Sunday, March 27, 2011

I Believe It's Magic

Sometimes one stumbles onto diverting/cute/inconsequential discoveries but has no longer piece on any related topics in the works where they might be deposited. Rather than lose this one to the wind, I present a nice little flourish from Ghostbusters (1984, Columbia Pictures, dir. I. Reitman). Or is that "Ghost Busters," as the opening titles would have it? I usually defer to what is onscreen, but this is plainly incorrect. Moving on then. This is really just about an interesting cut-on-action and as it entirely involves movement and cutting, the illustrations below aren't particularly attractive or, well, illustrative.

The context, as you surely recall, is that Consolidated Edison, under orders of EPA jagoff Walter "Wally Wick" Peck, have shut down the 'Busters' containment grid and released all manner of spookums. In humorous-eerie montage set to a jittery remix of "Magic" by Mick Smiley, several of the emancipated phantoms rush to indulge in those specifically New York City experiences they must have pined for in captivity. After shenanigans with subways, taxis, and mouthfuls of street hotdogs, we're back to our key players.


Fig. 1

Whoosh! Here's a view looking out from the apartment window of one Dana Barrett, lately possessed by Sumerian demigod Zuul, Gatekeeper and minion of Gozer the Gozerian (I type these things because it looks funny, not because you don't already know all this; sadly, we both know all of this by heart).

This sequence is rather on the cusp of the second and third acts, and designed to pull into position the relevant players who have been scattered to the wind. Namely, at this point the stage is set for the ritual union of Gatekeeper Zuul and Keymaster Vinz Clortho, but Vinz is off scampering around TriBeCa — they can't find each other.

This is followed by a brief reaction shot of Zuul!Dana, distorted through the window glass and then...


Fig. 2


Fig. 3

The idea here, as explained by Dr. Stanz, is that the building itself is constructed to serve as a massive antenna for PK energy. Hence, a good number of the pink energy balls zip straight toward 55 Central Park West. Those that don't crave hotdogs, anyway.

Before (F.2) and after (F.3) images are offered purely to communicate what is happening in this shot: the wall explodes out, sending a cloud of gray dust and debris straight at the camera. Match cut to:


Fig. 4

A flock of pigeons suddenly taking flight in the foreground. They rise up and exit frame at the top and reveal Vinz Clortho in Louis Tully's clothes staggering around in the middle distance, watching them go.

Observations, mercifully brief:

-The student of editing clichés may know that a sudden cut to birds taking wing is not entirely unprecedented. Such theoretical birds are often reacting literally, metaphorically, or both to some kind of violent shock, e.g.— echoing gunshots and a cut to startled birds escaping Dealey Plaza punctuate the opening sequence of JFK (1991). HOWEVER! While "motivated" by the PKE-charged explosion, the Ghostbusters pigeons are different in essence. Again, no screencap quite captures kinetic release of this cut, but suffice to say the effect is that the wall explodes into a cloud of pigeons.

-This sequence is a chain of motion, where flocking chunks of energyball/brickwork/birds fly at the spectator. This is also part of an image system throughout the film in which, well, special effects fly at the camera. Obviously, in the twenty-six years since, this is an increasingly typical gimmick, and it was not really new in 1984. Rather than make a case for visual innovation or uniqueness here, I just wish to point out that this bit combos an optical effect (F.1) onto a pyro stunt (F.3) onto real live birds (F.4) to convey several story points.

-As the music cuts out, the final puzzle piece is laid, completing the story concerns driving this bit. Besides the ghostie hijinks, this sequence is about Zuul moving to the window in anticipation, sensing the arrival of Clortho. Vinz has been wandering the streets and looking to the skies, finally drawn to Spook Central by the swarming spiritual turbulence. The pigeon cut signals the moment that he knows exactly where to go. Now what is interesting? poignant? weird? to me about this story thread is the screenwriter's-delight irony surrounding Louis Tully. The Gatekeeper/Keymaster gag is memorable enough that it garnered a nod in one of those "Sex in Cinema" pieces in Playboy. As the paperback novelization puts it, "She was the Gatekeeper and his key was ready. They sank down in the embrace that had been foretold and blew the roof off the building." Good one, Richard Mueller.

What the film does not play up explicitly is the character dimension to this, in which the lovesick nerd has universe-ripping sex with his dream girl while they are both under the influence of demonic possession. There is a fair amount of this sort of understated irony in Ghostbusters, right down in its foundational concept. The film is set in a world beset by real supernatural menace but the protagonist, Peter Venkman, is the sort of sham parapsychologist that skeptical investigators like to make examples of. The point being only that the core jokes of Ghostbusters are somehow those that get the least attention in favor of, say, smelly ghosts eating ten hotdogs.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Two Zero Zero X: Favorite Films of the Decade Pt. 7 — 2006



Previously: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005...

