Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Why, the Last Man? Why?: CHILDREN OF MEN

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying... For No Reason


Fair Warning: This is not a review per se, but a discussion almost entirely focused on the conclusion of Children of Men.

At the end of Children of Men can anyone tell me how the world is saved, exactly? Because one baby is born? How is this even hopeful? While it indicates that the worldwide infertility problem may be spontaneously solved (oh boy, we really earned that one!), the totally-fucked political conflicts remain, war continues ravaging the globe, and Britain is still in the grip of fascism. Right? Did one baby solve all that stuff, or give us any hope that it might change?

You could tell me that is a point Children of Men makes. That the world's problems will not be resolved in such a pat manner as the miraculous birth of one child. But when I see that adorable little Jr. Christ Figure sail away on that boat bound for safe shores and glory, I sense Children of Men straining against its own story logic. I sense false hope, and confusion. I sense a cheat.


How many symbols can you find?

Allegorical science fiction is a dime a dozen. So is salt water taffy, but you may find yourself willing to pay more for imported chocolates. Dystopias, even believable dystopias, are not so hard to invent. In Children of Men, that dystopia is, yes, the trailer-gimmick that in the near future women can no longer bear children. Everything goes to hell, natch, and every simmering political conflict is brought to rolling boil, and the government goes, like, totally Dept. of Vaterland Security. Everyone's so sad they're chomping down suicide pills, and the government is so mean they shoot unarmed hippies point blank. These aren't just stand-in cardboard hippie figures, but real-deal Earth-mother midwives, and longhair pot-growing cabin-living hippies (Michael Caine, effortless, thoughtful, wrenching, embodying a full person, even though he's marked as straw-man sacrificial lamb from the moment we see him).

Many writers seem to labor under the bad impression that the imagination and invention that necessarily walk the path with s-f make natural kinsmen with political, religious or social allegory. It is not so. Making grand statements about the state of the world within an s-f framework is a more difficult task. The science-fiction story has to cohere on its own terms, and so must the metaphor, and if the fiction is running on all cylinders, they will fuel and inform one another. Children of Men's open-ended parable fails in the face of its story logic, and likewise the verso.

Children of Men does not extend its timeline into the unrecognizable distant future, but is set in a believable downer 2027. The political turmoil is more-or-less extrapolated from current problems like the inhumane immigration policies of superpower nations. Also it a allows cool tough guys like Theo (Clive Owen as a bummed-out former revolutionary... who must relocate his revolutionaryness) to still wear trench coats and get Starbucks, and there are lots of trees and mud.

Here's the fundamental misstep of Children of Men. The infertility problem is intended as a metaphor, allowing for the vague (and arguably defeatist) message in the end that we have messed up our world community so badly, that our only salvation is in the potential of future generations. This is a separate idea from the 1984-semi-coded warnings about current sociopolitical strife. Unless director and screenwriter Alfonso Cuarón has a serious gripe with the folks at Population Connection, the world is simply not having a problem having enough babies. Quite, quite, quite the opposite.

But Children of Men makes the infertility problem the central dilemma, and indeed the flashpoint that set off all the nukes that destroyed Africa, the excuse Britainia is using for establishing immigrant concentration camps. This infertility problem which we in the real world are, you know, not having completely obscures the myriad of other, more reasonable political problems the film identifies. Most of this is just leftist bad-tripping, but I'm personally inclined to agree with Cuarón's politics, so I confess the film's ultimate failure pains me a little. Like The Day After Tomorrow, the potential potency of a scary depiction of a self-destructive future is lost, in the interest of making a survival and chase thriller.

Children of Men is a pretty engrossing and exciting survival and chase thriller. Like all of Cuarón's films, it is beautifully photographed, with extraordinary sensitivity to light, weather and full of well-considered color choices. In a decade when too many hacks are simply desaturating their pictures for the easy illusion of style, Cuaron's fresh and tasteful eyes are even more valuable.

It also has a cheap suspense trump card: Theo must escort Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the first pregnant woman in 18 years, on a perilous journey to a vague rendezvous with a revolutionary group that may not exist. That is it, the sum-total of the plot. Nobody really changes or learns anything; while there's some noodling about Theo discovering personal responsibility, he's already a former revolutionary, so it's not much of a personal journey to watch him strap the boots on again, especially when the duty is so morally unambiguous. Late in the picture, Theo must also protect the newborn. Another misstep: None of this is suspenseful, because every human being in the story wants the baby to live. The baby is never in danger. We may like Theo and Kee, but it's the survival of the child that is paramount. Between the warring factions, dogface soldiers, crazy revolutionaries and noble hippies, everyone wants the baby to live. Some of them want to steal the baby, but the net result is the same. There is a muddled gender ideology at the heart of Children of Men, too. Masculine aggression has ravaged the formerly fertile landscape. Not to get too New Agey on you, but there's no sense that healing female energies are at work, or a key to restoration. Run, hide, escape, but men yielding to the awesome powers of union, creation and birth? Don't hold your breath, childrens. Some soldiers standing around slack-jawed when they see a dirty baby is not the same thing.

