Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ten Favorite Films of 2007: Pt II - My Ten Favorite Films of 2007!

Just in time!

10. Trance State: There Will Be Blood (dir., scr. Paul T. Anderson, yeah-right-based on a novel by Upton Sinclair)

Perhaps misanthrope oil baron Daniel Plainview eventually gets everything he wants, in the last moments of There Will Be Blood. He hunches and teeters alone in his wasteland basement bowling alley, eating greasy meat with his paws, all social pretense and facade burnt away, nothing but boney, scraping madness. All he wanted ever was to be the only human on the tattered surface of the planet. Through determination and will, he conquered the world of men as best the pamphlet explains; biggest house, most money, most power. Through monomaniacal focus, his madness has winnowed the human race down to one man, Eli Sunday, and on his private island, Plainview clubs to death the only other beast. And he wins. He's finished.

What do you want There Will Be Blood to say about history? About capitalism? Or about religion or power or the shaping of American society? Consider your answer carefully. Consider that There Will Be Blood might not say any of those things. Maybe it doesn't say anything. It emits a low, long dissonant tone that terrorizes the inner ear and forces the vision to blur out in a field of black and brown spots.

Ideas for suggested allegorical reading are wired like tantalizing wrong paths through There Will Be Blood. For starters, Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, simmering with internal apocalypse) as avatar for capitalist drive, his nemesis Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) as Christian fundamentalism emboodied, but this circuit is dead. They are not opposing forces, for Eli's holy man act is a sham, Plainview's fierce self-interest is not in opposition but a variation. So then, maybe they are twin demons. But both are straw men as symbols. If There Will Be Blood were to posit them as dual ideological forces that shaped the nation, the more scathing indictment would be if they worked together as cynical manipulators; but that's hollow and doesn't work. Unless the statement is that these pervasive, potentially nasty sets of ideals shaped, and continue to form the terrain of the nation, forever irreconcilable, at each others' throats. But then...

And so it goes, the ominous vibration of There Will Be Blood shaking apart any pat solution and drowning any sloganeering. Not a statement, but a story (and how rare is that for a supposed historical epic in 2007?). Plainview and Sunday are instead, characters in a game of Who Is Worse? Both men may be bilking a fortune from worker-followers for peronal gain, both armed with callow low regard for humanity and a finesse for PR, but who is worse? Plainview's simple goal is to hard-win enough success to build an isolation box, where as Agent Smith of the Matrix might put it, he needn't be infected by the stink of humanity. He announces as much, in the best glimpse between the crags of Plainview's emotional tundra, telling his long-lost brother that indeed "I look at people and I see nothing worth liking". And so he tries to build a fortress of solitude, which seems attainable because when Mr. Plainview intends to meet a goal, such as accumulating all the oil or hauling his broken-legged carcass out of a gold mine shaft, well. He does it.

Paul Thomas Anderson's deep humanist steak slashes through There Will Be Blood, for there is something vulnerable, understandable, and misguided in Plainview's soul-sick journey. The picture is an un-epic, narrowing its focus on one unknowable character, until the lens is so close to the slide that perhaps we do know Daniel Plainview after all. Maybe not to sympathize with, and maybe it is too much to bear, but his bottomless stubbornness is one we come to understand. The stated, demonstrated attempt to wall himself from human contact is a frail-winged effort to begin with. Plainview undertakes an enormous amount of difficult labor in pursuit of a nihilistic non-dream. He's not pursuing happiness, not comfort, not pursuing anything. Just aloneness. As his business requires regular contact with others -- his adopted son taken as "partner", other oil men, the communities he financially rapes -- Plainview is bound and destined to fail because the pursuit is self-contradictory. We may be reminded of a lesson learned by Julie Vignon in Krzysztof Kieślowski's Blue (1993), but illustrated in inverted fashion. As Julie attempts to run from the force of love, only to find that wherever you go, someone ends up caring, Plainview wants to burn every bridge across the river of souls, but they just keep regenerating. The rancher he ignores while buying land because it's too much effort to pay a personal visit ends up blackmailing him. He abandons his son but ultimately has to deal with him. Eli Sunday bedevils him for a decade, even when Plainview has locked himself away, and possibly undergone psychotic break. And so on. People keep getting in his way, the problems of responsibility and power impossible to solve. If there is a seachange in this man, it is akin to a computer memory writeover, block by block replacing Plainview's seething hate with raging madness.

There Will Be Blood, like Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, seems to emanate from the peculiar psyche of it's central character. It is not quite relayed from Plainview's "point of view" or his "perspective" or precisely duplicate his mind's eye, but holds the man at the center of a muddy, relentless spinning vortex. Paradoxically, the story is simple, straightforward, monosyllabic, but the film unfolds with bewildering opacity. Strange narratological gaps and baffled staging and shooting strategies continually turn the film into disorienting, oblique poetry. There Will Be Blood seems afflicted by some frightening synesthesia. It begins with a vignette that looks like grubby charcoal sketches, about Plainview metaphorically dying in the gold mine and being reborn as a hard thing spat from the earth. It ends with the beginning of 2001, in which apes discover the first tool -- a bludgeon -- and seize control of the water hole. The soundtrack whines and drones like composer Johnny Greenwood is making music by circuit bending Plainview's brain. It is impossible to tell what is going on with any characters on the periphery (which is everyone excepting?/including? Plainview), including some who may not exist. Jack Fisk's set designs are likely historically authentic, but the spindly derricks and makeshift settlements look torn from pulp s-f paperback covers, more so when blazing with massive sails of fire. Daniel Plainview stands before the sheets of flame, angry astronaut in black silhouette. He's not adventuring. He's not questing. He has no wanderlust. No lust at all. He wants to be alone. He wants to be Not Here. He's finished.

9. Sit Closer Together and Keep Your Ruddy Hands Inboard!:
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (dir. Gore Verbinski, scr. Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio)

You know what happens to men who fall in love with the sea. These notes are less about the filmmaking and plot of At World's End itself, than on the bountiful shape and psychoacoustics of this three movement sea shanty. Critically maligned, beloved by fanfic writers, attended by every man, woman, child and key-stealing dog in the world, the curse of the Pirates films is that they are barely taken seriously by anyone. I was reminded recently that upon exiting Dead Man's Chest, my first reaction was to effuse: that was a lot of movie.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is a whopping daedal pageant. Three movies, for it's a Trilogy Proper, wide-scoped and chapter-structured as your Star Wars, your Lord of the Rings (the second and third installments written and shot back-to-back Matrix sequel style). Every square foot of its beachhead littered with buried treasure, the jungle is dense with thickets of story, tangled character arcs fusing together, branching apart. The Pirates trilogy is loaded with stuff; boatloads of colorfully painted characters, a whole population so driven by their own desires, passions and miseries they never quite become an ensemble, bouncing around a vast, richly imagined world, a map with no dead space, every mountain, island, township, cove and crevasse hand sculpted with care. The Imagineers have gone all-out, barred no holds, tended every detail. What we have, then, is the motion picture equivalent of Disneyland. No? Yes? Sort of.

From one perspective, Disneyland is nothing but a walk through a thoroughly imagined, obsessively art directed garden. Meticulously landscaped, a planned environment that is attractive from every angle. And it's pretty, but it is not intended to engage any emotion but delight. This is not an unsympathetic perspective. While there is an impressive sense of narrative elements at every turn, these stories are generally sketchy (Haunted Mansion, Pirates), impressionistic (the "story of the land" narratives of Big Thunder Mountain, the Matterhorn, the landscaping itself) or require extratextual referents for coherence (the movie-themed dark rides). Disneyland, in its attractions, rides and shows, does not tell us stories of any depth (besides the historical narrative of those of us emotionally attached to the development and history of the park itself; Disneyland, in every window and tree, is also crammed with stories). The counterargument goes that Disneyland pummels the imagination and the walking tour through mechanized, preplotted semistories provide only, as Douglas Copeland put it, "Adventure without Risk". The Pirates films share this design sensibility, creating gilded fantasy map, packed with eccentric detail. They are funland environments to visit on long movie vacations.