Two quick notes, skippable for the disinterested. The Decade Review Revue continues because I always meant for it to take a long time, spread well past when your list-collating people are collating lists of such things. Not because we are now properly in a new decade — as a man once said, "Nobody likes a math nerd, Scully" — but because I enjoy this project and can take my time. See, reviewers and columnist types — those with niceties like editors, paychecks and readers — have to do constant pulse-taking and odometer-checking as they jog their beat. So right about now they're, what?, supposed to be writing about awards and/or festivals and/or generating think-pieces about, like, what celebrities wear to court. Daaamn, that's a harsh gig, but I ain't judgin', I'm just sayin'. Surely this is a stubborn exercise in what my sixth grade teacher politely called “divergent thinking” but the post-mortem on The 2000s is not done till we’ve weighed all the organs and sewn it back up.

One of the reasons the "Two Zero Zero X" lists take so long to write is that I make a point to investigate a lot of films from each year that I hadn't caught up with and rewatch anything I have not seen in awhile. So, logically, the more recent the year of inquiry, the less time I've had to see everything I'm interested in. But I'm finding that it doesn’t really matter. Gaze, for instance, at this original Best of 2006 round-up, and note that it doesn't look much different from a mash-up of the list below plus a couple of foreign film holdouts from 2005 and a couple of items that would show up on this 2007 list. We're entering territory largely already covered, since this journal's inception in 2005. So dread the upcoming day when I have to discover if I really have more to say about Grindhouse (2007!), but in the meantime, welcome to 2006, which isn't so different from last time we visited 2006...

The Exploding Kinetoscope — 10 Favorite Films of 2006

10. V for Vendetta (dir. James McTeigue, scr. Larry Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, from the comic by Alan Moore and David Lloyd)

Well, you can draw this stuff, but that doesn't mean you can film it. The V for Vendetta comic that Alan Moore wrote between 1982 and 1985 extrapolates a political dystopia out of '80s Thatcherism and sets against it a sort of man-against-the-system freedom fighter missing link between archcriminal terrorist Fantômas and the proto-superheroics of The Shadow. It is an almost-direct-engagement of contemporary political situations by way of enlargement. The polemics on-page are located at the inflamed ends of a spectrum, which is the position from which, gods bless him, Moore always makes sociopolitical argument, which is to say that the comic is about Fascism v. Anarchy. The older and wiser Moore gets, the more he boils human power struggle down to these terms, which makes for compelling art and zero tolerance for, say, American and Australian filmmakers futzing around with his book. Multipurpose metaphor, of course, is how one builds things to last.

Of the transition from agitprop comic to the McTeigue/Wachowskis/Silver poli-sci-fi film, Moore offered the astute criticism that the metaphor has been remolded to a sort of contemporary American liberal response to neo-conservativism. This is, of course, meant as a complaint, but might as well be a compliment, because, Jesus, ain't that something? Joel Silver surely has his own peculiar voice as a producer, and the verdict may be iffy on the voice of Mr. McTiegue, but part of the Wachowski project thus far has been to dance a highly subversive ballet on the stage of the monolithic studio system without allowing the sundry associated pressures to interfere with their choreography. The decade's preferred commercial spectacle genres were superhero action and nerd fantasy literature adaptation, and, 2006 being Life During Wartime and a Dark Time for the Nation and Post-9-11 and all, V for Vendetta is rather a break in continuity in this pop art dialectic. It sprays graffiti on the broad, oppressive walls of Batman Begins, and, because it wears a mask, can walk right up and do its business in broad daylight.


9. Black Book (dir. Paul Verhoeven, scr. Verhoeven, Gerard Soeteman)

There is something of the same work being done in Black Book as in decade fellows The Pianist and Inglourious Basterds, in that cine-serious authors with hearty, ironic senses of humor have made deep-probe adventures set in non-battlefront corners of World War II, and largely in reaction to how the war is depicted and discussed at the movies. In their particular ways, Polanski, Tarantino and Verhoeven find their tendencies to puckish perversity roused by an interesting unresolvable tension: war, this war in particular, provides a marvelous toy chest with which to build stories, and is at the same time the most disgusting thing of which human beings are capable.

