Thursday, August 3, 2017

captive attention links

---Not a Grande Dame by Catherine Grant

---Incident by a Bank

---trailers for Thor: Ragnarok, Proud Mary, Call Me By Your Name, UnaReady Player OneJustice League9 DoigtsMother!, and Suburbicon

---"What is the defining characteristic of the femme fatale, that film noir archetype of the scheming woman who preys on men? Even more than greed or coldheartedness, it might be deceit: a virtuosic ability to manipulate men with lies and playacting. The femme fatale is spawned by male anxiety—not prompted by women’s wartime emancipation, as many have argued, but arising from the age-old fear of being fooled by women, and the misogynistic belief that they are inherently duplicitous and inscrutable. This shapes the way actresses play femme fatales: they are often giving a performance of a performance, enacting a charade of feminine sweetness and frailty that satisfies the expectations and desires of their marks. In Eddie Muller’s Dark City Dames, Jane Greer recalls that when she played the enchanting thief, liar, and killer Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past (1947), director Jacques Tourneur wasted no time on the character’s psychology, simply instructing her: 'First half—good girl. Second half—bad.' He told her to play it 'impassive,' conveying the depths of her evil through a shocking depthlessness. A woman like Kathie or Kitty almost doesn’t seem to have a real self beneath the layers of lies: she is, as a disgusted Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) tells Kathie, 'like a leaf the wind blows from one gutter to another.'" --Imogen Sara Smith

---Anatomy of a scene: Valerian 

---five action sequences from Atomic Blonde

---"I still feel that we’re still in the early years of what digital will ultimately become." --Henry Blodget

---Aldous Huxley on Technodictators

---"If there’s a defining mood to Brooks’s work as writer/director/star, it’s one of profound restlessness and dissatisfaction, often followed closely by the shame of leading a life of privilege and comfort and its never being enough. As David, Brooks wants for nothing but perspective, and the price for that perspective is the liquidated value of his material possessions and a sizable share of his dignity and self-worth. In the film’s moral reckoning, it’s a fair sum." --Scott Tobias

---"'Cool' was our mantra on this film, and it became very empowering" --Cindy Evans

---The Legacy of Paranoid Thrillers

---"The premise of hijacking is that it undermines your control. This system is better at hijacking your instincts than you are at controlling them. You’d have to exert an enormous amount of energy to control whether these things are manipulating you all the time. And so we have to ask: How do we reform this attention economy and the mass hijacking of our mind?" --Tristan Harris

---"Charlize Theron Is Not Here to Make Friends" by Anne Helen Petersen

---Romero's filmmaking tips

---Zygote

---"They are all attempting to capture your most scarce resource — your attention — and take it hostage for money. Your captive attention is worth billions to them in advertising and subscription revenue." --Tobias Rose-Stockwell

---Schorem

Thursday, June 8, 2017

bruised links

---"Jaan Pehecchaan Ho" from Gumnaam and Ghost World via @dcairns

---"A Brief History of the GIF" by Lorraine Boissoneault

---trailers for Beatriz at Dinner, Baby Driver, Good Time, Becoming Cary GrantLogan Lucky, and Okja

---"So when it came time for her own directorial debut, Ms. Lister-Jones knew she wanted to work with a woman behind the camera. Only women behind the camera, actually: For her indie comedy Band Aid, released Friday, June 2, Ms. Lister-Jones hired an all-female crew, from the grips to the drivers to the production assistants.

'I wanted to see what it would feel like,” she said, “if a community of women exclusively created a piece of art together.'" --Melena Ryzik

---"Saturnz Barz" by the Gorillaz

---the pleasures of wealth and fame and Johnny Depp

---Maya Deren's Film Philosophy

---"my interest was telling this story [Ghost World] in a slightly exaggerated, nightmarish, almost film-noir version of the world. A social and critical satire depicting America’s fabric woven from falsehoods and lies, hypocrisies and scams. It just seems to be what happens in a capitalist society. There’s politicians and TV evangelists and corporations, and none of them have the best interest of the average citizen." --Terry Zwigoff

---the best aggregators of film links? @CriterionDailyMovie City News, and @nathanielr's link lists

---"The handsomest Frenchman on earth, swaddled in an outsize yet epaulet-perfect trenchcoat, hiding deep blue pools of blankness under the brim of a fedora, stares into Parisian drizzle through a rain-blurred windshield, inserting keys from a huge ring until he finds the one that fits. A steel-haired, middle-aged, world-weary gambler comes up with the grandest con of his day while cruising the nightspots and fleshpots of backstreet Montmartre, but his moment of deepest melancholy comes from a single gaze upon the bare back of a young girl he’s sheltered as she sleeps with his young protégé. A bald, stocky Jewish Frenchman, wearing a Stetson and sunglasses at night, barrels his Cadillac convertible down the Champs-Élysées in search of diversion. Alain Delon in Le Samouraï, Roger Duchesne in Bob the Gambler, the great filmmaker of action and attitude Jean-Pierre Melville in life." --Ray Pride

---"one of the fascinating things about the cinematic image is precisely that it’s difficult to pin it down." --Laura Mulvey

---"On the music of Ghost World" by Terry Zwigoff

---“I remember it was Day 2, my body was hurting, and my face is all bruised up, and my eye was swollen shut,” Ms. Theron said. “I remember thinking to myself, really?” --from "Women Who Have the Chops (and the Punches and the Kicks)" by Julie Bloom

---Orson Welles: Hollywood Magician

---an excerpt from Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You by Charles Taylor

---"Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast presents an odd and dilated experience of this particular kind of uncanny nostalgia, without any acknowledgment of its own weirdness. It is at once discomfitingly familiar and unfamiliar. By consistently hitting certain marks hard (precise musical cues, familiar costumes, lines of dialogue, and a multitude of shot-for-shot reenactments that feel like torpid tableaux vivants), it relies upon the viewer’s assumed willingness to completely integrate the new fetish object and the lost original. In so doing, it suggests that the pleasures of mere recognition offered by this uncharismatic filmic doppelgänger should be enough to regain or even surpass the enchantment of its original for the return viewer. This is a remake that refuses to acknowledge the inevitable uncanniness of its status as such. In its dogged familiarity, however, the specter of the original only becomes more and more insistent. In the lackluster and slightly down-tempo musical numbers, it becomes harder and harder to be present in the movie theater while another (better) version is being simulcast on the screen of memory." --Sara Chihaya

---10 tips for filmmakers

---"Netflix Isn't Killing Movies, Hollywood Studies and Theaters Are" by Jordan Zakarin

---"Sofia Coppola on Bill Murray, Nicole Kidman, and the Movie that Made Her the Second Woman to Win Best Director at Cannes" by Lynn Hirschberg

---"To me, it’s telling the same story but from the women characters’ point of view. I would never want to remake someone else’s movie, but I love the premise of it. When I saw the movie I thought it was so… I don’t know… weird. It stayed in my mind. It’s a very macho guy’s point of view in this women’s world, so it started making me think about what it must have been like for the women during wartime. They were raised to relate to men, that was their whole role in the Southern world of that era, and now there’s no men. It was wartime but these women were left behind." --Sofia Coppola