Early in the story Theo suggests to Kee's revolutionary pals that she be turned over to the medical establishment. No, no, goes the counter-argument, the government will claim the baby, separate it from its black mother. As insidious as that may be, who cares? The s-f world as established needs more babies. Relocating the mother and child to a Never Never Land across the sea does not bring down the government, and does not repopulate the world any more effectively than if the baby had been born in a safe, medical environment. It's hard to tell, in Children of Men's estimation, what exactly our priorities are.

This year saw, however, a better constructed, more challenging film identifying the slippery-slope to totalitarianism in exclusionist immigration policy, in a military government's attack on the arts, in the very DNA of nationalism. It was V for Vendetta. The dystopian future story made sense, the action and adventure proceeded in a forward and subversive manner, and twin political and spiritual allegories reached a logical conclusion, intertwined, and left room for questioning and interpretation.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Combustable Moving-Picture Viewer Exists One Year!


"Tesla invented this cake... but I'm eating it!"

Today marks the one year anniversary of The Exploding Kinetoscope's first post. I can honestly say it has been variously fun, torturous, a waste of time, and enriching... in short, everything blogging is all about. Other film blogs may give you more daily content. I've generated only 56 posts in the entire year (a surprise even to me). I'm happy with much of that writing, though anyone reading the introductory post can sense it's not nearly as much writing as I anticipated. But I don't know who else is going to give you 10-page essays on one performance in Teen Wolf.


Minako and Usagi lay waste to the
ExKin official birthday cake.
Eat up, ladies!

I debuted ExKin the day after Christmas, but it's also the day before my birthday. There's nothing important about that, except I wanted to have three fun days in a row. Kinetoscope was always intended as a personal exercise in improving my film writing. And I wanted to sharpen my viewing habits. They go hand in hand. I like that: a passion for art consumption and an artistic skill set holding hands, on their way to the movies. And oh my God, you guys, do I love going to the movies. And almost as good, is getting espresso after, and talking about the movies. I obviously spend more time watching and writing about film than I fake-publish here. I'm not big on New Year's resolutions, but dexterity of thought and speed are my focus for 2007; expect at least twice as much Kinetoscope next year. Faster, looser, but, well, more.

At times like this, it's natural to ask "why?" - why keep a public film diary? And why read someone else's? Well, I like blogs because they tend to be written by obsessives, those living the cinephile lifestyle in full, and those who write about film because they cannot help it, not because they're being paid to do so. The mission here is still a journey through all-things movies. It's a life of haunting the broken seats and smoky carpets of revival theaters... sleepwalking through the hidden aisles lined with dusty racks of over-sized VHS boxes... navigating the gleaming electronics store displays, head spinning from the new-plastic scent of freshly opened DVDs... What are we looking for? Where is Filmland?

It is the kinship between Famous Monsters and Cahiers. It is a tunnel between the drive-in concession stand and the arthouse projection booth. It's that weird spot where parallel streets Hollywood and Sunset meet:

When I moved to Los Angeles, I spent a lot of time making quiet pilgrimages to locations where Ed Wood, Jr. lived and worked. At the place where Hollywood and Sunset meet, is Wood's old office. And the Vista theater. And it's right by the Monogram studios. All in all, I'd say it's a holy place of movie history, though I doubt it's on many star maps, or gets many tourist visitors. If you've found it, you have deserved to find it. That's why I do it.

Self-Indulgence Bonus: My 5 Favorite Posts!
5. King Kong (2005) review, the first "real" post. Blogs are neat: write a review as distended, ridiculous, excessive as you like. No one can stop you.
4. Silly Red Eye review which caused much fury among young girls on Cillian Murphy crush-sites! No, seriously. I'm serious.
3. Some days it seems like I absolutely love every movie ever made.
2. Script changes to Kill Bill: how, why, and the net result. Stretching the limits of detail-enlargement like a missing scene from Blow-up!
1. Serious paper about narrative strategies in The Shining!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Wiseass Reviews That Never Were: 2006!

Bad Movie Habit #1: I tend not to bother seeing films I don't feel predisposed to enjoy in the theater. It's expensive, and I have a lot of Criterions to buy. So there.

