. Bill’s work requires him to face the ugly mornings-after, as represented by physical decay, and his nocturnal “walk” increasingly turns on the queasy fallout when idealized images become opaque realities. By the end of the film, though, the buddies’ roles are bitterly reversed; Bill is allowed by Victor and his masked colleagues to walk away, back to his eerily perfect life with his wife and daughter in the shopping mall. Nick is walked away, most likely (as with Mandy) to an apparent suicide, door locked from the inside. Nick is left with death, Bill with sex (see “Fuck” below).

“Look at me. Look at me. Look at me…”

Since Bill Harford is such a blank-faced cipher in a long tradition of Kubrick protagonists (see especially Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket), it’s tempting to look anywhere but him. That’s a good instinct; as Tim Kreider points out in his exhaustive and excellent essay on the film, Kubrick’s visual strategies are geared around objects (paintings, clothing, masks) and physical environments (apartments, corridors, doorways). Yet Bill is still worth paying attention to precisely because he does such a poor job reckoning with atmosphere. Like Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet, Bill is an affably unremarkable pleasure-seeker who stumbles into a complex, nefarious web of abuse and deceit that he’s utterly unprepared to navigate, and Kubrick somehow squeezes dramatic tension out of his ostensible hero’s hesitance, timidity, and lack of imagination. With his handsomely frozen mug staring back from all the film’s many mirrors, Bill never seems to realize (until it’s far too late) that the film he’s in has been one long, slow shredding of his picture-perfect identity, as man, husband, friend, lover, and doctor. His “look at me” mantra, an attempt to bring a drug-hazed Mandy back to her bitter reality, is also (as Kubrick indicates with a pointed cut from Mandy’s face to Bill’s) an unconscious revelation of his unthinking ego, which has a hell of a shock coming to it over the next 48 hours. Bill tries on various masks (literal and figurative) throughout the film, adapting his persona as the situation demands before abandoning ship out of convenience or fear, but faces like Cruise’s only retain their power because we, as an audience, choose to "look." Whether we or he sees only an alluring naked body, or instead the moral quandary it represents, is a choice of conscience, even if we make it unconsciously; as the film’s title indicates, neither the sexually confused protagonist nor the eternally horny audience ever gets it quite right. 

“Are you looking forward to Christmas? Does it hurt?”

I wrote a thing about Christmas in Eyes Wide Shut because I love this thing Bill Blakemore wrote about The Shining, which is probably the most notorious of the many Intense Theories that Kubrick’s filmmaking seems to provoke (see: 2001, entirety of). Blakemore argues that The Shining offers a visual, conceptual, and narrative framework that ties the film’s cabin-fever parable into cycles and histories of slaughter, particularly that of the Native Americans by the invading Europeans. I buy it: Kubrick’s stories, regardless of their specific subject matter, always circle back to the insidious social controls of ritual and history. This dominant big picture can be giddily macroscopic (2001) or horribly intimate (The Shining itself), but the characters are never able to escape the cannibalistic pattern, dwarfed by the director’s massive sets, ironically trapped by their own desires, actions, and words, and ultimately flinching away from the broader implications of their own visceral instincts. That repressive denial is a key element in Kubrick’s intricate designs, re-emerging to suck the protagonist back in just as they begin to perceive “how deep the rabbit hole goes,” in the words of The Matrix (released the same summer as Eyes Wide Shut). In Kubrick’s hands, the sex drive is inextricably tied up with sociology, economics, identity politics, and the constant deception that Sandor Szavost (simultaneously the film’s sleaziest and most honest character) says is an absolute necessity in the confounding, all-consuming ritual that we call marriage. Christmas as practiced by the Harfords is equally corrupt, and while Bill’s revelation above is unintentional, it’s in keeping with the rest of the film, in which ritual desires lead to disease, dissolution, and death. It may all be “staged” as Victor claims, but the consequences can’t be celebrated (or fucked) away.

“If for no other reason than she’s afraid of what I might find.”