---"It’s also important to remember that most of these images are actually sequences of images: Peter O’Toole blowing out the match followed by the sun rising over the desert, the baby carriage rolling down the steps amid the chaos and brutality of the attack by the Cossacks. And beyond that, each separate cinematic image is comprised of a succession of still frames that creates the impression of motion. They are recordings of instants in time. But the moment you put them together, something else happens. Every time I get back into the editing room, I feel the wonder of it. One image is joined with another image, and a third phantom event happens in the mind’s eye – perhaps an image, perhaps a thought, perhaps a sensation. Something occurs, something absolutely unique to this particular combination or collision of moving images. And if you take a frame away from one or add a couple of frames to the other, the image in the mind’s eye changes. It’s a wonder to me, and I’m far from alone. Sergei Eisenstein talked about it on a theoretical level, and the Czech filmmaker František Vlácil discusses it in an interview included on the Criterion edition of his great medieval epic Marketa Lazarová (1967). The film critic Manny Farber understood it as elemental to art in general – that’s why he named his collection of writings Negative Space. This 'principle', if that’s what you could call it, is just as applicable to the juxtaposition of words in poetry or forms and colours in painting. It is, I think, fundamental to the art of cinema. This is where the act of creation meets the act of viewing and engaging, where the common life of the filmmaker and the viewer exists, in those intervals of time between the filmed images that last a fraction of a fraction of a second but that can be vast and endless. This is where a good film comes alive as something more than a succession of beautifully composed renderings of a script. This is film-making. Does this 'phantom image' exist for casual viewers without an awareness of how films are put together? I believe it does. I don’t know how to read music and neither do most people I know, but we all 'feel' the progression from one chord to another in music that affects us, and by implication some kind of awareness that a different progression would be a different experience." --Martin Scorsese

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Comfortable in no man's land: the pleasurable questions of Wonder Woman

'Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.’ --William Moulton Marston (the original creator of Wonder Woman)

I enjoyed director Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman in part because the movie begs several questions that I've been brooding on, such as why did the filmmakers choose the first World War for its story and not some more recent period? 

Why is the battle scene where Wonder Woman climbs up from a trench and takes on a classic stalemated no man's land the strongest one in the movie? How does Wonder Woman resist superhero blockbuster fatigue? I don't usually care much for heightened characters with unrealistic CGI-driven powers. How is it that Gal Gadot's version of a superhero almost makes her superpowers beside the point? What is the relationship between Wonder Woman's mythological origin/worldview (with its emphasis on Ares, Zeus, Hippolyta, etc.,) and the more historical one of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine)? Even as naked and bathing Steve Trevor describes himself as being an "above average" specimen of mankind, is he even needed in this movie? When Wonder Woman decides to go find and fight Ares as a way to stop war, is she being naive or somehow smarter than Steve?  

When we see Robin Wright playing Antiope as Diana Prince's fighting coach on Paradise Island, are we supposed to see her work here as some fundamental opposition to her usual role as the conniving Claire Underwood in the much more cynical House of Cards? How much is the success of Wonder Woman due to its lack of cynicism? When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) faints underwater after crash landing his plane near Paradise Island, is he meant to look weak and helpless before waking to find an Amazon staring at him on the beach and saying "A man!" somewhat like Miranda does in Shakespeare's The Tempest when she beholds her first man:  "How beauteous mankind is, Oh brave new world," etc.? When Wonder Woman rather whimsically decides to climb the ladder and start running toward a machine gun nest across no man's land, are we supposed to think of hundreds of thousands of men being nihilistically slaughtered in movies such as Gallipoli (1981) and Paths of Glory (1957)? Does it help somehow that the movie doesn't have Nazis, so that one can also associate this movie with Jean Renoir's more sympathetic portrait of the Germans in Grand Illusion (1937)?

Wonder Woman is an ideological opposition to male dominance in a svelte package, an oddly compassionate goddess-woman who can scarcely see a wounded war veteran without wanting to do something about it. I'm not sure how it works. Perhaps Jill Lepore's book can help explain things.  At any rate, Diana Prince proves refreshing as an antidote to stupid masculine oppression everywhere.

Related links:

---"Top Ten Things About Wonder Woman" by Anthony Lane

---"Jenkins sets her “Wonder Woman” in the First World War instead of the Second, and, in a way, this makes a certain chronological sense, since the Marston family’s models were the formidable women who fought for suffrage, equal rights, and birth control in the nineteen-teens and twenties." --Jill Lepore

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The mystery of creation and terminal sequelitis: a discussion about Alien: Covenant

One afternoon recently, deep in the heart of the Film Doctor compound, Wickham F. and I discussed Alien Covenant:

FD: We both came out of Alien: Covenant reasonably entertained, but I had a lots of mixed feelings about the movie. I've taught the original Alien (1979) in my science fiction class, and Alien: Covenant struck me as being way way too similar to that film. It had the same music, the same scenes in terms of the way the aliens took over people, and a lot of the same plot developments. It seemed more like a remix than a sequel in which Ridley Scott was intent upon returning the viewer to favorite moments in the past in some sort of greatest hits. Alien: Covenant came across as such a bizarre cannibalizing of the original movie, which does hold up amazingly well. Part of the charm of Alien is that the technology is so crude . . .

W: It's a man in an alien suit.

FD: So much of the movie could be terrible, but because of the biology, the imagery, and the design hold up so well.

W: Yes, by H.R. Giger.

FD: I have great respect for the first movie, but this one is, what, number 7?

W: I think, ultimately, there is this inherent problem with the Alien films, in that they have to somehow get to a mysterious planet where they're all going to get killed.

FD: Right.

W: And there has to be some motivation for them to get there, and they always go unsuspectingly. There are plot structure elements that are very repetitive from movie to movie. But still, Prometheus was a very daring choice for Ridley Scott as the director, because he kept telling people, it's not really an Alien prequel. And then, the studio executives objected to that, so that at the end of Prometheus, he sneaked in an alien to accommodate the suits. Scott attempted to make a different type of movie set within the Alien universe, and because that film got so much backlash, so much confusion, basically, when people where going in expecting one thing and getting something way more philosophical with inconvenient plot holes and weird character motivations. I imagine that Scott was more recently feeling pressure to make something more akin with those original Alien movies. So, even with trailers, you could tell they were saying "There's a xenomorph, they're landing on a planet, and there are head crabs. We're going back to what you love, people. Come on out to the theater."

FD: Isn't that a form of completely selling out? At the same time, Alien: Covenant has some thought-provoking mise en scene--a massive open space with twisted roasted corpses all around that reminds one of Pompeii, massive human head sculptures.

W: I'm assuming that we're in full spoiler territory here. 