Black Book is then a sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark with the ark popped open at the beginning, and the whole adventure story scorched by punishing fire. Verhoeven and actress Carice van Houten go on an epic marathon run with heroine Rachel Stein as she tries to outrun the razing of the European landscape, hopping and dodging through story-modes and transforming from refugee to resistance fighter to girl spy to revenger. If John Rambo grunted that to survive war, you have to become war, here are a dozen variations on what he might have meant, and they all boil down to the constant, increasing moral compromise. Whatever you do to survive in the moment, you pay for later. Whoever is on top after the battle needs a scapegoat. If a principle is exhibited in this formula it is the conservation of mass: all that shit is going to end up dumped on somebody, over and over, forever and ever. If there are tips provided on how to survive the ordeal of existence, they are that once in awhile chocolate can save your life, and never climb into a coffin before it is your time. This is Man's Inhumanity to Man as action-adventure spectacle, and a Thrilling Survival Tale of the Enduring Human Spirit in which history is chronicled in one endlessly long black book.


8. Gumby Dharma (dir. Robina Marchesi)

Shucks, back in 2009 I had hoped Gumby Dharma, the epic-in-miniature biographical documentary about Art Clokey, would find a good distribution channel and lead to sudden widespread interest in Clokey's animation, and there would be a bunch of exciting articles about Gumby for me to read. None of this happened, and, worst of all, Art Clokey stopped motion on this plane of existence early last year, passing away on January 8, 2010 at the age of 88. The bulk of his work remains poorly represented on modern home video formats and Gumby Dharma has shown on the Sundance Channel and was finally released on video in March, 2010.

Documentaries about filmmakers and their work are in no short supply, and in sundry form litter the Special Features menus of a thousand DVDs. Gumby Dharma is automatically interesting for those who value Clokey’s work, but it also builds a case for its subject as a filmmaker worthy of study beyond just the recognizability of Gumby bendy toys. This work begins by telling Art Clokey's story without flinching, which means personal and professional triumphs are not inflated beyond their context, and death, drugs, disease, loss, abuse and bad behavior — those examples inflicted by Clokey or upon him — are met head-on. If that is not extraordinary for a 21st century documentary, please, please do not forget that we are still talking about Gumby cartoons, and that this is a story that has never been told with such depth and honesty. This is not to paint Gumby Dharma as some sort of scandalous exposé of Art Clokey; it is, rather, a complicated, naked, and ultimately joyous portrait of a man, an artist, an animator, a filmmaker.

Last time around, my notes focused on the film's excellent formal choices and valuable research and historical testimonies, and delicately rendered profile of Clokey. I do not want to lose sight of what I feel is Gumby Dharma's overriding thesis, which is that the animator possessed a unique vision of the world and was able to channel that into undulating, speaking, dancing clay. All that passion and pain, curiosity and fear, weirdness and love pulse through Gumby; Gumby skates and plays along the path, and he is the path, the ball of clay, the heart, the part, the enterable book, the blade of grass, the you.


7. A Scanner Darkly (dir. Richard Linklater, scr. Linklater from the novel by Philip K. Dick)

These things cannot be defined in tidy syllogisms or anything, and this isn't about, like, rules, man. But to help sort things out, we might say that: Obviously not all films about drugs are proper head movies. And at the risk of offending, what I'm talking about with this classification does not include a vast majority of stoner comedies, nor the sort of SFX-heavy audio-visual spectacles one might use as an in-home Laser Floyd show. A great head movie A) is about and/or is an investigation into consciousness expansion and/or warping, and/or B) examines, encapsulates, and/or explains the human experience with an eye that is part anthropological, part philosophical, part spiritual. Hints that the film might open up with a chemical key are optional. Whew!

A Scanner Darkly has those qualities, so by my count Richard Linklater has two fine head movies under his belt, and a handful of interesting experiments (the Before Sunrise/Set diptych and Waking Life, which are earnest almost-theres, Slacker, which plays better straight or very caffeinated, etc.) Where the beautiful and fuzzy-hearted Dazed and Confused wafts by on a Circle of Life/Family of Man buzz, A Scanner Darkly is paranoid, doomed, tragic, cottonmouthed. Fueled on dread, it is set entirely during that bad moment you are coming down, notice your fingernails are way too dirty, there is a stack of unwashed dishes in the sink, and maybe you're not coming down after all. So get this: undercover agent Bob Arctor goes so deep under that he ends up investigating himself, and watching with a detective's fascination as the twin serpents of Id and Superego begin uncoiling from their cosmic hula around the center pole. Do try this at home, but maybe not in public.

