Sunday, January 31, 2016

January Reads Part Two

Lust by Elfriede Jelinek
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis
All Clear by Connie Willis
Passing by Nella Larsen

After cogitating on it for a while, I've come to the conclusion that Jelinek's The Piano Teacher was the best book I read in 2015. I thought it appropriate then to read one of few other novels translated into English. Lust has similar style, similar subject matter, and similar situations as that other novel, but a completely different attitude. Where The Piano Teacher was angry, furious, livid, righteously so, Lust is amused, condescending, smug, and jocular. Jelinek's narrator (who may or may not be Jelinek herself) addresses the reader frequently, but using "you" in the plural sense, as if there are multiple readers. Lust features a similar plot, but brilliantly executed in its simplicity: the bourgeoisie manager of a paper mill treats his wife like he treats employees, ie a resource to be exploited, in this case sexually; his wife puts up with all of this without eroticism in her life until she meets a young man with political aspirations who uses and abuses her.

Again, Jelinek's ire is directed not at individuals but rather at structures of oppression that work concomitantly: Austria's geopolitical position, patriarchy, capitalism, etc. Her characters aren't so much characters but pawns to be crushed under the heel of the power she wishes to reveal (which I spoke of here). Jelinek isn't just haranguing the reader though; her sense of humour is absolutely wicked. As with the previous Jelinek I read, Lust is interminably funny. I kept putting stickies in my paperback so I could read them aloud to my partner, such as when the narrator refers to the wife's breasts as "meatballs."

Lust wasn't quite as good as The Piano Teacher as I suppose I was prepared for it and the shock of the new is always delightful. Rest assured, I plan to continue reading all of Jelinek's stuff.

A thought occurred to me during my read of Lust. Is it possible that Jelinek is the literary Austrian equivalent to a rapper? Most of the prose in Lust and in The Piano Teacher has this hypnotic rhythmic beat, with internal rhymes and clever puns. She finds interesting and counter-intuitive ways of saying simple things and repeats the subject in different phrasings. I'll have to think more on this.

Continuing with my reading of the Harry Potter series, Chamber of Secrets is a quantum leap in terms of plotting. With the first novel, I complained that the characters seem to bounce from incident to incident, with little connective tissue. This second book replicates the structure of the first, including the central mystery and the Gang looking for clues, but this go-around, Rowling has thought to push the pawns across the board with more meaning. For example, an attempt to extract information from Malfoy by impersonating his goons leads the gang to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom, where Tom Riddle's diary lays.

The book is much better than the film, I thought, considering Rowling has more time to develop the characters. Her ability to juggle so many characters and still provide them with characterization is astounding. Even Dobby the house elf gets a bit more motivation and interiority than in the film. It helps that I don't have to see any terrible CGI to visualize Dobby.

I thought the climax of Chamber of Secrets was only slightly better than the first book though. It tries far too hard to replicate the same beats, including the character who turns out to be the villain and then laboriously explains everything for Harry. At this point in the series, if a character appears evil, one has a good chance of guessing that the character is actually good. Sirius Black, in the third story, will prove to be the quintessential example of this trope.

One thing Chamber of Secrets does well is introduce further the class dynamics of this world. Instead of the "poor orphan gets riches," the second book deepens the class hierarchies. For example, we're introduced to the wizard bourgeoisie in the form of Gilderoy Lockhart and Longbottom's family. Class and wizarding ability appear to be intricately related. Consider that Filch, the custodian, is a "squib" ie a non-magical person born to a magic family. Whereas Hermione's Muggle parents are both sturdily middle class dentists. It's all very fascinating and I'm pleased that Rowling resists the easy binary of "poor=golden heart, rich=evil" vis-a-vis Weasley versus Malfoy.

All the Birds in the Sky was an advanced reading copy from the publisher (bookstores have their perks) and I'm grateful for that. The novel is an interesting beast, to say the least. I'm not even quite sure if I liked it or not. Certainly I managed to finish it and I enjoyed the finale (an apocalypse similar to the one depicted in Alan Moore's Promethea). However, it's not a great novel, despite the author's prodigious talents and impressive resume. The problem, which I'm not even sure is singular or plural, is difficult to articulate, but I'll try my best (it's unusual that I have such troubling identifying problems).

All the Birds in the Sky is an attempt to meld pulp conventions such as the magical academy and the wunderkind builds a great work with an overarching romance to tie it all together. The first part focuses on the two protagonists as children, so the scenes of magic have a fable-like quality to the prose. Imagine George Saunders or Neil Gaiman, but with an even more arch tone. Throughout the first section, there's a slickness to the prose, as if it's been carefully sanded down again and again, so that nothing genuine comes through. The two leads are never realistic in the slightest, which is not necessarily a negative. However, there is little else that might support the novel aesthetically. Anders' prose is workmanlike and there's little attempt to fill in the world with either physical details or with anything interesting, really. Still in the first part, there's a lot of whiz-bang "cool" ideas mentioned that are supposed to represent worldbuilding (this is a world in which a two-second time machine is not only possible but quotidian) but they're introduced with all the breathless wonder of an amateur.

The novel sort of picks up in the second part, with the kids now adults and separate, but quickly lost my interest as the prose never gets any better than this slick emptiness. The characters' beliefs and principles seem to change on a dime, which again, would be fine, if the novel wasn't so focused on exploring conflicting belief systems. If the characters' beliefs can change so easily, why then should I be bothered to care about their differences in opinion? And just as quickly as the second part picks up, it immediately grinds to a halt with the two characters circling each other, with no forward momentum.

I complain here, but I still enjoyed the book. It's just... there's something wrong here and I'm not sure if it's the slickness of the prose, the flatness of the characters, the uneven and imperfect mash-up of genres, the overly arch tone that threatens to veer the book into parody, the facile emotions.

What does work is the weirdness of everything. Future tech and magic introduced (later) in the novel have imagination and flair. There's a magic man who can't go outside without all flora getting mad at him so he turns into a walking plant every time he steps outside. There's also some fun science stuff about how anti-grav might possibly work. Also, the final third of the book is just weird for the sake of it, which I liked, such as the scientists coming together to build a giant mech that will destroy everything to save everything.

The novel is too much like a fable for my liking, including the trickster magic that forces a character to sacrifice something important at just the right time. It's also too much of a quest narrative, including having a protagonist mention it. I'm kind of sick of cynical irony in this form, to be honest. It's like having Gaiman and Joss Whedon shoved down my throat.

I read Blackout last year but only got around to finishing Willis's All Clear late this week. I read the entire second half of that 600 page monster in one day, just so I could be finished with it. While, I appreciate the wide canvas that Willis is working with, which allows her to do some clever stuff with the timeline, 1,000 pages for this story is just too fucking much. There's a perfect 600 page novel suffocating underneath all the bloat in this.

The issue is that there is far too much back and forth. I gather that it's thematically apropos as the confusion and chaos of the Blitz is hard to convey without also confusing the audience. However, it's a bit of a chore when the characters are constantly going back and forth in their thoughts and in their physical locations. "Did this happen? Did that happen? Will this happen? Should I do this? Should I do that?" and on and on ad infinitum. It's tedious.

I mentioned when I reviewed Blackout that I was annoyed by how ignorant these time travellers seem to be about time travel. This problem is exacerbated in the second volume. Over and over, what should be painfully fucking obvious to professional time travellers is explained laboriously to each lead by the other protagonists. Even the proposed solution to the reason why they were stranded is confused and ignorant of time travel, it feels. I kept wondering, if these people are so dumb about time travel, why would Oxford send them to dangerous locales? Why wouldn't they be taught basics of non-linear thinking to avoid the major problems they face?

While the above certainly put a sour taste in my mouth, the last 300 pages of the second volume are excellent. Once all the bullshit has been swept away and Willis unleashes with pure forward momentum, the novel is unstoppable. Her clever non-linear plotting quickly comes into focus, revealing masterful command of the twisting and turning of time travel stories. Time travel stories almost always involves reverse Chekhov's guns: something is introduced without making it clear how it fits into the timeline and then fired in the climax, completing a causality loop; in other words, we're introduced to the effect, then given the cause in the endgame. While Willis doesn't reinvent the wheel here (she surely mobilizes the same tricks as every other time travel writer), she does make it enjoyable and clever. The timeline is not so complicated that the layperson couldn't keep track, but it is gnarled enough to be tricky.

On the whole, I'm glad I read this. I'm certainly going to read more of her stuff. With a long break before I start, though.

Ecology of Fear was something I started last year and finished this week as well. I picked it up based on the premise that Davis would examine cultural objects and their lurid fascination with the destruction of Los Angeles. However, Davis's scope is much wider than that. Like the good Marxist historian that he is, he considers the matrix of economic factors that have, indeed, increased the rate of natural disasters in the state of California.

The first half of his book looks at various types of natural disasters and how the state has reacted or not reacted. For example, his strongest argument comes during his chapter on wildfires. The biosphere of California means that wildfires are not only plentiful but necessary for the survival of the ecosystem. Fires allow for a "cleansing" of the putrefying, dead, rotting biological material, permitting and stimulating new growth. However, as rich white people move further and further away from the urban centrality, their manicured and artificially produced lawns threaten to undermine the careful balance of nature. Davis truly makes his argument inescapable in its conclusion when he demonstrates that these rich white people by dint of their social status and inextricable position in politics force the state to provide welfare and relief when natural wildfires destroy their homes. In other words, Davis observes that the state subsidizes the construction of rich mansions in Malibu etc while simultaneously ignoring the plight of poor Latino/black/white populations in urban locales also affected by fire.