FD: Michael Fassbender's portrayal of the android David is compelling, but at the same time, Alien Covenant comes across as a bit pretentious, with David playing Wagner and sometimes reciting Shelley's "Ozymandias."

W: Meanwhile, no one makes science fiction horror movies anymore. And if they do, no one makes them like Ridley Scott. I think Alien: Covenant is something of a bait and switch. It gets you in the door, thinking they're going to touch down on a planet, and bad things are going to happen. The movie starts off that way, but then Scott keeps building upon the mythology he began with Prometheus, which is the idea of creation, of God, the question where do we come from as humans? In Prometheus, David asks one of the scientists, "Why was I made?" The guy is drinking. He's kind of a buffoon, and he answers, "Because we felt like it."  And David replies, "How unpleasant it would be if someone told you that was why you were made?" (I'm paraphrasing.) And then, David takes some of the alien goo, and puts it in the scientist's drink. 

At the time, audience members thought what the hell? And what I like about Alien: Covenant is that you have this android preoccupied with creation. We all know that Ridley Scott is obsessed with androids, even going back to Blade Runner (1982). So, Scott appears to be imprinting onto this recent movie his philosophical inclinations and questions, such as do robots have a soul? In Blade Runner, androids were obsessed with living. Due to their short longevity, they just wanted to live, and they weren't given that opportunity, because they are terrorists, basically. 

So now, Scott explores the mystery of creation by developing David who is frustrated with where he came from. So, I can understand why some fans are upset, because Scott is basically and totally doing his own thing.

FD: But he's repeating his own thing.

W: He's repeating himself to some extent, but he's also mucking with the alien mythology. He's saying, to hell with all of that James Cameron stuff in Aliens (1986). Also, Alien 3 and is stupid. I'm going to build my own weird backstory to the Alien ethos with my own agenda. 

FD: When it comes to David, he's a delightful character. I like him in the scene where all of the humans freak out because an alien pops out of somebody (and Alien: Covenant fully explores other ways that infant aliens can burst out of human flesh in unexpected places. It seems like after awhile, you are going to run out of places to pop out of), but beyond that, I enjoyed how in the midst of a scene where everyone is completely freaking over this gruesome birth, David remains utterly cool. He has nothing to fear. He's completely calm and collected, and therefore delightful. 

To keep going with spoilers, it turns out that David is a complete fan of the aliens. He enables them in various ways. He wants to encourage their reproduction and spread them across the various planets. David wants to treat them as superior beings, but ultimately these aliens never do a whole lot except go [hissing noise] and then kill people. It seems like, if the filmmakers want to treat the aliens as exceptional, then the aliens need to start developing language, but mostly, still, they are fun bugaboo horror villain characters who are not that much different from demented cats.

W: They have two mouths.

FD: Alien (1979) was so good about keeping the alien mysterious, and there was also the strong sense of the biological imperative, that the alien has to survive cleverly. Now, with Alien: Covenant, the aliens replicate, and get killed. A lot of that initial interest in their sophistication and mystery has been lost because we're getting used to them.

W: Yes. That's a problem with prequels. They tend to get rid of the mystery of villains, such as Darth Vader. I think you have to take the first Alien as a completely different beast, no pun intended. It's a slasher movie in space, stripped down, with believable characters, space truckers, etc. It's a minimalist film in comparison to the bloated blockbuster of today.   

FD: And yet, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains such a great female lead, and an influential character. With Alien: Covenant, one kind of remembers Daniels (Katherine Waterston) and Billy Crudup playing a weak captain named Christopher Oram. We also learn that James Franco played another leader who was killed off at the beginning. The crew mourns for him, but I couldn't figure out if we were supposed to be sad or happy because the character played by Franco was killed. I was cheered by the fact that he was dead on arrival like Kevin Costner in The Big Chill (1983).

W: There are some featurettes for Alien: Covenant that effectively set up the characters for the movie in ways in which the film itself does not. The featurette sets up some of the romantic subtexts and the relationships between the crew members, and you don't get any of that in the final product. As for your point about the problems with the villainous alien itself, I think that was probably due to studio pressures to return to the proven formula.

FD: In every week of 2018, we will get another tentpole sequel blockbuster-wannabe, and Alien: Covenant already seems to point in that direction. Potential audience members will get really really sick of all this rebaked reliable product, infinite repetition and terminal sequelitis.

W: This movie tries to please everyone.

FD: So, basically, you're saying that Prometheus proved too original, and so Alien: Covenant retreats from that. 

W: Yes, Prometheus took more chances. The problem with Alien: Covenant is two-fold. The characters are criminally underdeveloped, so when they get picked off, you don't care at all. They're just fodder. Secondly, Alien: Covenant relies too much on the basic horror movie trope of minor characters wandering off without much motivation into dark corners just so they can get killed. 

FD: After all, an exploration of the mystery of creation comes across as lacking if it's driven and defined by craven studio calculation. Ridley Scott deserves more than that.

W: He most certainly does.   

Other discussions with W. consider The Dark Knight Rises (2012), The Loved Ones (2009), and World War Z (1013).

Monday, May 29, 2017

A sentence from the Library of America's Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z

I've been very much enjoying the recently published Shake It Up, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar. It provides a jukebox sampling of lively loopy rock, soul, and folk journalism that shifts giddily from Eve Babitz seducing a cheerfully newly thin Jim Morrison in "Jim Morrison is Dead and Living in Hollywood" to the decidedly grim portrait of the up-and-coming band Led Zeppelin slogging across America (in a way that most definitely does not resemble Almost Famous (2000)) eventually traumatizing Ellen Sander in "Inside the Cages of the Zoo," from Lester Bangs not being all that sympathetic when Elvis died to Ed Ward not finding Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run all great after all. The book is full of twists when one might expect more praise--Chuck Eddy not caring much for the later Ramones, for instance. And the style often comes across as pleasantly drug-addled and deranged. I felt that this one sentence by Camden Joy's piece entitled "Total Systems Failure" deserved honorable mention here:

"Then the record companies ran out of Nirvana specialty reissues and Sonic Youth did not make another Daydream Nation and stupid Mark E. Smith assaulted his girlfriend while Elvis Costello forfeited his place in the pantheon and generation-defining classics were on the tips of the Breeders' and Uncle Tupelo's tongues when the band members turned on another as Nick Cave and Morrissey became jokes and Bob Mould and Mike Watt continued on cluelessly and the gifted pop band Christmas came back as the utterly irrelevant smug swingers Combustible Edison and traditionally deserving dues-paying types like Vic Chesnutt and the Fastbacks could not get a commercial purchase on the popular imagination as everybody from the Posies to Pearl Jam to Archers of Loaf never figured out how to make an album entirely important from start to finish, forgetting the point of pop stardom is to bring together huge clumps of otherwise unaffiliated folks, and Pavement couldn't follow up the Pacific Trim EP with the requisite jubilant breakthrough (their Let It Be) and Cat Power and the Mountain Goats defiantly clung to Dylan pre-'65 and Tom Waits was too late with The Black Rider and Yo La Tengo were inexplicably overlooked (how does that begin to happen?) and the fetish for releasing crappy home demos--whose very lack of finish lent them the steady hiss of a gradually disappearing public--succeeded only in stealing mid-decade credibility from keenly perfectionist pop stars like Robyn Hitchcock and Nick Lowe and They Might Be Giants precisely when they issued their masterpieces."

