Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Once Upon a Time

1999. The last year of a decade, the Second Gilded Age that was the 1990s, in which a new economy's champagne did its frozen-smile best to contain the uncertainty of a post-Cold War world. That decade, the last of the 20th century. Clinton re-elected to provide the "bridge" to the new millennium, then derailed by mores the Pilgrims brought over with them.

Stanley Kubrick, perhaps the greatest skeptical student of that big, dumb century, taking more and more time between films as the world moved faster and faster around him. It took him four years to painstakingly construct Barry Lyndon, five to recover by way of The Shining, seven just to finalize the rights for Full Metal Jacket, and now twelve to deliver his last lecture. Good thing Eyes Wide Shut promised a real live celebrity couple in the nude, or who could still give a damn?

Eyes wasn't the dominant blockbuster of the year (that would be the Future as embodied by The Matrix), but it was the year's biggest Event Film. All sorts of theories and expectations were tossed around by critics and consumers alike, a dramatic opening-day buildup was followed by a colossal box office flop, and groans of disappointment and titters of condescension drowned out a passionate few supporters. A replay of Chaplin's A Countess from Hong Kong: a fastidious failed attempt at eye-catching relevance from an old flame the world had left behind.

Eyes Wide Shut opens with a nude shot of Nicole Kidman from the back, and that's as close to open titillation as it gets. It's hard to believe that anyone who had payed attention to Stanley Kubrick could've expected a straight peep show. What we got, underneath the gilded surface of a sexy psychological thriller (that second one is correct), was the most complex, incisive, visually expressive, and slyly emotional application of Kubrick's pet pattern. That pattern is rigorous destruction, but while the subject at hand was made explicit in Dr. Strangelove (mutually assured destruction) and Barry Lyndon (the rags-to-riches fable), Eyes Wide Shut hides its targets amidst a surreal, ever-shifting visual landscape. Sexual jealousy, masculine pride, arrogant wealth, the human body, the nature of fantasies--they're all laid bare on that morgue slab. Yet, for once, Kubrick grounds his condemnations in the visceral and the subjective. Notes on a piano, an otherworldly mask. No wonder Tom Cruise's Doctor Bill is such a cipher. He's meant to be uncomfortably familiar, a placidly rich New Yorker frightened beyond speech by what he finds in his wife, his social circle, and his own soul.

Naturally, critics panned Cruise's evocative, masterfully restrained performance, spinning around to gush over his grossly muscled man-whore in Paul Thomas Anderson's trauma-shell-game Magnolia, which conveniently spelled out its goals right at the beginning. Eyes Wide Shut was resolutely snubbed come awards season; the Academy gave its top prize to American Beauty, which offered up its Uncomfortable Truths in easy pill form. (What's the solution to suburban ennui? Well, it sure ain't screwing your daughter's virginal friend! Man, that was easy, what's everyone always bitching about?) Stanley Kubrick died four days after privately screening the final cut of his last and greatest film. His final manifesto came from Kidman, fixing the ultimately helpless Cruise with those glassy eyes and telling him what they need to do immediately to stuff the shame the film exposed back into Pandora's Box: "Fuck." Goodbye 20th century.

But, then again...

2009. The last year of a decade, a true clustercuss of an era, shattering bankruptcies of all kinds mercilessly exposed. That decade, the first of the 21st century, the future looking wild and uncertain and dark, America reeling from the legacy of the man who got elected* on the basis of not having sex in the Oval Office and then turned catastrophe into a launching pad for simplistic, jingoistic regression, to the roar of the crowd.

Quentin Tarantino, the brat prince of those madcap postmodern '90s still struggling to find where he fit in a decade not of his making. Kill Bill was a fanboy's rave dream, but faded quickly from memory, and for all its formalist glee and immense critical goodwill, Death Proof was the first real box office flop of his career (turns out Robert Rodriguez isn't always commercial gold, thank goodness). Good thing Inglourious Basterds promised Brad Pitt hunting Nazi scalps, or who could still give a damn?

Basterds wasn't the dominant blockbuster of the year (that would be the Future as embodied by Avatar), but it was the year's biggest Event Film. People were fascinated (Quentin Tarantino made a war film!) and hesitant (Quentin Tarantino made a war film?), but most everybody left the multiplex agog, wild-eyed, and raving to anybody who would listen. Basterds, it was agreed, was a fiery, lunatic masterpiece, filmmaking at its audacious, hallucinogenic best. A replay of the Coens' No Country for Old Men: an undeniable wake-up call from an upstart we'd gotten used to.

Inglourious Basterds opens with a queasy cat-and-mouse game leading to Nazi soldiers massacring a group of Jewish refugees, and that's as close to respectful historicity as it gets. It's hard to believe that anyone who had payed attention to Quentin Tarantino could have expected a straight war film. What we got, under the guise of a winking war flick (that first one is correct) was the most complex, incisive, visually expressive, and slyly emotional application of Tarantino's pet pattern. That pattern is cinema-as-life, but while the lifelines were made explicit in Pulp Fiction (the ultimate distillation of film's myriad definitions of cool) and Kill Bill (seams-showing genre mashup), Inglourious Basterds' deeper examinations unfold naturally within a deliriously pulp alternate history. WWII nostalgia, American guilt over and ownership of the Holocaust, ludicrous heist setups, populist propaganda, bloodthirsty retribution fantasies--they all go up in flames in that gorgeous independent movie house. Yet, for once, Tarantino doesn't always seem to be on the same page as his audience. The ostensibly Jewish heroes are good ol' boy yahoos, and some of the most despised monsters in history are shown cheering for their favorite on-screen soldiers. No wonder Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine is so cartoonish and ultimately tangential. He's meant to be both comfortably familiar and uncomfortably removed, a belligerent killing machine that forces his way into a Jewish woman's furious vengeance in order to (literally) etch his own useless mark on history.