When the animatronic pirates duel and loot and carouse in Anaheim or Orlando, there is no context but the generalized milieu of High Seas Adventure, a hint of Spookhouse Karmic Retribution (ride-story in reverse: here are the corpses among riches -> here are the sins that landed them here), and otherwise it is a parade in limited motion: we float past the floats, march past the merry band. The Pirates movies however, are a story proper.

There is a plot development in Fritz Lang's dreamy jittery crime thriller M (1931), in which the leaders of the criminal underground hold a meeting and decide something must be done about the child killer giving crooks all over town a bad name. We've seen plenty of sit-downs between crime boses, but M's idea that each criminal specialty has an organized union with representatives who attend problem solving and policy conferences shoves an already distorted nightmare vision of Berlin into a dizzying fantasy world. It takes a story, a setting, a feeling that was already riveting and pops off the top to reveal the story is full of folded space. The surface area grows, exponentially. At World's End has a scene not unlike the M crime council, a convention of the pirate Brethren Court, a plot surprise that reverberates back through all three films. These other Pirate Kings were always there, out having adventures of their own; the social structure was always in place. We just didn't get to hear about it until now.

There are the wild unruly dreams and shortcomings of the characters, the fuel called "motivation", and there is adventure here, which may be of arguable risk and variable investment for the audience, but there are stories, and they are About something. World's End is an occult-tinged, melancholy tale of frontiers stretching thin, of modern civilization tightening around the neck of wanderers and dreamers, of what it means to be free -- in a sociopolitical sense, a personal sense, a spiritual sense, in, ultimately, an existential sense -- and of the value and peril of passionate love; whether that be for a lover, for power, for property, for adventure, for rum or the sea. But you know: You know what happens to men who fall in love with the sea. Though somewhat schematic by the fifth act (the Pirates pictures adhere to something like Shakespearean structure rather than modern Hollywood drama rules), the eight principals and a half-dozen supporting players are all working through some personal variation on the themes. At World's End is a Dusk of an Era elegy, like The Wild Bunch, and Once Upon a Time in the West, but the sunset is falling over a world of fantasy and romance; it's about the death of frivolity and dreaming.

8. STOP PLAYING DONKEY KOOOONG!: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (dir. Seth Gordon)

I can beat Super Mario Bros. in less than six minutes. I can even do it drunk sometimes. I don't know down to the second, but my casual glance-at-clock timing puts my best speed at 5:18-ish. Browsing the scoreboard of Twin Galaxies, the "official" rule-keepers on such things, I see this would place me as the 5th best Super Mario Bros. player in the world. Huh.

This is an idle boast. For the time to be officially recognized, I'd have to tape myself achieving such a time attack and begin the video by displaying my TV and Nintendo and the A/V hookups and... I'm yawning already. Because trying to beat Super Mario Bros. as fast as possible is a hobby of mine, but I'm in no way serious about it. I'm not in it to prove something. Or compete. Just for fun. The fastest (sanctioned, no exploitation of programing glitches) time in the world is currently 5:08. To that, I give an appreciative whistle. Most people don't have a context for the difficulty of playing at that level. 5:08 is superhuman. It would require such discipline and effort to shave even five seconds off my time that it doesn't sound fun to me, but ye gads, it makes me grin to watch any attack under 5:15. The catch is, I wonder if my attitude would be different if I were anywhere close to #1. That question is, in part, what makes The King of Kong work as such an affecting exploration of the human competitive drive.

Story: A giant gorilla grabbed a lady and took her to the top of a construction site, dispatching barrels and fireballs with eyeballs to snooker the hammer-wielding Mario from saving the dame.

Approximate symbol-figures as seen in the documentary The King of Kong: Our Donkey Kong is Mr. Billy Mitchell, the champion high-scorer of classic arcade gaming since the early 1980s turned hot sauce magnate, possessed of a 1) singularly poor grasp of social niceties and 2) atrocious fashion sense, 3) ferocious gaming skill and determination to excel at everything he undertakes. The Mario (technically: "Jumpman" not yet the Japanese-Italian of corporate mascotship) is Mr. Steve Wiebe, ex-Boeing employee turned math teacher, soft-spoken suburban dad, generally likable schlub.

The beauty for which these warriors vie, the damsel in distress, is the high score on the 1981 Nintendo arcade game Donkey Kong. Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell may not be cool guys. But they're goddamn amazing Donkey Kong players. You know, Babe Ruth wasn't that cool of a guy, either. Mitchell has the world record, has since '82. Wiebe beats it from his garage. Mitchell fights back. Game on. As the intro screen for each level of Donkey Kong asks, "HOW HIGH CAN YOU GO?"

The fireballs and barrels? Sundry other retro gamers, all of whom are exotic species of the total nerd genus, most portrayed as Mitchell sycophants and sometime flunkies. If there is a King of Kong stand-in for the perilous construction site, the row of red girders itself, it must be the institution of Twin Galaxies, competitive gaming's self-appointed regulatory committee founded by Iowa arcade owner Walter Day, who seems to wear nothing but his referee uniform. They all seem to be in completely unnecessary conspiracy to deny Weibe's high score from entering the books.*

Of each of these characters, organizations, behaviors, and events, The King of Kong asks the same question: Why? Why the fuck are you doing this? It may be a pertinent question that will always get funny or revealing or frightening results when asked of any person, fictional or otherwise, but King of Kong begs the question at every moment.

Director Seth Gordon has shaped his footage into a strong traditional underdog sports story with surprising left turns that seem out of an unfilmed early Zemeckis-Gale script. The found narrative is more engaging than fictional sports stories because the suspense is real rather than scripted, even if only a limited audience is inherently interested in watching championship level Donkey Kong play. The game is difficult. The controls are a bit stiff, the game physics are screwy, and there are randomized obstacles that require improvised solutions. An efficient expository section of King of Kong runs viewers through Donkey Kong 101, outlining the mechanics, and slides right into DK202, with some advanced tactics (Wiebe explains "you can actually control the barrels!" Dude, don't tell people that!). The sequences plunging into the subculture of competitive classic gaming are deft filmmaking, because there's an enormous amount of information to plow through, the least of which is the hurdle of explaining that the hobby exists at all. It's not about the game though, but a sweet and desperately hilarious character comedy of non-confrontation. Mitchell engages in long, passive-aggressive battle to thwart Wiebe. In response, Wiebe patiently plugs away at his game cabinet, sometimes quietly crying. His calm and humility seem an admirable contrast to Mitchell's preening Type A bragging... except when joining the monastic order of Donkey Kong means he can't drag himself away from the machine to find work, tend his marriage, wipe his kid's butt, or readjust his sense of self worth. Why are they doing this?

Billy Mitchell is The King of Kong's ace in the hole. He's constructed as the plot's villain, arrogant and mean-spirited. Why is he doing this? The portrayal may be a dubiously truthful manipulation on Seth Gordon's part, for the real Mitchell has a family and friends, does charity work and seems to be so serious about being the public face of retro gaming because he believes it is a wholesome passtime for kids, and that he's a viable role model. But he aids and abets the filmmakers because he never lets down his guard, never lets slip the public persona that would let him be seen as anything but an A-1 Winner. By being so guarded and simultaneously so transparent, Billy Mitchell becomes one of the most fascinating screen characters of 2007.

*[Ed. Note: Twin Galaxies wants you to know the truth is a little more complicated. Also more "boring".]

For the curious, my Donkey Kong high score is a pitiful 60,400. Checking the Galaxies board I see I would rank as the 51st best in the world. Don't be fooled. This is only because no one bothers to submit such low scores, and nobody can touch the top dogs.