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Film in Deep Focus by Morgan Honaker

Morgan Honaker examines the implications of the recycled narrative in recent movies as part of her Film in Deep Focus video essay series. I've been brooding on the extreme repetitiveness of tentpole releases ever since I watched Alien: Covenant last week (a film which has an uncomfortable number of similarities with Alien (1979)). It's a pleasure to see Morgan analyze these trends.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Film Doctor's 9 Year Anniversary

On May 18, 2008, I began copying my former newspaper movie reviews onto The Film Doctor blog. Now, almost 9 years later, I know better, but I still post things on occasion. Here's a link to my notes on Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

complicit links

---Amy Heckerling visits Criterion

---Decisions, Decisions by Cristina Alvarez Lopez and Adrian Martin

---Matt Zoller Seitz considers Rushmore

---"The female glance is deeply attuned to textures, to shades of light. You can feel the temperature of the bodies around you, the anxiety and claustrophobia or, alternately, the expansiveness and delight. It’s an almost synesthetic mode of filmmaking, focused not on plot, or narrative, but the capacity of an image to convey a feel. It forces identification with, and empathy for, the way women experience the world — an experience that’s often marked by passive observation and the rhythms of the domestic world. Scenes shot in this way can feel paranoiac, distracted, and disjointed, but that’s just the reality of living in a world where your body, your value, your power is constantly surveilled. If the male gaze disassembles and disempowers, then the female glance puts that world back together on its own terms." --from Anne Helen Petersen's "The Radical Feminist Aesthetic of The Handmaid's Tale"

---Richard Kelly's filmmaking tips

---“The problem is audience behavior. People are going to movies less and less, and when they're going, everyone's going to see the same movie.”

---"[T]here is mounting anxiety among theater owners, studio executives, filmmakers, and cinephiles that the lights may be starting to flicker."

---"Why does everyone hate Anne Hathaway?"

---"Get Out and the Death of White Racial Innocence" by Rich Benjamin

---"Well, in this case, there was a script, which was the evolutionally history of the universe [audience laughs]. And lately – I keep insisting, only very lately – have I been working without a script [To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song], and I’ve lately repented the idea. The last picture we shot, and we’re now cutting, went back to a script that was very well ordered. There’s a lot of strain when working without a script because you can lose track of where you are. It’s very hard to coordinate with others who are working on the film. Production designers and location managers arrive in the morning and don’t know what we’re going to shoot or where we’re going to shoot. The reason we did it was to try and get moments that are spontaneous and free. As a movie director, you always feel with a script that you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. And with no script, there’s no round hole, there’s just air. But I’m backing away from that style now." --Terrence Malick

---David Bordwell's analysis of a scene in A Quiet Passion

---"Looking at To-Be-Looked-At-ness--Feminist Videographic Criticism" by Catherine Grant

---Mark Freeman considers The Graduate

---Complicit

---“I like people pushing, people not conforming,” Kidman said. “I love the widening of the boundaries, pushing through the extremism. I love filmmakers and storytelling. I am not interested in popcorn movies. I go to see them and like to be moved by them, but as an actor I examine humanity and why we’re here.”

---trailers for HHhH, Flames, Thor: Ragnarok, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriGhost in the ShellRedoubtable, A Ghost StoryIt, and I Am Heath Ledger

---"Judge has said that one reliable source of comedy for him is the way humanity simply isn’t prepared for modernity, which ensnares us in vast systems of control in order to sustain itself. What he couldn’t have imagined while making Idiocracy in the early 2000s was that technology was about to thrust humanity into an era for which we are even more ill equipped. It was around that moment that Silicon Valley inventions — blogging platforms, social media, YouTube — began sweeping away old orders and gatekeepers in a way that was both exhilarating (because we were more in charge of our destiny than ever before) and mortifying (because we were, well, more in charge of our destiny than ever before). Idiocracy was released the same year that Time magazine heralded this new age by naming us all the Person of the Year. A decade later, Donald Trump earned that honor, along with the presidency. If anything can explain the short time horizon on which Idiocracy and reality merged — if you believe they have — perhaps it is that technology left us completely, terrifyingly, to our own devices." --from Willy Staley's "Mike Judge, the Bard of Suck"

---"Being There: American Cypher" by Mark Harris

---"The GIF as a Tool of Rereading, Resistance, and Re-narrativizing in Social Media Spaces" by Jasmine Lee Ehrhardt

---The Chameleonic Charlize Theron

Friday, April 14, 2017

The endlessly exasperating 20th Century Women by Mike Mills

Last weekend, I watched, or tried to sit through Mike Mills' rather lengthy 20th Century Women on Blu-ray, in part because I have great respect for many of the actors involved, and also because I liked Mike Mill's 1979 internet radio station. Sitting through the movie, however, proved to be a traumatic experience in which I relived all of the rage and sheer angst provoked by Mike Mills' previous movie entitled Beginners (2010) (Mills' earnest movie-making style gives me the unholy fantods). I did, however, manage to write down some notes on 20th Century Women, which follow: 

1) Such acting talents! Such skills in casting! Such a terrible movie.

Many years ago, Annette Bening had a role as a seductive soulless con woman in The Grifters (1991). Oh, how I miss those days.  Now, Bening plays Dorothea, a Birkenstock-wearing earth mother of 1979, the maternal glue who brings together various quirky characters. She endlessly worries over her frail sensitive 15 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) who is just trying to learn how to be a man just before Reagan's '80s and Mtv hits the scene in Santa Barbara, California.

2) A typical scene in 20th Century Women:

After getting off of his skateboard, Jamie encounters his mother in the kitchen of their funky 1979 house. He gazes soulfully off into the distance, his lip quivering slightly. 

"What about my feelings?" cries Dorothea. She lights a menthol cigarette.

 "I can never have children," cries out Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who plays a red-dyed head artist from New York City estranged for her mother, but who still enjoys dancing, flailing around to 1979 new wave bands like Talking Heads. Later, someone will write "Art Fag" on Dorothea's Volkswagen Bug. This term designates that some prefer Black Flag over Talking Heads, but the problem is that Mike Mills wouldn't know how to depict a genuinely punk character even if she kicked him with her Doc Martens in the head.  