For a film that rather unmistakably associates its own audience with Hitler and his goons, Basterds was an immediate and deafening success, more than accounting for Death Proof's box office failure and winning over critics who hadn't loved QT since Pulp Fiction (and even some who'd never loved him at all). It's very easy to be cynical about this triumph, and many members of Basterds' fan club also love Saving Private Ryan without seeming to see any interesting contradictions there. But, ultimately, Quentin Tarantino is not Stanley Kubrick. He is not arch, he is not misanthropic, and he truly does not hate us even as he basically calls us Nazis--in his world, even Hitler is just another adoring fan in the face of a good flick, the divine common denominator. QT's still enough of a pure cinephile to devote love and attention to Christoph Waltz' feverishly great performance, though (because) the Jew Hunter ends up as tied to genre standards and as secondary to Shosanna's fiery triumph as Pitt and his Basterds. Waltz was duly rewarded on Oscar night, and Inglourious Basterds got in on the ten-Best-Picture-nominees action. The film lost out to The Hurt Locker, a far graver, more direct, and more "real" film that's about .01% as engaging, ambitious, and meaningful as QT's shrine to the dream factory's influence on our sacred collective histories. Tarantino's currently plotting out his eighth and ninth films, his craft and relevancy no longer in any doubt. His knowing vision came from Pitt, staring down at the ragged, glorious mess he'd made of history: "I think this just might be my masterpiece." Hello 21st century.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Quick Note on Dante Remus Lazarescu

No matter how heartily I abuse BitTorrent, there are some exceptionally great movies I'll be years behind on if I don't catch them upon initial release. Such was the case with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, one of the earliest and most celebrated touchstones of the mid-00s ascendancy of Romanian cinema. Lazarescu (or Death; a revealing choice of shorthand?) quickly became the crossover story of 2006, lighting up best-of lists as frequently as the latest entries from Scorsese and Eastwood. I'd read about for years before I finally sat down to it on Netflix Instant this past March. I was surprised by what I saw.

Like There Will Be Blood a year later, Death benefited greatly from political timing. Its unblinking focus on a dying man left adrift in a sea of health care bureaucracy was immediately seized upon by American critics, sensing an easy parallel and a chance to ramp up the reform-now zeitgeist. The film's myriad medical officials are lost in "staunch snobbishness" and "inhuman nonsense," unsympathetic to the "rudely tendered" titular doomed soul. The system, indeed, is infested by the "selfishness of the human spirit," and the "good people are too few and too ineffectual, and...come too late." The director, Cristi Puiu, was portrayed as "intent on avenging himself against the medical profession" after his own torturous experience with post-Ceausescu health care. The New York Times took to the battlements with even greater fervor, teasing out a homeland connection in Romania's societal "ill health, which sounds awfully familiar in these post-Katrina times." The fading protagonist's full name, Dante Remus Lazarescu, practically begs for allegorical exploration, and everybody bit: DRL falls through "circles of medical hell," mistreated by the "supposed emblems of human salvation," and is ultimately left with no "Beatrice to guide him to heaven."

With the exception of the Katrina comparison, none of these are outright ludicrous conclusions, but even though (or perhaps because) I was so primed for bitter condemnation, the movie I saw was quite different. Yes, most of the doctors and nurses encountered by Lazarescu and his sole caregiver, an EMT named Mioara, come off as bitter, pompous assholes, and they certainly spend more time admonishing Lazarescu for his drinking habits than caring for him. Yet these officials are as anonymous to us as Lazarescu is to them: we're shown hints that their personal lives are falling into disrepair as they're worked almost to their own deaths, but Puiu's wandering camera unerringly returns to Lazarescu and Mioara. We are the only ones privy to their entire story, and isn't that the curse of cinema? That's why we shout to characters on screen not to go into that house, because we've already seen some skull-faced motherfucker duck in there 15 seconds previous. Of course, that sort of thing is all in fun, and is more a product of universal familiarity with genre tropes than anything specific to one film. Lazarescu is very different, and I didn't find it as easy to condemn those doctors as I do bubbly teenagers who walk into creepy abandoned houses.

These nurses and doctors fuck up, but not because they treat Lazarescu exceptionally poorly. They fail to treat him exceptionally well, but why should they do that? They haven't seen the beginning of the movie. They weren't primed, as we are, to feel wretched pity for this particular old man, or feel pride for this stubborn EMT. How many wretched old men and stubborn EMTs do you think walk through those hospital doors? It's vital that Death's trajectory careens between four different hospitals: for everyone but the audience and the two main characters, the story has to start afresh in each place.

No, the fuck-up lies in the definition of "exceptionally well" in the first place. Lazarescu explores not a failure, but a standard, and it's difficult to condemn that standard without doing so in terms of cinema: it's all so terrible because the protagonist is treated poorly. This individualist perspective is accented with broader themes in a Dardennes-like fashion, but it's still ultimately one man's death.