This greatly limits exposure to new films I might very well enjoy, but worse, it diminishes my ability to talk about topics outside my normal range of interest. Which means I miss out on a lot of Hollywood action, romance, Serious Adult Drama, and formula comedy, I guess. Articulating that, I realize I don't bother seeing or writing about this stuff because I have little to say, or don't find them interesting. I did slightly better in 2006, vow to do better in 2007. Yes, it's seriously taking six days to write about INLAND EMPIRE, so in the meantime, I give you this junk drawer of dismissive reviews I couldn't be bothered to inflate!

Children of Men - Makes you hate fascist pigs for shooting a hippie. Meanwhile, white man saves helpless black woman, and thus the world.

Apocalypto - Fine, go live in the woods. We don't need more homophobe Jew-haters in the city anyway.


Jaguar Paw's Apocalypto Jungle Adventure

The Pursuit of Happyness - Will Smith soundly defeats Reaganomics by solving Rubik's cube. Audience glad the American dream can trickle down even to Will Smith, and that they don't have to sleep in a bathroom.

Casino Royale - Fortunately: much funnier than the first attempt at filming Casino Royale. Unfortunately: just as long and exhausting.

Borat - Allen Funt's finest hour.

The Descent - Extreme sports ladies fall in a hole and are beset by Jumpscaricus Slimius. Sports ladies and cinematographer both forget to bring enough lights. Send more holes!

The Science of Sleep - Moral: lovable eccentrics are perfect for each other. Moral 2: European girls look dirty.

Snakes on a Plane - Any plot that hinges on a murder witness' addiction to Red Bull is OK by me.

A Scanner Darkly - Do my pupils look dilated? No, seriously, is this noticeable? That's not a theater cop sitting behind us, is it? I think he's a theater cop. Am I talking out loud?

Superman Returns - Pretty shitty homemade island, Lex. Why exactly are people going to want to live on a barren rock where they can't grow food or build houses?

Art School Confidential - Dumb jokes for people who hate art for an hour, followed by a serious black comedy about commercial compromise. Guess which half the newspaper critic liked!

Hostel - I like Japanese girls, too, but for some reason I don't enjoy seeing them mutilated with blowtorches.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Notice: Black Maria Overhaul!

Boring tech note: On this fine Monday, ExKin is switching "Bloggo"-things over to a full BloggerBeta. As an artist, and typophile, I can't stand to write and present in the standard-issue Blogger template, so the parlour may look a little screwy today, as the furniture gets shifted around. Frankly, Blogger Beta's layout editor stinks for anyone who just wants to write their own HTML, but I had the foresight to create a couple dummy Beta blogs to play around with, so everything should be in order by the end of the day.

Then I'll tell you a secret about INLAND EMPIRE.

P.S. - The spellcheck's replacement suggestion for "typophile" is "pedophile". The end.

Update: Everything's now more or less in order, and a little prettier than before. The main reason to move to Beta is the new Labels function: check out the sidebar under Index and immediately find every post about Winona Ryder. I'll be adding labels to every previous post, over time. My limited CSS skills made the switchover take all day, which is ridiculous, and I would rather be working on new content. The beloved ExKin mascots of ugly '70s people shooting home movies will return, but wrangling code is not as much fun as writing about movies.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Movie Anxiety

Can today really be here? December 15, 2006 is the Los Angeles release date for David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE, the Movie Day I've most anticipated all year. Strike that - this is the day I've waited for all year. And there have been a lot of big Movie Days this year. BUT!: Our greatest living film artist, my personal-all-time-favorite director, our Mr. Lynch actually favors us with a film relatively often, but it is always an event. A momentous event. There is only one chance to see a new Lynch film for the first time; that first viewing is rarely the most interesting or satisfying, but it is the most tingly, because it is the freshest, and only unprepared viewing. Like a first date, it is the excitement of full-immersion into a new world of possibility. With Lynch, I avoid spoilers like the black plague; as far as I'm concerned, Mr. Lynch will be having his way with my brain in a few hours, with no image, plot point, color or sound anticipated. So I'm pretty antsy. In lieu of a focused entry, which would be impossible, today I present a look at a feeling a few rare films have given me which is rarely talked about. I read about helpless hysterical laughter. And abject terror. Physical, gut-level sickness. Even obsessive, unrequited movie-star love. This is something... else?

Punch

When I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love in 2002, it produced in me stress symptoms similar to a low-grade panic attack. From the clank/pump/wheeze of Jon Brion's woozy score, to the dialogue consisting entirely of unfinished sentences, to the haphazard arrangement of absurdist touches, indiscriminately harrowing or whimsical; the elements all butt against each other, do not fit, and made me feel like I was hyperventilating for 95 minutes. The scary, ecstatic feeling is comparable to the free-fall of a bungee jump or the prolonged head rush as a romance begins. This isn't to say I liked Punch-Drunk Love at first. As I stumbled out of the theater, I felt unhappy and wrung out, jittery and unable to speak coherently about the film. Total temporary disconnect, folks.