This is a microcosm of his entire book, really. Davis rails against the technologies of power that maintain the status quo while also railing against the psychology that allows for this to happen. He cites countless historical documents and contemporary sources to demonstrate that fear-mongering and sleight-of-hand tricks are powerful tools deployed by the rich to perpetuate their economic and social position.

Where the book actually stumbles is what I had hoped it was about. Davis believes he has consumed every single cultural object that has destroyed California and he summarizes, with a snarky and jaunty tone, the more memorable or out-there examples. He makes a series of conclusions that are self-evident based on the material, such as apocalypse stories are often rooted in white fears of other races. None of this is particularly new or shocking, really and I wished Davis had used a bit more analysis and less "would you look at these rubes?" tone. Perhaps a co-writer with an academic background in literature could have helped strengthen his analysis.

However, it picks up again in the third and final section. Here, Davis uses urban studies methodology and looks at more human-focused problems (than killer bees). For example, he writes of the disciplinary technologies that disproportionately penalize people of colour simply for existing. There exists "gun-free zones" which have stricter penalties for possession of firearms than in non-"gun-free zones" but these zones are placed within typically poor Latino/black areas of the city.

I loved Ecology of Fear as it attacked an important topic I'm already interested from an angle that I have little background in. I will definitely seek out his other books on Los Angeles.

Passing was something I recommended to my partner for their literature class on giving voice to the previously voiceless. I own a Penguin of this, but had never read it, despite its alluring brevity and subject matter. I think it took me an hour, but it was a completely pleasant and entertaining hour. Larsen's novel isn't simply interested in the ideologies of passing (as a white person) but also in the complex optics that result from the behaviour.

The strongest thematic meat of the novel comes from the woman who passes acknowledging that because of this decision, she paradoxically has less freedom than a black person out as black. While Irene, the protagonist, the black woman who does not pass purposefully (save for convenience's sake, such as going to a restaurant) has doors closed to her because of her skin, she is never in danger of being found out or exposed. Clare, the black woman that is passing, breaks off from her history, isolating herself among white people, some of whom are virulently racist (her husband's pet name for her is "Nig" because she "tans" easily).

The tying off of history is beautifully symbolized when Irene drops a teacup. This is a great example of a symbol doing great labour without calling attention to itself as a metaphor. She drops a teacup, shattering it, and she remarks that it's from before the Civil War, a relic that she had been wondering how to get rid of without fuss. The teacup symbolizes Irene's family's link to racist structures, a link that should be severed. Whereas Clare cuts off her history to her own people, her own community, just for the idle pleasures of bourgeois existence. 

While the thematics are wonderfully deep, the prose is also quite beautiful. Larsen's position within the Harlem Renaissance probably meant she spent a lot of time with some of the premier poets and novelists of the era, taking her already considerable talents and pushing them to greatness. Passing was a definite treat and I'll definitely read more of her work.

-------

A summation of the month, then: 10 books read, only three of them straight white dudes. Only two authors of colour. So far, quite excellent reads, only a couple that were only ok or worse.

Victoria


Last year, I heard tell of a heist movie filmed in one take. Upon immediately hearing this pitch, the exercise in question rocketed to the top of my anticipated films list. I had been previously quite a fan of the superheroic long takes, buoyed by the audacity and skill required to pull them off. The famous ones, Scorsese's Goodfellas, Anderson's Boogie Nights, Altman's The Player, all rattled in my skull, never escaping my admiration. How could a one take heist film go wrong, I wondered?

I write this two days after finally seeing Victoria. I write this after suffering through the film, enduring its banality and tedium. I write this a day after having a moderately heated debate with a friend, a cinephile, who quite liked the film. I write this trying to work out my complicated feelings about this valiant and daring film.

First, a word of appreciation and awe for the cinematographer and camera man, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who lugged the camera for over two hours without a single break. He kept up with the action, with nary a misstep, which in of itself, something to be lauded. Even with the possibility of anything and everything going wrong, Grøvlen and director Sebastian Schipper manage to maintain a slightly above average quality of cinematography. The film looks good enough for what it is.

Yet, this compliment is loaded with my inevitable criticism. The single take, while an impressive technical feat, is almost the sum total of the film. Without the gimmick of the single take, this movie would languish in obscurity, another Eurocrime thriller biting the buzz that Run, Lola, Run generated all those years ago.

And it is a gimmick, no matter how the director and the marketing argue otherwise. If the director's intentions were to have form meet content, then his reach did not exceed his grasp. Ideally, the film's single take gimmick is meant to evoke the unblinking length of time that Victoria goes on, a single sleepless night that ends in disaster. The lack of cuts is meant to mimic real time, the descent from the beginning's order into chaos, without ever taking a break. Some might argue, then, that the film succeeds. One of my friends has described the film as "hypnotic" in that they were mesmerized by the chain of poor decisions made by the cast, leading to catastrophe. Obviously, I disagree, and in order to demonstrate why, I must do the unpalatable: defend Iñárritu's Birdman.

My relationship with Iñárritu is fraught, at the best of times. Early in 2015, I wrote about my complex feelings about Birdman. Allow me to sum up my conclusion by quoting a relevant sentence or three:
If only Baudrillard had seen Birdman, he could have written about the monotony and sameness of the film, thanks to the long-take, the single continuous flow. All this postmodern theorizing makes it sound like I hated the film; I didn't. I just felt this immense apathy for it, an holistic apathy that transcended any affect on the spectrum of like or dislike.
What didn't work in Birdman was not its reliance on the long take, but its using conventional film grammar inside the long take. Almost by necessity, the long take should have its own grammar. The shot, reverse shot of conventional grammar that is paradigmatic for almost all conversations on film, wastes valuable time in a long take, as the camera has to physically move around the actors instead of efficiently cutting back and forth. This tedious length of time dilates to unfathomable tedium when the entire film deploys this grammar. Even worse are the "dissolves" that Birdman uses to indicate an increased passage of time, say from day to night. The medium of film is already completely awkward when denoting the passage of time; there exists few strategies to show the collapse of time: the dissolve, showing a clock, speeding up the film, etc. The long take and the ellipsis of time should be mutually exclusive, yet Birdman does this anyway, thus calling attention to itself, exhausting the feeling of organic.

Yet, what does work in Birdman is intimately related to its content. The single take, with its frenetic movement, matches the film's interest in the theatrical. There are no cuts in theatre—only the curtain. Birdman manages to very effectively capture the sense of panic and locomotion of a troupe putting on a play: the running back and forth, the endless halls, the hysteria of getting it exactly right. The long take—at least with regards to emulating the backstage hijinks of theatre—is successful here. Iñárritu is mostly a shallow showman, directing our attention with great effort to an ornately decorated but ultimately empty box. While I thought Birdman was, on the whole, hollow, Iñárritu did manage to use the film's form to convey an important affect that was thematically appropriate... perhaps the highest compliment I can give the movie.

The same problems persists with Victoria. This is an elaborate song-and-dance but its routine eventually tells us nothing interesting or compelling about its characters. Its gimmick does nothing for the content. It's braggadocio. Unlike Iñárritu, Schipper does not meld form with content.


Victoria would work with cuts. Full stop. The single take does not provide the audience with any privileged perspective on the film's narrative that cuts wouldn't also accomplish. In fact, the film would be greatly improved with cuts, but I will return to this momentarily. Victoria's story—lonely girl is seduced into being an accomplice for a crime because of her linguistic, geographic, and social isolation—has nothing to do with long take or cuts. If we agree that the film's story and thematics would not be altered with cuts, then we must agree that the long take is nothing more than gimmick. Technically impressive, yes, but gimmick nonetheless.

If only though, Victoria was more than its gimmick. Superficially, the film sounds great. I went into this experience expecting to enjoy. Based on feedback from friends and trusted critics, I thought I would at least like my time with the movie. And in many ways, I did like the story. The fabula of the movie is not the problem; it is the syuzhet that stymied me, that frustrated me. 

An element of Victoria that succeeds is the titular Victoria herself. Tremendously well cast, Laia Costa fills her thin character with heart and soul, making her instantly likeable and more importantly, attainable. It is her approachability and warmth that make her a "target" if you will for the four young Germans to inadvertently exploit. She is beautiful, but never in an off-putting or distancing way. Neither is she plain or frumpy. It is her unassuming prettiness that leads to her complicity in the crime and then eventually, her successful escape from the police. Costa does remarkably well considering the presumably exhausting circumstances of filming. Her Victoria is always sad and yearning without careening into an unappealing dejection. I hesitate to continue describing her physical attributes as I worry about the optics vis-a-vis my male gaze, but on the other hand, her performance is very physical and her prettiness serves the final section of the plot. It is her prettiness and warmth that also serves the best moment in the film and the most successful element of the story.