Is this to say one cannot properly draw pervasive lessons from this film? Hardly, but I don't think the answer lies purely in diagnosis (i.e., the Romanian health care system is fucked up, and btw, so's ours). The proper question for a film like this is one of prescription, which is where Death's true accomplishment lies. Rather than demand specific reforms (which would be nearly impossible to do well within narrative cinema), Puiu silently records every bit of multifaceted chaos, all the locked-in perspectives that in sum produce catastrophe, and asks: what the hell do we do with all this? Again, it's a distinctively cinematic approach, to watch so many angles and interests germane to health care reform debates be brought out through the vessel of one man's story. This is the material. These are the ground rules. Yes, it's terrible, but Puiu takes that as a given, not a point to prove. The question is how we transform this situation, and saving one particular man is not the answer: anecdotes can only go so far, something that every political filmmaker ought to be aware of. By allowing us to identify with one poor soul, Puiu makes the stagnant trauma real without transforming it into a dragon to slay. After several more viewings, Lazarescu reminds me of Dr. Strangelove: an ostensible black comedy that spends most of its time meticulously examining systemic breakdown. While Kubrick, however, did indeed posit the kind of scathing, polemical pessimism that critics saw in Death, Puiu has more interest in exploring the human complexities of bureaucracy. If there's a thesis statement to be teased out of this film, it's not that health care is bad. It's that fixing health care is going to be really, really hard, and as any American can testify, this film is only going to age well in those terms.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Three Voices

"It was tribute, just like in the old country, except they were doing it here in America."

An experiment: try watching the first 15 minutes of Goodfellas with the sound off. Those lush colors, those expertly coordinated pans, those impossibly graceful cuts spanning days, months, years...it's suddenly the film I always wanted it to be. Goodfellas was the first Scorsese film I actively sought out once my timidly burgeoning cinephilia pushed me in the old master's direction. The film's M.O., as I understood it, intrigued me: a gangster film focused on a lifelong sprawl rather than a rigid vertical arc, built around the mid-level careerist types rather than the tortured self-examination of the bosses (The Godfather) or the fireworks antics of the street rats (Christ, take your pick). All that and Joe Pesci--how could this fail to be the best movie ever?

I know, of course, that it is exactly that for many people. But Goodfellas dies for me the second the camera freezes on Ray Liotta's blank schmuck face and his grating, flat voice stumbles into the movie. It proceeds to stick around for the next two and a half hours, saying dumb, clumsy, and hilariously unnecessary things, distracting from and gutting the (increasingly threadbare) film playing out underneath it.

It would only perpetuate my boredom to list this all of the voiceover's particular sins against the film's momentum and mise-en-scene, and I'd rather ask: why does it exist? Certainly nothing happens in Goodfellas that requires overt explication. There's no confused perspective or opportunity for ironic contrast. A voiceover can become an essential element of an unforgettable aesthetic; Terrence Malick has wrung as much passion and Edenic tragedy out of off-camera monologues as he has out of montages of trees. Yet the voiceover is still more often a crutch, adding ill-fitting omniscience, distracting from a film's visual lyricism, and reducing that which should be mysterious, ambiguous, or playful to dull narration. I'd argue that Goodfellas is guilty of all of the above. But if Liotta's VO is a crutch, what is it a crutch for?

Take a look at the DVD cover (or what have you). That's Liotta simpering on the left; that's Robert de Niro, arms folded and badass, in the center. Watch the credits. Liotta's name follows De Niro's. Return to Scorsese's early masterstrokes, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Unlike Goodfellas, they're stark and unsparing in their depictions of their protagonists' frustrated brutality. What saves them from becoming mere exercises in ugliness is the blinding charisma of the man at the center of both--and that man is Robert de Niro, for all that he brilliantly disappears into Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta. With his irreducible grace, the flashes of warmth and humor and unshakable intelligence in his eyes, de Niro pretty much single-handedly saved the classic cinematic tough guy from kitschy irrelevance, and took him to places more mean, twisted, and hopelessly sad than he'd ever imagined possible.

So, of course, he couldn't be the mouthpiece for Goodfellas. Henry Hill's delirious arc requires an avatar of insinuating stupidity, a stumbling wannabe who falls into murder and coke without a hint of reflection. Naturally, Ray Liotta couldn't even pull that off. His featherweight performance only makes that dead-weight voiceover worse, underscoring his utter unworthiness of the spotlight. De Niro is given the greater weight, voiceover duties shift more and more frequently to Lorraine Bracco, and every attempt is made to emphasize how non-individualist this story is. It's about a family, a pattern, an eternally translatable arc. It's the sturdy old American Dream, taken to its proper position. It's the "old country," but now it's "America:" the ultimate personal-tribal-universal conflation. The voiceover ties those ideas together, binding Hill's perspective to the accepted gangster template while keeping Liotta's character transparent enough that anyone in the audience can imagine themselves saying those lines.

I call bullshit. This film, supposedly about a specific group in a specific time and place, goes out of its way to avoid alienating any of its audience, and so avoids the specificity of drugs, character, and, yeah, ethnicity.
Scorsese adequately conveys the lifestyle's addictive nature, but he never comes close to approaching Scarface's compelling/cautionary cocaine-as-aesthetic, even in the scenes involving, uh, cocaine. Italian heritage is converted to hastily assembled good-ol'-boy American-ness, until the Jewish characters are made to seem more alien to this country than the gangsters. Perhaps the film's greatest disappointment lies in that incongruously leading name: De Niro just phones this one in, trotting out greaseball cliches without the slightest hint of his usual rueful self-deprecation, let alone ruthless self-critique. Far from reveling in Scorsese's intimate memories of the time (as is the usual interpretation), Goodfellas takes every opportunity to smooth the mob out and make it palatable. This isn't a case of cutting away from blood--that would hardly please audiences. This is a case of cutting away from humans worth watching and thinking about. The voiceover serves as a reminder of what a weak facsimile the film hangs on, and what a slapdash job the filmmakers did covering that emptiness up.

"I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me."

