Friday, May 20, 2011

Always Weird America

A recent reviewing of the still-execrable American Beauty with my wonderful friend María left me considering that well-worn standby of American "independent" cinema, the suburban excavation piece. I say "independent" because the rise of Indiewood, the transformation of independent filmmaking into a farm system underwritten by the studios, has gone hand in hand with a resurgence of this type of film. (Play with cause and effect as you will.) L.I.E., Happiness, Far From Heaven, Donnie Darko—all delight in what I once drunkenly called "picket-fence exploitation," using suburbia's visual framework as an ironic underpinning to stories of abuse, repression, and stunted growth. To my eyes, this kind of movie is successful to the degree it acknowledges the role fantasy and self-conscious artifice play in its construction. Including the occasional giant rabbit allows these movies to stretch out aesthetically (beyond the tired "Look, it's so pretty! But, y'know, it's actually not" binary) and positions them as subjective works, accesses to headspaces in transition, rather than faux-objectivist condemnations from above. (Thus, Far From Heaven is a masterful snapshot of feminist and queer identity theories as lived in daily life, its gorgeousness both cutting and genuine, whereas Happiness is just one long exercise in rote button-pushing, conducted from the sneering remote plane where Todd Solondz lives.)

Great and terrible, these films were manna to those audiences and critics raised in suburbia and inordinately proud of having “gotten out,” who also tend to be the type bankrolling Indiewood’s commercial ascendance over the last two decades. I’m not attempting to recoup suburbia as a serene paradise, and those contemporary indie-kid hits (Garden State, Little Children, Juno) that take a relatively genteel view, complete with happy ending, are uniformly awful. American suburbia has its remarkable and regressive features, just like the rest of the world; it’s also more diverse a space than is usually represented on screen, and the best way of getting at it may indeed be pursuing this sort of third-person subjectivity. Some of my happiest times growing up just outside Buffalo were spent wandering alone or in small groups at night, claiming banal places not to “subvert” them, but to appreciate them as already ideologically malleable. Why tear down strawmen from afar when you can plunge in headfirst?

That David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, released in 1986 and saturated in the ‘50s, is still widely (and rightly) considered one of the masterpieces of American cinema, while thirteen, released and set in 2003, has already been largely (and wisely) forgotten, should be indication enough that Lynch had more than mere provocation on his mind. Yet Blue Velvet is still generally discussed as the ne plus ultra of suburban deconstructions, a creepy-ass shot to the heart of Reagan’s rose-tinted America. It’s worth pointing out that Lynch himself was actually a Reagan supporter, but more importantly, the film itself doesn’t seem to me the penetrating social commentary it’s made out to be. Instead, it’s a feverish aestheticization of one almost-adult coming to terms with the ineffable, the inexplicable, and the insane; less an exposure of truth than an acknowledgment of truth’s limits in the face of mystery. The journey is visualized, not as the famous descent into the insect-filled grass, but as the stunningly shot journey through the ear canal—which leads not to the collective hive, but the individual mind. “It’s a strange world” comes early on in the proceedings, but it’s the only conclusion Lynch dares draw from this mad crooked tale of hazy days and endless nights.

Which should hardly come as a surprise, given that conclusions aren’t exactly Lynch’s game. Societal examinations always hover at the margins of his rabbit-hole meditations (the aura of apocalypse in Eraserhead, the “poisonous valentine to Hollywood” unfolding in both Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire), but his cinema is a proudly subjective one, getting at larger issues only as glimpsed by his characters. We Lynchians throw around the “dream” label constantly, yet we rarely investigate what that conceit might mean in context. As near as I can define it: Lynch is less concerned with life’s corruptions and lies than he is with the escape hatches we use to both get away from and hopefully survive this strange world. Like Laura Dern in Inland Empire, and unlike Jack Nancy in Eraserhead and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, Kyle McLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont makes it out of Blue Velvet with his skin and soul intact, and his inner methods of doing so are the movie’s focus, more than the literal events he copes with. The movie’s signature image is Jeffrey peering out from a stranger’s closet, unwilling (not unable) to tear himself away. As has been much noted, we don’t actually see the moment when the psychotic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) strikes poor Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). Instead, Lynch shows us Jeffrey flinching away, and then looking back for more. Again, though, our boy isn’t condemned for his Scooby-Doo curiosity; Blue Velvet practically hums with a warm, sympathetic empathy for its protagonist, sharing in his excitement and observing his tearful mistakes with wretched pity. What separates this film from the rest of Lynch’s oeuvre isn’t any strident political intent, but that Jeffrey serves as a viable director’s surrogate: McLachlan unabashedly (and actually quite sexily) embodies a cornball archetype, while moving with increasing familiarity and even confidence in a darker realm. Obviously, there are limits to what biography can tell, but I still find this quote from the director revealing:

"Kyle is dressed like me. My father was a research scientist for the Department of Agriculture in Washington. We were in the woods all the time. I'd sorta had enough of the woods by the time I left, but still, lumber and lumberjacks, all this kinda thing, that's America to me, like the picket fences and the roses in the opening shot. It's so burned in, that image, and it makes me feel so happy."

It seems important to me that Jeffrey is a college student visiting home, rather than an independent adult or in high school with Laura Dern’s Sandy. McLachlan perfectly portrays a psyche in transition, equally at home drinking a Heineken and doing the chicken-walk, caught between blowjobs at knifepoint and “you’re a neat girl, Sandy.” These divisions have less to do with the Freudian concepts often mapped onto Blue Velvet than with Lynch’s honest assessment of what it’s like to re-examine one’s old haunts while on the cusp of adulthood. When Jeffrey exclaims excitedly, “I’m seeing something that was always hidden,” he’s not talking about willful collective blindness so much as the bygone ignorance of his childhood. The traditional anti-Everyman screed of suburban excavation is turned on its head: yes, every town is like Lumberton, with its lunatics and robins, and so the point is not to condemn us for hiding the former, but to ask how it is that we carry on anyway. Poking flat stereotypes until they explode, à la American Beauty, is no less disingenuous than “morning in America,” and is in fact nothing more than the flipside of the same coin. Perhaps it’s precisely because Lynch draws fewer conclusions than the likes of Sam Mendes that the former’s project has so much more emotional range, and for all the director’s supposed derangement, is the far more humanistic picture.

thirteen, by the way, was originally intended as a comedy, and ended up an unintentional comedy. Blue Velvet, by contrast, remains the clearest example of Lynch’s greatest artistic strength: cobbling together disparate elements of horror, comedy, and melodrama without ever falling back on irony as glue. This is worth emphasizing. On the cusp of the sardonic, quotes-laden breakthroughs of Tarantino and Kevin Smith (/preaching), it’s astonishing how thoroughly un-ironic Lynch’s approach is here. Hopper’s deranged (and hilarious) rants are no more real than McLachlan and Dern’s painfully sweet slow dance. No one is ever held up purely for mockery. This dedicated humanism is perhaps best expressed in Blue Velvet’s visual palette, another surprisingly under-discussed feature, especially given that the Lynch conversation so often centers on imagery. American Beauty and its bastard cousins employ superficially beautiful sets, color, and cinematography as so many props to expose the rot underneath, treating the medium’s potential for beauty as nothing but cheap contrast. Blue Velvet is unrepentantly gorgeous, but uses soft colors (pale blues, greens, and browns) to emphasize the general dreamy mood of the town’s residents and the controlled slowness with which they move. Lynch’s signature is never the mirror, with its rigid divisions, but the shadow, in which definitions melt and blur. Jeffrey and Sandy first meet on a sidewalk at night, telling awkward jokes and discussing the infamous severed ear in hushed tones. Lynch blankets them in darkness, but a warm, open kind, with much of the neighborhood still visible; a distinctly summer dark, one I remember well.