Paris

The first time I saw Jacques Rivette's Paris nous appartient [Paris Belongs to Us; 1960], was some European film class screening with a late start, and the meandering weirdo epic surely ended in the early hours of morning. I plopped down in a seat at that ill-attended, supposedly-mandatory screening, and as the stoned paranoia of bottomless political conspiracy unspooled, consuming every character, engulfing everything in their world, Something Bad happened. You can say this film is about a conspiracy gripping postwar Europe. A conspiracy so expansive and dispersedly structured that the more lit student Anne Goupil investigates her friend Juan's suicide, the further she gets from the heart of truth, until it includes everyone, everything, every building, every street, every object in every home. We often talk about being "absorbed" or "engrossed" by a film but Paris nous appartient leaks off the screen. It implicates your personal space. After Paris nous appartient has crawled over your body, you belong to Paris, and for days, weeks after, every time I see it, I cannot shake that feeling that I am part of this web, ever-expanding, ever more vague and confusing.

Yikes. I gotta split. More later.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Schoolboy Crush: SL&TIFR's Winter Exam, Extended Edition

The (sorta) quarterly film surveys-disguised-as-tests at Dennis Cozzalio's hard-working and thoughtful movie blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule are fast becoming a film Blogospherical tradition. The answers are compulsively readable, though like any Internet meme basically amount to a list of superlatives and complaints. Take/ read "PROFESSOR DAVE JENNINGS' MILTON-FREE, UNIVERSE-EXPANDING HOLIDAY MIDTERM" here! Below are expanded versions of my answers. Pfft. And they say people shouldn't take movie blogs seriously.


Screencap courtesy of Winona Online

1) What was the last movie you saw, either in a theater or on DVD, and why?

On DVD: Open Season (aka- The Recon Game; 1974), delightful kidnapping/rape/human-hunting/revenge junk with Peter Fonda and John Phillip Law. Why?: on a vigilante justice kick!

2) Name the cinematographer whose work you most look forward to seeing, and an example of one of his/her finest achievements.

Ubaldo Terzano and Bava's photography makes Blood and Black Lace my favorite looking motion picture of all time. The primary colors will sear your brain, and the pools of pastel will cool them off again. It's a perfect marriage of form and material, as the movie needs to look like a fashion magazine photo spread in the fashion show scenes and convincingly lurid for the murders.

Among the living and working: I kicked around picking Frederick Elmes and Tak Fujimoto. No way do I miss a chance to see those guys at work. BUT: right now, I'm all about Jeong-hun Jeong, Park Chan-Wook's cinematographer for Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Not always the most sumptuous, but his pictures look tired, sad, rained-upon, and beautiful.

For the olden-timey, it's gotta be Robert Burks' hallucinogenic work for Hitchcock. If you like that, check out Joe MacDonald's color pictures, especially the dress-shopping sequence in Bigger Than Life! Sorry folks, that was a crappy answer!

3) Joe Don Baker or Bo Svenson?

Baker in Charley Varrick sleeps in his clothes, sweats a lot, says stuff like "I didn't travel six-hundred miles for the amusement of morons. Izzat clear, ladies?," threatens guys with pliers and blowtorches, and his name is Molly. Now that's a heavy. And he played Winona Ryder's dad once. And yeah, he's the better B-Puss, too.

4) Name a moment from a movie that made you gasp (in horror, surprise, revelation...…)

Winona Ryder as Lelaina Pierce (yeah, right. She's playing Winona Ryder) lies on her bed in a T-shirt, cigarette smoldering in hand, staring at the ceiling like a dope, contemplating the messy, un-frothy, no-fun romantic triangle she's gotten herself into. You know, basically assuming the Crucifixion position for a generation: Jesus slept. It's the one moment in Reality Bites that transcends the Gen-X-ploitation... but that's not why I gasped. I'd already fallen hard, some 6 years earlier (Beetlejuice), but I just hadn't seen anyone photograph Ryder like that before. Gulp... Gasp!

5) Your favorite movie about the movies.

Ed Wood, 8 1/2 and David Holzman's Diary are my favorite films about the joy, agony and catharsis of being a film artist, but... as a meditation on the waking dream of cinema, it's Mulholland Dr. for me, all the twisty, dangerous way.

6) Your Favorite Fritz Lang movie.

I like it pulpy, I like it eerie, I like it wacked-out as possible, I like it Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

7) Describe the first time you ever recognized yourself in a movie.