Jack Nicholson's dry monologue launches The Departed straight into Goodfellas territory. Jack's cackling mob boss is a cracked kaleidoscope of potential loyalties, carrying with him ambiguous relationships to the church, Irish pride, American dominance, and his own uneasy ur-father status. He's the obvious locus point for all the film's zany, speedy plot loops, and the only one who ever seems to have the time to wittily comment on the sheer anarchic madness exploding all around. Giving him a voiceover might make narrative sense. That is, if The Departed were interested in narrative sense, or ethnicity, or religion or America or fatherhood, or anything at all, really.

If Goodfellas (along with its immediate predecessor, The Last Temptation of Christ) marked the beginning of Scorsese's attempts to fuse his signature individualist focus with explicit explorations of collectivity and real history, The Departed finds him gently mocking his own seriousness. In the sixteen years in between the two films, he certainly gave himself plenty to mock. The Age of Innocence was a total misfire, mired in groaner period fetishes and far too humble in the face of its Wharton source material (Scorsese being accustomed to biographies of assholes, after all). Kundun was resplendent in red and yellow, thanks to the always-gorgeous work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, but Scorsese was again too polite, focused on translating the Dalai Lama legend (in English, durrr) for us wiseguy American dumbasses while letting his searching humanity lapse. When the new millennium dawned, he turned to Leo DiCaprio for rejuvenation, but his new obeisance to stale context grabbed him by the ankle. Gangs of New York was a self-righteous mess of laughable "history", losing Leo completely in a stew of clumsy, half-thought ambition with all the craft and gravity of a high school theater production. Sadly, The Aviator proved that individualist focus would work no better as long as Scorsese remained lost in nostalgia, this time for the old Hollywood his early films provided an energizing antidote to.

Leo does his best, but it's becoming unmistakably clear that he and Scorsese will never quite have the same synergistic spark the director had with DeNiro, that perfect fusion of ambition and specificity that makes character studies larger than life. The Departed, easily the most successful of Scorsese's new wave, cheerfully dodges that nuanced characterization. Context remains, but it becomes "context," elements randomly tossed in and juggled for the sheer aesthetic pleasure of it all: dubious accents, random ethnic slurs, phrases like "lace-curtain motherfucker" that sound utterly delightful--and delightfully meaningless--when spat out by a never-better Mark Wahlberg. Substance gets sacrificed along the way, and the film becomes forgettable even as you're watching it, but it's the best Scorsese's likely to produce from the corner he's backed himself into (as the dead-end Shutter Island recently demonstrated), and it ably serves up loving, if empty, fun calories.

Jack drops the voiceover after that opening yarn, and the film promptly drops the issues he waves so tantalizingly before us. Scorsese's just having fun here, with all fun's attendant cell phone drama. The voiceover's just another tool in his box now, something to drop into the mix so "Gimme Shelter" doesn't get lonely. Hey, there are worse fates.


But there are better ones, too. Taxi Driver establishes its sinuous subjectivity as quickly as Goodfellas exposes its personal-collective fusion and The Departed builds and destroys its red-herring ambitions. While those two, however, use the voiceover as a launching pad for their towering narratives, Taxi Driver first establishes its groundbreaking aesthetic (flashing eyes, blurry lights, an eternally shifting score) and sets up its voiceover to act as counterpoint. Travis Bickle lavishes desperate praise on Betsy, and the camera seems to confirm it, drawing her out of the anonymous crowd as someone finally worthy of individual attention. Then Travis' speech slows, and he struggles every word out. Cut to the would-be philosopher scribbling laboriously in his diary, his controlling gaze and authorial flair undercut by his human limits--one of which is catastrophic mythologizing, of himself and others.

Several scenes later, Betsy shows Scorsese's hand: "A walking contradiction. You are that." Travis, of course, focuses on protesting that he's not a pusher. That's the tragedy of Taxi Driver: even sadder than Travis' relentless, futile search for a philosophy to call his own is his seeming unawareness of his own rootlessness. The contrast between what we hear and see of him clue us in to the disconnect. He raggedly admits to not following music, movies, or politics, but clings to his increasingly vague voiceover rants against the "scum" and the "filth" of the city streets. Here's a man...here's a man...here's a man who would not take it any more. Just before he introduces Betsy to the narrative, he admits that he has to "try to become a person like other people," but his attempts at doing so, all centered around women stronger than he is, are unqualified disasters. Travis' voiceover both humanizes this weirdo and clashes with his story, leaving Taxi Driver a fragmented, exhilarating trip both around and through a pathologically slippery psyche.

More simply put, it's a mess; but The Departed's mess was one of creative and cultural chaos, a jumble happily devoid of a frame beyond the even more convoluted storyline of its Hong Kong source material. Travis Bickle is a carefully curated shamble, running up hard against the world outside himself. That world, one of urban decay and bleak post-Watergate politics, resonates as very real, but is never as hermetic or self-satisfied as Goodfellas' memory machine--there's no comfortable wiseguy to hold our collective hand and include us in his banter. The world is perceived only via the chameleon protagonist's perspective, and we quickly come to understand it through his tortured eyes: confusing, forbidding, both faintly nauseating and casually, heartbreakingly beautiful. His voiceover, then, compartmentalizes his reactions, distilling Travis' desperate bravado and his need to craft his own polemic. But he can't even match "We Are The People," and by the end of the film, he's sunk into wordless violence, and thereafter into pure fantasy.

