Thursday, January 04, 2007

My 10 Favorite Films of 2006... But NOT YOURS

The Rules of the Game

-Skip this introduction, if you have no problem with year-end film lists.

-We make lists because lists are fun. Even more fun, I've illustrated with The Hot Movie Babes of 2006!

-According to my "2006 Comprehensive Viewing Diary", I saw 129 films in 2006. Knowing I failed to record a few, that can probably be pumped up to 150. This is "pathetic" and I resolve to see more in 2007... however, I did manage to read more books in '06 than '05, or ever before, and frankly, I'm not willing to cut into that figure, no matter how much I like movies.

-If the movie was released in 2005, but there was no way to see it in the U.S. until 2006, it is a 2006 release for this list. While it may not be "fair" to include 2005 festival-and-foreign openers like Manderlay, The Proposition or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, I feel it's a greater disservice to never give them an opportunity for listhood.

-If I see a commonality between the films below, it is that they are not making many year-end round-ups, and that on their release, I was generally frustrated or confused about how they were being discussed or ignored. I tend to be drawn to genre films because they engage, trouble and move us in a more seductive manner than Important Message Movies. Below are: a biopic that leaps the pitfalls of the genre by being about something larger than the subject herself. Two crime thrillers crafted by master hands but in which no one cared to look for what they might be "about". A comic book adaptation with more to say about fascism, imagination and the revolutionary spirit than Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men combined. A political documentary so grand it should make Michael Moore buy a gun and shoot himself in the head for crimes against humanity, but which isn't even eligible for Academy Awards. Gory Korean weirdness, smudgy digital mindscapes, and cartoon headtrips whose strange forms distracted writers from engaging their beauty. One hilarious, obnoxious foreigner goofing on Americans, making the nation pout in response... but not the one you think. A goony summer kiddie blockbuster so universally despised, no critic could be bothered to explain its success, unless to say it must be that audiences are stupid. Er... right.

I didn't gerrymander my list to favor underdogs, it just came out that way.

If you find these films unworthy, dare I suggest you did not think about them hard enough? I suppose I do.

-The disclaimer is unnecessary for Exploding Kinetoscope, because I'm happy to title it a "favorites" list. Those questioning the validity of "Ten Best" or the vague "Top Ten" lists might find peace by replacing a critic's "Best" with "Favorite".

If critics aren't qualified to make lists unless they've seen every film that year, then neither are they qualified to write about film unless they've seen every film in history. Neither are you qualified to have a best friend until you have tried out every person who ever lived. You do not have a favorite food, a favorite sweater, or favorite Beatles song. Are favorites inherently interesting? Must we undergo this semantic torture and soul-searching for a game that, for a rare occasion, allows critics to write only about films they enjoyed?

Look, I'll read your list, if you read mine. It's fun, and maybe we can convince each other to watch ten movies through each others' eyes. As Mr. Presley said, the Halls of Darkness have Doors That Open. Peek ye, through mine door!:

10. Wacky Races: Manderlay


Manderlay takes on the specific problem of America's foundation in slavery and the ultimate failure of the marginal improvements in race relations in the aftermath of abolition. Those are things Lars Von Trier thinks the nation does not like to talk about honestly, and bleak conclusions we rarely reach. An unfair generalization, perhaps, but this is hardly about being "fair". Manderlay is the more difficult film than Dogville. It's the meaner, funnier satire, too.

As Mr. Morrissey said, "I have spent my whole life in ruin, because of people who are nice." And so Manderlay and Dogville's terrible truths are ideas no one wants to hear, not ever. Are there possible problems with, gulp, democracy? No, no please, it cannot be that the very notion of kindness, charity and goodwill can be problematized in practice. As relevant and necessary as it will always be to take stock of race relations, Manderlay is, beneath that, a satire not of American racism, but a cultural tendency to simplify unfathomably complex issues. Beneath that, a parodic look at how and why social progressives do their good works in general. Manderlay is, beneath that, a puckish pantomime of human nature, as we struggle with moral dilemmas we've brought on ourselves, strive to do good for all the wrong reasons, and hurt each other in the name of salvation. Nice try, human beings!

Oh, and for my money, David Thomson can keep his Nicole Kidman fetish. I'm happy to develop one revolving around Bryce Dallas Howard. Reasons We Go to the Movies #1: To look at pretty girls.

9. I Outta V Ain't Bad: V for Vendetta


Apologies for not having a photo of Natasha Wightman, who is hotter.

The only Alan Moore adaptation of which the Old Magician should be proud is the one that made him recoil the hardest? Ah well, a crazy genius is still crazy. The Wachowski Bros. and James McTeague may or may not realize how their minor story tinkering rejiggers the politics of Moore's novel to become an unambiguous call to active revolution, rather than a meditation on the process by which the power of the political symbol to makes its meaning manifest. The comic remains superior (superior to anything on this list?), but I'm unconvinced a madder Hollywood big-budgey could've been made from the material. McTeague makes a smashing debut... and no one would have made this movie but the Wachowskis.

8. Fertile Crescent City: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts


This movie is not about hot babes.