Francesco Dellamorte -- who continually Gets The Girl and Loses The Girl, doesn't appreciate his friends enough, dresses in cool boots, black pants and white shirts -- feeling sorry for himself, gets drunk on red wine, stands in the autumn rain, talking to a statue of the Reaper. Dellamorte Dellamore. Badass, solipsist, or romantic? And I go "Are they making fun of me?"

8) Carole Bouquet or Angela Molina?

When it comes to Conchitas in your own life, you think the lusty Molinas will be harder to handle, but the Bouquets cause more trouble in the end. Therefore: Bouquet.

9) Name a movie that redeems the notion of nostalgia as something more than a bankable commodity.

Say wha'? I'm not being a wiseacre; I don't think I understand the question.

10) Favorite appearance by an athlete in an acting role.

Tor Johnson, Plan 9 From Outer Space: He's a big boy, Johnny!

11) Favorite Hal Ashby movie.

I like to watch Being There.

12) Name the first double feature you'’d program for opening night of your own revival theater.

Children of Paradise and Night of the Bloody Apes.

13) What's the name of your revival theater?

The Thanatos -- if it's an grand old movie palace. If it's a dump-hole with brick walls and folding chairs: The Exploding Kinetoscope Parlour.

14) Humphrey Bogart or Elliot Gould?

If this is a question of who is the better screen Marlowe, I refuse to dignify it with a response. That thing Elliot Gould is doing is not Philip Marlowe.

15) Favorite Robert Stevenson movie.

Yikes, don't ask me to pit Mary Poppins against That Darn Cat! Just don't... Poppins has more sheer, universal pop culture iconography, Walt's personal quality-control, and great songs, it's still funny and magical no matter what age you are... and Julie Andr--... Okay, That Darn Cat! I love TDC! so much it's repulsive. And there goes all my credibility. In all areas of life. Somebody take me inside and make me a big weird sandwich!


"D.C's wearing a wristwatch!"

16) Describe your favorite moment in a movie that is memorable because of its use of sound.

Daria Nicolodi as Gianna does an unexpected shimmy-shake as she haughtily leaves Marc Daly (David Hemmings)'s apartment in Deep Red She's trying to turn the head of the disinterested pianist, but also doing it to remind herself she's a desirable woman: a non-diegetic electric guitar plays a startling, cute and sassy boogie-down lick. I don't know if Marc can hear it, but we can, and that's what matters.

17) Pink Flamingos-- yes or no?

Yes, it is the funniest comedy in the history of motion pictures. Yes, if it were made today the entire cast and crew would be arrested for terrorism. Yes, the movie celebrates the spirit of America by tearing apart everything it stands for.

No, I'm not overstating the case for Pink Flamingos. Anyone who says otherwise will be executed for assholeism!

18) Your favorite movie soundtrack score.

Ennio Morricone's crazysexycool Diabolik, but only if Christy belting out "Deep Down" counts as part of the score.

However: The moment the mournful, noble trumpet begins playing on "L'Arena" on Morricone's score for The Mercenary is the most powerful film music I've ever heard. It reduces me to tears by the end. When it was repurposed in Kill Bill Vol. 2, as soon as the music began, I knew what was coming. It set me of immediately.

19) Fay Wray or Naomi Watts?

Naomi Watts is the better actress. Fay Wray is the better Ann Darrow. I would like to have seen Ms. Wray play Jet Girl, however.

20) Is there a movie that would make you question the judgment and/or taste of a film critic, blogger or friend if you found out they were an advocate of it?

"Question," certainly, but not "discount out of hand." Opinions alone are worthless: their relative value is in the "why." So: Donnie Darko, the collected anything of Kevin Smith, Twin Town, Don Bluth movies, Hard Candy. But I'm always willing to listen.

21) Pick a new category for the Oscars and its first deserving winner.

Best Promotional Poster Art for a Motion Picture. The intention would simply be to improve the state of movie advertising by providing motivation for more handsome posters. This year's winner: The Black Dahlia.

22) Favorite Paul Verhoeven movie.

Robocop. R-C and Showgirls are the only Verhoeven In America movies in which his satire is pleasurable in a way that actually makes me laugh, and doesn't seem to shame the audience for enjoying genre stories.

23) What is it that you think movies do better than any other art form?

Better than any other artform, film preserves images of beautiful people in motion. Not to be coy: I am talking about Eros.

24) Peter Ustinov or Albert Finney?

For Hercules, and in all other things: dude, Blackbeard's Ghost. Ustinov to the end. What's wrong with you people!? I'm just sayin': Blackbeard's Ghost.

25) Favorite movie studio logo, as it appears before a theatrical feature.

a) Warner Brothers' three-fat, wormy white stripes W in a black oval against an angry red field before The Exorcist.
b) Universal's miniature aeroplane ride before the creepy-adorable miniatures of The Mummy's opening credits.
c) Alternate selection: The Vestron Video logo before anything and everything.