I left Buffalo for Oberlin College, and this is among the scraps of wisdom I’ve learned both from being at school and from coming back home: the whole surface=fake and hidden=truth thing is mostly bullshit. Not that working from those equations can’t lead artists to some powerful places (Haneke’s Caché gets it right from the title on down), but yeah, it’s a starting point, more relevant in terms of why we hide things than what we may be hiding. If picket-fence exploitation too frequently rests on conclusions that support its own initial premises, that the “good life” is simply bad and that deviance undercuts every attempt at individual happiness, then Blue Velvet, far from being the genre’s standard-bearer, stands as a much-needed corrective. The light and the dark are both simply part of life. “Why are there people like Frank?” is an unanswerable question, and facing that is part of growing up. Realism would seem to stand in opposition to the daffy Lynch project, with its discomfiting imagery, sound-sight dislocation, and wacky archetypes brought to vivid life. Yet Blue Velvet addresses a distinct time in life with such passion, depth, and wry, knowing humor that it cuts deeper into the heart of the real than a thousand Ice Storms, and like no other film I know, it gives the oh-so-dreaded suburbs their proper, human due.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Spirit of Eden

As Cannes finally midwives The Tree of Life, I am reminded again how remarkably whole Terrence Malick’s oeuvre feels, seemingly complete after only a handful of features, yet always ready to welcome a new member to the family. His films, so emotionally accessible yet narratively confounding on first look, reveal upon further viewings a stunning philosophical clarity. It’s all the more astonishing given that this kind of singular reach for the ineffable is generally associated with the medium’s infamous control freaks. Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Scorsese never hid their hand on the till, hewing away at their privately torturous masterpieces before unveiling their monoliths for the apes to dance around. Malick’s cinema, by comparison, always seems to drift in from some hazy birth chamber on its way to somewhere definitively Else, moving horizontally rather than vertically. His faith in images and sound, using cinema’s basic technical properties to convey thought, emotion, personality, and event, makes him a vital figure in total cinema, film as a self-contained art form with its own ineffable language. Yet he never untethers himself from human experience, using his distinct art to sink deeper into subjectivity, even as his movies grow more fragmented in their editing and cinematography and his subjects grow so vast as to appear untamable. Tree of Life was, of course, inevitable from the title on down, but he’s been traveling this road all along.

All of Malick’s features thus far (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World) center on rebirth. An old life is hinted at, only to be swallowed up in some new paradise. As with Claire Denis’s aptly named L’Intrus, the new images “intrude” on receptive minds, reducing them to awed rubble—and Malick is after his audience in this regard as much as his characters. To accuse the director of naïve stargazing, as many have, misses the flipside of these blazing visions: the rot at the core of escapism, manifested in the blur of barely-seen (but blisteringly felt) violence that slices into his movies. Rapture is followed by rupture, and there’s a hint of self-critique in Malick’s work, as if simply by photographing these hidden places, he himself is tracing their doom. On one of my many plunges back into The New World, I put on Talk Talk’s alternately calm and shattering Spirit of Eden: not only an uncannily appropriate soundtrack, but also a fitting alternate title for the film itself.

The Eden story is the guiding myth at the core of all of Malick’s work, as the Gospels are to Scorsese and Peter Pan is to Spielberg. Yet people understand Raging Bull and E.T. almost innately, so primordial is their pull; why do even those who appreciate the intense beauty of Malick’s films so often end up confused by them? (I include myself here—I know I love The Thin Red Line, but I’ve yet to be able to properly explain why.) Part of the problem with “getting” Malick, one of cinema’s definitive acquired tastes, is the question of perspective: to whom do these films belong? Whose story are they telling, really? Again, Malick never insists upon his own artistry in the fashion of so many past and present masters; yet his protagonists are broken vessels, feeling their way through unfamiliar landscapes and dilemmas, rarely showing us more than a gesture or a flicker of the eye. Both authorship and identification (whatever those fluid words end up meaning in context) are stymied by these intimate epics, homesick diary entries that end up containing the universe. (Tree of Life looks to have made this duality literal.) Is Eden ultimately about God, or Adam and Eve? Or something else entirely?