3) I can see exactly why Bening, Elle Fanning, Gerwig, and Billy Crudup would go for Mike Mill's screenplay, because they get to emote and re-examine their deeper feelings in every scene. If their characters' home was on fire, they would probably die because they'd be too busy therapeutically pausing to consider how they might emotionally react to the fire just before it mercifully burnt them alive. Billy Crudup gets to play William, who looks and acts exactly like Russell of the infinitely superior Almost Famous (2000). Why wouldn't Crudup want to return to one of his best roles? William is not sure what to do. Should he sleep with Abbie, or kiss Dorothea, or fix car engines, or make bowls and open a ceramics shop? Or, how about Elle Fanning, who plays Jamie's platonic friend Julie? She likes to lie next to Jamie at night in bed, but she can never get romantically involved with him because he's too smart and sensitive and inclined to explore his feelings, etc. Abbie, meanwhile, can never have children, but that proves (spoiler alert) untrue, but not until after Mills can milk that bit of drama over and over in a very sensitive fashion. Did I mention that all of the characters watch Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech? Be advised: everyone dances together towards the end of the movie in a hotel room. Dorothea lights another menthol cigarette. Jamie meanders down a hill on his skateboard.

4) Mills has so much trouble bringing this endlessly meandering ensemble drama into some sort of landing after flattering each movie star with his or her star-making scene. . . . .

At this point, my notes gave out. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Emma Watson and the Evil Disney Hegemony: 5 notes on Beauty and the Beast

1) In a sense, Bill Condon's live-action Beauty and the Beast is Emma Watson's debutante ball, her first major starring role (aside from the beast, and he's diminished by the computer-generated imagery). The French Revolution-era fairy tale also makes Beauty and the Beast Watson's first historical drama. After her work as Hermione Granger, she tended to choose ensemble roles in movies like Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring (2013), where her character Nicki stood out for her crass American consumerism and vanity, i.e. the opposite of Hermione. Watson didn't seem to fully know it at first, but one could claim that she became the break-out star of the extremely profitable Harry Potter movies in part because J. K. Rowling marginalized Hermione as Potter's sidekick, and therefore she became the most compelling character compared to Ron Weasley (the nondescript redhead played by Rupert Grint) and the rather dutiful Harry. Meanwhile, Daniel Radcliffe has since distinguished himself in the London play production of Equus by gouging out the eyes of horses in the nude, or, more recently, by playing a flatulent corpse in Swiss Army Man (2016), a movie which I have deliberately refused to see (in part because I cannot abide Paul Dano). In other words, of the three original leads of the Harry Potter juggernaut, Emma Watson has come out of it as arguably the most credible star.

2) As we get introduced to Belle in her decidedly provincial French town (Gascony), I remembered that the Disney cartoon version of Belle stood out more for her large eyes. I had heard that Watson was the original star in mind for the makers of La La Land, and if one thinks about it, Emma Stone has the freakish anime look that would suit Belle. As Belle walks along singing "There must be more than this provincial life!", the villagers call her odd in part because "her looks have got no parallel" even though she's always got "her nose stuck in a book." Now, when the villagers sang this in the 1991 cartoon version, it was obviously true. In the live-action version, Emma Watson does not exactly stand out in the same way. Director Bill Condon keeps finding ways to emphasize her, at one point making Belle the dominant contrast as the rest of the village freezes as only she walks by, but Watson still strikes me as the kind of character actress who can blend into a movie (such as, say, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)) rather than command the focus of a scene as Belle. In short, one thinks of Emma Watson's recent work for the United Nations, and how she's perhaps too smart by half to be in a Cinderella-esque Disney extravaganza at all.

3) But perhaps, that's the main clever thing of Bill Condon's version. We've been waiting for a Watson vehicle that places her front and center of a very expensive production, and now that she's in one, she doesn't quite fit, and that tension makes the usual bland Disney pap somehow more effective, and more striking, even with its magic resurrections, its funny CGI sidekicks, its syrupy songs, and its ballroom dancing in the iconic yellow dress with a quickly tamed CGI teddy beast. Belle and Watson do share an extreme high regard for reading and books, but in the limited world of Beauty and the Beast, Belle can only go back and forth between provincial Gascony and an enchanted castle of pre-revolutionary 18th century France (with only a brief sojourn in an attic in Paris). Emma Watson, in dramatic postmodern contrast, has a heck of a lot of more feminist options, including the one of starring in the live-action version of her favorite Disney movie.

4) One critic wrote that she has doubts about Watson choosing this Disney vehicle. Doesn't it undermine her intelligence, her edgy roles chosen since the grim dark Potter world mercifully ended in 2011? Isn't Watson selling out to endless Disney hegemonic brainwashing merchandising, its savvy corrupt multi-media synergized machinations that gets otherwise intelligent adults to visit Disney World once or twice a year at obscene expense just so they can feel that Proustian youthful bit of manufactured Disney magic? In the same vein, I still sort of like a McDonald's Big Mac, but I know that's due to skillful TV marketing, advertising of the McBurglar and the smiling red-footed Ronald affecting my innocent brain many years ago before I had any way to resist it. So do so many brainwashed Americans pour into Disney World every year as they pay somewhere around $14,000 to fly in, stay in a hotel on the property for a few days, and see the cartoon characters cavort under the prefab magic castle under fireworks every night with their screaming toddlers, everyone always standing in long lines as they seek to that reclaim elusive Disney joy, that "It's a Small World After All" cheerful, smiling, always smiling, they-had-better-smile-or-else, heavily copyrighted-cartoon-ride of a lifetime.

5) When I think of all that highly evil, highly profitable thought control (not to mention the absolute horrors of the Pirates of the Caribbean series that still endures--a purely redundant nightmare), I wonder how I could like the new Beauty and the Beast at all?  Yet, I did, perhaps in part due to glibly cheesy half-baked memories of a cartoon that I saw long ago, and that's what so annoying about it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"That exposed edge of the world": an interview with Adam Houle, author of Stray

A friend of mine, Adam Houle, just published his first book of poetry entitled Stray with Lithic Press. Adam was kind enough to let me interview him for the Film Doctor blog. First, here's an example of Mr. Houle's work:

The One Where the Girl Died in Woods Close to Home

It started when a filament popped
in the lone headlight
of the snow sled,

quietly, beneath the engine’s roar
and the grind of the single-track
trundle churning snow

as the girl left late
to make it home.
The blizzard, my mother

says, buried her
back-trail and without
a light she could not find

her trace. That filament,
the fine hair finely split,
brought on a deeper night,

and with it the wind conspired.
The wind banked great drifts.
It rearranged the known world’s face.

Here's the interview:

FD: What do you think of the contemporary resistance to poetry? What advantages do poetry have over prose?

AH: What resistance there is is a particular type that seems steeped in distrust. Distrust that there’s a “hidden meaning” that the poem or poet or teacher will use as a weapon; distrust that poems don’t “do anything”; perhaps distrust because advocates for poems over-sell a piece or group of pieces and, when that piece doesn’t have the earth-shattering results promised, the hearer suspects either the poem or the self are defective in some way. Too often I think poems are presented as puzzle boxes painted black with a busted latch that’s latched from the inside anyway, and so what’s the point? But poems need time and space, and they are best met on their own terms. They’re not instrumental; rather they are worthwhile unto themselves as themselves. The act of reading carefully and with empathetic attention slows us down, it asks more of us, and I find a lot of pleasure in that process. Sitting down to read a poem need not be a hallowed event separate from the world. A poem can be a prismed look into that world, and I find my eyes are fresher when I’m also spending time reading and writing poems.