26) Name the single most important book about the movies for you personally.

Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman's Midnight Movies, 1983.

27) Name the movie that features the best twist ending. (Please note the use of any "spoilers" in your answer.)

Spoiler: Psycho (1960). End spoiler.

28) Favorite Francois Truffaut movie.

Jules and Jim, I guess. Runner up... Indifferent: The Movie!

29) Olivia Hussey or Claire Danes?

Olivia Hussey never gave a performance as good as Danes on "My So-Called Life". Claire Danes never made anything as fun as Black Christmas. Call that round a draw.

So as Juliets… Claire Danes didn't take her top off, seems to misunderstand what the word "wherefore" means, but gets to wear better costumes and is in the more compelling film. Olivia Hussey's fair busting at the seams of her costume, and gives the competent performance. Round 2: Draw.

As babes: judge if you must, I'm a Claire Danes man. Danes it is.

30) Your most memorable celebrity encounter.

I made a joke about "special sauce" while Morgan Spurlock (Super-Size Me) and I used adjacent urinals.

31) When did you first realize that films were directed?

I realized the production tasks of a director when I read a children's special-effects overview called Magic in the Movies. Either the book or my comprehension made it sound like a lot of boring organizational work, and not a creative job.

The real answer, the realization that a director can be the key author of a film, makes vital creative decisions and might have a body of work worth exploring because of that authorship, came after watching "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episodes, asking my parents about the host, and then seeing Vertigo. Who turned a potentially hackneyed rooftop chase sequence into a mini psychodrama about perilous mortality, the queasy moral issues of self-preservation, and the sublime terror of psychological free-fall? The director did that. I realized films were directed, while hanging off a rooftop with Detective Scottie Ferguson. I was 10 years old, and so afraid I was almost sick, and I knew whose fault it was. Hitchcock did it to me.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Devil Looks Over Your Shoulder: Film Criticism On the Run

"The critics who can’t break you / unwittingly, they make you." - Morrissey

Prologue - M. Night Shyamalan Goes Nutzo / Manny's Last Laugh


A martyr for the cause. Never forget.

In the most blood-pressure-popping, teeth-gnash-inspiring moment of M. Night Shyamalan's illiterate, arrogant summer flopparoo, Lady in the Water (2006), the director sics a mythological monster that he made up on a snooty straw-man film critic played by Bob Balaban. It is clearly intended as comeuppance for a minor villain. It is staged as if it were a Stand-Up-and-Cheer! moment for the audience. The narrative justification is that the film critic has given sad-sack everyman Mr. Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) bad information about how to identify mystical powers that lay dormant inside the residents of a Philadelphia apartment complex, and now the magical visiting Narf (Bryce Dallas Howard) is dying for The Critic's mistake.

Now, it would take a volume - and I hope such a book is written someday - to fully unpack the hubris on display in Lady in the Water. It borders on psychosis. In the scene under discussion, Lady fully leapfrogs over the border, jumpkicks the border, and shatters the border, and crosses into hateful insanity. The attack on the critic is a tactic (one among many in Lady in the Water) to make the film uncriticizablee. It is predicated on a lengthy list of false assumptions, accusations, and primary misapprehensions.


Most insecure man in the world?

Why does Shyamalan need to lash out at critics at all, let alone in such an infantile way? Isn't this a man Newsweek called "the next Spielberg" on the cover of the magazine? Does Shyamalan imagine that popular summer movie audiences have such venom for critics that they will enjoy seeing one shredded in his movie? We are told - nay ordered - in Lady in the Water to view the story as a Fairy Tale, and with the rules of Fairy Tale narrative in place... where does petty revenge on film critics fit into the Fairy Tale model? Within the story itself, the critic has only answered questions asked of him by the misguided hero, not imposed his opinions on others with malicious intent, arrogance, or presumed authority on his own part. The misstep Cleveland Heep makes is in misreading the information given to him by the critic: Heep asks what to characteristics to look for in an archetypical protective "Guild". The critic reluctantly answers, Heep accidentally misidentifies the mystic "Guild", and almost kills his savior-figure in the process. This is hardly the critic's fault, since in the end, his information was perfectly good, valid, and true. The critic could hardly be blamed, anyhow, since such an archetype, as presented and explained in Lady, does not really exist. As always, Shyamalan's movies end up saying the opposite of the idea he intends.

The film critic in Lady in the Water doesn't even offer film criticism, or evaluative opinions. The information he imparts is basic narrative theory, observation on story structure, and light analysis of mythological archetypes. Shyamalan has conflated a number of different film-writing jobs and purposes into "critics". Not that he understands film theory. Not that he has probably read academic criticism or any film theory.