Malick’s twist on the Genesis legacy is his positioning of Eden, not as a beginning, but as a transition. The characters only wish it was a beginning. These are self-created Edens, oases that must inevitably fall. As such, the colonial mythology of Jamestown, John Smith and Pocahontas—the origin fable of the great cracked vessel of modernity, the perilously self-created Eden that is the United States—was a perfect fit. As long as we’re on the national question: another cause of the confusion that greets Malick’s features may be that his politics are subsumed by the imagery, yet undeniably present, humming beneath the surface. Malick’s take on colonialism isn’t a rapacious, condemning hell, but just another sorrowful tale of a false fresh start. Ultimately, Malick’s interpretation of his country’s roots cuts deeper than (if not as savagely as) There Will Be Blood, an equally demanding volcano of a movie that nevertheless keeps its gaze squarely fixed on its fiery scarecrow of a protagonist. The New World moves with impossible grace through the seduced (and seducing) Captain/President/exile John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the submissive (and dominant) Princess/gentlewoman Pocahontas/Rebecca (Q’Orianka Kilcher). As that last clusterfuck of a sentence might indicate, power and identity are too fluid to exert any kind of control over The New World, which may partly explain the mass polite shrug that greeted the film’s release. There is simply no handrail: the movie never stops moving.

Of course, having Christian Bale play a loving, impossibly reserved farmer (probably his best work outside Empire of the Sun) couldn’t have helped the miserable box office returns. But such is Malick’s complex relationship to Hollywood: it’s when he dances close to something like traditional narration that his unique priorities are thrown into stark relief. The casting of bona fide movie stars Farrell and Bale to essentially act with their eyes (while rightly ceding more and more ground to Kilcher, a previously unknown teenager who gives the performance of the decade) is a classic example, as is James Horner’s ecstatic, snapping score that never actually resolves. Malick, however, is always as much micro as macro, and The New World most clearly shows its hand in a single moment, repeated.


Cap’n Smith returns from his revelatory life in the forest to find Jamestown a wrecked hell, dilapidated and gray, its people starving while they dig for nonexistent gold. These rapidly edited shots of desperation and greed may have struck the sort of critic who sneered at Farrell and Kilcher shyly chasing each other through the woods as a more correct presentation of colonial history. Smith tearfully agrees (“It was a dream, now I am awake”), but Malick doesn’t, and shoots and edits his interpretation accordingly.

The overarching concept of The New World—that of civilizations in contact, in ways both loving and violent—is a familiar one, and in most versions, the political tumult that awaits Smith in Jamestown takes center stage. Think of the royal houses jockeying for position in Dune, or more recently, the gone-native bro taking on the corporate military in Avatar. White dudes struggle over the fate of the Other and the frontier world itself. Obviously, this focus oversimplifies and detracts from other voices—while humankind’s instincts towards peace and war are the subject of much agonized debate in Avatar, the native Nav’i shift from “Every death is a tragedy” to “Blow the fuck out of those gunships” with nary a moment’s reflection on their part or the film’s. More broadly speaking, however, granting these power plays control over fate reduces narration to a breathless blow-by-blow, with no opportunity for reflection on context: what’s happening outside the frame?

I can only imagine audiences ready for bloody, self-important catharsis after 45 minutes of montages of trees must’ve been permanently put off the film by the tone Malick takes toward the struggle for control in Jamestown, which approaches outright mockery. And why shouldn’t it be, given what an unsustainable wreck the town has become? What are they fighting for? I recall the reason my father gave for leaving academia: “Everyone was so petty, yet the stakes were so low,” an apt caption for The New World’s middle hour. Smith is threatened with execution for treason by a local blowhard, who is immediately shot by another. The dull-eyed men clumsily elect Smith as their new leader. All of this is conveyed in wide, slow, circular takes, eschewing the close-ups and low-angle shots traditionally used to grant dramatic urgency or individual primacy to this type of confrontation. The men speak over each other, reducing monologues to a dull, discontented murmur. The period clothing, forefronted in a film like Marie Antoinette, is shown up as so much pompous pageantry, meaning little and less against the emphasized backdrop of devastated Jamestown. (In this regard, Malick is working in a similar milieu to Kubrick, specifically Barry Lyndon.) In all this motion, there’s no pretension of justice being done—Malick’s Steadicam swings symmetrically from the gun that shot down the blowhard to Smith’s sword pointed at the killer’s throat. I could find names for these men, as they have historical equivalents, but as you can guess by this point, it doesn’t much matter. Malick’s focus is clearly elsewhere.