Her flirtation with Sonne, the young German that ropes her into the crime, takes up the first hour of the film. This is, without question, the best part of Victoria. I would compare it favourably with Linklater's Before Sunset trilogy, if I had seen it. There's a sensation of freedom and potentiality with the first 45 effervescent minutes as the two leads get to know each other.

The film's best moment arrives just around the one hour mark when the night is "winding down" (it's not; it's about to blow up) and Sonne watches Victoria play the piano in the cafe where she works. The one shot means that the camera can't really disguise that she's not playing the piano so it floats around her, showing her intense concentration. When she finishes, Costa's face goes through a stunning array of emotions: the elation from playing the piece and the descent into reality as she remembers that her time at the conservatory is finished. Sonne quickly picks up on her emotional state, a credit to his sex in this case, and draws out Victoria's circumstances: completely lonely, linguistically isolated, and adrift with regards to future plans. 

This scene works so well thanks to the two actor's focused performance and the relative subtlety that the film insists on her loneliness. (In the first scene of the film, this loneliness is demonstrated much more effectively, when she attempts to buy a drink for the bartender at the club.) The audience has thus been primed for the last hour to accept her decision to accompany the Germans on their heist.


Once the "action" begins, the film completely falters, falling on its face with endless scenes that beg for a cut and actors who are less than capable with improvisation. While I thought Costa and the actor who plays Sonne were great, the others were less than satisfactory. The two other German characters are far too thin for the actors to successfully and convincingly improvise. I am not well versed in acting theory, yet I believe that the best type of improv is the kind when the actor understands the character so well that they can react organically as the character. If the character is nothing more than an empty vessel, the actors have no raw material to improvise from. In Victoria, the actors err on the side of repeating inanities to avoid "dead air."

The consequences of a single take include having to fill in the empty space between cinematic moments, a space usually excised by dint of a cut. For example, getting into a car, putting on a seatbelt, opening a door, driving long stretches—all these activities would have been cut had the movie not insisted on its gimmick. In the absence of cuts, the actors must either talk or move around to keep the audience's attention. However, as I said, the characters are shallow, meaning the actors simply repeat themselves. They repeat shallow phrases that provide the audience with no new information about the characters. I began to dread when the characters were forced to speak because I just didn't want to hear them say the same thing they had said a hundred times before. Their reactions felt so stilted and so... forced, the opposite effect intended by the long take.

Consider the scene in which Victoria takes a wrong turn. Within the world of the film, this makes sense, as she's panicking, confused, and sleep deprived. The passengers scream at her to take this turn or that turn. They all calm down once they're back on the path. Outside the film's constructed world, I suspect Costa did take a wrong turn, and the cast is attempting to react as their characters. However, because of this real wrong turn, the pacing of this scene is completely off. With cuts, this mistake could have increased suspense. Without cuts, the time it takes for Costa to get back on the path is three beats too long. The scene drags interminably. 

Really, the whole movie drags interminably. With cuts, this could have been an effective 90 minute thriller. Without cuts, it's over two hours of people walking around, shouting at each other, repeating those shouts endlessly. 

I hated my experience with Victoria perhaps because of my expectations, perhaps because of the audacity of the gimmick and its subsequent failure. I really wanted to love this movie, but I found it a great chore. There are certainly elements of the film that I quite like (the piano scene, Costa's performance) but the awful bloat, boring improv, and ultimate hollowness of the story vastly outweigh any compliments I can pay. 


I worry about "contrarian" opinions sometimes, especially on Letterboxd.com. There's always a famous, well regarded film that some asshole wants to tear down, often with a sneer. The reviewer writes a long diatribe about the film's failings and points at the audience's complicity in the success of the film, as if the masses are too fucking stupid to understand how bad said movie is. I worry about behaviour like this because I sometimes do it. In fact, I often do it. The older I get, the more self-reflective I think I'm getting and I'm worried that I'll end up some asshole that shits all over popular culture just for the pleasure of irritating those that enjoy it. 

Think about this review on Letterboxd that I read the other morning. The author begins their review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens with the caveat that they weren't going to write a review "out of respect" for the masses. But then they write this, completely overturning whatever lip service they've just paid:
Seeing a Star Wars film in the cinema was a strange experience for me and possibly the only time that I’ve felt like a complete movie outsider. I covertly glanced at some of the filmgoers as The Force Awakens unfolded before their eyes. A man sat open-mouthed on the edge of his seat, an aged fanboy tutted at his restless son, the woman next to me even spontaneously burst into tears of joy at about the midway point. What is it that these people see in this film? I thought to myself as I struggled to keep my eyes open during another lengthy fight sequence.
I mean, this is an asshole thing to say. I didn't even like the movie enough to feel defensive for these fans; my loathing of the Star Wars brand is well documented. But I hope that I have not infantilized and mocked the fans for their love of the brand. I hope that I will never say anything as relentlessly cynical as this jab at the woman who wept with pleasure for a film. 

My friend (the one I had a moderately heated debate with over Victoria) helpfully suggested the insidious reason for this snobbery. He reminded me that there exists a culture of irony so deeply embedded within us that we are too embarrassed to be caught enjoying something so fully. Notice that there's a sense of embarrassment in this reviewer's reaction at seeing others' open display of emotion. I'll quote myself from my essay on Transformers: Age of Extinction:
we have irony as our dominant mode, meaning that non-ironic objets d'art are perceived as "corny," "hokey," and "cheesy." We regard this objects with suspicion. An excess of "real" emotion makes viewers uncomfortable. Thus, we shield emotions with a patina of irony, a measure of self-protection, as contact with "real" emotions is unbearable.
I write all this as an attempt at self-reflection, at attempt at praxis. I need to be better with my participation in mass culture. Here I sit in my bourgeois ivory tower, sneering down at everybody else, but I hypocritically call out others for their implicit classism. I hated Victoria but I do not begrudge those that love the movie.

One of my strategies for critical thinking about cultural objects is to read diametrically opposed reviews. For example, with Victoria, I read a bunch of exuberantly positive evaluations to see what the "other side" has to say. I want to be persuaded, I want to understand how somebody could conclude with the opposite opinion. Sometimes I am convinced by an articulate, well-reasoned, considered opinion, sometimes I am not (as with the case of Victoria). However, I end up reading these spiteful contrarian reviews like the one above in anger. These writers on Letterboxd seem to take some pleasure in watching a film they know they'll hate just so they can feel superior by taking it apart. Again, I realize that I have done this before. I want to be a better person. In this case, then, reading that above review is instructive, as it makes me reflect on my behaviour and my ideals.

With Victoria, I don't write this negative review to be a contrarian. I explicitly acknowledged my appreciation of what works in the film. I wanted to like it, but struggled to apprehend what others found so compelling.

Praxis is a process that includes self-reflection and eventual action. Paulo Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, writes of the necessity of dialogue (Socratic and otherwise) linked with action aimed at transforming the structures that oppress. Informed dialogue and focused action by students can be immensely impactful. In the microcosm, the student can consider their previous actions, reflect and analyse on the repercussions of those actions, and then take this new information into account in subsequent activity.

I hope that this review and ending tangent keep haunting me, reminding me that there's a difference between not connecting with a cultural object and making sweeping condescending generalizations about audiences. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

2015's Film Favourites - the Discoveries

As promised, here is a list of films I watched in 2015, but not from 2015, that were stupendously positive experiences. I'm not so much interested in this mystical objectively perfect station that some films occupy so much as I'm interested in my own affective experience during a film. I tend to get swept up in the emotion, in the characters, in the music during a film (which is very opposite to how I read fiction, which is much more clinical) so I put a lot of stock into how I feel during a viewing. These films aren't all masterpieces, Top 100 movies, some are disposable crap, but I still felt strongly enough. Again, this is why I sneer at the concept of a "guilty pleasure." I refuse to recognize guilt for feeling whatever I feel during a movie. I own my own experience.

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

We'll start with the obvious. My local arthouse cinema does a relatively new thing called "Secret Cinema" on the first Friday of every month. A selected person curates a couple hours of film culled from the cinema's archives with the audience unaware of the film(s) until the moment they begin. On one occasion, my former professor was the curator, and as I know his tastes in film, I knew I wouldn't be disappointed. He chose three shorts, all on 16mm, instead of one feature (which would have also been on 16mm, probably). The cinema has a professional projectionist, full time, so we were in good hands with regards to the films' presentation. The first film was Buster Keaton's superb Sherlock, Jr. 

I do watch a lot of Hollywood blockbusters, despite being bored by many of them. They tend to include a lot of sound and fury, a lot of incident without thought, a lot of characterization without nuance, stunts for the sake of them. They're bloated, not simply temporally, but with everything possible. On the opposite end, Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. does more in 49 minutes than 99% of all action films made afterwards.

Not only is the film formally inventive (the cinema sequences) but also self-reflective on cinema itself, without being annoyingly self-important about it. Instead, Keaton's legendary stony face takes us through a joyous romp featuring stellar stunts that come from situations and moments of character that arise organically. There are more thrills in this than in all 4 Transformers films.

Of course, one is tempted to over-praise Keaton for the stunts as he did them himself—no stuntmen. However, knowing that he did them sans harness or safety measures doesn't intrinsically make them more thrilling. What makes the setpieces work is Keaton's commitment and his understanding of the rhythms of such action. It's not just stunt, stunt, stunt. Instead, it's a melody of stunts that rhyme, echo, subvert. Consider the bit where Keaton jumps through the window and slides onto the table, kicking the villain out of the house. This is rhymed a minute later when Keaton jumps out of the window into the clothes, giving him an immediate disguise. It's both funny and impressive.