7. Strange Beast: The Host (dir. Bong Joon-ho, scr. Baek Chul-hyun, Bong, Ha Won-jun)

The generally juvenile tone of the average kaiju eiga or Harryhausen extravaganza is not really a weakness, it is just what prevents well-adjusted adults from taking them seriously. Excluding King Kong, and not really excluding King Kong, the Achilles heel of giant monster rampage pictures is the story of the humans being terrorized by the enormous beasts. Even as I type this, I'm formulating a list of exceptions to the rule, but it seems beside the point. With The Host, the concern simply no longer applies. The core of the picture is a bittersweet family comedy about the barely functional Park family, and how the abduction of youngest member Hyun-seo draws to the surface the finest qualities and interpersonal battles of the adult depressives, screwups and idiots. The abduction just happens to be at the hands (prehensile tail?) of a slimey bone-barfing river monster. We'll mainly latch onto Gang-du, the girl's father and all around slovenly slacker. Song Kang-ho plays Gang-du as if half awake, bleached blonde shag hanging in his bleary eyes; it's a terrific sloppy clown performance and the dope sparks with life when his resourceful child enters the room. She's less his daughter than a big sister and indulgent playmate. Gang-du's dad, TV favorite Byeon Hee-bong, is angry, nagging, frustrated with his three adult children, as even as his daughter national medalist archer Nam-Joo chokes in the middle of a competition. Lithe, dolorous Bae Doona plays the archer as if staggering around with an unexhaled sigh in her chest.

The Host is also formed of sociopolitical themes; American military presence, ecological disaster inspired by real events leading to the pollution of the Han River, a satire of Agent Orange, government cover-up conspiracy and bureaucratic incompetence all propel the story. This political commentary is continually complicated and wavers between reserved criticism and anarchic black comedy; whenever the finger seems to be pointing, the joints are crooked. In the The Host, all manner of agents are responsible for special contributions to/manifestations of anxious, confused society. From the small and personal -- Gang-du's brother Hae-il is a burned-out drunken ex-youth protester who's lost his cause -- to the large and national -- the army basically puts Seoul on martial law lockdown and manufactures a cover story that the river creature carries a deadly virus -- to the vast, universal: cultural malaise, the sick joke humor of fortune.

That it has a social conscience or politicized subconscious, does not make The Host unique, among even giant beast films. The catharsis of watching our cities spectacularly destroyed creates a therapeutic space in their stead. Like all good giant monsters, everyone is responsible for this one. It's summoned by whatever dread and sadness is inflicting a society at the time. Whether the host city is NYC '33, Tokyo '54, London '61, Seoul '06, monsters arrive as guests. They help us work it out.

No, what makes The Host stand out is its focus on story driven by characters and emotions. By various turns the film mutates from black political satire through suspense rescue drama, goopy gross-out horror of the variety that is one regurgitation from high comedy, child-in-peril crisis drama, slapstick melodrama, and family comedy. It seems unnecessary to point out that these things tend to be about the dysfunction and peculiar functions of lovable eccentrics; all families are eccentric up close, all comedy is about dysfunction small or catastrophic, thus has it always been, from sitcom-square My Three Sons to Wes Anderson's repressed mod circuses. While it leaps some of the hurdles of giant monster opuses that trip up unsympathetic audiences, it does so without succumbing to the jangled nerve hip shocks of Extreme Asian Horror; The Host shifts fluidly between these highs, poking its head down interesting alleys as it runs around the city willy-nilly.

6.I'm Alive at Last!/ And I'm Full of Joy!:
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (dir. Tim Burton, scr. John Logan from the musical by Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler)

Hot Topic wardrobe and whimsy-sick Tod Slaughter trappings aside, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeny Todd was not a natural, comfortable fit for film adaptation by Tim Burton. The the intricate spatter-patterns of this most vehemently misanthropic of musicals are antithetical to the ideals and tendencies in Burton's work beyond anything but surface aesthetics. Sondheim's obsidian slab of a show glistens with hate and anguish at every facet, a massive black mirror of humanity that reflects nothing but the struggle of men to use and feed off one another, the only possible responses anger, fear, madness, the only choices loss of dignity, or to join the wicked game. Unjustly jailed, and having lost his wife and daughter to the grotesque appetites of Judge Turpin , Victorian-era barber Benjamin Barker returns to London, damaged and looking to reclaim his life. All forces having conspired to demolish the last scraps of the barber's happiness, Barker loses his grip, and finds his calling, and reinvents himself as Sweeney Todd, scarred, charred demon bent on revenge. Revenge on the Judge. Revenge on the weak man he used to be. Revenge on the London class system that pins its residents in place like catalogued moths. Revenge on human nature. Revenge on God. So he slashes as many throats as he can seat in his barber chair, and bakes them into pies with the assistance of landlord-cum-business partner Mrs. Lovett. This ugly premise does not exactly unfold or arc so much as fatalistically tighten around itself. After the Prelude, the very first number announces the map of the story: "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit..." Todd dives in. Is there a bottom? An exit? Or just more black hole?

While all of Burton's films have launched wounded dreamer protagonists against a world designed to grind them down, his sense of humor is silly, childlike and corny. He may make movies about ghosts and living corpses and men who dress up as giant bats, but his tone is still Famous Monsters -- or more like Cracked Monster Party -- not grim, not joyless. Tim Burton is a romantic and soft-hearted filmmaker, and Sweeney Todd is deeply cynical, and cruel. Assuming the director is engaged with his material (not always a safe assumption with Burton), it is natural that his abundant visual imagination could reconfigure the stage show with suitably soaring cinematic language. And soar Burton's camera certainly does, with a curlicue baroque style that doubles Sondheim's musical latticework. Without betraying the show, Burton latches onto what is passionate and tragic and funny about Sweeney Todd. Without being slavish and submerging his style, or resistant and betraying the musical, Burton has directed an uncompromised personal take on the show.

My bias in musical theater is for actors who can sort-of sing over singers who can sort-of act. As Sweeney, Johnny Depp acts his way through songs, and that is the proper strategy for a semi-singer to survive a musical. Depp figures out how to sell a song by making his limited range and shaky breath support part of his characterization, smoldering inside as if he's swallowed a fireplace log. It would be great if when Sweeney explodes in "Epiphany", Depp could've opened up his middle voice more, but he's not holding any such surprises. His accent tends to go ragged when he's rushing through difficult passages and the need to enunciate Sondheim's boggling rhyme barrages start to overwhelm Depp's usually seamless character work. That said, he's at his best when surrounded by other adequate voices, so in "Pretty Women" with Alan Rickman (as Turpin, dour as usual, but unusually perverted), we're not hearing a dream-cast at work, but two great actors are acting through the song in a compelling fashion.

If Sweeney Todd has a major shortcoming, it is the casting of Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. To her credit, Bonham Carter has reinterpreted Lovett as less shrieking harridan, more wildeyed and wispy -- not 180 degrees from Angela Lansbury, but maybe 120 degrees -- but she is a weak vocalist in a role that traditionally requires a shrill, loud set of pipes. She can't keep up, and rather than go too mush-mouthed (which is still a problem) through the crazier parts of "God, That's Good!" and "Worst Pies in London", she affects a breathy / raspy speak-sing delivery to pull her through. So Bonham Carter gives an otherwise snazzy half-hinged performance without being able to control half an actor's tools for expression; she's fighting her voice for two hours. She pushes her past her range in the "My Friends" duet, and it sounds like she's hurting herself. The only time time Bonham Carter's voice is interesting is a totally crazed "By the Sea," which the movie transforms into a comic show-stopper. Tim Burton has imagined it as a series of acid-bright colored picture postcards staged by Charles Addams, and the whole number is so hysteria-driven that Bonham Carter's cracked vocal makes sense, even if she's not doing the music any service.

I dunno how you cut that score down. With 3000 leitmotifs stitching the show together, any reductions start to do structural damage to scenes forward and backward. The film does pretty admirable editing work in the face of hard choices, and the majority of cuts are logical (the signature "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is painful to lose, this show's musical anchor has lyrics which add no narrative information) or make gut-level sense (I miss "Parlor Songs" but...). The gutted "God, That's Good!" and final act (important reprises like "No Place Like London" and "City on Fire" don't pay off in the movie) may make those with sensitive ears wince, though. The paring of the music means the secondary plots are slimmed, and sapped of emotional resonance; this Sweeney is less epic, but also steelier, sharper, colder: this is Sweeney Todd shaved dow the central love triangle of a man, his hate, his razors.