Here comes the story of the hurricane. The media whipped itself into a frenzy with tales of organized terror-squads of rapists and hospital snipers, implying without saying that perhaps the flooding of New Orleans was a modern cleansing of Sodom and Gomorrah. The implication is that no matter how much suffering CNN was happy to show you, not to go down to Louisiana and try to help. So never again should you let anyone tell you Spike Lee is irresponsible, too angry, or an upstart.

When the Levees Broke does its most important work as Lee documents and explains in level-headed terms exactly How It Went Down. Did you know how a levee works in engineering terms? The various construction options and cost of upkeep? The issues involved in building port cities? Exactly where to point the finger for what happened in the New Orleans flood and why? You will learn these things.

Spike Lee's Requiem, though structured as a Jazz Funeral, does not quite propose that we have entirely lost one of the greatest American cities. It proposes that something died inside the national character that summer, not because of a natural disaster, but the unnatural actions of a government toward its people. Because of laziness, ignorance, greed and lies, and oops! Those are all human failings. If you hadn't reason enough before, the Hurricane Katrina debacle should tell you: someone seriously does not care about your safety and well being. Not my president!

Levees is also about celebrating and remembering to value our national treasures of art and culture. There are sequences that Reel Film called "completely unrelated and downright pointless tangents (i.e. the history of jazz within the city)." It's a dead-wrong evaluation. In such a vast document, other critics have been most moved with political outrage; some needed Levees to truly understand the unfathomable damage to lives of survivors. The human loss would be atrocious in any situation; that it took place in a city whose primary contributions are to arts and culture make it easier to ignore for some, and harder to bear for others. Levees documents the most important Mardi Gras of all time. It's not a party: The Carnival, Mikhail Bakhtin explains, is a playing field for working out all issues, socioeconomic, political, communal, of death and renewal. And New Orleans certainly has a lot they deserve to work out.

7. Believeth All Things: A Scanner Darkly


Like a beam of pink light from Philip K. Dick's brain, comes Scanner, adapted by the most sympathetic sloppy philosopher on the contemporary movie scene. Linklatter is a Problem Author, a man whose body of work is half films I Do Not Get. I don't get why he wants to make School of Rock when he has Slacker and Waking Life rattling around his brain. Guru or crackpot, it is not mine to say, but Scanner Darkly's full-service breakfast-in-bed of hashish brownies and bong water provides more food for thought than any previous PKD adaptation. No other filmmaker has been philosophically nimbleminded enough to tackle the material. Ridley Scott, Spielberg, Verhoeven never stood a chance.

The rotoscoped animation augments the performances of those gorgeous icebergs Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, but obscures frenetic freaks Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey, Jr. It does afford an imaginary look at Ryder's breasts (truly, the movies are the stuff of which dreams are made!), but as any fan who's seen Autumn in New York can tell you, they don't look like that. Ryder's is the performance for which I couldn't wait, this year. As in her best work, Ryder constructs a character out of emotional building blocks that rub disconcertingly against her real life. Sympathetic and nervous, we watch her Donna attempt to drown her fears and personal disappointments in a pond of Slack, only to fall in, sink over her head, and nearly lose herself in nervous breakdown. To be sure, it is uncomfortable to watch, as Donna melts down while trying to force her coke-rushing brain to slow down so she can explain the intertwining reasons she's doing so many drugs, can't get closer to her boyfriend, and completely needs him. So uncomfortable that a fainthearted actor wouldn't have taken us there, let alone herself.

Reeves' monologue, in which he explores his filthy house like an anthropologist of the Self, investigating himself in both senses of the word, is my favorite male performance of the year. In his stoned terror, Reeves' Bob Arctor wonders if he has inadvertently undone the Gordian knot of his existence, been doomed, having unravelled his own spiritual DNA. "What does a scanner see?," he asks. "Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can't any longer see into myself. I see only murk." Arctor gropes for the reasons we turn to the fantastic for stories to explain the mysteries of existence. The Biblical reference is important, for what is the Holy Bible but a fantasy novel investigation of the soul? The power of fantastic fiction is in metaphor so incisive as to cut through the muddle of perception, and scan for the truth. It is a moment of clarity.

6. All That Killin and Fuckin, and No Sons: The Departed


At this point in the list, and until we reach #1, the ranking means little to me. The Departed... man, I'm pretty rave-prone, you know? But in The Departed, Martin Scorsese builds within his exciting little cops-and-robbers story, a complex web of visual motifs to match William Monahan's meticulous infernal machine of a screenplay. Doubled and reversed characters abound: at the story's core, DiCaprio's Bill Costigan a good man duty-bound to act like a criminal, and Damon's Colin Sullivan a bad man honor-sworn to act like a do-gooder. They vye to please two stand-in fathers, one dark (Nicholson's nutzo crime boss Frank Costigan), one light (Sheen's Capt. Queenan). The men chase each other without realizing it, through endless corridors of ironic payoffs, mirrored situations, loaded dialogue. "I'm a detective, I'll find you!" Colin flirts with a woman, a pickup line from a man who can't find himself. "One does tend to follow the other," goes a line late in the picture I wouldn't spoil for you, but it's in reference to anything but the cat-and-rat games Bill and Colin are playing. Visual riffs on Psycho, Vertigo, The Wild Bunch, The Third Man and Kill, Baby... Kill play witty cinephile sports, even as they expand the real issues of identity and personal responsibility addressed by the cracking crime story.