When last we saw Keanu Reeves on this journey, the effect was opposite: Neo staring back at the threshold of perception, seeing the code beneath the skin, and finally learning to sense the gold that unites it all — no glass, no scanner. If Robert Zemeckis' mo-cap freakout Beowulf accidentally captures the acid-vision nightmare that humans are weird-eyed puppet husks being jerked awkwardly around too-vivid sets, reenacting some kind of mythological parody, the computer rotoscoping of A Scanner Darkly serves a not dissimilar function. Here the stage is made vague or simplified with outlines and color planes, while the surface of the players players crawl and squirm; the whole world is covered with a thin metaphorical hide, a construct, a mask, a cartoon envelope that can't quite be peeled back but isn't quite telling the truth.


6. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (dir. Gore Verbinski, prd. Jerry Bruckheimer, scr. Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio)

Curse of the Black Pearl reformed the theme park ride’s impressionistic story of skeletal pirates, hoarded gold and the wages of sin into particularly buoyant four-quad fantasy action adventure. With the scant narrative materials of the theme park source material used up, Dead Man's Chest scrapes up the unused themed visuals (fireflies), settings (bayou), and ambiance, then goes about the business of transforming the Pirates of the Caribbean series from a potential string of cast-connected sequels into a trilogy proper, and that is an exponentially more difficult exercise. That is, Dead Man's Chest has to connect forwards and backwards to make three scheduled films into a one massive three-chapter story. To illustrate the difficulty and ambition of that task, consider that while remembered as "trilogies," The Godfather is not built like this, Star Wars is not built like this, and so forth. Pirates is outsized, long-form original storytelling, whether it is "branded" as a concern of a major corporation or not. On the business end, where all films are merchandise, someone in a suit seems to have remembered that the merchandise is still art, that despite all their cruise lines and shopping mall emporiums, The Company is still in the business of stories and characters.

This is all simply to say that despite the increasingly pre-drinking-age milieu of the Summer Movie Game, the Pirates films are unusually committed to and serious about that game. They are crafted with the belief that an audience is invested in the tale and the world, so every nook, cranny, and cannon is crammed to the brim. Completely, seam-burstingly overstuffed, to be sure, but this middle chapter in particular is a Valu-Pak film; it's so much movie. There is faith here that this story should be dense and all subplots should intertwine and motivate each other, that sets should be rich with detail, every single character should grow or change or be tested — that each of them is someone's favorite player and so should have a hero's entrance, a crowning moment of cool, and a dramatic exit — and that half the spectacle is of actors acting. That makes it noisy and exhausting, but heartening next to most of its glib, insincere competition — say, Universal's Mummy movies.

Pirates is blessed with a glinting edge of perversity— an eye for grotesque design, admiration for mischief, a hard-on for the masochistic dimension of heroic sacrifice, and not a little bit of out-of-the-blue weirdness. It is far more sexed-up than Lord of the Rings, and more tripped-out than Harry Potter, breezier than both by several factors. If the comparison to fantasy-lit classics of their kind seems unfair (or unfounded), consider that Pirates is aiming exactly that high, and that ambition alone is pretty damn cool. With this installment, it becomes clearer that in its overstimulated noggin and wistful heart, this story is about mortality, about the death of imagination and adventure at the hands of global business expansion, cultural imperialism, colonization — about fun withering in the brutal sun of finance. In this light, that the Pirates of the Caribbean movie overlay onto Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride does a tragic disservice to both the park and the films can only be bitterly fascinating.


5. The Host (dir. Bong Joon-ho, scr. Bong, Baek Chul-hyun)

The monster is big, but could probably fit in your living room if you have high ceilings. We traditionally read human-size monsters as a warped Us or a feared Other, and the bigguns as metaphors for some pressing sociopolitical terror, both are favorite subjects for extensive probing with psychoanalytic theory, and fair enough to all that. The best of the best, from King Kong to Mothra Vs. Godzilla, Q — The Winged Serpent to Jurassic Park, find some magical way to make the ground-level, people-sized story as compelling as the beast rampage and about something besides mere survival. That is no mean feat.

The Host injects intense big monster mayhem into a droll dysfunctional family comedy, warping it into a search-and-rescue abduction suspenser as the Park family looks for their youngest member who has been swiped by the creature, and frames it all in Brazil-style paranoid government thriller. Somewhere near the center of this is another superlative performance by Song Kang-ho as Gang-du, the monster-napped child's scruffy nitwit slacker father. Song plays Gang-du something like Shaggy in mourning having lost Scooby, beginning with literal pratfalls and emotional slapstick, until the lovable cartoon dope is hardened and seasoned with hellfire, and somehow coming out on the other side as a lop-sided, smushy-hearted hero.