That last post-massacre sequence has, of course, been the subject of much debate. I side with those naming it a fantasy as a matter of course--the whole film is practically hallucinogenic in its loyalty to Travis' perspective and, more crucially, his inflated imagination, and it only makes sense that after his traumatic catharsis, his angry, unfocused id would take full control. I'm more interested in the film's last use of voiceover, which doesn't belong to Travis. It belongs to Iris' father, thanking Travis for rescuing his daughter and praising the taxi driver to the heavens. As we hear his narrated letter, the camera pans along a series of newspaper articles declaring Travis a hero. For the first time in the film, the internal polemic matches the fractured reality. So maybe I'm cruel, but that's what convinces me of this scene's complete unreality. The voiceover in Taxi Driver is both more revealing and more simplified than what's seen on screen, exposing Travis, but only in terms of the lies he tells himself. The cinematic voiceover at its worst is pure excess and laziness, either drowning the film in overly staged artifice or revealing the material as tragically underwritten. At its best, though, the voiceover is a careful balancing act of realities and points of view, and while Scorsese would go on to abuse it and gleefully desecrate it, he never employed it with more careful grace than in Taxi Driver, still his finest film.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Beast Is Something You Can Hunt And Kill

While it seems laughable to call Steven Spielberg "underrated" in any sense, his ability to convincingly juggle different emotional states often goes overlooked in favor of his supposed sentimental/serious binary. Chief Martin Brody (or the Chief, as he's properly referred to) is sharp, hardworking, and, though he'll rarely admit it, bored out of his skull as the police chief of the sleepy summer town of Amity. He's tremendously sympathetic as he stomps through the opening scenes of Jaws, back straight and brow furrowed, but it's undeniably funny to watch him furiously buy wooden planks and paint because Amity lacks a "Beach Closed" sign. The giggles continue when that car matter-of-factly follows the Chief onto that tiny ferry-raft, and grow when the absurd Mayor Vaughn pops out in his totally awesome anchor-festooned suit jacket and babbles about the summer rush. The Chief's retort, "That doesn't mean we have to serve them up a smorgasbord," is guaranteed to make my father laugh anytime, anywhere, and rightly so. Then the Mayor, with a smarmy, shit-eating grin plastered on his face, takes the grumbling, righteous Chief aside for a more private chat.

"I don't think you appreciate the gut reaction people have to these things...it's all psychological. You yell "barracuda," everybody says "Huh? What?" You yell "shark"...and we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."

The camera lingers on their profiles for a split second longer before cutting to the ferry pulling in; then comes the beach scene and the Chief's tension and the next attack, and we happily hop gears back to the suspense thriller. "Young Spielberg," as Hitchcock knighted him after walking out of Jaws, knows enough to rapidly distract us at this point, lest it become too obvious that he's just given away the secret of the film, the reason it became the highest-grossing film ever made, virtually created the summer blockbuster, and, unlike most of its successors in that category, continues to top lists into the 2010's.

To quote Mulholland Drive: "He's the one who's doing it." Through the mouthpiece of the film's least likeable (and dumbest) character, Spielberg outlines the guiding rule behind his masterpiece--namely, yelling shark.

Although he isn't seen in his entirety until more than halfway through the film, any mystery or detachment surrounding Bruce the shark is dispelled from the beginning. The film opens to the shark's own theme song, the most unshakeable strand of movie music since Bernard Herrmann's strings first sliced Psycho in half. We see a terrifyingly quick zoom past some gorgeous ocean flora: we are seeing through the shark's eyes. Later on, it'll be other eyes looking for him. The Chief scans the beach horizon, jumping from kid to dog with stick to laughing couple back to kid back to...stick...and nobody, nothing is safe if you can't see Bruce. Red herrings like the brat with the fake fin are essential not only to add some levity and extend the suspense, but also to re-emphasize Bruce's central power. It's not that he's an otherworldy being who can be everywhere--it's that he could be anywhere, and as the Chief scans the sea, he visually confirms that the sea, functionally, has become the shark. Hidden but familiar, perfectly defined but pregnant with potential: one of the ultimate sensuous objects in film, on par with the Maltese Falcon or Kubrick's eternal obelisk. And I say "object," because in no way is Bruce a character or a villain. He is a locus of wonder, nearly religious in his ability to draw all concern to him. Spielberg has spent his career in large part vacillating between the fantastic and the familial, finding the spectacular and charmingly mundane in both. Early in his career, he finds the perfect fusion in his shark.

It's significant that he first fully reveals himself to the Chief, whose bigger-boat quip is but a speck when set next to the wonder in his eyes. Quint's driven on by his past psychoses, yet it's utterly essential that the Quint-Ahab parallel, while tantalizingly obvious, is never actually explored. The white whale is the quintessential metaphor-for-everything. For all the profound terror and wonder he induces, Bruce's greatest source of power is that he is a stand-in for absolutely nothing. He is singular, himself, the Shark-- the Great White Shark, but that's it. Sure, he evokes some vague fears of nature, but nothing that's not more explicitly hammered home in Jurassic Park, and Quint's monologue makes it very clear that the shark stands alone.

How many other filmmakers would have shoehorned in Quint's blood-red history to set up some awkwardly bombastic parallel? "We delivered the bomb," Quint says, and his horrific story simply runs out and dies. We delivered the bomb, and there is a shark out there who will kill us if he can. The two sit together, stewing and festering, but they're both irrevocably themselves.

After Jaws made him a superstar, Spielberg would continue to restlessly pursue his sacred objects: the ultimate totems of religious (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and secular (Jurassic Park) power, the the fantastic creatures we find (E.T.) and create (A.I.) It would be thirty years before he would again open up this particular kind of space, both blatantly specific and undeniably significant. War of the Worlds, like Jaws, ends on nothing so grandiose as survival, escaping a terribly beautiful killing machine that reflects back nothing but our own blank-faced horror.

Bruce gets exploded, our heroes swim for home, reach the beach, and…the credits roll. We never see young Michael Brody get out of the hospital; the last we see of Ellen Brody is as she flees Quint’s storehouse in terror. There is no grand reconciliation, no tearful goodbyes, no final wrap-ups or last quips. There is only a shark, and then not a shark.