Even The Departed's admirers seemed to agree it is not obviously "about" something, unlike the self-announcing weight of Raging Bull or Last Temptation of Christ. I smell a rat. The Departed is about personal identity in crisis. It examines how the ambiguities implicit in acting or performance may corrode self-reliance, loyalty and family responsibility. The Departed sees the exhausting, chaotic blur as we are forced to shift between domestic, public, private, and work identities. In short, it's a story about the fractious stress of getting ahead in America: don't stop till you're numb.

5. Into the White: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance


This movie is totally about hot babes.

Like his spiritual brother-in-arms Quentin Tarantino, Park Chan-Wook makes sick joke exploitation movies staged as handsome arthouse films, and bursting with delirious style. As with Tarantino, beyond the virtuoso picture-making, star-turn performances and youthful energies, it is difficult to get anyone to talk seriously about the story, the thematic elegance and the content beneath the exciting form. Lady Vengeance completes Park's loose trilogy, with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, but who in the press asked what that might mean? Hint: it's not just about revenge. If that's as far as you can get, you're shortchanging yourself as much as you are Park Chan-Wook.

It seems to me that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance gradually exposed its characters to a world of moral relativity, and the difficulty of evaluating your motivation and responsibilities in light of knowing everyone is in the same predicament. Sympathy, after all, can be a real bitch.

Oldboy expands the idea, leaving characters and audience reeling at the prospect of surviving in a chaotic universe. Is it a shaggy dog story, a man being punished for a crime he had no idea he committed? No, it is about the impossibility of trying to chart and control every unforeseen consequence of every action. Oldboy expands Mr. Vengeance's existential dilemma: what if you do not ultimately even answer to yourself? It seems to suggest we take those moments of happiness as they come, before the awful reality of their context is revealed.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance has the trilogy's most hopeful ending, though our protagonist, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae), goes through no less agonizing a journey. She suffers similar psychic trauma to Ryu in Mr. Vengeance, learning that your Right may conflict with someone else's. She is battered around by the absurdist universe that tortures Oh Dae-Su in Oldboy. She nearly slits her throat on the blade of her own poor choices: having sympathy for the vengeful may not be the same as approval, assistance, or enabling them.

In a trilogy so black and comfortless, how can Geum-ja find any salvation without Park copping-out? It's a salvation hard-won, but Geum-ja finds it. Revel in your ability to create opportunities for redemption. Be grateful for the instances when you greet a second chance having learned a lesson. Bury your face in them and dig in.

4. Queen of the Universe: The Notorious Bettie Page


Gretchen Mol gives the performance of a lifetime, and easily of the year, but how the film was ignored and overlooked as a major artistic statement is one of the great mysteries of 2006.

How does one make a sympathetic, honest biopic about a subject who seems in some ways to have later turned her back on her celebrated work? Is this possible, without pulling punches? Or without seeming to end in defeat? Is it unfair to a good Christian woman to claim her life as a third wave feminist sex-positive parable, when she never claimed to be fighting the good fight in the first place? Since Bettie Page, after her career as nudie pin-up, bondage model, grindhouse-movie dancer, and Miss January 1955, was born again into the Spirit, is there a way to make Bettie's story end in triumph not just for the enduring icon, but for the woman? Can we reconcile the destinies of Bettie Page, Pin-Up Queen and Bettie Mae Page from Nashville, TN? How does one responsibly depict Page's modeling work for the reasons it is beloved, without casting it in different ideological light than the participants ever considered? Is there a way to depict the dismay of government and religious forces about pornography without smugly portraying them as repressed killjoys? Is there continuity between pin-up photography and pornography? What about bondage and fetish photography and pornography? For whom, and how can these things be liberating? The model? The audience? The ironic or nostalgic audience?

Mary Harron's Bettie-pic decides that rather than avoid these questions, they are the primary issue at hand. With more grace than Citizen Kane itself, The Notorious Bettie Page charts those conflicts at the heart of our lives, and decides it is how we conduct ourselves amid a sea of inevitable contradictions and ambiguity that defines us. The biography is sketched in bold, decisive strokes, and then the characters are left to interpret the meaning of their own lives. What do we regret, and of what are we proud? Who tells us what our sins are? Who wields judgement and defines our moral codes? Most importantly, Harron and Guinevere Turner's challenging screenplay asks: of all the patriarchy's methods of controlling female sexuality and yoking feminine power, which manifestations hurt the most?

There aren't easy answers, but neither does Notorious turn Page's story into a grim moral quandary, when we are probably here as fans who want to understand how a woman in ball-gag and ropes could look so sunny, make it all so fun. It is not a harrowing film, even though every man in Page's normal life is out to control, dominate and do violence to her free will and self-confident, natural sexuality. It's ultimately funny and warm because everyone wants to exploit Bettie Page... except the exploitation filmmakers, and fetish and nudie magazine photographers: they are artists, and they love, understand, and empower her, in their own naive way. Is that unfair? It seems pretty clever, perceptive and accurate to me, and so Notorious Bettie Page lets Bettie Page reclaim her own myth, and in return gives us back a strong, smart, talented, funny woman at the core of a great American icon.