Bonus Buffy obsessive gripe: Anthony Stewart Head spotted at "The Contest". Look, either give the people Head, or don't, Tim Burton, but don't tease.

5. Sweet Lime: The Darjeeling Limited (dir. Wes Anderson, scr. Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola)

Three affluent dopes with their hearts, brains and better impulses in various stages of arrested development, ride a train around India in hopes of spiritual enlightenment or maybe nothing, hauling Daddy's baggage the whole way. The Darjeeling Limited is that blunt about what it is about, that the central symbol is the literal equivalent of the colloquial metaphor, and being ported about by the characters. That is the standard shape of Wes Anderson's stories; adventures and external plot circumstances don't force characters to confront symbol-demons of their internal-conflict-as-scripted, rather, his characters tend to exhibit preoccupation with their own emotional crises, and that is the plot itself. It is hardly Rushmore's subtext that Max Fischer's story of unrequited puppy love and of ambition outstripping talent are made concrete in the illusory Eden of Rushmore Academy: Max knows it, he says it out loud. It is not a secret in The Life Aquatic that Steve Zissou knows he's on a sea voyage to bond with his possibly-son Ned Plimpton and not really to avenge a dead friend by killing a shark: he says it out loud. These surprising self-aware announcements do not come at the terminal end of clichéd Journey to Knowing, but somewhere in the middle. None of these persons are on the trip they think they're on.

So in The Darjeeling Limited, Francis Whitman, who is Owen Wilson but with different brothers and his face banged to shit and bandaged up, asks, apropos of very little, "Did I raise us, kind of?" The track to self-discovery he thinks he's on is... well, he's already come to terms with the idea that he kind of raised his brothers. And Jack (Jason Schwartzman, coping on-screen with the notion of being a sex symbol for disaffected youth) already knows he needs to get over his bitchy, manipulative ex and stop hunting easy sex. And Peter (Adrian Brody, distracted, irritable, self-loathing and self-satisfied in equal measure) knows full well he needs to stop shutting out his wife, man up and be a father very soon. They all three know they'll have to do these things without a central guiding male role-model. This tendency in Anderson's writing is gratifyingly smart and more compelling than watching plywood humans who can't figure out their pretend problems until the third act, because it says that we manufacture dramas to distract ourselves while avoiding the core problems, without belittling or bleeding the poignancy and comic agony of immediate circumstance. The Darjeeling Limited believes the Whitman brothers have a larger, more fundamental problem, that of acknowledging a world outside themselves. It may be less that Wes Anderson People simply need to stop feeling sorry for themselves than to recognize when sorrow is an appropriate reaction.

The above doesn't sound terribly different from personal lessons hard learned that pass for character growth in any drama, but what Anderson illustrates is closer to small epiphanies, subtle but crucial shift in behaviors. By virtue of sheer primal impact, Darjeeling's most shattering sequence is one in which the brothers have been exiled from the train -- the cozy blue Limited itself -- for the crime, as Divine would've put it, of persistent assholism. Forced to continue on foot, the Whitmans witness children from a nearby village falling into a river, and jump into rescue them. One of the boys dies. There is a sun-drenched, colorful slow motion funeral. End emotional setpiece. Because the film's (all five of Anderson's films, really) principle mode is comic deadpan droopiness, the inevitable moments of unironic violence and pain leap out, announce themselves like a pop-up book. Darjeeling is not saying anything so callow as that the idiot white men needed to witness the death of a native child to cheer them up. The brothers are part-way down the track already, and though the end of the film may show them triumphantly shedding their father's luggage and leaping aboard a new train, it presents nothing like fully healed, solved, fixed human beings. Certainly this rescue, this death, this funeral do not fix them, or even immediately wash away the Whitmans' self-absorption and clueless Orientalism (Peter's earnest, embarrassing, condescending, wrenching reaction is: "I didn't save mine"). But they erode a little bit.

If there is a climax to Darjeeling, it is a flashback chapter, a cold grey urban parallel to the Indian funeral, as the brothers cause a scene at an import auto mechanic, stubbornly insisting on driving away in their father's broken car and holding up the burial in the process. Dad's car, of course, doesn't work. This readymade working-through-shit moment doesn't seem to have affected any of them at the time. That the incident is retold as one of Jack's transparently autobiographical short stories seems to propel some actual working through of their shit. And in this free-floating meditation on the transformative value of aimless travels, maybe there is another "climax". Maybe every anecdotal little scene is built with its own climax. How often, after all, can one pinpoint moment of life-changing revelation?

As a road picture/ journey narrative the literal destination, which Francis has covertly planned, is reunion with the estranged Mother Whitman. Sister Patricia, actually, as she's become a nun. In a few brief scenes that are deceptively uneventful and simultaneously peel back the bandages on a goodly chunk of the preceding story, Anjelica Huston wafts around the convent in the Himalayan foothills, ethereal and saintly. The mother speaks gently, tries to soothe her boys, and behaves as a model of Christian patience and general flower child floaty good-vibeiness. And in the morning, she is gone. Ditched the family again. In Patricia's firm, plain-spoken, loving demeanor we might understand Francis' parental, order-giving tone even when telling his siblings to join him for booze and smokes. In her utterly selfish constant abandonment of her children, we might understand Francis' desire for control and family structure. We might understand Jack being hung up on his controlling ex-girlfriend, as well as his running away from intimacy while he pretends to pursue it. And better comprehend Peter's fears about parenting, and love-hate sense of wanderlust. We might see some concrete evidence of how this damage was inflicted.

Patricia's intersection with the brothers Whitman at this point, is one of The Darjeeling Limited's finest magic tricks. Patricia very possibly thinks she's being completely selfless with her entire life, going so far as to devote herself to God and missionary work; paradoxically, she's running away from her fears and responsibilities; paradoxically-squared, she may well believe that after her brief encounter with her sons, disappearing once more is what they need: the boy-men need to tend their own wounds, battle their own tigers. Ironically, having gone to great lengths to retrieve their mother, being abandoned and rather stranded is exactly what they needed as a blunt lesson in what their mother is like. It is in her presence that Francis, who has been conspicuously wrapped in facial bandages the entire film, is able to say out loud that his motorcycle accident was a suicide attempt. If Francis sees himself as stand-in parent, he also can't let himself show a certain brand of weakness in front of his brothers. Sensitivity, longing, vulnerability of a kind, but not death wish, not this despair. He frames the crash as a life changing near-death experience, which it may well be, but doesn't reveal the depth of his pain until he can maneuver into a position where he is not proxy parent, i.e. before their surviving parent. Francis isn't connecting with his mother. She disappears. He is ultimately confessing to his brothers and to himself, in front of a comforting illusion. The mirage dissipates, the confession stands.

Francis finally peels back his bandages before his brothers in silence, examines the ugly network of scars, sighs, and concludes that whatever stint of the journey is concluded, he has healing left to do. As a beautiful line of narration in The Royal Tenenbaums goes, "Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized that it was true."

4. One of God's Hands Is Gentle, the Other Is a Fist:
Gumby Dharma: The Story of Art Clokey (dir. Robina Marchesi)

Note: Gumby Dharma is a 2006 production, and was first screened at festival that year. Its first wide public screening was on California PBS station KQED in 2007 (where I first saw it, after champing at the bit since the Arizona screening). More than a year later, in September 2008, it debuted nationally on the Sundance Channel. I may not get around to a 2008 Favorites anytime soon, so I write about Gumby Dharma here because it may have slipped under your radar, and it is not one that should get away. I greatly wish the film had been picked up for wider distribution, but it is available on import DVD from Australia.