As with the “walk away” exchange above, this line is dropped innocuously into a drawn-out, wandering conversation (the epic bedroom confrontation between the Harfords), but immediately changes the terms of engagement, one of the pointed slips in the film’s suspiciously gorgeous façade. Alice immediately turns the conversation away from the terrible news Bill has to deliver to some of his patients and toward his fantasies about them (and vice versa), and the tension of sexual desire against the body’s mortality is one that informs the entire film. Death waits around every corner of Eyes Wide Shut, always emerging to interrupt the film’s most ostensibly erotic moments: Mandy suffers a near-death experience behind the scenes of the Zieglers’ sexual-tension-saturated party, Lou Nathanson’s death interrupts the marital spat in question, the sacrifice ritual/ritual sacrifice brings the orgy to a screeching halt, Bill learns about Domino’s HIV test results just as he’s attempting to seduce her roommate, Nick Nightingale’s rough abduction is relayed by a hotel clerk attempting to seduce Bill, and Bill’s film-long quest for an available female body ends in a morgue, Mandy’s body laid out on a slab, going nowhere. He leans in close, pauses, and pulls back. It’s crawlingly intimate proof of a point Kubrick made much earlier, cross-cutting voyeuristic pillow shots of Nicole Kidman with Dr. Cruise attending to all sorts of worse-off bodies. Kubrick always linked ardor with murder, from Dr. Strangelove’s inaugural military-phalluses to Jack Torrance’s brief dalliance with a corpse in The Shining, but he had never before made the connection so horribly clear. Any hint of sensuality in the orgy sequence is nullified by the horrifying masks worn by the revelers, kinetic eroticism betrayed by the grim stasis of ego-death.

“Do you think we should talk about money?”

Among contemporary filmmakers, the Coen brothers seem to be working more in Kubrick’s visual and thematic realm than anyone this side of Spielberg. Money is a constant yet mercurial presence in Joel and Ethan’s films, from William H. Macy’s increasingly outlandish upping of the ante in Fargo to the nonexistent ransom money in The Big Lebowski (for a kidnapping that turns out not to have happened) to the pure signifier of doom that is found riches in No Country for Old Men. Kubrick, for his part, had made sharp asides about class and money in previous films (particularly in Barry Lyndon’s caste rise-and-fall and The Shining’s creepy internal power structure: “You have always been the caretaker.”) But he had never before brought up the subject as frequently as in Eyes Wide Shut, where the flash of a dollar bill seems to solve a lot of problems. The film doesn’t explicitly take aim at the root of all evil, and maybe that’s the point: money rules even, especially, when it’s a background force. Take, for example, the wealth gap between Doctor Bill and prostitute Domino, represented visually in the stark difference in their respective apartments’ sizes, as well as in Bill’s obvious discomfort with that fact and Domino’s reluctance to take the money he so casually hands her for sex they didn’t have. Indeed, Bill spends most of the film quite happy with what money can buy, only desperately retreating to the (supposedly) more heartwarming hearth and home when his constant wallet-flashing fails him against the super-super-rich at the Somerton orgy (“those people arrived in limos, and you showed up in a taxi.”) Yet family is as insidiously interwoven with money as sex. Note that the film’s suspiciously self-deceptive ending takes place in a shopping mall, as the Harfords’ daughter runs around picking her own Christmas presents, and also that the film’s first line is “Honey, have you seen my wallet?”

“Hey man, I just play the piano.”

Eyes Wide Shut is, among many other things, a cross-section of the relationship between client and servant: the amount of service-industry transactions of various kinds, all of which seem to create or violate some sort of intimacy, is astonishing when you’re looking for it. So many of the initial scenes and conversations, increasingly unpredictable as they are (Eyes Wide Shut moves between Strangelovian situational irony and Shining-esque visual abstraction with breathtaking ease), are predicated on or literally about this type of relationship. Bill has to learn the babysitter’s name twice and bribes Milich and his cabbie without a second thought--in the latter case, he even tears a hundred-dollar bill in half with a smile. Yet Victor Ziegler treats Bill as a servant (and forced confidant) in turn; Bill is thus again professionally linked to Nick, whose blindfolded piano performance at the orgy represents the same willful denial that allows Bill to help cover up Ziegler’s abuse of Mandy, and later her mysterious death. This odyssey of cowardice and willful amnesia is enabled by all the various transactions Bill manipulates towards his increasingly evanescent and ill-defined goals. Process, not outcome, is Kubrick’s focus throughout Eyes Wide Shut (foreplay over orgasm, if you will). Bill loses his mask, but Milich happily charges him for it, just as Bill will later make up his straying (as symbolized by that same mask on his pillow) to his family by taking them shopping; Milich, for his part, transforms from defender of justice to obsequious craven when the men molesting his daughter “come to another arrangement.” Every relationship seems to shift, reverse, and transform; yet the specter of master and slave is a constant, from the boardroom to the bedroom.

“Can’t you see I am trying to sell my costumer!”