Mott Hupfel's cinematography is so gorgeous that any chrome postcard and mid-century girlie mag collector will weep. Achieving what The Aviator could not, Hupfel recreates the photographic style of not just the year in which a scene took place, but of whatever photographer was shooting her at the time. It is no gimmick, and no approximation. Anyone intimately familiar with Bunny Yeager's saturated pastels, Irving Klaw's grainy dance loop films, and the cute griminess of Varietease should be in awe of Hupfel's ability to not only imitate but integrate and expand these styles, and make them play, butt heads and help the director make story and emotional points. And I mean it: at first glimpse of Bettie splashing in the searing-blue Florida waves, I cried. It means people can still be photographing films that look like Bunny's pictures, and the choice is being consciously made to create ugly films.

3. Avast Me Hearties!: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest


I was talking with my friend Arlen today about "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", and how if you caught an episode by accident, it probably seemed ridiculous, silly, perhaps bad. It is none of those things, as anyone fully invested in that subversive fantasy and rich character drama knows. You gotta be a fan, though, or you're never gonna know the joys of being a fan.

From the unlikeliest source comes a new form of pop entertainment. Disney, beginning probably with the 2002 video game Kingdom Hearts is the first major American media conglomerate to begin crafting entertainment that seems designed around the desires, needs and dreams of fan culture. This is a big deal. The Japanese pop culture industry has for years reaped the benefits of catering to otaku and the broader audience alike. Kingdom Hearts crossed-over anime and Final Fantasy style RPGs with the texts beloved to the similarly obsessive Disney-head crowd. Smart marketing move, but that's not all: smart, generous storytelling, willing to open its fictive world. Here's an area where cinema writers, who typically love analyzing closed, unmalleable texts fear to tread. Pirates 2 is for Henry Jenkins.

The story is built out of the elements that satisfy and inspire fan-fiction writers. Careful, obsessive attention to the arcs and quirks of every periphery character, piling on the backstory and complicated relationships, until the puffy summer blockbuster assumes Wagnarian proportion. Every character combination would be a potentially interesting pairing for slashfic. Holes in character histories and the timeline are left open for imagining more adventures. New fantasy elements and characters are introduced with such color and variety, they expand the Pirate-verse in every direction. Any Pirates fan gets a three hour cruise on the funniest, sexiest, most breathless, dreamiest galleon on the water. The rest of you may be lost at sea.

Pirates keeps both hands free to spin gold out of solid fanservice. The Disneyland fetishist is moistening up as soon as the scene moves to the deep bayou where the ride opens... but when we get cameos by the "famous" fireflies, believe me: Annual Passholders everywhere spontaneously generated E-Tickets in our pants. Captain Jack Sparrow is granted the biggest, baddest entrance since Frank-N-Furter; every Janet Weiss in the audience faints. The revelation of a magical, literal Moral Compass immediately spawns 1000 pages of naive erotica about what happens if any of the cast points it at anyone else. Phallic sword jokes, Elizabeth in drag, everyone in bondage and homoerotic whipping scenes means something for everyone! The cosmology explodes into a specialized Land of the Dead (World's End), demons and monsters, mythological curses and Vodun priestesses. A gambling scene explains a game you can play at home. Don't get the ladies started on the empowering role models to be found in Keira Knightley's liberated lady Elizabeth Swann or Naomie Harris' scary sexed-up Tia Dalma. Boys get to appreciate the sacrifices of their martyred fathers like Will Turner, girls get both hands-on high-sea adventure, and pretty dresses, and Monster Kids all want a pet Kracken. The cosplay opportunities provided by Tia Dalma, Davey Jones, and Cannibal King Jack Sparrow are boggling.

The effort to drive fans out of their skulls with ecstasy runs so deep it's downright frightening. When Elizabeth tricks the crew of a ship on which she's stowed away into believing a ghost is onboard, the tale concocted by the superstitious sailors is a rejected storyline for The Haunted Mansion, proposed in 1957. Now, tell me that isn't crafted with care.

2. Boy, You Sure Are Good At Telling a Funny Story!: The Black Dahlia


Yeah, right, lady!

Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) sits nude in bed, but for a fedora perched at a silly angle on his head, a cigarette in his mouth and a femme fatale (Hilary Swank) sprawled on his chest. The movie detective is stripped down to his most basic, iconic props (er, heh heh, where's your gun, buddy?). So is that what makes film noir? Shadows, macs, gangsters and cool jazz? That God of Delirium, Brian De Palma, knows it is not the fashionable trappings that compose the core of a genre. It is the filmmaking language that creates their narrative conventions and, here, the worldview. If De Palma knows anything, it's the biology of thrillers, crime pictures, detective stories. Film noir is ruled by a black whirlpool, ready to suck down anyone, anytime. Once it's got you, you do not escape. That's the heart of noir. At the mutilated center of The Black Dahlia's whirlpool is the enigma of Elizabeth Short.

The film is based on a novel by celebrated douchebag James Ellroy (don't get me started, folks, there's not enough mill for that much grist!). The story fabricates wholesale nearly every fact concerning Short's life and the investigation of her 1947 murder. It should drive the true crime buff in me up the wall, and it seems to have aggravated Ellroy fans (I imagine them in a constant state of aggravation anyway), but as in all of De Palma, the real subject is the Movies.