So we have here a daikaiju black comedy sprouting agitprop polyps and one can't really predict where it's going, what will happen next. This is not to say that The Host plays as a crazy quilt mash-up, or is as nuts as, say, #3 below, or dreams of being something other or "better" than a giant monster picture. Instead it dreams bigger, striving to be the best giant monster picture it can be.


4. The Notorious Bettie Page (dir. Mary Harron, scr. Harron, Guinevere Turner)

You don't get to be notorious all by your lonesome. "Notorious" is a reputation, and that requires observers to cast an opinion. It goes without saying that pinup models are the locus of much fantasy projection — that's pretty much what they're for. Besides the obvious, consider the imagination fuel of even innocuous swimsuit cheesecake photo. We might imagine the scenario suggested by the photo, or the circumstances of the photoshoot itself, the unseen photographer and the photographic apparatus. We imagine those body parts not on display, hidden by wardrobe or pose, imagine the dimensions not captured in 2D. We imagine the model in movement, imagine her voice, and imagine a personality onto the mute, frozen figure. When we look at Bettie Page, we project an imagined Bettie onto her.

Harron and screenwriting partner Turner begin The Notorious Bettie Page with a basic map of the strategy that will branch out through the film. Adult bookstore customers inquire about the selection of under-the-counter specialty photos ("unusual footwear" stuff, if that means anything to you), but in short order the shop is raided by cops: one trenchcoat crowd replaces another, and Bettie Page finds herself summoned before Senator Estes Kefauver's Senate subcommittee hearings on pornography and juvenile delinquency. So there we have it, two audiences hunting for the same photos but imagining their own Betties for their own reasons and to their own ends, and the flesh-blood-and-bangs Bettie the cause of it all, or tied up in the middle of it, or maybe just there and being Bettie.

Now any old model, real or invented, could potentially serve as subject here. Harron, Turner and Gretchen Mol — their flat-out sparkling, bubbling, fully-carbonated Bettie — never indicate for a moment that they've distilled the ultimate secret true story of their subject. Rather, the film suggests that any biography by its very existence imposes a narrative on the raw data of a life and creates a character in the process. To tell the story of Bettie Page is to make Bettie Page into a story. This, Notorious indicates, has its potential virtues and pitfalls, but is the process by which identity and legend are built.

It has to be Bettie, or at least she is a perfect subject. Page's latter-day immortality as cult pin-up is the reason this biopic exists, and that interest was stoked by the apparent mystery of What Became of Bettie Page? By the mid-'50s she'd become the most photographed model in the world. She worked in nearly every form of non-explicit adult photography, from Playboy centerfolds to 8mm catfight films to underground bondage photo clubs to burlesque revue movies. That's a lot of audience, a lot of imagined Betties. What Bettie Page meant in the middle of the 20th century is not what Bettie Page meant by the end of the century, by which time she'd become America's retro sex icon of choice, plastered on comics shop walls, motorbike gas tanks, and photobooks destined for the coffee tables of the très hip across the nation. That's a lot more audience, and more Betties. The interim is legend, speculation, rumors, stories. And where was Bettie? Unaware that this was happening, that anyone cared about antique nudie pictures, that so many ghost-Betties had come to life.

What The Notorious Bettie Page does that is so intelligent and kind — charitable, really — is suggest that all of our fantasies of Bettie Page — those sexual and political, those that would make her victim or legend, those that would see her in bondage or in angel wings — are legitimate and integral parts of her biography, and her extensive body of modeling work continues to fascinate and inspire, which is the legacy of that work. The photos and films, you can have. The story, whichever you prefer, you can have that too. But only Bettie Page lived the life, and that is not something to solve and explain. That, you don't get to have.

As she once said in Striporama (1953), her only speaking role on film, "I'm illusion!" "You mean you're not real?," gasp the baggypants comedians who would possess her. Replies Illusion Bettie: "Of course I'm real."


3. Brand Upon the Brain! (dir. Guy Maddin, scr. Maddin, George Toles, Louis Negin)

Guy Maddin — the character in Brand Upon the Brain! and director of Brand Upon the Brain! — puts a fresh coat of whitewash on the island lighthouse where he grew up, and feverishly reminisces about his childhood loves, traumas and love-traumas, dramatized as careening melodrama/mad scientist/teen detective/wild child/evil mother/incest romance/zombie horror/steampunk melodrama and made in the style of, um, a Soviet montage/German expressionist/Hollywood silent comedy/abstract cheesecake peepshow. That's all literal as it is metaphorical, and though this is poetic interior autobiography and rumination on the nature of Memory and Self, nothing could be more accessible: it's sex-fixated and silly, the plot never stops moving for five seconds and it's a knee-slapper front to back. No doctors or lit majors need to assist with the decoding, as the plum-syrup narration will do it for you, and it's impossible to be inscrutable when everything is on the table.