After watching this, I immediately gobbled up a bunch more of his shorts. I'm saving The General and the other big ones. Keaton is much more up my alley than the sentimental Chaplin or the clownish Lloyd.

Harakiri (1962)


I've always been a samurai fan, and even a fan of Japan ever since I was a wee one and my dad gave me James Clavell's Shogun. I've seen Seven Samurai and a couple other Kurosawas but I thought it time to delve deeper into chanbara

Harakiri is a masterpiece of composition and direction. Even if the film hadn't been touching and heartbreaking, I would have loved the film just for its careful use of symmetry and squares, as the above still shows. Japanese architecture in the feudal period lends itself to cinema if only because the canvas of the film frame holds smaller and smaller squares so comfortably. Director Kobayashi uses symmetry and such tools of composition not in a fussy way, making the images static or delicate, but in an organic and thematically appropriate way.

The plot of the film, that the rigid codes of harakiri can be manipulated, for either good or bad (or both), mirrors the composition. The boxes that characters find themselves in are externalized in doorways, in windows. Kobayashi's direction recalled Ozu's in Tokyo Story (which I also watched this year for the first time). Ozu keeps the camera at a certain height with little change in altitude but uses architecture and homes to perform the symbolic labour; similarly, Kobayashi uses a static or slow moving camera to showcase the imprisoning power of samurai codes.

The lead actor, Tatsuya Nakadai, imbues his character with this gruff ferocity, a quiet potentiality for destruction or anger. He's wise and wily. This is the same actor who plays the gun crazy goon in Kurosawa's Yojimbo. He feels like a completely different person in this film as his performance is so transformative and complete. I didn't even realize who the actor was until I checked his Letterboxd page. He also plays the insane but powerful samurai in The Sword of Doom (which was super good up until the cliffhanger that's never resolved as there were no sequels). Nakadai's work in Harakiri is absolutely revelatoryin a film already bursting with great things, he stands out.

The Train (1964)

I've always enjoyed the "men on a mission" film subgenre; a ragtag group of competent but mentally shaky men are coerced into or convinced to a probably suicidal attack on a powerful enemy. It's a classic genre as its so utterly lean and with its blurry generic borders, able to fit in other genres. Probably my favourite example is Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which still stands as my favourite Tarantino film. Since the "men on a mission" idea can skim over so many different executions, it varies in tone wildly. Some are cartoonish (the aforementioned Inglourious Basterds) while others are grim (The Eiger Sanction). John Frankenheimer's The Train finds the most heartbreaking way to use this genre. The film was not one I had heard of but I'm so happy that I saw it.

Burt Lancaster, an actor of quiet athleticism and sombre delivery plays a French Resistance fighter as well as station master for a railway. He is tasked by Paul Scofield's aesthete gentle villain with running a train full of stolen French art from France to Germany all while the Nazi regime quickly crumbles. The film is a series of desperate attempts at sabotage by the Resistance led by Lancaster and a series of defensive attacks by the Nazis, led by Scofield. The dichotomy between the two is more than their physical presence, but a deep difference, completely insurmountable. Lancaster's Labiche doesn't even like or care about the art; he simply wants to return what belongs to France. Scofield's Von Waldheim appreciates the treasures on an almost physical level; he chides his soldiers that handle the art without care. Yet there's a odd sense of respect between the two, the respect of adversaries.


It's the careful and efficient command of character that elevates The Train to the pantheon of great action cinema. The film doesn't need an hour of prologue to establish its characters; rather, characterization is drawn through incident, such as the lengths the Resistance will go through or how Labiche treats a woman who hides him. Consider that The Dirty Dozen takes almost an hour and 40 minutes before the mission begins whereas The Train begins in about 15 minutes, maybe even less. Obviously, these are two different films with different objectives. I don't mean to disparage The Dirty Dozen which is good. Merely, I use the film to illustrate the latter's ruthless efficiency.

The Train is also helped by Frankenheimer's cool and taut direction. Rail switches are a beautifully cinematic bit of machinery, with its loud click and pendulous swing. Frankenheimer uses switches with devastatingly suspenseful results. The Resistance use their knowledge of the switches to divert the train without the Nazis being aware and the director shoots the switches as if the whole world depends on them. And in a way, they do.

The Church (1989)


 Look at this incredible fucking poster

Apparently, Michele Soavi was an assistant director for Dario Argento and Terry Gilliam before getting a chance to work on a film in the Demons franchise (of which I love the first two; I had the old Anchor Bay 2 disc version for years). Nothing about the Demons franchise could prepare you for the utterly stylish and supremely confident work Soavi did on his second film.

From its opening period prologue right to the existential ending, Soavi directs the shit out of every single scene—not necessarily flashy or trying too hard, but imbuing each and every moment with the appropriate tension and atmosphere necessary. Soavi has absolutely soaked this film with dread and horror; countless horror directors would probably give their right arm for even half of Soavi's command of tone. 

The Church is superficially similar to the first two Demons films: a group of people are locked in a single setting and besieged by possessed people who kill the protagonists in increasingly gruesome and gory ways. The first film used a sort of punk attitude and the trappings of a late night B-movie where the second film used a postpunk soundtrack and a more Cronenbergian attitude towards media and television. Soavi's film eschews the possession angle and punk or postpunk aesthetics. Instead, he made a loving tribute to the mystical and horrific mysteries of the Catholic Church. He confines most of the action to the titular church, a giant cathedral erected over a medieval mass grave (as one does), and has the genre's resident "scientist" figure accidentally open up the grave, resulting in mass murder and hysteria.


Yet, Soavi isn't terribly interested in gore or even shock. He uses The Church as a vehicle to explore the thin line between the Church's supernatural dogma and the evils of folklore, the rituals of Catholicism against the rituals of dark magic. Sequences of mysticism and ceremonies permeate throughout the film. One of the most thrilling sequences involves the aforementioned scientist figure opening up the rift (see pic above). Almost entirely without dialogue, the neon soaked scene unfolds slowly, less about scaring and more about unnerving the viewer. The dude breaks the seal just to learn more, a sacrilegious echo of Eve, and chaos slowly infects his mind, leading him to hallucinate. 

Many people have commented that unlike the other Demons films, The Church takes it sweet sweet time to unleash the insanity. Somebody pegged it at around 80 minutes into it, which seems like a long time to invest in a story that's fairly thin. I can't disagree with this assessment; the film is slow and methodical, glacially paced in comparison with its older siblings. However, thanks to Soavi's dominance of visually arresting imagery, I was mesmerized by the film. At no point was I ever bored or distracted. I can think of no other film from 2015 that commanded my attention so completely. 

I love this movie so much, I'm worried about watching Soavi's other films for fear of being disappointed.

Come and See (1985)

The strangest comparison I can make is that this film reminded me a lot of Sam Raimi's early work. Most assuredly not in terms of tone as this film is one of the most harrowing I've ever sat through, but regarding aesthetics. Elem Klimov uses a very athletic Steadicam to capture the horror of war, but he also drenches his canvas in a multitude of colours: browns, reds, blues, blacks, and more reds. Raimi's Evil Dead films are superficially similar in that he also mobilizes a wide palette and a restless camera, but there the similarities end. Come and See is a film interested only in demonstrating the absolute corrupting effect of war. 



Just looking into the eyes of the protagonist stirs the feelings I suffered during my watch: the nausea, the anxiety, the heartache, the helplessness. Klimov apparently filmed the movie in sequence, letting the experiences and horrors concatenate for Flyora, the lead character. I tend to put a lot of stock into my affective responses, as aforementioned; watching this character suffer for 2 hours made me feel awful to a unprecedented degree, an affective "success" then.

Come and See is mostly episodic, showcasing in allegorical sequences the horror of war and the political instability of Russia during this time. For about half of the film, Flyora displays agency, an effort to positively affect the fight against Nazis, except he's too young, too inexperienced, and completely ignorant of war. All of his efforts lead to disaster, to the death of his comrades. In a fit of patriotism, he abandons his mother and sisters to fight, but his absconding into the wild leaves his family without protection and ultimately leads to their death at the hands of Nazis. 

Flyora's sanity is tested over and over and ultimately, he loses it. The character of Flyora is required to hold as much symbolic weight as possible, as he represents both a Soviet optimism and an innocence completely evacuated of humanity over the course of war. 


Somebody famous once said that it's impossible to make an anti-war film. What they mean is that war films inadvertently glorify war through cinematic techniques, which undermines any critique of war the film is going for. I believe Come and See is the only exception to this rule that I have seen. At no point does this film ever come close to unwittingly exalt war. The terrors of war are written over and over again on the protagonist's face. 

Come and See works so successfully that I'm not sure I can bear to watch it again. But I must. Aesthetically, it's one of the best films I've ever seen in my life. Emotionally, it's completely devastating. This movie is harrowing, absolutely harrowing.

The Betrayal (1966)


I'd heard of this film due to its legendary climax, in which the lead fights and wins over 200 samurai. Only Zatoichi it seems has racked up a competing body count. 