As Bucky investigates the Short murder, all he uncovers is the bottomless, swirling despair of noir's amoral, consuming void. There are not goodies and baddies, no Light Woman and Dark. From the corridors of power to the average upstanding cop to the disenfranchised would-be starlet, everyone is corrupt, lying, weak and guilty. Los Angeles itself is rotten in its very foundation. In one of the film's most giddy, ominous moments, a literal earthquake sends sick vibrations through Bucky's world: the planet itself is unstable, untrustworthy. He eventually meets himself at the bottom, as the murder worms into his psyche, the suspects bump against his own social circles, and the motive is located in his own domestic space.

James Ellroy likes to believe this is a model of how the world works, and all a man can cling to is the screwed-up integrity of his conflicted, repressed macho heart. Brian De Palma does not cotton to that nonsense, and makes the existential brutality of The Black Dahlia the engine which powers the closed-circuit loop of film noir itself. De Palma's masterstroke has always been the understanding that the language of movie thrillers translates into gibberish in the real world, and yet they excite and move us anyway. From Blackmail to Saw, the thriller does not "make sense", almost above and beyond any other genre, yet we happily meet it halfway and play by its rules. Film noir often wears the mask of detective fiction, the illusion of Holmesian deduction is eventually stripped away to reveal the black math beneath the logic. We accept that the bona fide classic The Big Sleep ultimately does not make sense, so The Black Dahlia subverts the language of the genre by stretching our capacity for lunatic un-reason to the limit.

Because Dahlia is not about the real moral dilemmas of mankind, but how we interface with a genre, Bucky's quest is specifically about how he may navigate the precarious grounds of film noir. There can be no purpose of constructing a personal code of ethics when the game rules are designed to ensnare everyone. De Palma proposes a delightful answer to this bleak problem. Bucky finds a strategy for survival by recognizing his own capacity for perversity, the amorphic capabilities of his own body amid nothing but body-related anxiety, the creative skill of free-association: Bucky learns the value of play, within the genre's nasty web.

Symbolically emasculated in the first scene, when his teeth are smashed out of his face by his own partner (Aaron Eckhart) in a fundraiser boxing match, Bucky eventually traces a network of similar mouth injury imagery to avenge Short's murder. In Swank's slumming bisexual aristocrat Madeleine Linscott, who's made herself over in Short's image, Bucky's first indulging in bad-news Vertigo necrophilia. But he also picks up from Madeleine the ability to recognize the eroticism in his own homosocial relationships, the pervasiveness of costume and playacting, and the polymorphous perversity at work in every human. And so on. Bucky's happy ending finds him in the arms of Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson, acting like she doesn't know how to smoke) icy ex-prostitute accomplice to several crimes, with knife-scars that mirror the inscription of male power upon the body of Liz Short. My hunch is the guy doesn't find solace there because she's the least-corrupt of the cast, but the symbol with the most ties to every issue that's consumed him: she's Elizabeth Short, she's Madeline Linscott, she's Lee Blanchard, she's George Tilden. With his new skills, he sees in this nihilistic universe that Kay is imbued with meaning. The white light into which Bucky steps in the ending is the enveloping glow of a film projector.

De Palma casts himself as an unseen director in a fictional screen test for Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner). He emotionally brutalizes the woman for no particular reason except that it is what directors of thrillers do, for their own diverse reasons. De Palma does not make hollow genre deconstructions; he obviously works out problems of power and control, gender issues, of symbol and language, of space and physics... it just all seems so mad, and unreal because he focuses on how they operate in the movies. The locus of putrid inspiration behind the Dahlia murder turns out to be a movie (The Man Who Laughs, no less). However, it's in that cruel screen test that Short can tell her story, that she is preserved in one piece. In a meaningful way, the movies also save her life, and Bucky's. The nexus of all fascination, beauty and power in The Black Dahlia is not poor Elizabeth Short's tormented body but the obsessive dream of cinema.

1. Finding Something Inside the Story: INLAND EMPIRE


Uh-oh, looks like somebody's movie is too hard for people. The opening fence, roses and sky in Blue Velvet symbolize America! Most of Mulholland Dr. is a crazy dream! And if your David Lynch appreciation cannot extend beyond this kind of literalist idiocy, you'll never mine the riches of INLAND EMPIRE. Ten years from now, I promise it's a masterpiece, and haven't (Eraserhead) we (Fire Walk With Me) been (Lost Highway) through ("Twin Peaks" finale) this ("Mulholland Dr." pilot) before? The general tone of frustration and disappointment among newsprint reviewers only begs the question "exactly who do you want David Lynch to be?"

Imagine, if you will, another world. A world in which David Lynch's hallmarks are not outrageous violence, uncomfortable sexuality and impenetrable weirdness, but the active exploration of the subconscious and our resistance to its fertile boundlessness; the location of evil and sorrow in the will to dominate; the abiding comfort and beauty in forms, colors, textures, sounds; a universe of hard lessons, but underlying connection, chaos bound and avowed to keep love, mystery and universal energies on course. That is the world of my David Lynch. You may need to watch with a third eye, but as Jeffrey Beaumont said, there are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience.