I think too that there’s a perception that poems are narcissistic little things written by narcissistic little souls, but that’s just absurd. I mean, if you go see a movie, and it’s a bad one, you don’t swear off all movies, right? You read a bad novel, and you think: that’s it. Prose is awful. That sounds really shortsighted. But it seems like we don’t have a problem doing that to poems. There is a lot of great work out there, and new pieces published all the time. There are magazines publishing excellent poems issue after issue, poems that could speak to all sorts of folks from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. So, should you come across one that you don’t like, big deal. Move on. It’s such a rich field.

But I think that’s true of prose, too. The advantage that, say, a lyric poem has over a twenty-page short story is a temporal one. The physical act of reading down the page takes less time with a poem, which I think also works against the poem in that someone might, wrongly, assume it has less heft or significance or something like that. It’s just a little song, after all. But I think experiencing poems on their own ground should be a part of all our lives. Sometimes, I, with great sneakiness, start my classes a few minutes early and just read a poem I recently enjoyed. I say: Hey, listen to this cool thing I read. And then I read that cool thing. No commentary, no quiz, no paper assigned. Just a minute and a half or whatever to listen to a poem.

So that’s an advantage. I mean, I can’t take a few minutes before class to read Moby-Dick, right? Poems are companions to a thoughtful life, and I guess I get bummed when I hear someone say how awful poetry is. That said, I don’t need to get too bent out of shape. Poetry doesn’t need me to defend it. It’s crafty and wily, and it will be okay with or without me.

FD: How would you describe your aesthetics?

AH: I don’t know. That’s the short answer. The longer is this: I’m trying to get the words right in their right orders. I like speakers jolted to speak, to make structure of experience or psychological states, of both, to enlist artifice and authenticity. Poems are stylized, they’re crafted things that should seem essential, that they could not be otherwise. There’s pruning and distillation, a tautness in the language that, for me, is primarily important. And that starts with the line—and as the lines tumble down the page, I like when I’m engaged by vibrancy in voice, in image, in sound, in the singleness of the poetic moment being offered up, that builds on itself and organizes its own internal logic. Show me a possible world. Show me a possible self. I think poems memorialize through attention to how they operate. I like knottiness and texture, part luxury purse and part mucky rucksack that carry and convey something essential about the world in which they exist.

FD: Why do so many of your poems have such cold imagery?

AHStray isn’t really a warm book, is it? When I was organizing the poems, culling, structuring the book’s arc, looking for unnoticed recurrences, thematic echoes and the like, it became quite clear to me how much I identify with the sharpness of the winter world. It wasn’t intentional in the composition, revising, editing process. But I saw I had written a lot of poems, and it was time to get them into a larger shape, to curate and structure a manuscript. And there’s something evocative about a winter landscape. It’s brutal and unforgiving and elegant and austere. The sight lines are crisp, and in winter I truly feel like I’m on a planet, a living rock hurtling through space. So you have that exposed edge of the world sort of feeling, and then, if we increase the magnification, there are quiet dramas and sorrows and joys unfolding right there. I think much of Stray tries to come to find a shape for that.

In college, I lived in this little back apartment in Green Bay for a couple years. Half the place was heated on my dime; the other half by the landlord (illegal addition, electric heat, you get the drift). So, I blocked the warm half, killed the heat I had to pay for, and swept snow out of my kitchen most mornings from November through March. The cold must have seeped into my psyche.

FD: Why do you tend to favor formal poetry, such as the sonnet?

AH: Formal considerations help me speak to tradition; poems are shaped things—they have contours that I like to think make expressive and evocative sense. For me, the sonnet and its relatives in Stray offer a counterpoint to the thematic straying throughout the collection. It’s a formal return, then, and I hope offers echo, or a refrain of sorts, to the collection as a whole; there’s a rhetoric to the sonnet that makes sense to me. It’s nimble, it’s flexible, and it offers compression that, when it’s well wrought, lets the poem sing spontaneously within a frame. That’s the authenticity and artifice I mentioned earlier—it’s a worthwhile tension, a richness that I admire in so many poems I read.

FD: What do you make of the poetic tendency to write about animals?

AH: Wonder. That’s the first word that comes to mind. I’m in awe of life, and I think about the ways the world we make brushes against the world we find. For me, it’s attentiveness and openness to what’s missed in the day-to-day—the snippets of song and the suggested narratives of the animal world. I don’t think I’m doing the animals in my poems any great favors by writing about them. I’m just trying to pay homage to the world, to memorialize it in some small way. At the same time, I’m also aware that I’m responding to some necessary part of myself.

FD: Could you guide us through the writing process for, say, "The Least of Wonders," or is that a dumb intrusive question?

AH: That’s neither dumb nor intrusive. For each draft, for me at least, the process is dictated by the poem. I try to see clearly what a draft’s doing. Most drafts start with an image, a small bit of a line, a phrase that sort of sticks sideways in my mind. That ends up in the notebook, and as I follow the sound or the sense, I realize that it’s something that should get over to the computer. Perhaps it’s only a few stanzas, but I’ll type it, print it, and work on it more in pen. Changing the medium helps. Carrying the draft with both print and handwritten stanzas gives me some distance and clarity. “The Least of Wonders” first appeared in Jelly Bucket out of Eastern Kentucky University as a very different poem. The revisions that I hope made it a stronger poem happened in fits, with lots of other poems drafted in between. Those in between poems taught me things “The Least of Wonders” needed.

After grad school, the early morning hours of concentrated work became harder to find, so I’ve had to be more diligent in my conscientious working habits. Part of that is being okay with working in small spaces—a half hour here, jotting down nonsense rhymes for fun when I’m waiting for a meeting to start, that sort of thing. One thing it’s shown me, though, is how important poems are to me.

FD: Advice for young poets?

AH: Read widely and without prejudice. Write diligently. Don’t apologize for doing either. That’s advice to me, too. I feel very young.

FD: What motivates you to sit down and revise and develop your next collection on a pleasant spring day when you could be relaxing and enjoying yourself outside instead?

AH: I can do both, though. I find the hard work of trying to write poems well a true pleasure. My home office has a window, and I can look out there, see what the neighbor cats are getting into. I can take the notebook to the porch. I can take the dogs walking while hashing through some ideas, thinking about lines, or trying to think nothing at all and otherwise taking in the day on its own. For me, it’s not a beautiful spring day that gets in the way; it’s the other obligations. I take those obligations seriously, and it’s an honor to do so. But I also need emotional and psychological space to work, to say nothing of time. But the work gets done because it must. I’m happier and more effective when I have poems waiting.