What Happens

When Richard Dreyfuss' Matt Hooper, cinema's original Badass Marine Biologist, enters Jaws, it's as much to buoy the narrative as to sink a shark. His deadpan humor and immediate, easy camaraderie with Roy Scheider's Chief Brody quickly marks him out as the film's wry heart. In spite of his comforting presence at Chez Brody and aboard the Orca, however, Hooper is most at home at the autopsy table, fully exposing the bloody horrors that tug at the Chief's eyes and mouth. From a narrative standpoint, Hooper's first dissection (of the nameless dead girl) merely confirms what we, the omniscient audience, already know: "This was not a boat accident. And it wasn't any propeller, it wasn't any coral reef, and it wasn't Jack the Ripper. It was a shark."

Then, of course, Spielberg cuts to a dead shark, and we're allowed to cheer along with the crowd of fisherfolk for a moment before Hooper again goes to work. But step back to the autopsy. A curtain is pulled back and Hooper is shown the mangled body, which lies below the camera's gaze, momentarily out of our sight. Hooper barks jargon, gulps back vomit, and scolds the Chief for not calling the Coast Guard and for smoking.


And then Spielberg cuts.


"This is what happens."

And then he cuts again.


Those first and third shots, only six seconds apart, are nearly identical: the Chief smokes in the background, bemusedly looking on as Hooper stares down at the table. Taken together, as part of a continuous framing, they neatly carry along the humorous, sanitized feel of the scene.

Those six seconds, however, irrevocably alter the scene, and arguably the film as a whole. It's the clearest example of the Eisensteinian influence Pauline Kael saw coursing through Jaws: the pure montage, using shots not as discrete building blocks but as cells of an indelible whole. The Chief, his cigarette, Hooper, his glasses. Hooper raises an arm, the Chief is horrified as all his worst fantasies are realized, Hooper murmurs "This is what happens" from offscreen. The Chief, his cigarette, Hooper, his glasses.

It's such a palpable, horrific intrusion, left so unrecognized once it ends, that it becomes difficult to believe. I'd re-watched Jaws on a two-to-three year cycle for my entire life before these cuts recently jumped out at me. Certainly, the film contains several such montages, but none are so jarring, so insidiously surreal. Compare Spielberg to his New Hollywood peers, and this triptych recalls less de Palma's multi-tiered POV fantasies than Scorsese's slow tracking shots in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull: not suggesting dreams or multiple perspectives, but moments of crawling intimacy. Thrown off the blockbuster train tracks, this scene is the closest the audience comes to being fully integrated into the Chief's/Spielberg's horrified fascination.

was the launching pad for one of the most successful careers in entertainment history; Spielberg would later seduce millions into watching Nazis liquidate a ghetto and soldiers being blown apart on the beaches of Normandy. But this moment of purest cinema: like no other, it chills me to the bone.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dream City: Metropolis Restored

One of the nicest things about being in Boston for the summer (full disclosure: I'm in Boston for the summer) is being a ten-minute bus ride from the Coolidge Corner Theatre. If you're ever in the area and you have a free afternoon, it's definitely worth your time--it's a gorgeous place, bedecked with beautiful posters and featuring four unique screening rooms, alternately showing old favorites (Dazed and Confused this Saturday at midnight, man) and whatever slice of snoot-buzz survived New York the previous week. As it advertises, it's (sadly) the only independent, non-profit movie house in the Boston area, and any support will be well rewarded.

That's the especially at the moment--Coolidge Corner is playing host to the "restored" version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the sci-fi landmark regularly listed among the greatest silent films (and films, period) ever made. In my own personal pantheon, it places second only to the eternal Jaws, so I was just a li'l excited.

Restored, because Metropolis is perhaps the most famously truncated movie ever made, cut to pieces by Paramount Pictures after a lukewarm premiere showing nearly bankrupted the original studio. Lang's vision of a pristine but deeply exploitative future-city wracked by the political and sexual frustrations of its leading father and son was deemed too bloated and lugubrious for American audiences. Even as the movie became a cult classic, a favorite of postwar critics on both sides of the Atlantic, and ultimately a revered sci-fi touchstone credited as a chief visual and thematic inspiration for the likes of Star Wars and Blade Runner, the gaps in the story remained filled with intertitle cards, spelling out in plain language how the Thin Man intimidated Josaphat and how worker 11811 squirreled away his sudden fortune. As frustrating as these moments could be, they were always fascinating. They offered a glimpse into the sheer scope and ambition of the project at hand, a work so monumental that even such plunging disruptions fail to dilute the film's power and grace. The gaps were also, of course, a little sad, a reminder of the inevitable compromised artifice of even such a monolithic creation, and of how long the (perceived) brainlessness of American film audiences has been perversely used as an argument to make movies brainlessly.

So in between my quakes of fanboy-delight at the new material, I took no small pleasure in seeing the Theatre's biggest viewing room fill up fast, and hearing excitement flow around the room in a dozen languages. It's the best corrective for the kind of grievous mistakes made in the handling of Metropolis: given time to take root, even on reduced terms, the film built a legacy, and an audience, strong enough to support a prodigal return.