INLAND EMPIRE is one of Lynch's encouraging works, harrowing though it is, so ignore all reports that your spirit guide is going to ditch you on the astral plane. Laura Dern in a devastating, giving performance as Nikki Grace as Susan Blue, is our center, a heroine who learns to traverse boundaries, surfs the vast ocean of the non-rational and comes out on top and smiling. Pity those unwilling to even try.

Addendum : Number Eleven


I honestly feel sadness and dishonesty for not finding room for...

Borat - Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan - Joining the sacred Hardest I Ever Laughed ranks of South Park - Bigger, Longer, Uncut, Brain Candy, The Nutty Professor and Jingle Cats: Sing Meow of Christmas is Borat. That is pretty damn respectable company, Mr. Cohen. Neither as mean or political as anyone claimed, the central joke is less that Americans are ignoramuses than that everyone is funny when in uncomfortable social situations. Good enough for me.

Cute Multiplex Junk


Sometimes we have special "ways" of enjoying movies. These include: irony, derision, erotic spectacle, and rooting for outsiders.

Casino Royale - Between Daniel Craig and Eva Green, which of the leads do you most want to see in a bathing suit? You may change your mind by the end, because the only proper answer is: both! "Jeffrey Wright" is also an acceptable alternate.

Apocalypto - Weird. Dumb or possibly crazy, Mel Gibson gave me the a lot of gleeful enjoyment of a film in the opposite way the author intended.

Snakes on a Plane - Hey Rob Zombie, you know how you think you know about and love exploitation movies? The key element you have forgotten is known as "fun". Snakes was given an unfair handicap from "go", but made it over the finish line with more heart and determination than anyone could have expected.

I Don't Know What to Say


Is it possible I spent more time with my mouth hanging open in awe at Lady in the Water than any other film of 2006? Certainly it appalled me very much, but it gave me so much perverse pleasure, I find it so fascinating, that it deserves some recognition for sheer misguided, unworthy, confused, artistically-retarded splendor.

Next: 2006 DVD Round-Up and Stunt Airshow!

12 comments:

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Jordan said...

Ok my thing about Inland Empire...

I am willing to try, and I like David Lynch a lot, but I did not like the movie. It did not emotionally affect me at all, and I just felt like I was back at film school watching my classmates video art projects. I also felt like I was back watching Mulholland Dr., because of so many similarities (down to a cameo from an actual character, which I guess shows that it's all intentional, but I still didn't care about the themes as much as when I saw it the first time...) It even has the SAME actor, Justin Theroux. being pressured by the studio to act a certain way.

There were some great scenes, because I do think Lynch is an excellent writer, and a few creepy parts did disturb me, but it did a lot of what student art films do - Have a character walk from room to room, and in each room, something weird or oft-putting is happening, and the character stares or looks confused. This takes up a great deal of the movie and it disappointed me. I've seen it so many times at film festivals that my own shorts have been in. SO many times.

And the video...It's hard to argue against the movie because I know eeeeverything Lynch does is "intentional", especially when it's trying to be different, but I just really thought the video was ugly ugly ugly, it was very hard to stare at for 3 hours on the big screen. Backgrounds being more in focus than the subjects, that same shot of Laura Dern looking scared and confused where the camera seems to be held by her neck (I think this is cause Lynch held the camera and he is shorter than her??)...It just really reminded me of film school, in a bad way.


Those are my thoughts...for now. I change my opinions on movies constantly. But as I walked out of the theater I was disappointed how little I was moved.



Jordan

C. Jerry Kutner said...

Good list! Thanks in particular for your comments re The Notorious Bettie Page, a film that most year-end commentators have unjustly and unfairly overlooked.

Chris Stangl said...

I wouldn't sweat it, Jordan. INLAND EMPIRE's a challenging film, whether you end up liking it or not. It's hard to tell someone to sit through a 3 hour film they didn't enjoy for a second time, but, er, maybe it would help? There is so much complex storytelling and image-making that it may simply take multiple viewings to begin mapping your course through INLAND EMPIRE. That doesn't mean you'll necessarily warm to it, or that it will move you, of course, but art can pay other dividends.

You've obviously done some thinking about why the film (can we say that? "Film"?) didn't reach you immediately, and I'm far more saddened by the vast number of paid critics who can't be troubled by the difficult work of a major artist. I suspect they are the people who liked the "funny and weird" parts of Twin Peaks.

Video is VERY hard to work with for artists for whom color and texture are such central concerns. And no matter how you slice it, DV makes actors look like shit. It makes people's skin look horrible, even beautiful folks like Dern, Justin Theroux and Julia Ormond. There are times, however, when Lynch's photos and paintings experiment with obscuring objects and images in the textures of grain, smoke and murk. While not immediately eye-pleasing, maybe Lynch's video work achieves a different kind of lush, smeary atmospherics than can be accomplished on film stock.

Jordan said...