Luckily, The Betrayal is more than its climax. The film leading up to the climax is a tender and careful exploration of bushido and all the ways it's a prison. The protagonist has an unwavering support of honour and loyalty, and he's willing to take the fall for a fellow samurai in order to keep the clan's honour. His punishment is exile for a year, during which he takes odd jobs, not all of them samurai related. During this time, his belief in the system is methodically broken down by a corrupt system that allows for the wily to game it for their benefit. His lowest moment comes when he sees his ex-fiance working in a brothel. Her status is intrinsically tied to his and therefore his fall is also her fall. He prostrates himself at the feet of the brothel owner, swearing fealty in exchange for her freedom. He wants for her a freedom that he will never have. The brothel owner betrays him and leads the protagonist's enemies to the town. There, he ferociously kills every last one of them.

The choreography of this sequence is incredible. Instead of the blurry confusing mess of so-called realistic battles (eg. Saving Private Ryan, Age of Ultron), this film displays an impressive patience in observing a rhythm and escalation. Instead of just the protagonist stabbing people for twenty minutes, the antagonists demonstrate forethought and logic; they use various tools, such as ladders, to imprison him, which works both as a strategy of battle and as a metaphor for the protagonist's position. The ladder is really a synecdoche for the whole sequence. While other movies in this mould use action solely as a method of thrilling the audience, The Betrayal uses this climactic massacre to thrill and to perform further the film's symbolic labour. The destruction of all these men is not simply their deaths, but the protagonist's self-destruction. Through their deaths, he destroys himself. 



This is completely different than most action movies and it was a breath of fresh air. This is an ephemeral B-movie, with the intentions of being disposable, a cheapie shoved into theatres to make a quick buck. Whereas films such as Age of Ultron are made with the intention of lasting forever. It was resolutely made to have a huge cultural impact. Yet, I wonder, in cases like this, if The Betrayal will ever have a turn around, a critical resurgence thanks to a high-def, lovingly restored, full of extras Blu-ray. It's films like (and all of the above frankly) that deserve such care when schlock and shit like Age of Ultron with its disgustingly high budget and low competency hold the public's interest.

The Great Silence (1968)

Sergio Corbucci has often been called the "wrong Sergio" who came in at the wrong time. His Westerns were unfairly compared to Leone's only because of their similar conditions of production (Italian crews and locales, etc) and their shared genres (a stylized Western). However, from what I've seen of Corbucci, they were working in wildly different modes. I watched Corbucci's Django (1966) expecting something like Leone's stylized Westerns, but instead I got a radical revisionist Western full of mud, gore, bleakness, and nihilism. Django ends with the protagonist having his hands broken and irreparably damaged and his mission of revenge tainted by bitter fruits. I loved it. I then hopped onto Corbucci's later Western The Great Silence and I fell in love.



Klaus Kinski plays perhaps one of the most ruthless villains ever to grace the screen and he's matched only slightly by the ruthlessness of the silent protagonist. Filmed in winter, without the dust and the tumbleweeds, The Great Silence is almost oppressively bleak. Corbucci uses the tropes and trappings of the Spaghetti Western, including a great Ennio Morricone soundtrack and subverts them for an anti-authoritarian stance. Corbucci's mute protagonist is vulnerable, wounded, almost sensitive, while the bounty hunters led by Kinski's Loco are insane and capitalism personified. In fact, the antagonists are almost entirely motivated by profit, leading to Corbucci's most subversive element: his radical leftism injected into what is often otherwise a fairly right wing genre. 

There's a lot to unpack in The Great Silence, which is of course one reason why it's on this list. The film is relentlessly bleak. Other films might have killed their protagonists, but not like this one. This movie revels in the nihilism. It's even interesting how "weak" the protagonist is in comparison with other heroes of the Western. I've already mentioned that he's mute, but he's also not quite as "technically" proficient in gunplay; he wields an automatic rifle, giving him an advantage of speed over his enemies. The Great Silence is fairly clear that Loco is the superior gunman. In other films, Loco might have been the hero. 



While not the first Western to be set in winter, this is one of the first I've seen. Its wintry snowy conditions increase the desperation and need in the characters as staying outside even one night could be fatal. It's also, obviously, metaphorical, symbolizing the cold ruthlessness of capitalism that motivates the villains. The attention to such details is what propels The Great Silence from competent Western into greatness. Truly a movie deserving of care and adoration from a major home video label. 

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

According to an email I received from Letterboxd detailing my year in review, the actor I watched the most in 2015 was Mark Hamill, followed closely by Domhnall Gleeson. In terms of director, I saw more films like Zhang Yimou than any other director. A goal that popped up without my explicit declaration was to see every collaboration between Yimou and Gong Li. I ended up seeing 7 of Yimou's films and 5 of his 8 collaborations with Gong Li. Of all the Yimou films that I have watched, none completely commanded my attention and emotions like Raise the Red Lantern did. 



Mostly, I started with Red Sorghum (1987) because I was exhausted with Hollywood's insistence on an exclusively "orange and teal" colour palette. I was starved of colour. I had heard that one reason why Chinese film of the 80s and 90s was so expressionistic with colour is because Technicolor, deprived of a market in North America, looked East for business and the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers was happy to help. Red Sorghum was beautiful and affecting, but I felt somewhat adrift. This was, after all, my first experience with Chinese film other than wuxia and Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987) Yet, I persisted with Yimou, going on to see To Live (1994), Ju Dou (1990), The Story of Qiu Ju (1994), and Raise the Red Lantern all within a month or so. They're all terrific, but this one in question is the best and most powerful.

Raise the Red Lantern succeeds because of the simplicity of the premise: a rich man has multiple wives and brings in a fourth, Gong Li. Whenever the husband wishes to sleep with a particular wife, there's a whole ceremony, involving the raising of hundreds of lanterns, which Yimou depicts in painstaking detail. Li's character must contend with a lascivious husband and jealous, manipulative wives. Whichever wife gets the "honour" of the husband's attention also receives pampering and special treatment from the servants, thus putting the concubines in direct competition with each other.

It's the easiest reading in the world to see Raise the Red Lantern as feminist: patriarchy often forces women to compete with each other for the scraps men allow them to have. The husband is rarely (if ever, I forget) shown in the film, making him a shadowy abstract that the women speak of only as a power exercised upon them. The feminist reading is even more palpable in the denouement of the film, as Li's character accidentally reveals information she shouldn't about a fellow concubine that results in that concubine's death. Her complicity in the patriarchal machinations is complete: she is as much an oppressor as she is oppressed. 



Gong Li's acting is superb. With the exception of her odd turn in Mann's Miami Vice (2006), I have seen Li give a powerful, stellar, and technically perfect performance in every film. Her very participation in a film elevates it thanks to her commanding presence and physical and nuanced emoting. While I might think her performance in Qiu Ju is slightly better, this does not diminish the excellence she displays in this movie. It's a combination of her physicality (she is a progenitor of the Keira Knightley school of acting which is to let one's jaw do a lot of the emoting) and her eyes.

Plus the colours, oh my god the colours. Yimou's choice in cinematography is sumptuous, sensual, opulent, and always thematically appropriate. This isn't simply colour for the sake of it, but colour that shows the audience information, either emotional or characterization. While the "red" in the title does show up in abundance, Yimou uses a rather wide palette, deploying gorgeous blues and greens in costuming and setting, to highlight differences between wives, between characters and their respective stations. This movie is fucking gorgeous. 

-------

I could have chosen a bunch more films for this "discoveries" post as I saw some incredible things. Some honourable mentions include: Yimou's Ju Dou, Corbucci's Django (1966), Ernst Lubitsch's Angel (1937), Peter Watkins' La commune (Paris 1871) (2000), Maurice Pialat's À nos amours (1983), and Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast (1965). I could list a bunch more, but I don't want to overwhelm myself.

In 2016, I hope to finish out the Yimou-Li films, re-watch Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), and chip away at my watchlist on Letterboxd. I also wouldn't mind re-watching Dario Argento's stuff, because I haven't seen any of them since I was like 18-19, and I don't remember much.

Friday, January 15, 2016

2015's Film Favourites (with gifs!)

My preamble for this year's list will be effectively the same as last year's list, which you can read here. If you don't feel like clicking, I wring my hands over the state of year end lists and ultimately provide one anyway. The preamble for this year will include the caveat that my podunk hick town didn't get any of the major independent releases such as Son of Saul or Victoria or Taxi (my city will get the latter two in January). Which means that my list leans heavily on major studio releases. I make no apology for this.

2015 was the year I watched the most films in my life. My grand total, including shorts, was around 260 I think (I didn't write it down before Letterboxd reset my yearly running total). I watched an amazing assortment of films from Italian spaghetti westerns to Russian art films to Japanese samurai pictures to classic Hollywood screwball comedies. I watched a glorious amount of horror films in September, October, and November, some of which were films I had always seen in the video store (so the VHS box art was familiar) but had never got around to. I did a lot of "filling in the gaps" kind of selection, choosing movies that seemed essential and I had never seen them (eg. Yojimbo, Raise the Red Lantern). I also stumbled across a ton of film that I had never heard of (eg. The Great Silence, Come and See). While I didn't read as much as in previous years, I certainly consumed a lot of film and slowly taught myself from formal criticism (eg. David Bordwell, Seymour Chatman). I've always liked movies (though books remain my favourite) but I had never really learned how to talk about them other than basics of plot and style.