Along with Sandor Szavost, the Nathansons, and the maître’d at the Sonata Cafe, costume store owner Milich links Eyes Wide Shut’s screenplay back to its Eastern European origins (as the Viennese novella Dream Story). As such, his English is just imperfect enough to give us this gem of a Freudian slip. Eyes Wide Shut, as mentioned, is full to bursting with conversations about money, each one revealing a little more not only about Doctor Bill (get it?), but about the society through which he’s wandering. Bill bribes his way into Milich’s store after hours in order to gain access to the Somerton orgy, cutting off all personal conversation in favor of a quick transaction. Yet Kubrick still hints at what Bill is actually paying for here, as Milich’s underage daughter is caught nude with two of his associates just as the sale begins. The next day, in the cold light of morning, Milich proves as willing to sell his daughter as his customer. Bill makes a pitiful attempt to care, but as Milich says, Bill himself is as sold as the mask, the cloak, or the girl; his life bought and paid for by Victor and his associates, Bill is forced to detach his identity and potential moral concern from his life’s myriad purchases. Again, death is the only customer that’s always right: Milich tries to get Bill to diagnose his balding head, but while Bill dodges the question on (again) the basis of profession, he’s more likely avoiding the obvious answer. You’re losing your hair because the body fails, no matter how much sex you have or how much money you spend. The camera closes in on Milich’s daughter as her father offers Bill “anything at all…it needn’t be a costume,” but like the mannequins decorating the shop, she is a costume, an anonymous escape valve like the masked women at the orgy, a momentary distraction from the “deception” of marriage, the ugliness of wealth, and the certainty of death.

"Those were not just ordinary people...If I told you their names, I don't think you'd sleep so well."

Power occupies a central place in all of Kubrick’s films, always defining the tension at the core of the increasingly nebulous dramas. The director, however, never takes the intense power structures that define his films for granted. Whether military hierarchies (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket) or the evolutionary drive itself (2001), the dominant forces are deconstructed and reassembled in strange, unsettling ways, reaching a hypnotic peak in his late-career masterpieces The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. The latter film, then, is at least partially about sex as a force, as a source (or lack) of power, and occasionally as a weapon, rather than as an erotic charge transmitted from person to person, or for that matter, from screen to audience. Yet there’s also some decidedly non-sexy forces at work here: corruption, selfishness, ignorance, blindness. Eyes Wide Shut is a constant ballet of people using other people, for urges and motivations opaque even to them. As with the deranged would-be novelist in The Shining or the out-of-his-depth impostor in Barry Lyndon, perhaps the most painful lesson Bill has to learn is that for all his money and beauty, he is ultimately powerless. He cannot save Mandy, Domino, Nick, or Milich’s daughter, no more than he can break past Victor’s obfuscating wall of denial and distraction in that crucial late-film scene around the blood-red pool table. Ultimately, Victor refuses to tell Bill (or the audience) anything: who the masked revelers were, what really happened to Mandy and Nick, what will happen to the good doctor if he refuses to abandon his “inquiries.” Mystery reasserts itself, as eternally resurrected as the sex drive. Consummation here offers no relief, wrapped up in more questions instead of answers. Power cloaks itself, and wears a mask.


Even with Dr. Strangelove as Exhibit A, Stanley Kubrick never received proper credit for his sense of humor. Admittedly, his gargantuan visuals and lofty themes tend to steal the show, and his wicked streak, like that of the Coens, may be too stacked against his characters for more empathetic viewers to stomach. But Eyes Wide Shut’s one-word ending is well past “I was cured, all right” (A Clockwork Orange). This is pitch-black humor, a pure strike at the heart of genre, the cherry on top of an exhaustive, film-long process of self-deconstruction. Eyes Wide Shut opens on a casual, ignominious reveal of what was supposed to be the film’s tantalizing carrot: Nicole Kidman’s naked body. So goes the film, which seems throughout to be perfectly aware of its audience and eager to play with our expectations about what an “erotic thriller” is supposed to be, or more relevantly, what it’s supposed to do. As mentioned above, death keeps interrupting the film’s hard-ons, linking the body to both its momentary delights and ultimate failure. Someone’s always watching, whether the silent audience at Bill’s disrobing or the medical aide Kubrick cuts to as Bill tries for a private moment with Mandy’s corpse, and that sense of surveillance seems less paranoid when Bill realizes he’s being followed. The narrative eats itself alive, imparting crucial information secondhand, methodically dissecting night’s thrills in the harsh light of morning, complicating every potentially erotic encounter with lies, shocks, failures, and distances. The Harfords, like the audience, are left with vapor trails, memories of last night’s vivid dreamscapes haunting the pristine everyday. How to handle all this confusion, this moral decay caught up in desire? "Fuck." (Or, alternatively, "Fuck it.") Sex as power, sex as truth, sex as lie, sex as transaction, but above all, sex as distraction, a refuge from unpleasant truths and questions without answer, an intimate union nevertheless permeated by external forces, in the moment and an escape from the moment, life-affirming and death-predicting, real and "staged," eyes wide shut.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Past Was Yours, But The Future's Mine