In the 1956 cartoon "Gumby on the Moon", the curious bluegreen hero is about to open the door of his spacecraft and for a split second, for a single frame, the hand of Art Clokey can be seen holding the Gumby puppet upright. The hand of the Creator appears and is gone just as quickly. So brief, gentle and unexpected is the intrusion that most viewers will never notice. If commentators and historians of Clokey's work have failed to spot this poignant frame, it is largely because those critics do not exist. While generally conceded to be charming and benefiting from the goodwill of Baby Boomer nostalgia, Gumby cartoons have never been subjected to much critical scrutiny, usually being dismissed as unfunny, plotless, cheap-looking, amaturishly animated kid's stuff. Gumby is, however, all of those things and none of them. The Gumby shorts personally handcrafted by Clokey are not driven by anything resembling causal plot logic (Gumby goes to the moon because he can, then he is attacked by moon creatures, then he gets too cold and freezes, then his dad climbs a fire ladder into space, then Gumby's in a hyperbaric chamber, then he skates off down the hospital corridor = ?), nor are they beholden to the gag-based structure of comedy cartoons.

The closest thing to a critical or historical survey of the shorts is Gumby: The Authorized Biography of the World's Favorite Clayboy, a 1986 scrapbook-style photobook and big type episode guide by Louis Kaplan and Scott Michaelsen. In between pictures, the authors engage in loosey-goosey free-associative essays with a tinge of Eastern mysticism on topics like "Gumby Artist" and "Gumby Racer" for 150 pages. Completely weird and highly recommended, the book is also nigh useless as an episode guide, as the multiplaned punning, rhyming and frankly stoned zen koans infect even the capsule plot descriptions. Whether one finds Authorized Biography annoying or a gas, it is a step toward rehabilitating the cartoons as Something More. Kaplan and Michaelsen simply tip readers in the right direction. Clokey's animation depicts a universe at play to be explored, toyed with and riddled out, but which never becomes less inscrutable; deeply spiritual in its pervasive mystery, even as the only underlying sense of Order and Design is a common absurdity and unlogic. We might say this of film authors from Buñuel to Ed Wood, Jr., but Clokey's stories are actively about the investigation and experimentation of a highly curious inquisitor into the mysteries of the spirit, physics, the experience of the world.

Gumby Dharma helps to reframe the Gumby cartoons to be read with the kind of generosity demonstrated by Kaplan and Michaelsen in the Authorized Biography. At last, here is an unflinching portrait of Clokey as a fully rounded human being. Gumby Dharma documents a falliable man and how his life informed his work, in deeper regard than the scant autobio elements pointed out by previous commentators (e.g. the bump on Gumby's head was inspired by a funny haircut in an old photo of the animator's dad, Arthur Farrington). His contradictions and inadequacies are laid as bare as Clokey's triumphs and influences. The boy traumatized by his mother's abandonment becomes a man who abandoned his own family as an adult. The spiritual seeker began on his path to enlightenment because of the lures of free love and drugs. The man who channelled belief in a benevolent, playful universe into his work is tested and wounded by the tragic death of his daughter Ann, and, Gumby Dharma proposes, the struggle to maintain balance, faith, life, is manifest and sorted through in the experimental, self-financed short "Mandala", a film by turns harrowing and reassuring. In an unforced, eloquent sequence near the end, the Clokey with abiding faith in the cycles of nature and eternal spark of the spirit finds his belief flagged, shaken by the death of his beloved second wife, Gloria. She loathed the physical torments of aging, Art explains with rending frankness. The older Clokey is shown in grainy, poetic black and white footage that calls back to home movie footage of Art as a boy. This simple cinematic gesture builds a bridge across the decades, from the curious young amateur filmmaker to the wizened animator reflecting on mortality, and they are at once the same soul and a man transformed.

The documentary does a stellar job deliniating various eras of Gumby cartoons. When Clokey left his family, his first wife, Ruth Clokey, took over primary creative duties. and this run of shorts is distinctly different. Gumby Dharma even suggests with a judiciously chosen clip from "Goo for Pokey", in which the little horse is terrorized by an obsessive female blob and panicked when he finds himself confined to her clutches, that her shorts may be worth equal, separate scrutiny in the future, even as the biographical focus remains on Art. It alo plainly explains the financial motivations luring the Clokeys to produce the Davey & Goliath series for the Lutheran church, rather than swallow the traditional party line about the animator's personal values.

An apparant misstep even becomes something special: talking head interviews with the animated persons of Gumby and Pokey, weighing in at regular intervals. A similar cutsey gimmic in the They Might Be Giants documentary Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) (2002) -- celebrities reciting song lyrics as spoken word pieces-- ended up hamstringing that film's attempts to enliven standard format. It is too cute at first, but the conceit becomes touching when the clay characters comment on even the most troubled and painful moments of Art Clokey's life. The pitch-modified nasal croak emitting from Pokey is the voice of Clokey himself. His son, animator Joe Clokey, has long expressed that if Gumby is the childlike soul Art wants to be, and strives to maintain, Pokey, pragmatic, a little cynical and sarcastic, is who Art really is. Having Clokey comment with sympathy, regret and some scorn on his own life through the mouthpiece character with which he most identifies edges the interviews from sublimely silly into profound.

So, too, the wistful, strange sight that unspools behind the end credits roll. Alone and so very old, Clokey stands in a field of flowers, all the legend stripped away, and he is after all, just a man, imperfect and human an artist as ever walked the field. Sometimes he even stuck his hand in the shot. And he dances. And Gumby appears among the blossoms. They dance together, and flawed and jerky as their movements may be, they use their time to celebrate the world's splendor, frame by frame.

Gumby Dharma may never force a broader audience to reevaluate Gumby, but it's impossible to walk away from the film and not understand that Art Clokey was trying to impart something he felt was important to an audience. There is just as much, if not more, adventure, peril and wonder to be found in baking a cake or doing yard work as in flying to the moon or being a cowboy. It is no mistake or mere budgetary restraint that most of Gumby's sets and props were children's toys. The world is built of playthings.

3. This Machine Kills Bob Dylan: I'm Not There (dir. Todd Haynes, scr. Haynes, Oren Moverman)

Around the time I'm Not There was released I was spending a lot of time with "Tangled Up in Blue". For about a month, I think I listened to the song between five and ten times a day. I took a dozen pages of notes trying to chart it all. Probably won't do anything with them. When it comes to Dylanology, the devout are so studied and reverent that I am barely fluent by comparison. It is a remarkable song; deceptively narrative, it is a kind of poetic cubism some distance from Gertrude Stein, that continually plays verbal games to reorganize time and space to offer new perspectives. On one hand it's impossible to figure out, on the other hand, every reorientation of the puzzle story and the listener's relative position provide a rich experience. As you listen harder, the pronouns keep slipping, the chronology becomes increasingly open-ended, the narrative becomes more cavernous. As you try to pin him down, Dylan resists all the more. "Tangled Up in Blue" begs scrutiny, only to prove inscrutable.

Anyway, I'm Not There is built kind of like "Tangled Up in Blue" in that regard. Todd Haynes' theory being that Bob Dylan is built kind of like that. Hold it, back up, waitwait wait. It's not about Bob Dylan at all. No. Bob Dylan is not in the movie at all. It's about "Bob Dylan." What is this thing? I'm Not There is not really a biopic. It does not document its subject's life or creative life or a critical period in his life. It's not a character study. It's not even necessarily a narrative film.