This list, then, is actually part one of two. I'll go over some films from 2015 that I thought were stellar and in another post, I'll go over some films I discovered in 2015 that I thought were stellar.

Mad Max: Fury Road

I watched this twice in the theatre in 2015, and then once last week when I was home sick. This is the feminist action movie masterpiece that I had been waiting for my life, it seems. Mad Max was a concept and a character I was familiar with through cultural osmosis, but I had never seen any of the original three films with Mel Gibson. I had no real expectations going into Fury Road other than some rumblings on the Internet that it was feminist.

The first time experience of watching this film can hardly be summed up by the written word. The film is loud, raucous, visceral, exciting, and touching in a lot of ways. It's the kind of film that is immediately entered into the zeitgeist, as it's imminently quotable and memorable. Fury Road burns itself into the brain with its immediately iconic imagery (THE DOOF WARRIOR) and characters.


George Miller put a ton of thought and care into the construction of this, both in terms of plot and character but also aesthetics. He takes another leap "forward" with this set of characters, pushing the post-apocalyptic aesthetic into further societal collapse. The world depicted in this film is harsh, unforgiving, and holistically bleak. Almost hopeless. Yet, the combined efforts of Imperator Furiosa and the titular Max, along with their ragtag women, dare to hope that a change can occur.

This is a movie that dramatizes women's literal escape from patriarchy. The core group of women helped by Max and Furiosa are not "property" as they remind the villain Immortan Joe. They are women who have agency. This is a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster that passes the Bechdel Test in multiple ways. Multiple ways. A bunch of women have different conversations that isn't about men, love, romance, sex, or shopping.


Fury Road has some terrific characters (and some competent performances, let's not over-praise them) in Furiosa, Nux, The Splendid Angharad, Toast the Knowing, and others. They're given just enough motivation and interiority to make them interesting and compelling, but not enough that they're over-explained or over-determined. In fact, this compliment can be extended to the rest of the film. Here's a masterclass in showing, not telling. Max and Furiosa only have one conversation in the whole film that provides answers, and it's a terse quick one at that.

This was easily my favourite experience with cinema all year. 2016 has some big shoes to fill.

Carol

I had read The Price of Salt for my queer bookclub  (you can read my terse but positive review for it here) because of the forthcoming Todd Haynes adaptation. I lucked into an advanced media screening of the film and took a bunch of my friends. The film is... cinematic perfection. Not a single frame is off in this movie. Carol is perfect in almost every way.


There's a scene (above, a gif from that scene) in which Cate Blanchett avoids revealing too much about her complicated domestic situation. The camera stays on her face, holding onto the shot for a couple beats after most directors would have cut, and we see Blanchett's eyes move around, her lids close slightly. They should give Blanchett the Oscar just for this scene alone.

The costuming and makeup is just exquisite. But the film doesn't make a fetish of these period details. Instead, they're part of the characters, they exist organically. Similarly, this period piece does not feature a direct pastiche like Far From Heaven does (to Douglas Sirk films). Instead, Haynes constructs his own lavish 1950s world that recalls David Lean and other directors without quoting them directly.

Speaking of David Lean, one of the film's greatest strengths is in its implicit quotation of the structure of Brief Encounter. The film opens with the two lovers meeting, and then the rest of the film is a flashback leading up to this moment. When the film catches up, the audience is let in on information previously withheld: that somebody, a supporting cast member, has interrupted the very last meeting they'll have, further increasing the tragic nature of their relationship. The novel does not have this and the film is all the better for it.

I've seen some reviews that remark on the coldness of the whole thing, as if it holds the audience at arm's length. I'm not sure if they're referring to a lack of insight into the characters' psychology or the aesthetics. Certainly, the aesthetics were for me the highlight. There are moments when Rooney Mara is a passenger in a car driving at night, and the play of light from the street on the window is some of the most gorgeous stuff I've ever seen. And in terms of psychology, I appreciate that Carol herself is quite inscrutable, but we're given enough in hints and drabs to understand her basic motivations. Again, this is a film that shows rather than tells, so the audience is forced to perform some intellectual labour.

It Follows

Last year, I had two horror films on my list of favourites, and this year, the genre is not unrepresented. David Robert Mitchell's loving tribute to John Carpenter is a fantastic showcase for sound, camerawork, and visual ideas.




Words have already been written on the movie's central metaphor, whether it be of sexually transmitted disease, ageing, loss of innocence, or what have you, but I don't really think the film is particularly interested in that. Consider that the "rules" the film establishes have blurry borders, especially near the end. This is sort of like Rian Johnson's Looper (which I hated): as a film, it's less interested in the rules and more interested in the characters.

The film's cast is composed of characters that aren't likeable or believable, per se, which is certainly a flaw, but Mitchell pushes them around in interesting and compelling ways. The friend of the protagonist, the "Nice Guy" who pines from afar, is pushed into a really fascinating space. I wish Mitchell had pushed this even further, in terms of plot, maybe putting the "Nice Guy" friend into an antagonistic position, but I was still quite pleased with the plotting.

More than any of the characters or plot or even theme, what makes It Follows so fun is the combo of camerawork and score. The latter is an electronic soundtrack from artist Disasterpeace (which doesn't really roll off the tongue) that is unnerving and stressful in the best kinds of way. It's cacophonous and angry, like an early Nine Inch Nails album but soaked in synthesizers the kind Carpenter loves to employ.


Using some pleasing 360 degree shots, the camera in It Follows is almost a character unto itself. The camera lopes around, aggressively frames people in the center, and withholds information through motion. The film is a showcase for Mitchell's camerawork. Luckily, the rest of the film is almost as good (save for the nonsensical pool scene).

Sicario

I am a big fan of Denis Villeneuve and a huge fan of Roger Deakins (currently, the blog's header image is a still from his work on the Coens' No Country for Old Men). Prisoners I enjoyed more than I think the consensus and I thought Enemy was a cracking good time (Toronto hasn't looked this creepy since Cronenberg). Sicario was something I struggled with initially, and perhaps this was due to high expectations. I loved the visuals; it felt like Deakins was let off the leash to do whatever he wanted. I loved the score and Benicio del Toro's performance was top notch. Yet, I left the theater somewhat deflated.

I've thought on it a lot, and I'm ready to push the movie up from my initial review of three and a half stars up to four. I'm not ready to give it any more than that, at least until I see it again. As aforementioned, I'm chalking up my disappointment to unrealistic expectations. Which is unfair as it's quite a good movie, aesthetically speaking. In terms of plot and character and theme, I'm less enthused. (Here's my favourite moment from the film:)


Politically speaking, this is a deeply conservative movie, and I'm perplexed why our usual liberal outrage machine isn't writing thinkpieces with the same vigour as when American Sniper seemingly captured the public's attention. Sicario, at its heart, argues for extralegal measures to be implemented against the drug cartels. No matter how morally questionable the actions of the protagonists, the film never fails to mention how much worse are the deeds of the antagonists. Consider that Benicio del Toro's character sneaks his way into the property of a major druglord, only to ruthlessly execute his children, wife, and finally the druglord himself. While this might seem utterly reprehensible, the film constantly reminds the viewer that the druglord destroyed del Toro's family through torture and malice, so it's justified. This retributive streak runs throughout the film, as Emily Blunt's character is partially motivated by the film's opening inciting incident: the discovery of dozens of bodies hidden in walls and the deaths of some colleagues. The extralegal manoeuvres of Josh Brolin et al. seem designed to convince the audience that the ends justify the means.

Over at Letterboxd, Mike D'Angelo offered a rebuttal to Adam Nayman's takedown of the film for Reverse Shot (the former here, the latter here). D'Angelo makes some very persuasive points regarding the moral framework of the film. He writes:
This is a deeply pessimistic film about the near-impossibility of overcoming institutional corruption—one that's honest enough to have its protagonist struggle for a long time about whether what she's witnessing even is corruption. (Hence "I have to know," which she says very near the end.)
Which I find fascinating. I didn't see the film as contemptuous of institutional corruption, especially since the film ends with the avowal that the cycle of drug cartel violence continues, necessitating more extralegal and by D'Angelo's reckoning, corrupt actions.

However, Nayman rebuts the rebuttal via Twitter, writing: "I don't think the film is thoughtful at all -- it's lazily ambivalent." This last phrase really struck me as being on the nose, as I agree with Nayman in this (but not all his points). I believe the film is rather lazy in its attempts at staying ambivalent, considering that it absolutely revels in the violence and shock of the subject matter.


The opening sequence lingers on the dead bodies in multiple shots, while the sequence at the border is cartoonishly staged for maximum suspense rather than tragedy or shock. The long build up to the shootout merely primes the audience for an inevitability. This determinism of the film, that the structures that maintain the drug cartel's strength are the same structures that uphold the governmental response, is the same nihilism that pervades the end of Soderbergh's vastly superior Traffic. Sicario wants to revel in the violence and ugliness while Traffic wants to moralize on the complex structures and try and provide answers ("I'm here to listen"). Sicario makes sure it has the Big Ideas but isn't really interested in exploring them. It's despair for the sake of it.