For some reason, the critic is named "Harry Farber", presumably after Manny Farber.

If M. Night Shyamalan thinks Manny Farber is a suitable stand-in for Every Movie Critic, pardon my French, but he's a fucking idiot, who's never read Manny Farber. That, or the guy is seriously nuts.

I. Everybody's a Critic: Toward De-Mystifying Film Criticism

Movie reviewers, critics proper, film historians, academic critics, film theorists, DVD reviewers, diarists, columnists, biographers, interviewers, industry reporters, etc. ... and etc. ... The entire family of persons who write and/or talk publicly about film have only the obvious in common, but otherwise undertake entirely different tasks, with different concerns. A misconception among non-film-literati is, sadly, that they all do roughly the same thing: review movies and tell you if they're "good" or not. Nearly every film text available on Amazon.com has riotously funny amateur User Reviews, should one scroll into the abyss: see people complain that David Skal's sociocultural analysis and reception study of American horror film and fiction, The Monster Show is not a thorough historical "making of" reference, and doesn't cover European films... though neither is Skal's stated, explicit purpose. Witness the lament of the Pauline Kael one-star reviewer: "she doesn't like Star Wars! Mrs. Kael obviously was in the wrong line of work. If you can't sit back and let the child in you enjoy 2 hours of well-crafted imagination than you can't be a legitimate critic of mainstream movies, can you? Jaded pretentious bores like Kael should just review 'Art' films." "The author struggles to make some kind of point in this book, unfortunately, neither she nor the reader can figure out what it is," moans a reader of Martha Nochimson's blazing, pioneering feminist study of David Lynch, The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood. These books are respectively a jaunty cultural history, a collection of challenging film reviews pitched to a popular but intelligent audience, and a strange and wonderful scholarly analysis of a film author's oeuvre. Except for possibly Nochimson's Lynch study, none are pitched in language or founded in ideas that cannot be readily grasped by a high school graduate with no institutional film schooling. All have simply been encountered by befuddled readers who are in way over their heads. The confused, angry responses are roughly analogous to Shyamalan's critic-massacre in Lady in the Water.

Pity "Mrs. Kael", who was, of course, in the perfect line of work, wore maturity with pride, completely unconcerned about a "child living in her" (?!), didn't need legitimizing by anyone, and never particularly liked art films. Pity also, the poor readers who accidentally encounter a breed of film writing and simply cannot believe it exists.

Certain professional film writers, from Armond White to David Bordwell (maybe on the cranky-scale not so far apart, but certainly on the talent-o-meter), have been blogger-bashing in recent interviews, editorial pieces, some even in their regular-beat film writing. Some of them are plainly disgusted that non-pros think they can do the job, some seem to be fearing for their jobs, and some are just unimpressed with the level of writing to be found in Blogland. The net result is that they sound like Amazon reviewers who ordered the wrong book. (To be fair, Bordwell doesn't even mention film bloggers, just complains that "no one, as far as I know, is producing what I'd like to see," but is frustratingly vague about exactly what he wants to see. As a not-wise man once put it, then "neither [he] nor the reader can figure out what it is.")

I won't get very self-reflexive in this piece, but the by-design scattershot subject and tone of the Exploding Kinetoscope blog is both a constant source of frustration and a liberating blessing for me. I would try to focus more, but... well, it's my blog. The idea is to reflect what it's like to get coffee with me and talk about movies. So some days it's jokes, some days reviews, some days news, some days polished textual analysis that I have worked on for a month. Some days I go read a book by myself.

The history of reportage and writing about film began with movie-love stricken intellectuals trying to defend the medium as worthy of any mental effort at all. Writing about film in any capacity, at that point in history, included the value judgment that film is worth writing about.

The Ultimate Matrix Collection DVD includes two audio commentaries on each film. One track with Dr. Cornel West and controversial philosopher Ken Wilber, another with film critics Todd McCarthy, John Powers and critic/biographer/weirdo David Thomson. Indulge in all six commentaries to hear a hilarious cage-match of brainpower, in which three film critics are soundly, skull-crunchingly trounced. West and Wilber discuss history, consciousness, world religion, social politics, technology and art. The critics make snarky comments about how bored they are, and don't even demonstrate much fluency in film language or history. Frankly, they sound like they don't know very much about movies.

This is going someplace specific.

The Daily Reviewer Type (who births one-word poster blurbs), and the print columnist critic with a little more elbow room (who births full-sentence poster blurbs), whether shallow or insightful, taste the wrath of cinephiles and filmmakers because they too often seem to offer a consumer report approach to art. It can be wearying, and possibly unhealthy for the medium and for viewers. This danger lies in the presentation of the separateness of a critic's expertise, when it is better regarded as a mark along a continuum of how all audiences evaluate film.