But "restored," because no vision of the future can completely keep off the past's bite: the original, gorgeous 35-mm prints, already subject to decades of dust and careless scratching, suffered extensive damage in their translation to modern 16mm format after their discovery and release from a private Argentinian collection. There are still some scenes that had to be swapped out for intertitles; we will still only be told, not shown, how the monk first showed Freder his vision of the Apocalypse. The new scenes don't even try to disguise themselves--they are scratchy and well worn, standing out from the sharp, bright cinematography of the Paramount version. Yet, this obvious mortality fits--these "new" scenes are, in a sense, older than the rest of the familiar film, not having the benefit of years of adoration and influence to cushion age. Viscerally, they feel almost like memories when set against the still-intoxicating futurism of the Paramount scenes. Even while being floored by the rigid, sterile beauty of the opening montage or the Biblical fury of the Machine-Maria's revolt, watching the colors flicker and lines run down the screen while Joh Frederson stares at the monument to the mother of his child adds a depth to Lang's dizzying heights.

Indeed, the new scenes serve less to pile on to Lang's Babel than to accent its edges, filling out the subplots involving the Thin Man, Josaphat, and 11811 that always felt like curious add-ons in the Paramount version. Martin Koerber, a German archivist who supervised the restoration, gushed in a New York Times interview about the restored "balance" and the "ages old" themes returned to the movie. All true, but one line of his stood out in particular: "The science-fiction disguise is now very, very thin."

Disguise? What a curious choice! The word implicates Metropolis, one of 20th-century science fiction's ur-texts, in one of the genre's most common developments (or, depending on who you ask, corruptions): adopting sci-fi tropes as a shiny, audience-attracting layer under which one spins out the same old classic texts. Father-son conflicts, redemption of the rich, prince-pauper switches, the Whore of Babylon...of course, these ideas have become worn clichés for a reason, and Metropolis employs them skillfully and passionately. Koerber's words, however, point to a different understanding of science fiction as a discrete genre.

I've struggled to define it, and my phrasing is certainly unoriginal, but I'm increasingly satisfied with it: science fiction is that which displays the technology itself as a central aspect of the narrative and/or thematic arc of the work, and in which the tools are not fungible (that is, they cannot easily be reduced to metaphorical stand-ins for older products and ideas). Therefore, demonlover is unquestionably science fiction in its very specific examination of digital detachment in pornography. While Minority Report's surveillance seers implicate general questions of divinity and fate, the plot's third-act twist centers around an exploited hiccup specific to the germane technology. And Avatar, much as I disdain it and much as its central technology often comes perilously close to merely representing wish-fulfillment for the crippled protagonist, is still tech-fronted science fiction (its boundary-pushing genesis helps the case).

Whereas Star Wars, the "space opera," would not then be science fiction, in spite of all its technical trickery--unsurprising, given the decidedly mystical nature of the Jedi, who resemble samurai more than spacemen. This definition of science fiction wouldn't serve to necessarily discriminate in terms of quality, but merely to interrogate the various uses of "science fiction:" as a marketing tool, as a revitalization of old-but-strong ideas, or as an artistic method of coming to terms with the technology itself.

Metropolis is certainly both of the last two, and in its restored version, it's taken on the first dimension as well. As such, I can only partially agree with Koerber's vision of science fiction as a Trojan horse for Metropolis' ageless perspective. I agree that the classic questions are there, and wrestled with brilliantly. What I disagree with is the notion that the modernist function of the genre, that third goal, is inherently bound to age as poorly as the technology it discusses. If that were the case, Metropolis would be hopelessly irrelevant, and this restoration a revealingly pathetic indulgence.

It's not. There was a lot of laughter in that Coolidge Corner viewing room, and I happily joined it. The rigid, quick motion common to many silent films takes on a particularly humorous position amidst the flawless machinery at work in Metropolis, and while I maintain that Machine-Maria's violently spastic winking and arm-jerking compose some of the most genuinely frightening moments in cinematic history, they're still pretty funny. Yet all the giggles at Rotwang's mad-scientist histrionics died away the moment he switched on his new "Machine-Man." It rose, and moved, its hips swaying back and forth in perfect time as it steadily walked toward the camera. All the arm-flailing and unabashed mugging put on display by the film's human actors is gone, replaced by a perfectly even motion as disturbingly sensual as it is numbing and terrifying. Such are the movements of Metropolis: fantasy and clarity, perfect vision and marred product, eternal and eternally of its time.

See, It's a Red Shirt! Because...Ha Ha!

Might-As-Well-Be Direct Quotes from Star Trek (2009)

Opening Voiceover: "Hey, look! It's Kirk's parents! Hey, look! It's young Kirk! See, we thought "Sabotage" would really demonstrate how--hey, look, young Spock! See, he's sad because--uh, hey, look! Older Kirk! And he's going to the Space Acad--oh. Hey, look, he's been there three years! Time travel, am I right?"

Captain Pike: "Kirk, you're an insolent, self-satisfied brat with daddy issues, and you're on academic probation! Oh, wait, you're Kirk? Well, then you must be second-in-command! And remember, all you have to do to become Captain is make Spock upset. 'Cause, you know, you're never impulsively emotional or anything. Kay, I'm off to be tortured!"

Greek Chorus: "Oh, man! Six billion Vulcans just died! Geez! Spock must be...upset! He is, right? Yeah, OK. He totally is. So what's Kirk up to?...oh, wait, EARTH is next?! But that's where the audience lives! Batten the hatches!"

J.J. Abrams, Caught on Tape: "See, now Spock has to choose between races! It's an agonizing moment, filled with all sorts of compelling questions about--oh, wait, one of those races is human? Well, that was easy! Now, I'm thinking Michael Richards to play Kahn in the sequel..."

Audience: "Ha ha, Scotty has a broccoli-Ewok!"