So what is this thing? I'm Not There is music criticism on film. It is an interpretive, analytical essay about the work of Bob Dylan, and takes as part of its precepts that the work includes public persona and biographical myth-making by the artist, the critical community, the audience, and other artists. Have you a favorite Dylan song? Album? Era? It probably

you connected with it. "Tangled Up in Blue" is vaguely about a relationship and it ended, and the lovers keep crossing paths forever. To me that makes it, you know, romantic and about the love of your life who you can't escape. It speaks to me about the (myth?) of your One True, even though it's also about the troubled realities of relationships in practice

then you've read something into it or connected it to your personal continuity, you've been part of the construction of "Bob Dylan". You're part of I'm Not There. And the I'm Not There you carry around in your head, in your iPod selection of choice Dylan tracks, in the Top Five you'd recommend to a friend looking for an in with B.D., they're all different than Todd Haynes'. So we may be distraught if his I'm Not There differs too strangely from our own strawman Dylan.

what I'm Not There provides, a collection of mathematical naive sets:
insight about the music, not the man; insight about the man, not the life; insight about the life, not the facts chronology record every breath nothing can escape without being documented ... suddenly we've never been further from the truth. This is the moment Dylan appears, honking on his harmonica, unrecognizable and the least important of the splintered figures we have met~~~ [[NOTE remember to flesh this out re: what "insights" these are vis-à-vis concrete examples in the film. Saying this doesn't make it so == unless it is self-evident at this point.]]

insight about the failure of biopics: at best, they don't try to inform us about the artist's work at all, just document the life. At worst they seem to tell us that art is nothing but fragmented pieces of someone else's life experience. That's bullshit. That's pretentious, lying bullshit, and I can't believe any artist would say such a horrible, ugly thing about art in general, let alone about a fellow traveller. I'm Not There says the opposite things: you can't know someone through their art, that is not the point. You can't know Bob Dylan by staring at the facts of his life. You can't know anyone by staring at the facts of their life. You can't know anyone. You don't know yourself. There isn't anyone. No one's there. Poof.

Maybe the most crucial Dylan is Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, the freewheelin' folk kid, troubador hero to coffeehouse jerkoffs who think they are working men. Most crucial because it is that Dylan, one of the most beloved personas, that Haynes links directly to Born Again Dylan, dullest and most disappointing in Slow Train Coming and Saved. That's beautiful. That's irritating to Dylan fans. That's smart.

Maybe the most crucial Dylan is Heath Ledger as Robbie Clark, a movie star playing Rollins who then acts like an asshole all the time and gets divorced from his wife. Strange idea floating through several reviews of I'm Not There : that Ledger is not playing a Dylan variant. But he is, and a vital one. The Dylan that recorded Blood on the Tracks and was an asshole who got divorced from his wife. This is Dylan if he weren't a musician. Without the music and mystique and history to romanticize the man, given what we know/imagine about his private life, and given what seem to be direct dispatches from his brain in songs like "Idiot Wind": this is a Dylan with nothing left but the asshole. That's smart. I can see why it's irritating to Dylan fans.

I'm Not There is a biopic. It is just impressionistic and

It disobeys all rules of that genre as they have ever been understood. Or not. There is some precedent for I'm Not There in Ken Russell's Lisztomania (1975) and 32 Short Films about Glen Gould. Biopic -- genre is user defined. after I'm Not There, the genre is reconfigured. there are more possibilities endless possibilities. King Creole is a biopic as much as Jailhouse Rock, certainly more than John Carpenter's Elvis telefilm. I'm Not There is about the music the connection forging, now-sympathetic, now-critical way that Mystery Train is about Elvis

It is possible to walk into a room, ready to take notes and observe, find the subject stripped bare, plain and naked before the observer, and still find that their essence eludes you. When attempting to chronicle a life and observe someone else's soul in motion, perhaps the only definitive observation is: I see you, but that does not mean I know who you are. Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is.

The Notorious Betty Page (2006) is as great a biographical film as exists on planet earth, and directly engages the issues of image making and the means by which audiences form a feedback loop with the artist ???? Dylan and Page are both Obscure Objects to be sure, but Page's primary creative job was to be an image and fantasy figure, while Dylan flirted with cameras and confessional autobio songwriting to purposely throw up oblique walls between artist-art-audience realtionships %%flesh this out? or not ### Dylan has done his fair share of ironic posing and mask play and obfuscation through persona (and what do you think, is Self Portrait ironic, or not?). Similar habits may be observed in Bowie or Prince or Marilyn Manson, as fellow musicians who seem to need a new character through which to record every record, but they are builders of miniature worlds... Dylan's of a subtly different breed; perhaps Tom Waits, The Residents, Bjork, Elvis are closer relatives. Their interests just shift eclectically, madly and their full-immersion in their new artistic passions leaves even their bodies, clothes, public statements dripping with a fresh coat of

why is Dylan's Jewishness squashed out by the film? Because Dylan repressed his Jewishness? Because it doesn't? Because it's busy with other busyness?

Even given the

blanchett purposefully shows some of the stitching up the side of her performance, when she's dylan performing as dylan in front of the press. he was always good at put ons, but blanchett is better. dylan always eventually blew his cool when pressed (use "pushed" you used press 2 sentences ago) too far or forced to hold up the act too long (maintain, not hold up)

(she gets something about BD that i'm never sure he understands himself; like charlie manson, interviewers refuse to hear what he's actually saying, and when the answers are poetic or cryptic, they refuse to decode or play language games. Dylan and manson both refuse to meet interviewers halfway. w
== she's also "doing" the BD we kknow too much about, hve too much wildlife footage of him, has the heaviest lifting to do. why recreate scenes that already exist in Don't Look Back? is because Blanchett finds ways of looking back at them really hard and making them truer and funnier than when bob said them did them was them ; ; ;
)

6 actors (eeeh seven?- nine?) maybe but before you're done you've seen them play through at least 20 "dylans" before we're done - whose done? who is?

Dylan seems an apt subject for this underground-styled blowapart of the modern biopic, but it could be anyone. It certainly helps ++ +he longer the career, more extensive the catalog, vaster the public imagination on the subject. in a way (absolutely) maybe no what perhaps the notion that multiple actors should ===== fill in --- is the least transgressive violation of biopic standard op proc in

richard gere as billy the kid is easily the most crucial dylan for i'm not there, though (he? the sequences? the lack of easy reference points for the mr joneses? ) these mudsplattered frontier circus scenes have proven most difficult for critics/ imdb boards? why do i read the imdb boards? The Kid is paradoxical axolotlly the celebrated hardcore favorite dylan who is entombed in the basement tapes but tromping around the old weird ameri
ica

just saw it from a different point of vie

six (seven? who's this Kris Kristofferson narrator? and Dylan IS in it at the end.; Robbie playing Jack is a 10th..) bobs, dylan shot through a prism, rainbow of

spectrum of not-there-ness

but i don't know what it is

even given that,

not ther
e

2. What is Past, or Passing, or to Come: No Country for Old Men (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, scr. J. Coen, E. Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy)

There's blood on packed dirt. Blood on linoleum. Blood on metal, on concrete, on glass and rock. The scrubby, hardscrabble landscapes of No Country for Old Men birth a compacted chase thriller of three men tracing each others' paths as if following the lines cracked into sunbaked impacted soil. They play a game regarding the possession of a satchel full of $2 million in drug money. The players: Llewelyn Moss, the scrappy trailer park welder and 'Nam vet who stumbles across a sandblasted wax museum of a crime scene and pinches the unclaimed bag of cash. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, face of dusty rock, eyebrows like desert shrubbery, unable to grasp a solid lead on the case, but duty-bound to move forward. Anton Chigurh, undeterrable hit-man hired to to reclaim the money, able to extricate himself from any situation, usually leaving a corpse or two or four in his wake.

As a modern Western noir, No Country unfurls and retangles with the Coen's customary classical precision, characters partially understanding where they're going, who they're after and why. There is a tensed, spooked charge in the air, a measured, ominous pace and hypnotized eye for odd tactile details of physical operations, textures, thought processes and maneuvers: Moss slides the money case into a motel heating duct, Chigurh disinfects and stitches a hideous leg wound, a crumpled cashew wrapper twists and crackles on a countertop, Chigurh does a walk-through of a bloody raid in empty motel room, all documented in methodical detail. The Coens seem to have inherited this creeped-out chill from Jean-Pierre Melville's crime pictures. Even when nothing is happening, the movie is in catatonic, dry-mouthed panic.