Having finished this (which took me forever, trying to find enough synonyms for "gorgeous" for Days of Heaven and "bizarre" for Eraserhead), I want to jump forward to contemporary Hollywood, which people can't seem to bemoan enough. It's hard to disagree that the quality of your average popcorn flick has declined dramatically over the course of the last fifteen years or so--glancing over what's playing at my local multiplex, it's harder and harder to find anything that looks remotely worthy of a $10 investment. (And that's without the aforementioned popcorn.) But if the standard, even enjoyably bad, major motion picture has become unwatchably shoddy and brainless, the genuinely great movies have retained their power. I actually think they've improved: wisdom comes from standing on the shoulders of giants, and that great leap forward in the 1970s has had dramatic ripple effects in American film over the successive decades, even if we haven't had quite the same in-your-face, defiantly generational renewal of the art that the likes of Jaws and Taxi Driver represented. Instead, we've seen micro-movements come and go, leaving behind indelible impressions of time and place; as a nation, we've only gotten more acute at capturing something of our spirit and our struggles on screen. Auterism, the director-focused prism that transformed American cinema in the late '60s and through the '70s, has shifted in character from Lucas and Spielberg with their obsessive model design to the more detached, observational styles of Todd Haynes and the Coen brothers and the communal, open-minded essay-films of Spike Lee and Richard Linklater. If the studios have generally entrenched themselves in broad banality, America's finest filmmakers have responded by tunneling into more individual concerns with greater depth, no longer trying to conquer the world so much as examine and plunge into specific pieces of the puzzle.

"Postmodern" is a word that gets thrown around a lot in discussions of the best of modern American cinema, but the kaleidoscopic, genre-melting approach of many of the films below isn't a shallow intellectual prank. These movies are interested in things (a breath of fresh air when so many pictures seem to care about nothing but reaching their own end), and they're interested in investigating and representing those things in as many ways as possible. Truth is a fragmented, many-splendored thing; as Michael Koresky perceptively states here, the definition of the real has always been the defining ontological and philosophical pursuit of cinema, from Bazin to The Blair Witch Project. The late 1990s and the early 2000s saw a renaissance of this kind of restless, inclusive work in American film, driven as much by refugees from the old Golden Age (Spielberg, Malick, De Palma) as by the younger talents mentioned above. That there wasn't much of a broad-based movement sweeping these films into collective prominence makes these works all the braver, raging against a light that isn't dying in the least, but is increasingly struggling to get people to really look at what it's shining on. If there's one thread connecting these disparate films of the modern Golden Age, it's this focus on really seeing what we're seeing, understanding the implications of these images and willing to actively focus on our involvement as spectators with those implications and those images. They resensitize us, rather than assuming that bludgeoning spectacle satisfies all human urges: we should still feel the weight of every glance, every gesture, every event on screen, and it does my cinephilic heart good every time I return to these new classics. (Restricted to one per director, unfortunately leaving out such worthies as Bamboozled, Minority Report and The Sixth Sense.)

1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, Warner Bros, 2001)

Lambasting Spielberg, as so many have done, as a pandering sentimentalist ignores the fact that emotions are not tame creatures, nor simple tools. The tears E.T. inspires are genuine and powerful, and should be considered not only an artistic achievement but a philosophical statement. The titular alien's return to life is not a manipulative deus ex machina, but an act of supreme faith, less in any particular deity than in the restorative power of cinema and art in general, as well as in the audience's ability and willingness to follow the director in his search for the ultimate purity of the heart. By the dawn of the new millennium, he'd tested that faith in the fires of the Holocaust, slavery, and D-Day, and won. Yet the moral victories of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan still seem too easy, too tame, too simple; what is really at stake in these movies? What does Spielberg really risk in his deployment of collective history and the emotional catharsis he reaches? It was in his next project, Stanley Kubrick's inheritance, his greatest and most misunderstood work, that Spielberg truly put his legacy to the test, and in the process gave us the most emotionally fraught, ethically devastating, and philosophically ambitious American film of the young century thus far. Science fiction cinema, even at its most ponderous, almost always panders to contemporary ideas of the cool, which makes A.I.'s utter lack of concern with style all the more impressive, paying more visual attention to opaqueness and fragility. As I argued about Radiohead here, Spielberg is less concerned with how the future will change us than how it will not: how our massive technological advancements will reveal how small we are, and how frail and insubstantial are the guiding myths of the sort Spielberg had been pillaging up through Ryan. This didn't stop people from making fun of the ending, missing the melancholy falseness of little David's rapture; he got what he wanted, but it's nothing but a fleeting image, a momentary respite from mortality. So Spielberg, in Kubrick's name, gives us his 2001: a requiem for humanity, obsessed with who we've been and what we'll leave behind. The myths are finally put to the test, and they finally fail, but they're still as sadly immortal as a robot child in "the place where dreams are born."

2. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, Warner Bros, 1999)

 But to step back to Kubrick...all of the master's films are wrapped up in questions of power and responsibility, tracing the insidious control of institutions and social rituals while implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) asking how the individual is to negotiate, physically, philosophically and morally, with these larger frameworks. This complex relationship, and the ambiguous conclusions that result, is front and center in celebrated mid-career works like Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, but by his later films, these movements of oppression, corruption, struggle and surrender are increasingly disconnected from concrete institutions, or even tangible actions. Instead, the patriarchy is diffused into the atmosphere, an element of mise-en-scene and elaborate narrative structure more than plot twists (which remain ambiguous) and character motivations (practically opaque). If it's difficult to define the central tension, the core struggle, in Eyes Wide Shut, it's because the enemy is a claustrophobic force of will; as the title indicates, this makes it all the harder to see. It also places even more emphasis and weight on the individual search for truth and redemption, and what makes Eyes Wide Shut such a wrenching, devastating film for all its slow detachment is how utterly incapable its hapless protagonist, Tom Cruise's Bill Harford, is of making sense of his nocturnal journey or doing anything about the casual abuses of power he witnesses (and comes to embody himself). Nights teach hard lessons, but they seem to vanish like vapor in the morning air. Sex is a tantalizing carrot throughout, just as it was in Dr. Strangelove and The Shining, but Kubrick willfully keeps his protagonist and his audience alike from reaching orgasm: a phone rings, a servant steps in, a sacrifice is made in Bill's place. The shocked, uncertain place these movements reach in the audience mind is what Kubrick is after: far from the supposedly taboo blood-and-boobs-bludgeoning of something like Hostel, Kubrick's shock is an uncanny, watchful place, hazy and reflective like the endless mirrored surfaces covering the director's final film. The questions provoked are as difficult to define as the answers; like 2001 (which I can't seem to stop referencing), the experience of it is all.

3. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 20th Century Fox, 1998)

The same year as Saving Private Ryan saw Terrence Malick return from his beloved wilds with his own take on war and the individual, seemingly born whole from that absorbing moment in Spielberg's film when the sound of rain falling on leaves morphs into the steady rat-a-tat of gunfire. "What's war in the heart of nature?" Jim Caviziel dreamily muses at the film's magisterial opening, as an alligator lazily slips beneath the water. Malick's war is both searingly visceral and quietly contemplative, pushing its myriad characters to the breaking point even as it frames their inner struggles with a strange, loving calm. I used the word "kaleidoscopic" above: The Thin Red Line is practically Joycean in its uncanny channeling of collective consciousness. C Company has a living, breathing identity all its own, and the individual soldiers are leaves to a tree. Their murmured voiceovers and flashes of memory merge into one poetic stream, a fractal of awareness and dreams. Malick's WWII has less to do with America and Japan than it does with the island of Guadalcanal, the film's true protagonist: overflowing with natural beauty in every frame, it contrasts severely with the impressionistic explosions and occasional brutal act of violence that the warriors bring to play. Fear, ambition, homesickness, and surrender are conveyed as if natural forces, surging and receding, taking our lives with them. The film is one long, slow unspooling of a thesis Sean Penn's quietly despairing sergeant reveals early on: "In this world, a man alone is nothing." Any other director would've turned that sentence into pure chest-beating nihilism, but Malick sees revelation, contentment, and even joy in that surrender of the piece to the whole. Character after character are shot as though fragments of the divine, living examples of the unknowable pattern of nature: internally chaotic, but collectively sublime. As with his follow-up The New World, Malick pointedly frames his story of restless (white) foreigners within images of rooted (non-white) natives, but the director's major thrust isn't political, or even historical. Like the wind rippling through the palms and high grass, The Thin Red Line reveals all such lines between us as thin things, evanescent and puny, awaiting full breakdown in the shellshocked crucible of war. That release can be painful, even fatal, but Malick has yet to falter in his reach for the transcendent, and even humanity's worst war is forgiven us in the shadow of a glorious tree.

4. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, Universal Pictures, 2001)

Eleven years on, it's hard to believe that the initial reaction to Lynch's definitive wave of the freak-flag centered on how "difficult" and "confusing" the film was, obsessing over gleaning some readily comprehensible pattern from the dazzling hyperlinked quilt of characters, forces, colors, murders, tensions, transformations, and dreams that make up the film. Lynch has never wielded the building blocks of narrative more expertly, constantly hinting at an all-encompassing answer just before gleefully jumping down another rabbit hole; transcendence, not coherence, is his goal. Our search for information is mirrored by Betty's own, along with the growing fear that some awful revelation is waiting behind the curtain: "He's the one who's doing it," one character realizes early on, uncovering some infernal Creator behind his nightmares. The string-puller is Lynch, of course, yet as the film proceeds, one gets a sense of responsibility deferred, some horrible guilt being hastily covered up in a stream of smiling faces and brightly lit palm trees. Hollywood eats its young, but first it makes them mad: Naomi Watts' true transformation from darling to diva comes not when Lynch's infamous blue box devours the film whole, but earlier, when Betty unleashes her mesmerizing acting ability in a meta-audition that drags her aggressive unconscious into the light. Director as malevolent dreamer, actress as murderous liar, both culpable for this lunatic cautionary tale, and every shot at redemption comes with a caveat. Betty and Rita, both amnesiacs in their own way, come together in Lynch's most passionately realized romance, only to be immediately reminded that it is all a recording, a tape, an illusion: they're living in a movie, after all, and the lights must eventually come up.What begins in the realm of endless possibility, a fever dream encompassing dozens of characters and scenarios, ends in Silencio, all storylines converged on a broken woman lost in the mirror-hall of her own delusion. By the follow-up (and spiritual sequel) Inland Empire, Lynch would next leave film behind entirely, giving us the digital Finnegans Wake to Mulholland's Ulysses, and so Mulholland increasingly feels like Lynch's farewell note to the medium, spiked with both rapture and horror, the last fluttering REM movements before we wake to a new world.

5. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 2002)

Since the mid-1990s, America has been paying less and less attention to Spike Lee; this does us wrong as much as him, as his art has only improved with age. Do the Right Thing was his furious, brilliant line in the sand, and his work since zooms in on various residents of his national-microcosm New York neighborhood. These individual stories, grains of sand, inevitably explode outwards in all directions, seeming to swallow the world whole in their passionate quest for meaning, truth, justice, peace. Bamboozled unleashed the director's passion and rancor at their most unfiltered (and therefore exhilarating), but by the follow-up, Lee could no longer hide the strain, to the film's benefit.  Few artists have ever produced a more emotionally wrenching tribute to middle-age exhaustion than 25th Hour, a passionate cry for help from a dog-tired city unsure of who it's been and what it will become. 9/11 hangs like a half-remembered nightmare over the story, whether dominating the view from a penthouse apartment adjacent to Ground Zero or quietly decorating a neighborhood bar in the form of a tribute to firemen lost. Indeed, one could tease an allegory of Bush's belligerently confused America out of this story of aggressive yet impotent men taking out their heartbreak on the world (and each other), but Lee's approach is always more collage than portrait. Witness Edward Norton's explosive direct address, which cuts deeper and more savagely than Do the Right Thing's similar roll-call of racist thoughts aired: Norton spews hate on the whole cast of Noo Yawk characters, from turbaned cab drivers to the "Gordon Gekko wannabes" rightfully under siege today, yet Lee is himself paying tribute to a city he impulsively loves even as he bitterly deconstructs its eternally chaotic melting pot. Norton's (self) hatred is the rotting nightmare, but Lee ends on a wistful dream: as the venerable Brian Cox drives Norton to prison, he envisions an entire Americana life for his doomed son, complete with small town, loving family, and a made-good second shot. But as those closing shots of Norton's swollen, bloody face indicate, 25th Hour is a more mature Fight Club: no longer able to outsource his despairing rebellion to an unreal Brad Pitt, Norton (like his director, his city and his country) is left alone to lick his wounds, as beaten but alive as the dog he saves at the film's beginning, 9/10 forever gone and exile in wait.