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A Stuntman's Resurrection

To open, appropriately enough, with a car metaphor: Kill Bill’s looking worse and worse in the rearview mirror. It's a sadly classic case of a ridiculously talented filmmaker believing his own hype, forgetting to temper ambition with restraint, and indulging his weaknesses (shoddy lighting, incoherent pacing, an overreliance on detached framing) while abandoning his strengths (self-deprecating humor, attention to visual detail, dialogue so palpable it becomes the dominant aesthetic). I hate to judge a film by its audience, but I think it’s acceptable in the case of an artist whose work is so synonymous with his personality and a film that so blatantly panders to a core fanbase. That core, unfortunately, is largely composed of the sweaty-palmed fanboys who dismissed Jackie Brown as “boring.”

Of course, Quentin Tarantino will always be king of the fanboys. Yet his still-stellar 90s output found him transcending mere geekery and creating a body of work that manages to (thrillingly) reference dozens of disparate strands of film history while still feeling unique, vibrant, and alive. Taken together, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown are an undeniable argument for fandom as art.

Kill Bill, unfortunately, set that argument back at the moment when QT most needed to prove himself relevant. It was a newly digital era in which his trope-tropes had themselves been wholly absorbed into both blockbuster and “independent” filmmaking—and those quotes are largely his doing. Kill Bill should have been his true blasting-off point, the crossover from (excellently) zeitgeist-bating whiz kid to millennium-guiding cinematic philosopher. Instead, it was somehow both spastic and bloated, failing along lines I never would have associated with Tarantino: the film(s) was ungraceful, unintelligent, and deeply cynical about its styles, subjects, and audience.

Thankfully, “millennium-guiding cinematic philosophy” pretty much exactly describes the furious heights QT re-attained with Inglourious Basterds, an interrogation (both in form and content) of ideological relations to film that is increasingly looking like his finest work yet. Perhaps Tarantino’s best habit, however, is alternating his Babel-sized Projects with his smaller-scale genre pics. Thus Reservoir Dogs, while in many ways a stylistic warm-up for Pulp Fiction, is aging better than its mammoth successor, and Jackie Brown’s interpolation of rich characterization and warm conversation into its heist and blaxploitation riffs mark it as his most human (and perhaps humanist) film to date. Toxic and wearying, Kill Bill exposed Tarantino’s need for a tonic corrective. The Grindhouse project offered the perfect opportunity: working alongside gleeful hack Robert Rodriguez, QT could rediscover his passion in appropriately casual, junky surroundings.

Of course, as one reviewer astutely pointed out, “it’s not in his nature to make a deliberately inept movie,” and Death Proof is far more than a career-correcting throwaway. Indeed, it’s easily his most explicit genre flick to date, reveling in its slasher, softcore, rape-revenge, and, yeah, grindhouse trappings with all the lushness and palpable glee so sorely absent in Kill Bill. While that too-epic saga found Tarantino pulled in dozens of directions at once, a focused genre study re-engaged his creative instincts: “I realized I couldn't do a straight slasher film…there is no other genre quite as rigid. And if you break that up, you aren't really doing it anymore. It's inorganic, so I realized—let me take the structure of a slasher film and just do what I do. My version is going to be fucked up and disjointed, but it seemingly uses the structure of a slasher film, hopefully against you.”

It’s a winking elevation of sex-driven pulp to gleeful classic status, via encyclopedic cinephilia and expert technical filmmaking. So, yeah, Brian de Palma’s shadow is unavoidable, though it doesn’t hang as heavily as it did over Kill Bill, in which the dirty old master (along with Ford, Leone, any kung fu film you can think of, and Pulp Fiction itself) was awkwardly tossed in rather than properly blended. In Death Proof, de Palma’s signature tics are given new life. While the initial killing spree and relentless titillation certainly made me a little queasy the first time around, Tarantino’s sincere character investment and half-exposing, half-stalking camerawork push the film into that ambiguous sweet spot between knowing exploitation and subversive feminism that de Palma defined so well in Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Femme Fatale. Of course, none of de Palma’s leading ladies ever got to say “I’m OK!” quite as delightfully as self-playing Zoë Bell does here. It’s the restoration of the script-as-aesthetic that truly marks Tarantino’s distinctive comeback, above and ahead of his forerunners. Examine such gems as: “You know what happens to motherfuckers who carry knives? They get shot!” It’s simultaneously a parallel moment to Budd’s double-barreled assault on the Bride (only far more succinct, effective, and delightful) and a welcome nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s also a hell of a line, superbly written and flawlessly delivered. Maximum impact, but light on its feet and histrionic-free: vintage Tarantino.

I once made the (in hindsight) obvious mistake of telling a bunch of nervously non-queer guys that the central appeal of Kill Bill’s Bride was her combination of the traditional action hero’s primal sexual tugs: I didn’t know whether I wanted to fuck her or be her. Naturally, they howled at the latter and for the former. I wonder if they squirmed in their seats at Death Proof’s bloody climax, at which point Tarantino’s genre-play flips from elevation to outright reversal. Lord knows what Stuntman Mike would try to do to the Bride, and his last call is nowhere near as clean as Bill’s final ride into the sunset. How many stale Jodie Foster, et al vehicles try and fail to convey that primal, righteous rage, let alone doing it in combination with such artful construction and knowing humor and grace?

Though many of Inglourious Basterds’ most ardent followers seem distressingly unaware of its red-herring brilliance (Brad Pitt’s tangential at best, and it’s in no sense a war film), I’m happy to see it canonized alongside Pulp Fiction as his second unassailable career peak. Still, the temptation to pat Death Proof on the head should be resisted. Perhaps Kill Bill’s greatest disappointment was that it didn’t even feel like Tarantino-for-hire. Instead, it felt like imitation Tarantino, the warmed-over, poorly thought out trash that invaded multiplexes in Fiction’s wake. Death Proof is Tarantino’s resurrection: as a consummate craftsman, a vibrant personality, and an utterly essential contributor to the medium and culture he loves.