FD: What do you think of promoting your work through readings, interviews, etc.? (I'm thinking of Don DeLillo, who I hear refuses to promote his work.)

AH: I think a lot about my intention when it comes to promotion. More important than promoting my work, I hope I’m promoting poems and community and attentiveness, maybe a line or stanza or whole poems sort of rattle around and glom on to the mind and heart of a hearer. That’s what happened to me, at least, in high school to a certain degree and certainly in college and grad school, when our reading series brought in writers who memorialized things that mattered to them, and their verve, energy, and generosity at the podium and in the classrooms changed me in small, important ways. I felt less alone, less lost in my head—here were folks who worked hard to share a flash of vision, a structuring moment that resonated, invisible strings vibrating across the auditorium or wherever. So there we all are, engaged, entertained, listening to language structured, I hope, to do something of consequence, to broaden us, deepen us, humor us, mark us in some small way. It seems really human to do that, to want that, and I support being human.

The same human urge is true for interviews. We’re curious. We like insight. We like knowing things about books that evoked something in us. That seems reasonable. But it’s also reasonable for an author to dislike the whole process. I read once that James Joyce was asked why Ulysses was so long. Joyce responds with something like if he could have paraphrased it he wouldn’t have had to write it. So, what’s DeLillo have to say about Underworld that he didn’t say in Underworld? Also, who wouldn’t prefer getting the work done to talking about how some work gets done? I feel that way, but I also think generosity matters. And we must eat. For many, I think it’s both pragmatic and idealistic to both give readings and provide interviews to promote the work at hand but also literature or art in general. Good readings and good interviews can do both: sincerely promote a single work as part of a larger thing happening in the world, a diverse and faceted and rebellious thing where people get words on pages.

FD: Why do you repeat words on a given line? Can you give an example?

AH: The best example of that repetition in Stray is probably “Earthworm Flooded Out in Rain.” So, there, the speaker’s sort of lamenting the crappiness of how an earthworm dies after a big rain washed it out. I always thought that sucked. You make it through the flood, but then you’re up on the sidewalk or whatever, and the sun bakes you because you can’t get back to the dirt. So, in that one, it’s a pooling of sonic energy. For me, the repetition of “dappled” in such a short space creates an insistence, a cycling or charging of sorts. It allows the speaker and the reader to spiral for a moment before moving on. It has the same effect in “Night Studies,” but with different expressive potential. It’s echoing the memorizing work the beloved does with her Latin studies. I see that sort of repetition, in a general sense, as internal rhyme. That the preceding consonant sounds would make the two appearances of “dappled” not actually be rhyme seems inaccurate. I mean, maybe it’s uninteresting as a rhyme, but I don’t think that’s true either. In any event, that sort of repetition adds a sonic insistence that I like—it’s a bit hypnotic, a bit hymn-like, or chant-like.

FD: What do you think of rhyme in contemporary poetry?

AH: Poems make patterns; they have a shape, a form, a feel. Rhyme can be lovely and memorable and fresh. I remember reading a review of a book that used rhyme as a dominant patterning throughout the collection. The reviewer said it’s like listening to a friend with a lot of neat things to say who just happened to speak in rhyme. I loved that description because it touches on both the artifice and authenticity of the poems. Rhyme creates expectations for the reader, and when those expectations are both met and messed with, the results can be so satisfying as a reader and as a writer. There’s a tension between the orderly movement and the vagaries of the piece itself, and that’s exciting. It offers a framework for the play of the lines, and the play of the piece as a whole. And when that’s handled well, I’m invested as a reader. I respond to both the unexpectedness, the jolt of the poem, and the fulfillment of the sonic contract the poem made.

That said, a poem using pure end-rhyme that does so with less-than-successful results calls far more attention to itself than, say, an unmemorable open form poem. That poorly-rhymed poem sort of blinks like a church out in the county that uses neon signs. Well, not like that. I’d like to see that. I think, though, that the sound for poems like that are probably the least of the concerns. Usually, the rhetoric of the poem, the emotional / intellectual movements are sort of weak. The expected rhymes can be symptomatic of expected responses or nebulous, generic responses to the situation at hand. We’re probably lacking concrete significant details, a directed speaker, etc…we’re lacking a lot of things likely because the poem grew too enamored with its own end rhyme. The Love/Dove, June/Moon sort of stuff. But the whole line matters—I mean, what if we go:

“Honey Boo-Boo weighs down the mind of Mama June/ who smokes out back and aims her cherry at the moon”—so now we have rhyming hexameter couplets about the tv stars using the dread June/Moon rhyme. We also have a little drama unfolding, and the strange gesture in the image of the Mama June lady pointing her cigarette at the moon while mulling over her daughter. Maybe it could work. What we’re really worried about with rhyme, though, is “I loved you with all my heart all June / and we kissed under the summer moon,” right? A little vague, a little expected. But I’d say that the unsuccessful end-rhyme is one of a few things that could be addressed.

FD: How often do you abandon poems?

AH: Every chance I get. I take ‘em to the swamps, tell them they’re better off without me, and fold them into paper boats and send them on their way. I sprinkle them with turtle food too, so they get eaten.

I’ve become pretty diligent about seeing poems through a few different drafts before I either full-on commit or put them into the abandonment file on my computer. I’ll filter through there from time to time to see what might strike me. But, for the most part, I abandon a poem when I lose interest. I don’t really see misshapen stanzas or a few lines going nowhere as a poem I abandon, though. That’s exercise or a start to something that will come around again. So, I think that when a poem or starts are going nowhere, I’m just recycling them, composting them. If the image, line, metaphor, or genesis are urgent enough or deeply rooted enough, they’ll come around again. Right now, there are some poems I refound from last year. They’re works in progress. So, they were abandoned, but when I went through some old draft work, I found them, read them, and didn’t cringe at some of the work there. I’ll revisit.

FD: Do you find some subjects (such as, say, multinational corporations) not conducive for poetry? Are you careful about the ideological implications of your work?

AH: I try to get the poem right. I try to be emotionally and intellectually honest. I try to be accurate and find fruitful juxtapositions of sounds and sense. It’s an ideology of attentiveness, and I think that matters. I respond to the world in specifics, though. I don’t think in terms of movements or ideologies. That’s not say there aren’t implications, because of course there are. I write from my own limited, tentative, and tenuous grasp on the world, and that’s bound to change over the course of my life. So I hope that my work rings honest, sincere, and well crafted with people. I hope the voice is compelling. I hope readers enjoy the poems, that something sticks with them, slows them down a bit. But I don’t sit down to write and say, okay! Let’s write one that a Marxist would really appreciate. Or I really want to burn the Tea Party folks with this.