Maddin's lighthouse is famously stocked with out-of-fashion early cinema, pulp fiction and avant-garde clutter, but fret not, all you have to do is experience the sight of how that stuff branded his brain, and learn in short order what is so special about all that moldy old stuff. Maddin is, in these blatant ways forever fetishistically gazing at a silver-emulsioned past, a memory eating itself up like nitrocellulose decomposition, but is also forward-thinking, evolutionary. Everybody and their mom knows how to psychoanalyze a filmmaker based on how he frames a shot, can pick out Major Themes from table setting mis-en-scène, and knows which props are phallic and which ones criticize American foreign policy. So what if, asks Guy Maddin, we start with the assumption that this work is already done, and set archetypes and personal symbols on a romp through a story-space that purports to dive straight into the psychosexual miasma of the artist's head? The result is a wholly original breed of comedy, an exciting new kind of storytelling, and cliché-decimating entertainment built entirely out of clichés so disused you've never seen them before.


2. The Black Dahlia (dir. Brian De Palma, scr. Josh Friedman from the novel by James Ellroy)

Certain crimes — big, terrifying, era-defining crimes, mainly — speak to us with layered voices, at first seeming to be manifestations of some core societal fear, but ultimately telling us more about what we are afraid of than actually confirming those dangers, prejudices and myths. e.g., in the moment it can appear, through spin or sincere interpretation, that the Manson Family crime spree confirmed dark fears about hippie culture, drugs, rock music, California. Certainly those events and those figures spoke to a significant portion of the population in exactly that way. But those crimes were so singular, Manson himself so exceptional, the scene so one-of-a-kind that, really, it doesn’t say such a thing at all. In that case, we’re left with a tragedy about this particular nutjob con man, his brainwash victims and their subsequent non-symbolic coincidental murder victims. This is not a cozy thought, but in the ensuing hysteria and excitement Charles Manson is given a constant public forum, and the families of victims are forever caught in this ugly saga. That Family of victims extends on out along this fractal arm, from Roman Polanski in the micro to the entire Love Generation in the macro. When this feedback loop is turned up loud enough, somewhere in the mix Manson’s code-speak bilious rants end up being made true: you wanted a Devil, he’ll be your Devil.

After the tawdry facts of a crime, and beyond the personal aftermath for survivors, the further tragedy is in the myth-making. If we’re adept at keeping our eye on the birdie, the underlying theme tends to be how good the media is at finding an angle to sell a story. Even if we’re dealing with the Kennedy assassinations, 9/11/01 or Jeffery Dahmer, data points are not a story: you need a narrative hook. The big ones leave us all scarred, even if that mark is only across the imagination. So:

Meanwhile, over in the vacant lot on Norton Avenue, Elizabeth Short is transfigured in death into The Black Dahlia. And that particular body, with those particular memory-searing, picturesque mutilations, might have captured public imagination for a few weeks, but that’s not The Story. The Legend of the Black Dahlia is that this poor Massachusetts girl wanted to be in pictures, and ended up in pieces. That seems to say something; about this untamed town that wants to be a desert; about this Boulevard of Dreams littered with the shards of broken would-be starlets; about a Dream Factory that is really a high stakes business running on the blood of pretty young things; about a Tinsel Town adorned with razor wire.

That would be the legend, of course, and it’s a good one — so good that its whirlpool sucks down L.A. “supercop” and local celebrity pugilist Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart, doing impotent moron in meltdown like a champ). Poor sap only lasts, what? A week?, so caught up is he in dead white girl mania and troubling, circling questions that are not beside the point, but not conducive to solving the crime. What is this strange system by which starry-eyed women offer themselves up to men with money and cameras? Is this germane to the question that James Ellroy says is at the heart of this mystery, which is: why do men kill women? We note here, that this is the kind of thing that Short's murder makes one think about. Blanchard can't reconcile the black alchemy that discards the bodies and leaves the immortal part on a screen and made of light. He can't make it add up, and as is the hotheaded flatfoot's fate, ends up pursuing the Dahlia into Hell — that is, his throat slit and body fed into the furnace by his mob-connected informant. Blowing out of this world as a spectacular, blinding, horrifying supernova is no substitute for the dream of being a star.