President Smith is put to work disciplining men who stabbed one another over a disagreement on the date, but he doesn’t hold the tenuous office for long. The asshole that shot the blowhard to save Smith’s life tears Smith down in turn. The mob that elected the Captain turns on him. We catch a glimpse of Farrell (on the right) borne down by the weight of his people as his replacement cackles, “You’re no longer in command, Smithy!”

A couple more images flit by. And then again, accompanied by a new shot:

“You’re no longer in command, Smithy!”

The New World is edited like no other blockbuster. Malick is famous for assembling his films in the editing booth (the 95-minute Days of Heaven spent two painstaking years there) and for both discarding dialogue scenes and instructing actors to silently act out sections of the script, an order that Farrell especially seems to have taken to with a will. The New World approaches history like a time-lapse photograph, addressing the massive changes in places and people from some stable (though not removed) vantage point. Sequences like the one above, though utterly antithetical to the familiar expository arc exemplified (superbly) by the Lord of the Rings adaptations, are commonplace in The New World. Again and again, shots convey glimpses of place and event, edited together to give a rushing sense of time stretched and then collapsed, as if the sheer beauty of the images within has seduced the very fabric of the film.

Appropriately, then, the crushing ugliness of Jamestown is instead conveyed through the expansive long takes such as the one that sweeps Smith to power. The sequence above is a break in the pattern, and calls attention to itself as such.

A reluctant leader brought down by the desperate mob while his rival cackles and gives him a pet name: a shot that wouldn’t feel too out of place in Disney’s take on this legend. Yet by repeating this atypical moment, Malick exposes not only its stupidity, but also its smallness. What might’ve been the big string-sweeping introduction to the explosive third act in another movie is here plucked out of the stream of images and given a wry shake of the head. It’s not an inciting peak, it’s a moment like any other in the vast body plan of history, swept back up as soon as it’s exposed. A tree in a forest. This is a transcendence-minded appropriation of Soviet montage cinema, treating even the breaking points as simply elements of an irreducible whole. The New World is all breaking points, but none of them can claim independent agency, and so the film never ages. I always remember the beauty, but relatively few of the thousands of images, and so it feels new each time.

Whose viewpoint are we being given access to in this sequence? Perhaps the same question: if not any of the principal humans (including Malick), who’s really in charge of The New World? Kilcher, Farrell, and Bale all get meditative voiceovers, but nature itself is the narrator here. The green world is alive and overflowing in every frame, dominating (as in Days of Heaven) the film’s groundbreaking soundscapes, present even in loud, urban London—witness the indelible sequence in which Opechancanough (Wes Studi), having made the cross-Atlantic journey “to see this God they speak so much about,” marvels at a topiary garden. But again, The New World never ascends to Olympian heights on us, as the film’s long tracking shots regard humans with a mixture of adoring bemusement and horrified sympathy. The film begins with Kilcher offering a prayer to the entity she calls Mother, and the natural world as represented here looks upon us as wayward children—European and Native American as combative siblings, capable of both piercing insight and terrible error, both elements of growing up. That repeated moment could be an embarrassing snapshot in a photo album, returned to with fondness when the kids have grown up and left Eden. Weren’t we silly, thinking our little struggles meant so much? But that doesn’t make us stupid, it just makes us us.

In the film’s radical, cut-and-paste refraction of the big-budget Hollywood epic, Malick argues that history itself breaks down at these flashpoints—the meeting of civilizations leaves humans (and their movies) literally without language, and we have to begin anew. The New World is historically inaccurate in the same way that Guernica is spatially inaccurate, and Malick’s masterpiece is worthy of mention alongside Picasso’s. The film doesn’t elide or distort history, it reflects upon and transcends it, less concerned with nailing down what was and more curious about what it meant and means. It’s the cinematic proof of Thoreau’s world-preserving wildness, Whitman’s hopeful green stuff, and Carlin’s big electron. As the latter might say: just shut up for a second and listen to the fucker hum.