Yet, I complain about all these things. But it's the discourse that's made me appreciate Sicario all the more. I haven't given so much thought to a mainstream studio film to the same degree in a long time. Sicario frustrates me, but I keep thinking about it all the same. I'm willing to concede that all of my thoughts on the film are based on one viewing, so everything could change with a second viewing. Certainly, Villeneuve and his command of tone, atmosphere, and unhinged worldviews compel me to follow him even closer.

The Gift

I'm not one to complain about spoilers. The culture of avoiding spoilers has choked a lot of discourse surrounding cultural objects, to the point where we've elevated plot to this sacrosanct level, where even the barest mention of incident can effectively ruin an experience, which is of course fucking absurd. Not only are we limited in what we can talk about in terms of a cultural object, but we've implicitly chucked out other formal elements in favour of exclusively focusing on plot. Yet, here we have a film where I'm glad I wasn't spoiled. Not that my experience would have been ruined, but the slow unfolding of events in The Gift might not have had the impact if I had foreknowledge.


The film plays a very careful game of bait-and-switch, but not with regards to plot. Rather, it's a dramaturgical switch: who we believe to be the protagonist is more the antagonist as the film goes on. Joel Edgerton's direction, his debut, in fact, is methodical and disciplined in its slow unravelling, a great compliment I can bestow. He's helped by a tremendous performance by Jason Bateman and a fantastic production design. The house the couple moves into is all windows and mirrors, showcasing the transparency and opacity of the characters it depicts.

I loved my time with this movie, despite some major flaws, including the ending. Moments after the credits rolled, I was elated. Here was a film that respected its audience, used ambiguity effectively, and allowed answers to be presumed rather than spelled out. I thought the ending was quite good, showing that even to the last moments, the film was tricky with its dramaturgy. However, as I cogitated on the end, the more I was kind of irritated. The twist ending, the victory that Edgerton's character declares, is nonsensical and creepily chauvinistic. The film is much better without this twist. So much stronger.

The Gift is, unfortunately, another Hollywood film that uses a woman as a pawn in the game between two men's egos. The film is essentially a dick measuring contest over their fragile male egos, as when their feelings are hurt, they lash out in violent and deeply unsettling ways. Perhaps The Gift  is a comment the fragility of the male ego, a critique of their pissing matches. I'm not sure, but if somebody argued that, I'd be willing to at least listen.

My film favourites are sometimes more about the experience than the cultural object itself. For example, while I think It Follows and The Gift were tremendous in the theatre, I worry that when I watch them again, the magic of the experience will be lost. Thus, I include them on the list because my initial contact was so gloriously positive.

Spotlight

I have had multiple arguments with my friend David over this film. My partner and I loved it; David disliked it immensely. I won't rehash our arguments, but I will concede some things to him. Firstly, the characterization and odd disinterest in the victims of the conspiracy is disconcerting to put it mildly. Spotlight wants to explore its journalists concurrently with the mystery but does such a poor job of characterization that one wishes the film hadn't bothered at all. Likewise, I admit that the film coasts on its subject matter; a fictional version of this wouldn't be nearly as compelling.

What does work in Spotlight is—oddly enough—the very un-cinematic parts. I'm thinking specifically of the infamous spreadsheet sequence. While some critics have derided director Tom McCarthy for his lack of visual interest, pointing precisely at this scene as indicative of his weaknesses, I thought the spreadsheet stuff was amazingly gripping. Again, I admit it's the subject matter, but McCarthy's editing works hard to ratchet up the suspense, imbuing the act of filling in a spreadsheet with the same tension as somebody defusing a bomb.


One of my favourite movies of all time, David Fincher's Zodiac, captures a lot of what also made Spotlight so engrossing: the slow unravelling of a variegated and complex series of tied events. There's a moment in which Mark Ruffalo's character stumbles across a major clue, and I can't understand how an audience member wouldn't have shared his exhilaration at such a discovery.

Speaking of which, Ruffalo's performance in this film seems again divisive. I thought it stupendous. The way he hunches, the way he squints, his dogged attitude and out of breath restlessness all made him bewitching for me. His work in this rivals his unbelievable turn in the otherwise abysmal Foxcatcher. I thought Michael Keaton and the rest of the cast to be serviceable, with the exception of Stanley Tucci, who remains one of the best working actors. His work in Spotlight is top notch. Often, Tucci is the best part of anything movie he's in; this movie is no different.

I worry though that with the Oscars, Spotlight will suffer a critical backlash. I admit the film isn't perfect, but the ecology of Internet backlash doesn't take into account half-measures or stumbles. It's all or nothing.

Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation

There's a fucking title for you. I've always been a fan of this series, except for John Woo's oddball piece of shit. I loved J. J. Abrams' third entry, especially since it was streamlined and efficient and I adored Brad Bird's fourth entry (even if the last third deflates quite a bit). Rogue Nation does not reinvent the wheel as radically as say Woo's or Abrams' and it hews a smidge too close to Bird's, but it's a fantastic experience.

Quietly, without it being noticed until afterwards, 2015 was a year of spy films: Paul Feig's Spy, Guy Ritchie's Man from U.N.C.L.E., Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service, Sam Mendes' SPECTRE, and this one, Christopher McQuarrie's Rogue Nation. The most culturally saturated one, James Bond, was easily the worst of the bunch (with Kingsman a close second). Part of the problem with SPECTRE was the film's great anxiety to convince you that James Bond as a concept was still relevant. This is fourth film in a row starring James Bond to validate his own existence. It's like listening to a Woody Allen character reiterate the same lack of confidence over and over again.

Rogue Nation does dramatize its own argument for relevance, but in a less anxious way, and it's for sure the weakest part of the film. What Rogue Nation excels at is classic Hollywood storytelling: goal-oriented plotting. The whole concept of Mission: Impossible is predicated on goal-oriented plotting: a mission is explained, the characters assemble, they plan a manoeuvre, they execute it, with or without complications, and they succeed. The latest film does the same: each setpiece features clearly articulated goals with inevitable ensuing organic complications that the characters must overcome.


The addition of Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust is what takes Rogue Nation from serviceable if well-executed into the realm of excellent. Her character is fleshed out, fascinating, charming, and competent, but not unbelievably so. All of her scenes are the best scenes... except for the male gaze-y bit with her emerging from the pool. I could have done without that.

Rogue Nation includes one of my favourite tropes: the mission at the show. In this case, it's an opera, with Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt trying to thwart an assassination but confusing who's actually committing the deed. McQuarrie shoots the sequence with hues of blue and red, cross-cutting with a deft hand between the incidents. The opera sequence doesn't quite have the odd impressionism of the one in Quantum of Solace (the best part of that film) nor the lunacy of The Living Daylights, but it's still the standout part of the movie.



This is an action movie done well, distilled to its essence, without an ounce of fat. It's not perfect: the villain is deeply uninteresting, the first third suffers from a stuttering start. However, it makes up for it with a fantastic climax that's low key and appropriate. Hollywood films tend to pile on incidents and explosions during the climax, but Rogue Nation figures out that it's about the competition between two opposing forces (Ethan Hunt and the villain) so instead of swanning about with large scale mayhem, the film tightly focuses on the showdown.

I loved my time with this movie.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

I had zero expectations going into this other than knowing it was a "weepy." And it certainly was, but not in a treacly gross way. Instead, this was a love letter to cinephiles, an acknowledgement that loving cinema is a weird solitary habit, but with some wisdom, can be fulfilling.

Again, there are flaws. Firstly, I'm dismayed that it's yet another film that uses the death of a woman to ignite a man's self-awareness. His emotional journey creates meaning thanks to a young woman's death. Which is odd and retrograde. Additionally, the titular Earl, the film's only substantial character of colour, is oddly underwritten and underperformed.


I believe the film uses the trappings of "cancer girl and tragic boy" in an interesting way. It doesn't self-consciously bring attention to its clichéd origins but rather alludes to it. Instead, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl works at filling its two lead characters with personality and meaning but without resorting to lazy shortcuts.

One of the best sequences in the film involve Olivia Cooke yelling at Thomas Mann about how he's made her sickness about him, about how he's avoiding life by using her illness. The camera doesn't move even a little bit as we're made more and more uncomfortable by the truths being spilled like guts from swordfight.

On the opposite style end, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon uses an athletic approach to the lighter moments. There's a neat tracking shot that covers the whole house near the beginning of the film. Gomez-Rejon's camera is almost balletic, moving through the rooms, emulating a grace that Kubrick's camera possessed.

I couldn't help but lose it when the protagonist finally screens his film for the dying girl. The combination of a Brian Eno piece with the tenderness of the visuals, without being cloying, led me to tears. Just a little though. I was invested in the characters thanks to their chemistry and performance but also by the catharsis, the admission of the transcendental power of cinema.

I mean, it's a bullshit teen movie, but at least it's well made.

I ended writing a bit more than I expected on each film. Hopefully I've aggregated my thoughts well enough to be cogent and to shed light on why these imperfect films managed to spark me. I've spent a decent amount pointing out flaws, but I think it's healthy to be realistic and self-reflective on the cultural objects we consume. Nothing is perfect; everything is problematic. What matters is thinking critically about the strengths and weaknesses.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

January Reads Part One

This Census-Taker by China Miéville
The Lake by Yasunari Kawabata
Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling

Because I felt like writing so much on these four books, but not enough to warrant their own individual posts, I'll publish this as a "Part One" with a "Part Two" being posted late in the month.