After all is said, done and revealed, Blanchard was scrambling through life to protect an image. His fancy home is funded with stolen money, his career accomplishments puffed up, his promotions earned for their P.R. value, his fame-making boxing win a rigged fight, his live-in girlfriend poses well on his arm but he isn't sleeping with her. In his main squeeze, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson who, you know, poses well and adequately fills out an angora sweater), Blanchard has built a perfect rescue narrative; she's an ex-prostitute-gone-gold-hearted, and he helped her go straight. His motivations are not just covering up his culpability, living a lie or faking it till he makes it. He protects the ones with a good Story.

This is the guy who is "supposed to be the hero," as per the real protagonist, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett wearing a hat), who holds an ice pack to his aching skull as his partner's corpse is fed into the inferno. Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice, then, promotional nicknames invented by the LAPD, which ostensibly describe their boxing styles, more or less indicate their personalities ("I can't move! I never move!" wails glacial Bucky), and indeed one rages and one is slow to thaw. But it's bullshit, too. "You're a political animal!," the Deputy D.A. chastises the broken-down Blanchard. So are they all, and for the Bucky and Lee it means they're pawns, moved to Homicide and put on the Short case because they're the Supercops. Don't you read the papers? They're characters in someone else's story.

If Bucky is tortured by Beth Short at first, it is because the media ruckus over the dead white woman — whose link to The Industry is not even a whisper of a dream, whose movie-derived nickname is entirely posthumous and newspaper-invented — is drawing him away from important cases he could be closing. And maybe, he tells Lee, this Beth Short wasn't such a nice girl. i.e., the crime needs solving, certainly, but maybe it needn't be glorified, made legend. As Charles Manson often points out, he wasn't shit until you put all those TV cameras on him. But.... there stands Kay in her underwear, and sliced into her back are the initials B.D. As it happens, that stands for "Bobby DeWitt," her old pimp. It stands, symbolically, naturally for Black Dahlia. That doesn't go away when you blink. "Who are these men who carve themselves into other people's lives?" the V.O. ponders, and as serendipity would have it, B.D. are the initials of a renowned director of thrillers, horror pictures and neo-noirs who happens to be directing the scene.

The tale connects Paul Leni's Expressionist melodrama The Man Who Laughs (1928) — a horror film for all intents and purposes — with a (fictional) stag reel starring Short. In direct connection, both are shot on the same set (a frankly insane conceit), the former inspiring the later, a beautiful link in the film's chain of mouth trauma that begins with Bucky's symbolic castration when he loses his choppers in the boxing ring. It is a chart of cinematic lineage, as well, in which German avant-garde technique moves overseas and mingles with hardboiled detective fiction, and the resultant new genre baby eventually grows up and Brian De Palma falls in love with it and has to make The Black Dahlia. In these and sundry other ways, De Palma implicates and investigates himself among those who mythologize this crime specifically, but more generally cleave bodies on screen and burn images onto imaginations.

Bucky solves this one, insofar as he learns the details of Elizabeth Short's death. He follows the money, of course. And all are implicated — De Palma and Mack Sennett and the men with the cameras, media and politicians, institutions and underlings, gardeners and carpenters. By the end, Bucky finds the housing development under the Hollywoodland sign was built of rotten wood and hides a film set with a murder shed out back. The very city itself is a façade constructed of corrupt materials. He might've guessed earlier, when the unstable town vibrates in an earthquake. When we leave Bucky, he's still hearing the crows, still seeing that body on every empty lawn. The facts and the legend are both etched on him now. The big ones leave us all scarred.

The citizens of this Los-Angeles-as-black-hole play at being human beings, covering their faces with flimsy masks to indicate profession, social strata, gender, identity and character (arche-?stereo-?)type. The faster they put on their costumes, the faster they are ripped away by the howling void swirling at the center of The Black Dahlia. It is blacker than black in there, so black we need the French to name it. We call it noir.

More on Bucky in Noir-land, symbol-chains and metafic here.


1. INLAND EMPIRE (dir., scr. David Lynch)

David Lynch's shot on video horror movie tops the very short shortlist of that lowly genre's unabashed masterpieces. It is not as bizarre spectacle as Boardinghouse nor as depraved and feverish as Splatter Farm, but it has many fine qualities and is scarier. INLAND EMPIRE was received, ignored, and criticized in a manner that means mounting a defense, writing a simple appreciation and beginning a cursory exploration all amount to the same thing. Insofar as INLAND EMPIRE is a difficult work, three roadblocks typically greet those having difficulty, and rather than demerits, they are simply its qualities. 1) INLAND EMPIRE is a piece unabashedly shot on digital video, and arriving in theaters with the announcement that Lynch has no future plans to shoot on film. 2) INLAND EMPIRE announces itself as a narrative feature and contains abundant plot information but is firmly rooted in modes of avant-garde cinema that include the non-narrative and entirely abstract. 3) The narrative of INLAND EMPIRE is consistently oblique, but explicitly links itself to mystery stories. It seems to offer thousands of clues and few conclusions. At its most explicit it seems to suggest that it might be solved, at its most opaque it seems to suggest that something crucial and meaningful is being missed.