Hey

I thought a lot about the film after I saw it, thats true. And I bet there are BRILLIANT things, and amazing connections between scenes, and foreshadowing, and very subtle pleasures to catch. And like I said, a good portion of the movie spoke to me, but I still couldn't get past the things that annoyed me when I was in film school, plus the similarities to Mulholland Dr. When I walked out of the theater, I felt like wow, he made this really unpredictable completely daring and wild video art film, and yet it seemed so familiar and predictable to me because of Mulholland Dr.

I can tell a short story - I had a video art class (oh man, in that class we could have spent weeks talking about Inland Empire.) It was an intense class. We watched video art, from outsiders and from each other, and debated and argued over them...their "meaning", if they have meaning, if it's worth somebody's time to watch it at all.

I started growing tired of a lot of the video art, because it just felt like anybody can do it. Kids in my class, just to fuck with the teacher, started making pretentious looking artsy abstract videos and then would laugh as the class tried to analyze it. It made it difficult to separate the real video art from the fake...or is any of it real? Or fake? Aughh!!

Long story...err...long : I made a piece for that class, a self portrait. And I wanted it to be fun, funny, kind of silly, a little sad at parts, but mainly entertaining, light. I storyboarded it fast, didn't try to think too hard about it, and videotaped it all in one day (with no post editing, as the teacher wanted), allowing for unexpected things to happen (like a guy bumping into me on the street, etc.)

When the class watched it, they spent 40 minutes analyzing it, and found all these intensely personal, DARK, scary themes in it. Visual elements and recurring motifs that I wasn't completely aware of...but that made perfect sense. For example masks showed up a lot in my video, but I didn't realize how much. "Is Jordan wearing a mask? Is this video really him? Or is he telling us he can't show us the real him?" etc... I couldn't believe all the psychological stuff my class saw in this video.

But you know...I believed them. Even though I made the video, and it wasn't all intentional (a few things were), I believed them, because I just couldn't deny it.

I know Lynch made Inland Empire in a similar planned-yet-stream of consciousness way, so I do believe any genius that lurks within it.
I totally support that. And you know, maybe I will see it again, and like it.


BUT...Well...Yeah 3 hours, and intellectually it was all there for me, but just not emotionally, and not visually (except for a few stunning visuals), and I just wasn't hypnotized by it the way Lynch may want me to be. I liked stuff like the barbecue scene, but I didn't like the long hallway walks and going into rooms and Laura Dern staring at weirdness and looking scared. My friend also had a funny point - "I hate when crazy things are happening in a movie and the character doesn't acknowledge that it's crazy! It's so frustrating!" While I know Lynch intended this, man it does frustrate me. I'm not sure if this point is clear though.

Wow this is really long, sorry.

-Jordan

Chris Stangl said...

Jordan -

Okay, how 'bout this... I do think it's a waste of everyone's time to order them to see a film a second time, if they didn't enjoy it. It just isn't the same as asking someone to take a second look at a Monet, or give the new TMBG album another listen: it's an investment of time and $10-20.

I can also say that though I think David Lynch is cinema's greatest talent, ever, bar none, that is the "fan" in me talking. The David Lynch Fan in me never, ever walked out of a Lynch film thinking "I loved that!" (except ERASERHEAD and "Twin Peaks" episodes). Luckily, while seeing a movie is not free, thinking and talking about it is free.

I think we've both gotten a bellyful of inept amateur video projects. INLAND EMPIRE shares a literal surface resemblance, but David Lynch has been a practicing, dedicated artist for forty years, and produced a large body of work that I assume you respect or at least enjoy as a fan. Your video class story gets to the heart of which texts we deem worthy of the brain-space it takes for analysis. I guess I'm just saying if David Lynch hasn't earned some benefit of your doubt, it must be pretty hard earned.

NOT that I think INLAND EMPIRE requires you write a sober critical analysis to appreciate it. I feel like the Lynch Fan in you wants to like it. That's a positive impulse. I think every audience member needs to be prodded in different directions... For example, if I were talking to Armond White about his review, I'd ask why he is flip about comparisons to Bosch, and if he really thinks the spiritual, feminist incest horror movie FIRE WALK WITH ME is "wacky". So here are your personalized Thinking Questions for INLAND EMPIRE. Yes, this is presumptuous.

-Is INLAND EMPIRE much like MULHOLLAND DR.? My girlfriend had the same reaction as you, but I see Nikki's journey as fundementally opposite of Diane's in MULHOLLAND. Most of us will agree Diane drowns her sorrows in a movie-themed fantasia. Is that at all what happens INLAND EMPIRE?

-To what degree is INLAND EMPIRE about the making of ON HIGH IN BLUE TOMORROWS? Is it useful to puzzle out which scenes are ON HIGH scenes and which are not? Can we determine what ON HIGH is about?

-What is meant by the actors having "found something inside the story"? Does it just mean they unleashed a gypsy curse? Surely not. What could a screenplay contain that would destroy the actors involved?

-Who is able to reach the Rabbits' rooms, and when in their personal journey is this possible? Might it mean different things to different characters? What does Devon find, as opposed what Nikki finds?

-Which scenes of ON HIGH are portrayed as silly and arch, and which moments are given weight?

-Which physical spaces are connected, who is able to pass through these spaces? How, when, and why?

-Grace Zabriskie's folktale of how "evil was born" sounds simple, but: how is evil born in her story? Does it sound "right" to you? Does it echo through INLAND EMPIRE?