As the men chase and run and shoot and bleed, No Country for Old Men keeps prodding us to take a step back from the game -- promise, it will not spoil the engrossing hunt-&-chase story -- and inspect the players, how they play, why, and what their stakes may be. And from this crow's eye view: Here is a document of the human condition, and how it is constant even as the participants perceive nothing but change. Here is an allegory of the principles that keep the universe glued together, even as it appears to observers stationed inside one fractal node that everything is coming apart at the seams. Here is a meditation on the mystery of How Things Work, from the nature of the mind of God to the furrows left in a millimeter of dust by dragging a satchel through a heating duct. As the characters repeatedly warn one another, something is coming, and you can't stop it, and you can't see it. But maybe from up here, blood trails, rivers and shoe scuffs on the floor will form patterns.

It is from Sheriff Bell's vantage we frame this country, the facts plain and tough, their meaning and shape tough to catch in your hand. Tommy Lee Jones plays Bell as visibly soul-wounded and wearied by everything from slaughtered dogs to bad coffee, eyes registering something between sadness and bewilderment at every moment. Bell plays the No Country game with his mind on the past. A quick study of crime scene clues, he is able to piece together logical, flawless narratives of what has happened hours or seconds before he arrives in the tableaux of violated landscapes. He reconstructs the drug deal shootout without missing a beat. He notes the condensation on a milk bottle as evidence that he's barely missed crossing paths with Chigurh by wincing to his deputy: "Now that's aggravating."

Aggravating, and never gets him anywhere. Bell is necessarily a step behind the other players. Way behind. When Llewelyn Moss is finally defeated, our view narrows by one character. It is through Bell's eyes that we wheel up to Moss's body, we can piece together what happened, and know we're still too late. In brief opening narration, he casts a romanticizing eye to his lawman ancestors, wistfully boasting that they didn't even carry guns, and mourns what he perceives as the falling of society into chaos. And this, he cannot fathom. Initially baffled by a lack of retrievable bullet after Chigurh kills a man with a captive bolt stunning pistol, he later tells Llewelyn Moss's wife, Carla Jean, an anecdote about cattle slaughtering, and mentions that very firearm in passing. Does he make the connection? Realize it, but understand it no longer matters, never mattered? He apologizes: "My mind wanders."

In the film's final act, while visiting his wheelchair-bound uncle Ellis (your hero and mine, Barry Corbin), the retired sheriff shoots the younger old man the story of how his Uncle Mac died. Shotgunned by Indians, drowning in his own blood, a death more excruciating than any depicted in No Country. It's not, Ellis suggests, that Ed Tom is "overmatched" by a rising tide of madness in the world, but he's rendered himself overmatched through, as Ellis puts it, "vanity." When Ellis admonishes that "What you got ain't nothin new," the "what you got" may be Ed Tom's internal crisis, may be the present ghastly crime spree, may be darkness of mere being. Solipsism, defeatism, nostalgia, vanity: Bell throws up defenses against an inherently, eternally structureless existence. If something is coming, he knows, it is something wicked. The fear isn't just that he has outlived his era, but that if his moral absolutes are no such thing, if he's operating in a meaning-void, he sees no way to continue.

The old man stares out a window into the no-country and explains: "I always thought when I got older, God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn't." He faces a senseless universe, asks for sense, and when it does not answer, does not know how to fill the silence.

It is with Llewelyn Moss' immediate life-and-limb struggle to evade Chigurh's silenced rifle that we're invited to identify. Moss plays differently, in the moment, squirming out of situations as they arise. Josh Brolin, wearing a determined scowl, mutters sardonic, monosyllabic commentary on his own thought processes throughout. He opens a document case full of cash, looks around for those who surely want it, weighs his options, knows he's taking it, knows it's a bad idea, and sighs: "Yeah." He's taking it anyway. You can know human nature and your own failings and still fall victim. He is adept at hiding things -- stowing the money, concealing weapons, sending his wife out of town -- and practical, cool-headed in action. When being chased by a truck, he runs to a river. When a dog is dispatched, he swims to shore, dries and reassembles his gun, and takes care of business. Like Bell, Moss is hampered in the game by shortsightedness and sentimentality. Until all other possibility is exhausted, he fails to realize the money bag houses a tracking device. Fails to consider that his home is full of indicators that Carla Jean would likely hole up at her mother's house. While an expert in the moment, Chigurh has the leverage. While Bell is warned that he "can't stop what's comin," Moss gets an exchange with a flirtatious motel resident, moments before he's killed. She notices he's nervous. He says he's "lookin for what's comin". "Yeah," she says "but no one ever sees that."

Moss' pragmatism links him to the unflappable Chigurh. But Moss plays tactically, trapped in circumstance, and his opponent has a wide-view strategy. We meet him while being arrested by one of Bell's deputies. He goes quietly, bides time staring at nothing. At split second of first opportunity, loops his handcuffs around the cop's neck and keeps them there, still staring at nothing as a man thrashes and dies on top of him. Dressed like Stephen King's tricky demon Randall Flagg, face fleshy and immobile as if Novocain numbed, eyes black and watery, Javier Bardem makes Chigurh's every movement deliberate, practical, forward moving. He drives around with his gun on the seat. Never leaves a murder without checking his feet for gore. Drops every tool from his hand as soon as it has served its purpose. When the task is set, the goal in mind, Chigurh is going to blast a hole through as many uncertainties as he can with force of will. "You know how this is going to turn out, don't you?" he asks Moss via telephone, his dark, croaking voice has a weirdly polite calm, and mostly groans orders and demanding questions. And Moss: "No. Do you?" Chigurh: "Yes. I do." Because that is how they play. Chigurh has his eye on the future.

Chigurh and Sheriff Bell are linked as well. They're both operating under bad faith. Bell waits for a clue, waits for God, waits for his dream-Father to light a path, and waits. Chigurh sees the same signs of a chaotic, unprincipled existence, and forges his own elaborate cosmic plan to take its place. A scheme in which he is an agent of fate, he is the cards which his victims are dealt, causally dictated by an unfathomable set of choices and luck. To those potential victims not an immediate threat to his life or standing in his way, Chigurh offers games of chance: call this coin flip, and, once, answer the equally dicey question "Do you see me?" (can the victim confirm he will not report Chigurh was there? Rhetorical indication that "sure as you see me, I'm shooting you"? Or is it possible this man Bell compares to a ghost is truly invisible in that moment? All of the above?). Chigurh insists on the coin flip, tries to explain its weight and consequence to the players, but his attempts at human dialogue are so blunt and self-centered that his questions and explanations, attempts to slice through the bullshit of social nicety, come off as terrifying non sequitur. "'Now' is not a time. I said 'what time do you close?'," he prods a gas station owner, who sputters "Generally around dark" and in response gets only a derisive "You don't know what you're talking about, do you?" The real problem is that no one knows what Anton Chigurh is talking about. He cannot articulate the the complicated rule system that he believes binds him to his task. One can only guess at the psychological motivations of the psychologically unsound, but Chigurh seems to need structure and meaning as much as Ed Tom Bell.

In Chigurh's first coin-flipping minigame with the gas station owner, he makes the teleological argument that the 22-year causal chain of history brought a quarter to this moment. Though those movements were not charted, here in this moment while under observation, its next movement can be predicted with 50% certainty. If something is coming, perhaps Chigurh can limit its potential outcome. So too, he superimposes his own terms, making laws for the universe for the same desperate reasons Sheriff Bell clings to the laws of man. Is it plea or demand, then, that he does not want the gas station owner to pocket the life and death quarter, for fear "it'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is." Chigurh has endeavored to make the coin meaningful, cannot bear to see that stripped away.

In the final coin-flip, Chigurh shows his hand, the limit of his philosophy. Carla Jean Moss refuses to play the made-up game, won't call the flip, even tells him: "The coin don't have no say. It's just you." But the man who cannot be caught, who tracks no blood, who wields weapons of fire and air and silence, who seems, in one of No Country's several unanswerable mysteries, to evaporate from a motel room with no exits as Ed Tom Bell seems to have him cornered, Anton Chigurh cannot comprehend an existence of absolute existential freedom. He presses his case, as if he doesn't understand Carla Jean, retorts "Well, I got here the same way the coin did." He seems to mean that fate and purpose carried the man and the quarter to this task. He is ironically pointing up that indeed, Chigurh and the coin got here because he chose the destination.