I've thoroughly enjoyed my time with Miéville, so I've been reading them slowly, savouring them. His new novella, which I received as an advanced reading copy, was not really to my taste, unfortunately. I don't think the story was bad, per se, but I didn't really enjoy my brief time with This Census-Taker. It's described as a sort of "fable," which is definite red flag for me, and it's compared to George Saunders, another red flag. As much as I think Saunders is a talented writer, his Wallace-lite stuff leaves me cold. Miéville's focus in this novella includes some of Saunders' (and others') estrangement. The reader is unmoored from traditional signposts of setting. We are never sure when or where this story takes place. There are enough clues for the reader to satisfactorily assume a fantasy world, but not enough to make a definitive conclusion. Likewise with the level of technology and thus timeframe. In this fantasy world (I'm assuming), there is enough structure to uphold a law and biopolitical power (in the form of a census), but not enough for this power to be exerted unilaterally. The novella expresses an oscillation between suspicion and respect for biopolitics, which, considering Miéville's already deeply considered ideologies, is no surprise.

I did enjoy Miéville's prose, as per usual. He's not a great stylist, but he tries, more often succeeding than stumbling. His prose calls to mind a writer who has clearly thought through his metaphors and similes. They come organically from the characters or mise-en-scene, rather than from a writerly desire to show off. Similarly, he knows and wields the power of suggestion. One of the key subplots, if you'll pardon the eventual pun, is that the protagonist's father is a key-maker, crafting mysterious keys for shadowy payment. These keys are implied to perform miracles, either publicly or illicitly, such as a farmer using one to change the weather from sunny to rainy. The keys are never explained; they are simply part of the background radiation of this world, and it's extremely effective.

Otherwise, I found the plot struggled to maintain my interest. The problem with a fable is that everything feels determined and childlike, as if there are no real dramatic stakes. This Census-Taker also felt allegorical in that writerly way, in opposition to the praise I just gave Miéville; the narrative appears to be nudging me in the ribs, trying to direct my attention to some not-so-hidden subtext. I resent motions such as this. Again, though, this is personal taste. I can't really comment on the aesthetic or metaphorical success of the allegory. However, I didn't hate the book. I just didn't enjoy my time with it.

Kawabata's The Lake was something I read extremely fast and thought, when I closed the book, that it was fairly light. But as the book as stewed inside my head, as its percolated, I've thought more and more about the richness lurking beneath the surface. Kafka wrote in a letter, "a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us" and Kawabata has clearly understood this lesson. Superficially, The Lake follows a middle aged school teacher with an unhealthy appetite for stalking women and a rich man's wife who bumps into the school teacher. Using a kind of lackadaisical stream-of-consciousness, Kawabata moves easily backwards and forwards in time, providing us the clues we need to understand the deep interiority of these characters. This isn't realism in the strictest sense, as the characters are performing symbolic labour; I'm guessing, based on the text and my limited knowledge of post-war Japan, that The Lake is peeking at the anxiety this society has around its status after such devastation. The cast of the novel aren't fully drawn or fully realized characters in the classic sense (like Count Fosco of The Woman in White for example) but rather placid flat surfaces waiting to be cracked and shattered by the penetrating gaze of the audience. I chose this metaphor purposefully to recall the imagery of a frozen body of water, something Kawabata also does quite pointedly. The titular lake in the novel performs a plethora of symbolic labour, but never in an over-determined A. S. Byatt kind of way (not that this is a bad thing, I've just grown a taste for less surgically minded endeavours). 

The Lake is full of beautiful imagery and prose, though I hesitate to praise the words chosen due to translation. I always struggle with translation. I never feel like I'm grasping the whole thing, but rather a shadow of the thing. However, Kawabata is clearly not a stylist, but rather a keen observer of human beings, how we withhold, how we keep secrets, how our bodies betray us, how our minds betray us. While I enjoyed reading the novel as it happened, I believe the more I think on it, the more I'll appreciate it.

I've always meant to read Michael Moorcock, but have found his large oeuvre to be daunting. Where does one start? A friend at work lent me a tattered copy of his Nebula-winning novel Behold the Man. I'm glad I read this, as Moorcock and I appear to have similar thoughts regarding realism and the trappings of genre. Using time travel as his springboard, Moorcock explores theology, psychology, and determinism in interesting, albeit very 1960s, kinds of way. Karl Glogauer is a disaffected man in the 1960s who struggles to keep relationships, jobs, and even beliefs. He wanders through life searching for meaning. He befriends a scientist who is working on a time machine and he jumps at the chance to be the crash test dummy, if you will. The only stipulation Glogauer makes is that he chooses the time and location: Jerusalem, 28 AD. His plan is to witness Christ's crucifixion. 

Of course, since this is a time travel narrative, I already guessed that Glogauer would end up becoming Jesus.... My guess turned out to be correct (if I can spoil a 45 year old novella). That I was able to sort out the book's ending did not lessen my experience with the book. Nor did I shout "a-HA!" when the finale of the book confirmed my suspicions. I used to be a big fan of trying to stay one step ahead of the narrative; I used to love trying to guess the ending. One of the reasons why I've drifted away from such reading practices is that I've found myself more and more interested in aesthetics and politics, semantic fields operating below and on the surface. I still love plot, obviously, or else I wouldn't read so much fiction, but other possibilities have slowly opened up to me, increasing my pleasure in a good book. Trying to outsmart the book does a disservice to the reader; allow yourself the amusement and gratification of being carried along. 

I mentioned that Behold the Man is very 1960s. I meant that it was a) New Wave-ish in execution and b) unhealthily concerned with Jung. The self-consciousness about myths and memetics is fun, but very temporally mired. It's hard to read these New Wave novels independent of their conditions of production. Consider that a lot of Samuel R. Delany's early stuff has a laser-like focus on the process of mythmaking (really my most intimate familiarity with New Wave sci-fi). I mention this not as criticism of Moorcock—it's impossible for him to purposefully construct timelessness, especially in a novel interested in time travel; instead, I mention it to contextualize my own reading experience. 

In the same vein, I found the last forty pages a bit of a deflation of the novel. For the first 110 pages or so, we're given as much interiority as possible, letting the reader assemble the picture of the protagonist's psychology. Once Glogauer has had his encounter with "Satan" in the desert, the reader is almost completely shut out from his thoughts, his motivations. We're left with this blank wall that goes through the motions. Which is at odds with the protagonist we have spent so much time with already, a character willing to chance death for the sake of history. To be clear, I understand Moorcock's motivation in this strategy (Glogauer has resigned himself to fulfilling history while simultaneously generating the biggest audience for his "suicide," something he's been searching for all his life), but I didn't enjoy my experience with it. However, this wasn't enough to sour my time with Moorcock. I've asked my friend to lend me some other Moorcock texts, his picks. 

As my partner and I have re-watching the Harry Potter films, I kept thinking that perhaps now is the right time to read these books. For context, I read the first one in my first year English class (way back in 2003, I think) and it didn't really impress me much. But then again, I was a tryhard teen who thought he was smarter than he was (I still am?). For Christmas one year (2007, 2008?), I gave my mother one of those deluxe hardcover sets. Here's a picture of it:
So, while sitting in our new empty apartment (I'm moving again), I gave the first book a try.

It's extremely difficult to read these books independent of the films, especially when the films are so fresh in my memory. However, as I struggled to picture what Rowling was narrating (versus what I saw in the film), I still had a fun time with the first book. First of all, it's very clear that Rowling had a long game planned even from the beginning. For example, Sirius Black is mentioned on the third or so page. The deeper world that the films hint at is even deeper and more satisfying in the book. Everything seems a bit more campy, but this isn't a negative. I found Rowling's fake Dickens voice to be charming and, if I might say, hypnotic. I'm beginning to understand, on a deeper level, the appeal of this universe beyond its blatant wish fulfilment tropes.

Being able to read it knowing the endgame in mind makes for a different and interesting read. The breadcrumbs that Rowling lays in the first book are more noticeable, but her subtlety with laying them means they're never distracting. Likewise, her skill in reiteration is to be admired. For example, she laboriously introduces something, to convey a sense of awe upon Harry and the reader, but when that something repeats, she doesn't belabour the point. Some of the more fun details have been left out of the films, such as the Hogwarts School song (which has lyrics, but every student sings them to their favourite tune) and Dumbledore is much goofier and paradoxically Machiavellian. He reminds me a lot of the Seventh Doctor, to be honest.

However, I'm still struck by the amateurish plotting. The artificial structure of the school year and the mystery ending conveniently at the same time bothered me, along with some of the more haphazard plot machinations. Rowling hasn't yet mastered a linear causal chain of events (therefore instead of and then). For example, it's beyond irritating that the kids' punishment for being in a restricted area is to be sent to another restricted area, where of course, another major clue is dispensed slipshod and slapdash. I'm totally aware that the plotting quickly tightens with even the third book (the best film), so it's an easy pill to swallow, especially when Rowling's narrator is so charming. I might also mention that Harry himself is much more sassy and fun in this first novel than in the film.