-Does Nikki acknowledge when "things are weird"? When / when not?

-How does the making of INLAND EMPIRE inform the story of INLAND EMPIRE? Especially for Laura Dern, who explains she never had any idea what the plot of the entire film was?

-What is happening in the final scene / credits sequence? How has this ending been earned, both by Nikki and by INLAND EMPIRE? Critically: who is present at the end? And how does Nikki find her way home?

-What if I tell you AN ACTOR PREPARES is my first recommended reading for hardcore voyagers into INLAND EMPIRE?

I'm not asking you to "answer" them for me or yourself - I'm not saying there are correct answers, either - just use them as potential entrance points to the film. Now, if that inspires a second visit to I.E., all the better!

Ryan said...

"-What if I tell you AN ACTOR PREPARES is my first recommended reading for hardcore voyagers into INLAND EMPIRE?"

I could not agree more.

R. Lovedoll

rexdart said...

Chris,

Excellent site, and a very informative post. Unfortunately for me, the theaters in my area are not prone to showing, dare I say, arthouse or indie flicks. Quite the shame.
I do have a quick question about your post, where you mention Apocalypto, "Weird. Dumb or possibly crazy, Mel Gibson gave me the a lot of gleeful enjoyment of a film in the opposite way the author intended."
Did I miss the post where you expanded on this thought?

Jordan said...

Hmmm well those are damn good questions, and ones that I honestly have no answer for. But you're doing a good job of making me curious to see the film again.

A few responses:

In terms of comparing it to Mullholland Dr...The journey may be different, but I still felt that some overall themes, setting, certain situations...The whole thing just seemed SO familiar. I was expecting something more out of left field I guess (yes EVEN more.) Like I said, even Justin Theroux being threatened and pressured about a film he's working on...not QUITE the same but damn similar.

I'm very confused about ON HIGH...I'm having trouble connecting the sort of dumb fake scenes from that movie and the more dark brutal stuff that happens...is it the scenes in Poland that are connected? I actually almost totally forgot about ON HIGH by the 2nd hour of INLAND.

I just didn't understand the Rabbits. Just clueless, honestly. I enjoyed the Rabbits. But as of now...I don't know who they are or what they mean, and what characters making connections to them would even signify.

OH, Ok...Grace Zabriskie. That scene bothered me, because it just seemed too obvious that she was giving you "clues"...Does Lynch want it to be obvious? Me and my friend were kind of laughing...a lot of the audience was. Maybe nervous laughter. But with us, we were laughing a kind of knowing "this is clearly foreshadowing the rest of the film in a very upfront way" laugh. And, going back to my video class story, I just can't tell what is intentional and what isn't. I feel like an amateur video artist would put that scene in and think it was subtle and cool, but Lynch knows better.

This scene is an example of what a fan I am of Lynch's writing. I was intrigued by the stories she told, but no, I don't know how they apply to the movie. Crap I can't remember her story. Is evil born in the movie? Is it Hollywood? Prostitution? I feel like I'm so way off.

I did not understand the final scene at all, except it takes place at the homeless girl's friends place. But I don't know exactly why it's been earned. I really really didn't understand a lot of the movie, especially the ending. I got that there was this sense of relief, but I don't know how it got to that point or why.



Jordan, way off

Chris Stangl said...

Thanks, Rexdart!; "Unfortunately for me, the theaters in my area are not prone to showing, dare I say, arthouse or indie flicks. Quite the shame."

Happily for you, though, all the indies in my ten faves are already available on DVD, excepting INLAND EMPIRE.

I did not, however, have a terrible-lot to say about APOCALYPTO elsewhere in this blog. For the record I found it a sometimes well-crafted, sometimes trite action movie. Unlike most pro critics, I think the allegory is layered up to the eyeballs in nuttiness but doesn't really make sense. Like his appallingly feeble-brained reading of Christ's sacrifice, APOCALYPTO tries to tell us everything about several important topics -- the decline of civilizations, genocide, the perils of urbanity, the cyclical nature of history, the human inclination to confuse domination and progress, the tragedy of our alienation from nature, the pros and cons of various social structures, the universality of the human experience (!) -- but its ambition is too overreaching for a chase and rescue picture. APOCALYPTO's intent gets garbled through Gibson's wild bloodlust (any fan of Italian horror will flash on CANNIBAL FEROX. Repeatedly.), his hallucinatory imagery comes off as demented fantasy, not messianic vision.

To come clean, fully, I didn't write about it at length because I was pretty high at the time, so it was irresponsible to write a serious review.

Jordan said...

Chris, I just had to tell you, last night I had a dream about David Lynch and Eraserhead.

I have never seen Eraserhead, but in my dream, when you rent the movie and put it on, David Lynch actually physically comes into your room. The lights turn out so you can barely see, but there was a figure creeping around my door, and it was terrifying. Things started being thrown at me (I'm lying in bed, "watching the movie.") Suddenly Lynch throws this little spark and it lights me on fire, but it's just some sort of illusion. Then that's it. I was like "wow so that's why everybody says the movie is so creepy."

So anytime somebody watches the movie, it is Lynch actually physically in your room throwing creeping you out.

-Jordan

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