Bell can't stop it, Moss can't see it, Chigurh believes he can head it off at the pass... Whatever it is, it is coming, and you'll deal with it or not, the coin don't have no say, just you, and it's still coming. Surely, one of those things is death. That has a nice fatalistic ring to it, and eventually gunfire, old age, car crash will clean out the countryside. But there's also more life. That, too, is coming, and you can't stop it. No Country for Old Men is Texas, 1980 as existential chessboard; dense as if impacted by hot sun, millennia of weather beating it down, and at the same time sparse, wide, open as the line of the rocky horizon, and the boundless, measureless space above.

1. Amor Trashy: Grindhouse (dir., scr. Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino + friends)

Yes, but do you love the cinema?

Has any filmmaker in history packed his films so full of love as Quentin Tarantino? Tarantino makes movies like grand rococo palaces built of what he has learned, and in tribute to everything he loves. The knick knack references, namedrops, and quotations littering the floors are the first to catch our eye, but they are vast as anyone's interests and obsessions, from the finest in American breakfast cereal to $400 bottles of Cristal champagne, Clutch Cargo cartoons to Claude Chabrol. This pile of details can be overwhelming, thigh-deep mounds of board games, Shaw Bros. tapes, rockabilly 45s, heaps of fetish objects, sparkling with light from the murder holes, surfacing the grotto. But the mortar holding the repurposed pop memorabilia decoration in place, the stuff of the ceilings, walls, floors, the fabric of the films themselves, is love too. Love of people and faces, speech and laughter and screams, of individual humors, flaws and virtues: of actors and characters. Love of the possibility of structure and surprise, genre classicism and deconstruction, the entertainment value of glee, fear, flop-sweat and repulsion: of stories and getting lost in them. Love of color and music, speed and slow, the jazzy rush of sugar and fuzzy blush of liquor, of film stocks and blood, screenplay and sigh, soundtrack and smoke: Quentin Tarantino's films have the joy of life. I think the French have a way of putting that.

Mr. Robert Rodriguez has an admirable aspiration, endangered in the modern arts. His pictures aim to entertain as hard as possible at every moment. With D.I.Y. practicality and impatience, he hoists onto his own shoulder the duties of every single technical and creative task that he can. This has a natural hand-crafted appeal, but sometimes works at cross-purposes with Rodriguez's greater goal: a master craftsman brings control of technique to achieve superhuman entertainment that even ambitious, hardworking mortals cannot. Not being a master of all crafts, Rodriguez films sometimes have a lumpen quality. So be it, because sometimes they hit their intended mark with absurd, splintering force. His immediately previous adult feature, Sin City (2005), was the movie equivalent of eating a whole box of cordial cherries in one sitting. He clearly loves the act of making movies, and though the result is often like watching children in Don Post monster masks staggering around the garage while a Bolex whirrs, Rodriguez will risk life and limb to put Fun on a screen.

So these fellows, who, whatever else one wishes to say about them, are sick-in-love with the cinema, bring their complimentary talents to Grindhouse. Two movies that are one movie. While Tarantino in particular has been accused of making movies "about" movies, what that criticism really means is that the artist is at best insulating his work against life, at medium-bad a collage artist, at worst a thief or hollow-voiced parrot. It's a sucker's complaint that Grindhouse is inauthentic. "Exploitation" is a market-defined genre, cynical from conception, shallow by birth. But at over three hours running time, Grindhouse had better be up to more than puppy-dog-eyed imitation. Insofar as Grindhouse is about exploitation movies, it makes a case for their simple, titillating pleasures and rarified, transgressive complexities. And it simultaneously goes about a full-blooded demonstration.

At its loftiest, Grindhouse illustrates that exploitation films of various stripe are a special cinema playground where we work out feelings ugly, lovely, unnameable, grapple with issues vital to the souls of men, women and beasts, with certain advantages and without certain hang-ups of arthouse film or popular Hollywood cinema. On the film's release I wrote at length about the way Grindhouse functions as invite-only celebration and open-armed initiation (and if you made it this far down the page, what's another half hour? Read at leisure.).

There's something more direct and vigorous playing out in Grindhouse. As with the best of slasher movies, women-in-prison movies, monster movies, blaxploitation movies, cannibal movies, etc., etc., Grindhouse engages the parts of the brain and body that get no nourishment from mainstream entertainment sources. If one's mind flashes on the fact that there are currently very expensive films built solely of property destruction, bleeding and fighting, it may seem the cineplex has co-opted the grindhouse. But no. The sensory thrills of Grindhouse are of the wind in your hair as a car speeds down a country road. The tang and bloody richness of good barbecue. The lazy haze of getting stoned and watching the rain. The peculiar funniness of dumb unfunniness. The unexpected self-revelation of artists working under constrained time, budget, genre requirement. The humanized erotic spectacle of interesting-looking people, not lit from their best side, sweating, eating, greasy and exhausted from a long day shooting. The fragrant surprise of a new liqueur jolted into your mouth when one trusts a friend to serve mystery shots. The texture of film grain, blur and roll of aging VHS, the bad 16mm print's scratch the jump, and as it moves and tears in the projector, the grind.

Everybody likes movies. Grindhouse asks: but do you love the cinema?

4 comments:

M.J. HANSEN said...

Thank you for posting this, I very much enjoyed it. Question for you: I saw Grindhouse in the theater and loved it, but for some reason I can't bring myself to watch the separated films on DVD. What are your thoughts on these? And why won't they just release it as is?

Aram said...

It's interesting to see a yearly "best-of" posted so late, allowing the reader (and perhaps the author?) to evaluate the films with a certain amount of critical detachment. One of the reasons I enjoy your blog is because our taste in films is so similar, but with a few glaring differences that would likely make for hours of good conversation. I still consider Grindhouse one of my favorite "seeing-it-in-the-theater" experiences, but I happen to think that you are far, far too generous with your praise for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

But I'm not here to be contentious. I just wanted to compliment you on your artwork and thank you for reminding me of The Host, which piqued my curiosity at the time, but which I had completely forgotten about until seeing it mentioned here.

...Now how long until the 2008 list?

Chris Stangl said...

Re: The GRINDHOUSE features as separate entities:

Well. On a personal level, I'm disappointed that the GRINDHOUSE experience can't be replicated at home in toto (actually, it can, via Japanese DVD). But the fun of a whole night packed with wild trailers and theater bumpers is always an ephemeral experience. Concert albums aren't a substitute for being there. As for the loss to GRINDHOUSE as anthology film, the missing elements are the way the movies bounce off one another, seem to acknowledge the feeling of being trapped in a theater for 3 1/2 hours. The features are still full of wonders individually, can still be watched as a homemade double feature though.

DEATH PROOF plays slightly better in its longer cut, losing not much but the joke of the missing reel, gaining a lot of beautiful textural stuff. For those who cannot get enough Tarantino it probably doesn't matter that none of the new material is story-vital. I just rewatched it, and oh my GOD is Rosario Dawson funny. She's may be the best actress to tackle Tarantino dialogue. It sounds completely natural coming out of her mouth, and she gives it an incredulous, ironic lilt that even Uma Thurman can't do. If Michael Madsen is Tarantino's male Uma Thurman - he photographs them with epic romantic obsession - then Dawson's his female Samuel Jackson: the only actors who seem to be speaking in their own voices, though we know full well the words are Quentin Tarantino's.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Chris,
Thanks for getting it right about DARJEELING LIMITED. I love Wes Anderson's movies so much it hurts even to defend them, and DARJEELING, for whatever reason, needed defending. As a brilliant friend of mine implored of me after seeing the critical reaction to it: "Was there something WRONG with Wes's new movie?" I didn't think so; yet, anything that's wrong with the film is what's wrong with its characters is what's wrong with us, the obsessive viewers of Wes's films.