6. Femme Fatale (Brian de Palma, Warner Bros, 2002)

The divine comedy to Mulholland Drive's tragedy, Femme Fatale's utter refusal to take its glorious, endlessly self-referencing loop-de-loop of deception, doppelgangers and dreams seriously does not mean the film itself should not be taken very seriously. This is the usual rule with Brian de Palma, whose giddy obsessions with blood and breasts has never dulled his innate understanding of the medium, nor his ability to bend it to whatever ends he damn well feels like. By the new millennium, his style had passed through decadent and baroque, right through to sublime. Femme Fatale is a gorgeous hall of mirrors--misted glass and overflowing water provide the backdrop for a set of objects in motion, animate and otherwise, that are never what they seem even as they burst off the screen with such stunning physicality. I don't want to play spoiler, and simply recounting the plot would be the furthest thing from the point, so I'll just fixate on two scenes that capture the whole in all its shivery glory. The first is one of De Palma's classic split-screens, establishing and shattering space, piling as much pure Event on as possible, but this one's self-aware: a paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) snaps a shot of the titular femme (Rebecca Romijn), and as she ducks into church, gets mistaken for another woman, and runs for it, he busies himself uploading, printing and preparing his photo, the relentless forward motion of the film captured briefly, to be maintained and admired. This is De Palma's own image-making in action, his heroine's identity in constant flux even as she is memorialized in an instant. Of course, that's about as detached as the director gets. Later on, as the mutual seduction between the characters reaches its peak, Romijn offers a French stranger a striptease as Banderas jealously watches from outside. The camera ogles her body even as she teasingly refuses all of her audiences (including us) consummation; the Frenchman leaps at her to make the image real, but Banderas rushes to the attack, and their shadows dance on the wall like Plato's cave as Romijn laughs, giddy like her director with the casual ease of her power. It's horniness-as-philosophy, a film utterly seduced by itself even as it hangs back with a wry smile, constantly mocking its own hard-on. Thank Lucifer for dirty old men.

7. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2001)

When the cinematic histories of this era are written, may Richard Linklater be recognized, not as a stolid craftsman or a generational flag-planter, but as a master, as essential a voice as American cinema has ever seen. Ironically, it's his own art that stands in the way of such recognition: his focus on community, his ability to plant, grow and sustain bonds among the wandering groups of curious souls that make up his films, his devotion to an inclusive philosophy that, in itself, becomes a staggering philosophical statement. He may dull his own auterist gleam by taking on genre projects, but it's always remarkable how much humanist fervor he gleans from such potentially neutral material (Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock). Waking Life, then, is his definitive play for individual recognition, a gorgeous, shape-shifting testament to the powers of communication and imagination. The resurrection of characters and scenarios from older films of his (especially Slacker) would seem to indicate that we're wandering through the dream-bound corners of the director's own mind, but the brilliantly mobile animation emphasizes the possibility wrapped up in every scenario, and the intuitive, free-floating approach Linklater takes to his Rolodex of material. The film's primal scene remains "The Holy Moment," a passionate discussion of Bazin's religious approach to the cinema: every event on screen is a moment of God's creation captured, and Linklater revels in his ability to capture even animated unreality with the same spiritual tug. As the film's boundless energy indicates, Linklater was on something of a creative roll at the turn of the century, completing another film that same year. Tape, shot on grimy video, concerns itself with objectivity, constriction and barriers (across space, time, and people). Consider them duelling philosophical statements from Linklater: Tape is the bitter waking reality, but in Waking Life's collective (and thereby eternal) dream, there is no handrail, as the breathtaking bookend images indicate: the only choice is to let go, and drift. 

8. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, Focus Features, 2002)

With his fourth feature, wunderkind Todd Haynes broke the code: Far From Heaven is a fervently deconstructive, intellectually committed statement that stops the heart and sparks tears from everyone it touches. It's detached and visceral, personal and collective; even as it keeps a respectful distance from its protagonist (Julianne Moore, resplendent, brilliant) and the environment through which she moves, it burns with such empathy that it leaves me gasping, every time. Its claustrophobic frames, bursting with overripe color, betray the utter unreality of the too-perfect '50s pattern, which makes the breaks in the wall all the more important: the unexpected flash of a camera shutter, a flask pulled out of a desk, a bruise that can't quite be covered up. With the perspective of time, the points Haynes makes about gender and sexuality, race and perception, are immediately familiar. Yet even as the director provides distant perspective, his drama emphasizes the unfamiliar and the new, breaking points and times of intense change. The overly gorgeous world, shot with alacrity by Edward Lachman, seems to dominate every frame, but Moore is caught up in the beauty of a Miro painting. Her new gardener/soul mate (Dennis Haysbert) comments that abstract art "picked up where religious art left off," pointing us toward some divine revelation by way of lines, colors, and shapes. Moore's Cathy Whitaker is charged by her director with finding her way to that revelation in spite of the lines, colors, and shapes bracketing her in; it's her struggle toward what seems to us, with the benefit of time, so obvious is the source of the movie's heartbreak. Haynes, himself gay, commits himself utterly to Cathy's story (an act of intense artistic empathy) rather than that of her newly out-of-the-closet husband (Dennis Quaid), yet he pays tribute to the latter's struggle in the opposite fashion. As Quaid follows another man up a set of cinema stairs, Lachman's camera hangs back. Like any good 1950s movie, Far From Heaven leaves a lot to the imagination, but Haynes' reticence is philosophical; he respects the man's privacy, leaving him to his new world while Cathy stands alone at the end (imperiled/empowered), waiting for her train to come in.

9. Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan, Touchstone Pictures, 2000)

My quixotic quest to redeem the savaged reputation of my beloved Night Shy is centered on The Village, a staggering masterpiece I've defended as such once or twice. I wouldn't be so committed to the cause, however, if he only had the one trick up his sleeve, and I'm astonished that this questioning, disturbing follow-up to the seismic The Sixth Sense has vanished so quickly from our collective memory. The decade since has seen a glut of superhero films, many eager to be seen as dark meditations on society, etc. without actually doing the heavy lifting: merely adding a layer of grit to your film's visual palette, or killing off all your secondary characters in increasingly sadistic fashion, does nothing to elevate your work to the level of philosophy or social statement. Unbreakable is the real thing, situating its superhero in the real, recognizable world and building the tension gradually, geared less around explosions than slow-burn revelations. Take, for example, the scene in which Bruce Willis' recalcitrant security guard decides to directly test his seemingly limitless strength. Night Shy patiently watches, camera unblinking, as our hero adds weight after weight to his workout bar, eventually adding on some cans of paint as well. Without any fast-cut montages or pump-up soundtrack, the scene becomes a quiet miracle, the possibility of infinity revealing itself before our eyes, mirrored in the astonished expression on his son's face. It's practically Bazinian, focused firmly on physicality and the potential of the non-enhanced flesh, harking back to an incredible early shot in which Willis comes to in a hospital, untouched by a train crash, as a body heaves blood and gives out in the foreground. Equally tactile, and even more spiritually resonant, is the film's central sequence: decked out in his signature poncho, Willis walks into a train station and slowly stretches out his hands. Smiling people brush by, and he catches the briefest glimpse of horrors they've committed. The furthest thing from misanthropy, this sequence emphasizes the true, terribly cinematic burden of the superhero: to bear witness, to see the ugliness beneath the surface, hidden in the corners of our collective soul. As the director's stunning-as-usual finale indicates, the guardians of good and evil may be powerful, but they may also be less free than any of us.

10. The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, Working Title Films, 1998)

Take another hit and reflect: The Big Lebowski isn't so much a stoner movie as it is a stoned movie, indulgent and operating only by its own internal compass, but impossibly generous and immediately absorbed in everything and everyone it touches. "Jackie Treehorn treats objects like women, man," The Dude mutters at one point, inadvertently touching on one of the central totems of the Coens' exceptional career: they treat objects with fervent reverence, resulting in films defined by the menacing powers of space and physicality (Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, No Country for Old Men) and/or their characters' fetishes and obsessions, mirroring the brothers' own (Barton Fink, Fargo, A Serious Man). These films condemn and trap their protagonists in increasingly grim, calcified worlds, denying them that which they unconsciously seek, and so the brothers get regularly tagged as misanthropes. Yet nihilism "must be exhausting," and like Linklater's Dazed and Confused, another perpetually pot-hazed classic suffused with and elevated by the director's loving humanism, The Big Lebowski is all about the rueful affection sprawled out in every frame. The bemused attention paid to every character and scenario is almost parental. The Dude's keep-the-dream-alive slackerdom and Walter's purist nostalgia for Vietnam (and Judaism, and his ex-wife), contrasted with the pompous Mr. Lebowski and the constant background allusions to the first Gulf War, create a collage of generational warriors utterly, hilariously unable to communicate. Conversations build up, slip sideways, explode, fall apart. The goofy conspiracy at the film's center turns out to be full of fakes: the girl was never kidnapped, the money was never there, Lebowskis are endlessly confused for one another. So in the end, there's nothing to "learn" here, just an endless array of textures to surf. Roger Deakins films a bowling alley like it's the Vatican for a rent-shirking, White Russian-guzzling StonerPope. I've heard Lebowski compared to the Grail myth, yet the detritus of American pop culture (porn, cowboys, performance art, Branded, the fuckin' Eagles) that the film so lovingly curates speaks to an audience right at home in a state of perpetual decline, epitomized by the Dude, our anti-establishment Jesus (whom nobody fucks with). And He doth abide: rugs are pissed on, cars stolen and set on fire, money gained and lost, but fuck it, Dude. We'll all float on all right.