That school of criticism remains interesting to people, because it is a slightly elevated version of how they experience and discuss movies, whether they realize it or not. "What did you see this weekend? Yeah? Oh, how was it? Cool, I'll check it out." With hope, the professional version is articulate, and the critic will have the virtue of seeing a more films than the average reader, and sooner. Everybody goes to movies. Everybody has opinions, and potentially has insights about the movies. The critic's opinion isn't unassailable; they're in print and being paid because they - again, with hope - are informed about film, and have the ability to organize their thoughts. Pro critics complaining about impudent bloggers don't understand the function of blogging, or even film review websites. They are, in effect, trying to tell the world not to talk about movies without permission. From the Blogosphere to Ain't It Cool News to 24 Lies a Second, internet film writing is about taking the unnecessary mystique out of talking constantly about film. It's an electronic coffeeshop table discussion. Some bloggers would undoubtedly take issue with this, since it willfully delegitimizes the medium. So be it. That there are dozens of fine bloggers who could do Armond White's job better is beside the point. When M. Night Shyamalan kills a man for having opinions about films, he's killing everyone in his audience.

If you're reading this, and more importantly, if you're not reading this: you are a practicing movie critic. Deal with it.

II. I'll Tell You What to Think: Toward Re-Mystifying Film Criticism


The argument above is admittedly facile and obvious: "everybody's a critic" interpreted as optimistic populism. Below is... something else. Everybody is a critic, but they are not all good critics. They are not all smart critics. Everybody is certainly not a writer. It is not the inherent fineness of thought that separates the film critic's work from the filmgoer's conversation. Their intersecting spheres remain separate because of the writer's applied skills, education, and dedication to the practice of thinking and talking about film in regular, thorough manner.

Most film-blogging necessarily falls into the non-scholarly categories of review, op-ed, news, and film appreciation, because the immediacy of the medium largely excludes extensive textual analysis, position papers, academic discussion. Those sort of pieces take a long time to write, and the reality of production makes them too precious to "waste" on blogs for most writers. So the majority of bloggery resembles the work of the published newspaper critic, but without credential, credibility or the benefit/constraints of an editor. Confession: I cheated. It's the process of "reviewing" that should be made less mysterious, and criticism should reclaim its potential power.

The great film critic exerts intellectual muscle-mass and illuminates the subject under scrutiny. Beyond that, pick your poison; the truly great critic diagrams his own boxing ring, and fights a fight you haven't seen before. That doesn't necessarily involve flashier writing, formal experimentation, more acerbic opinions, more discerning, or even more open-minded taste. But it can involve any of those things. The great ones may be sharp and insightful or receptive and interpretive, cold, warm, but they will be separate. The future of popular film criticism is going to look just like its past: a smattering of remarkable, defining work amid a gray wash of lightweights thinking they're doing the same job. Do not despair of this. Stand in the warm spots.

The deck is stacked against the film critics on the Ultimate Matrix Collection commentaries. Mr. McCarthy is not the film-writing equivalent of Dr. West. Academic writers could have been summoned for the task, but these review-critics are not involved in the same practice as scholars. They aren't smart enough to fulfill the requirements of Great Critics and illuminate the complex text in any way, which may be expected. They are, however, pathetically unable to support even their knee-jerk reactions as viewers. A willingness and ability to discuss the how-and-why of his opinions is what separates the competent critic from any other moviegoer. The Great Critic is allowed, and welcome to bury us under a mountain of opinion, because their opinions are better-expressed, supported, pleasurable and stimulating to experience, while the bad critic, the average critic and the man-on-the-street schmuck's opinions are not. The Great Critic makes the reader a better viewer and critic in the process.

That is, ultimately, all I've got. The quality that makes a critic is a willingness to fearlessly, openly criticize. Whether this is Andrew Sarris making mincemeat of auteur theory by ranking and canonizing directors like a kid organizing baseball cards, or popular Roger Ebert insisting unpopular Dark City is the best film of 1998, or Bazin sweating over the politics of editing dialectics, these forward-thinking opinions matter for their originality, the insistence, acumen and passion of expression.

All film writing, even the theoretical and historical, involves tastemaking in some capacity. The critic is a writer who should engage the task of opinion-cultivation full-on, with force and conviction. The critic must say the cruelest thing, the extreme thing, the strangest thing, must contribute that thought which only he is qualified, and able to give: opinion flanked by brain and gut. Everyone else is just a reviewer. May they all be eaten alive.

Andrew Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon, gloriously vast in scope, lasts all weekend long at his entertaining No More Marriages! blog. His definitions are blurry (" I regard film criticism as simply the larger conversation about film"), but inclusive and positive. Check it totally out.