Speaking of solutions, these problems are all, naturally, intertwined. If there is any help to be found below, I would suggest instead that perhaps if you are sitting in front of INLAND EMPIRE with your eyes pointed at the screen, then you do understand INLAND EMPIRE. Unless your eyes are closed.

Lynch often foregrounds the materials used in the creation of his art — like a Jackson Pollack drip painting, the fabric and construction is the subject. Even his figural paintings are dollopped with paint and scribbled on, flat-planed and collaged. Think of the puppet robin meant as real in Blue Velvet or his film-loop-on-sculpture "Six Men Getting Sick" or the incandescent "Premonitions of an Evil Deed", a stunt film of poetry and prowess shot on a Lumière camera. INLAND EMPIRE is boldly, proudly a video project, exploiting and exploring those things only video can do. The result is Lynch's most abstract feature since The Straight Story (1999) and most experimental since Industrial Symphony No. 1 (1990). That is, a true experiment of the let's-see-what-happens variety, this one exploring the visual qualities and editorial rhythms of consumer grade digital video, and in shooting hours and hours of scenes with no master blueprint for assembly.

How to Watch INLAND EMPIRE may be, as Roger Ebert once opined of Dune, to let it wash over you like a dream. This is, in this case: don't fight it. It is the same advice Lynch gave critic Martha Nochimson when they looked at a Pollack together: you do understand it, he told her, I saw your eyes moving across the painting. To engage that dream any more analytically will find one scrambling for purchase, just as in a dream or maybe as when trying to explain one. Some things that happen, you're at a loss to articulate, some are intuitively understood. Anyhow we're squarely (well, asymmetrically) on the shoulders of Laura Dern as actress Susan Blue, who is warned off making the film On High in Blue Tomorrows, and then walking alongside Susan playing Nikki Grace, who is perhaps her own person or several people. An issue that frequently arises when discussing Lynch's film is that the filmmaker finds increasingly sophisticated ways to preserve what he loves about Mysteries, and that love is not in the solving but of luxuriating in Mystery itself. As Sandy asks Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, "you like mysteries that much?" And Jeffrey answers: yes. So analytical language will be wrongheaded at worst, coy-sounding at best. It is not that Lynch films can't be written about, but the task is like tracing letters in smoke or drawing diagrams on wet paper with a fountain pen filled with perfume. And yet, here we are.

This free-associative ebb and flow creative process births a work about a film struggling to be born — or perhaps resisting its creation — and documents the challenge put forth to Laura Dern. Never positive during shooting where her character had been, or where she was going, Dern is ultimately playing an actress grappling with a role. This is a film of linking and connection, disparate geographies, identities, chronologies that peer at one another through torn membranes, down dark hallways, through burn holes in fabric, ruptures in spacetime. Passageways are important in Lynch's work, and all of the films contain a signature movement/image in which the camera descends/dives/probes/is-sucked-into a mysterious black hole: moving deeper into Another Place. In Lost Highway, Fred Madison wanders into a dark corner of his windowless home and emerges somewhere in his own echo chamber head. Blue Velvet famously tilts down from the sky, dives underground, enters a severed ear, reemerges from a reconnected ear and gazes back to the heavens. INLAND EMPIRE is a series of tunnels sliding into one another, connecting back on themselves.

Susan Blue's task is to fully understand Nikki Grace, and to do so she ventures all the way inside and inside out — for Susan to understand and become Nikki, she'll have to plumb the mystery of herself. Along the journey she finds and embodies a replicating chain of Lost Women, ventures all the way to the heart of the universe to find the most lost of souls, and in the end perhaps she does not fix everyone, but finds them. Susan gathers the lost to her and they rejoice.

And these are the keys to INLAND EMPIRE, but there are so, so many keyholes to be tested. Like Mulholland Dr. on back to Eraserhead, INLAND EMPIRE begs to be played with, have its pieces shifted, riddles catalogued and links tested. The puzzle-solver is not on a fool's errand, but is engaging INLAND EMPIRE as designed: playing an infinite game.