Speaking of Marxists, I don’t think multinational corporations are inherently off limits to poems. They’re part of the world, after all, for better or worse. Do I feel moved to write about them? Not overtly, not consciously. Images have found their way into poems that conjure corporate-y things. But that’s in service to that particular poem and not part of a larger project. I think it’s less about subject and more about execution. Compel me. Move me. Show me the private history of one against the backdrop of a world in crisis. Teach me something about being on earth.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Beguiled official teaser trailer, related links, notes on Somewhere (2010)









Looking forward to this by one of my favorite directors:



Related links:

"8 Questions about A Very Murray Christmas"

"The lifestyle everybody kinda wants": The Bling Ring"

more Sofia Coppola links

Also, some notes on Somewhere (2010):

1) After watching Somewhere, I mostly remember Johnny Marco's (Stephen Dorff's) J. Crew boots. His sense of style has a deadbeat working class stoner aesthetic that reminds me of the guys who wore lots of flannel and jeans back in high school. He wears one expensive Red Wing boot untied and dangling, the other underneath the jean leg as he stumbles about from his black Alfa Romeo to his Chateau Marmont suite in his stubbled sun-struck LA Bret Easton Ellis celebrity-decadent world. In some ways, Somewhere is a more faithful low-key version of Ellis's Less Than Zero than the incoherent 1987 movie version starring Robert Downey Jr. Marco is so jaded with movie star fame, he passes out as Playboy dancers gyrate on stripper poles in from of him, or he zonks out snoring in the midst of undressing another woman during a party. Often as not, he's asleep when he's not sitting on a sofa and staring blankly into space with an opened Corona in one hand.

2) If Johnny didn't have Stephen Dorff's charm and Elle Fanning as Cleo, his daughter, needing his parental attention, he would be an insufferably blank self-involved poltroon.

3) As he sinks deeper into his characteristic stupor, one thing becomes clear: in Sofia's films, sex is always the enemy because it falsifies what little authenticity that can exist between wealthy, famous folk. As an alternative, she prefers to depict two people seeking an innocent prelapsarian playfulness amidst all of the adult fakery. In Lost in Translation, Bob asks Charlotte if she wants to escape from the insufferable Park Hyatt Tokyo Hotel, and to some extent, by dashing aimlessly around the city and laughing cruelly at the phonies like Kelly (Anna Faris), they succeed. But Coppola's vision requires that she persuade her relatively poor audience to become just as alienated from this super-rich world as she is (not an easy thing to cajole us into). In Somewhere, I think we are meant to admire Johnny's decadent lifestyle even as it proves hollow, with awkward overly long shots emphasizing his boredom and his race car running in circles. Only his fatherly obligation makes him rise above his besotted hedonism on rare occasions. Still, to share in his alienation still seems like asking a lot.


4) Somewhere left me wondering about Sofia Coppola's growing self-consciousness as an artist, her willingness to repeat herself by showing what she, as Francis Ford Coppola's daughter, could know about: the Eloise-like milieu of award ceremonies, photo-ops, and top-notch Italian hotel suites with swimming pools. When we see the hungover Johnny watch Chloe ice-dance to Gwen Stefani's "Cool," the moment comes off as too self-consciously pure after all of Johnny's recent decadence. Johnny is such a bonehead, we can't even tell if he can properly appreciate his daughter's ministrations on his behalf (Chloe comes across as unfairly smarter and more mature than her dad). At one point, she attempts to domesticate his hotel room by ordering a cheese grater to help fix some macaroni and cheese. Later, Chloe shows off her artistic bent by fixing him some gourmet-quality Eggs Benedict, complete with chives garnish cut with kitchen shears. But, even given these moments of grace, where does Johnny have to go with his life? We never once see him read a book, or show much cultural interest in anything. He's a docile puppet of the publicity machine.

5) My issues with Johnny reminded me of Pauline Kael's problems with Benjamin Braddock in her review of The Graduate (and both films share a tendency to have lingering shots of their hero drifting around a pool). If Ben had any ideas, we would hate him, but as long he remains blank, the audience can project what they like on him, but Ben is eventually defined by his rejection of the rich California lifestyle of his parents while Johnny embraces it. And in contrast to Bill Murray's expert depiction of a midlife crisis in Lost in Translation, there's no tension in Johnny's befuddled acceptance of the perks of his job. Meanwhile, Johnny's Los Angeles mise-en-scene is too close to that of Bret Easton Ellis's recent The Informers for comfort. When Johnny finally removes his sated mask of cool and cries while on the phone with his publicist (I think), late in Somewhere, he says "I'm f---ing nothing." A sad scene, but after spending so much of the movie looking disaffected, Johnny's moment of vulnerability has little effect.


6) What I wrote about The Informers also applies to Somewhere: "the problem with all of Ellis' depictions of youthful narcissism and Play It As It Lays-Joan Didion-esque `deep' posturing (with everyone endlessly lighting cigarettes and gazing with apathy off into the distance) lies in his difficulty in making anyone care about these characters who certainly do not care about each other. Moreover, this aesthetic based on youth does not age well." To be fair, Johnny's relationship with Chloe redeems him a little, and Somewhere is light years better than The Informers in terms of craft. It just strikes me that Sofia Coppola is capable of creating so much more.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"Not my first rodeo": notes on Terrence Malick's Song to Song trailer

"Not my first rodeo," I thought, when watching the new Terrence Malick trailer for his upcoming movie Song to Song. I've been down this road before. I have forced myself to sit through Malick's recent films. I wasn't born yesterday, and, frankly, I don't buy into the hype about this new one, no matter how much Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman, Michael Fassbender, and Ryan Gosling (not to mention Iggy Pop and John Lydon) romp around in the midst of rock concerts, drive playfully in convertibles, or flirt during parties or whatever. Given what happened with Knight of Cups (2015), I doubt that Song to Song has a script. Instead (I imagine) Malick gave his high level cast a hand-typed sheet of quotes from Horace or Cicero, and then set them loose with his cinematographer/steadicam operator as they tried to make something out of next to nothing--their increasing desperation (Gosling chewing on Mara's foot or whatever) providing the real entertainment. Uh, a love triangle between Rooney, Fassbender, and Gosling perhaps? Malick enjoys watching these stars squirm, and it makes for a pretty, pretty trailer, but we will learn (once again, soon enough) the limits of a movie without a screenplay.

Recently, Ray Pride (of the excellent Movie City News) and I had a little exchange on Twitter on this very topic, a discussion that could foreshadow many a critical disagreement to come about Song to Song. Ray had posted the link to the trailer, and I wrote in reply:

Me: "where one gets to hobnob with screenplay-free movie stars improvising feverishly in pretty locations."

Mr. Pride responded: "I marvel at Knight of Cups and its slipstream of thought/regret made possible only by Malick's wild over-shooting and months upon months of finessing."

Me: "Yes, still, I tend to favor the emperor's clothes view of Malick. Much depends on how much the viewer is willing to buy into his pretension, and I like a good screenplay."

Ray: "And if you look at his earlier pages, you can tell he can write a screenplay. RADEGUND is reportedly the first of his fully-scripted chamber dramas to get produced."

Me: "Yes, but why bother now if he can get a-list stars to strain for effect for him? Why not embody pure spontaneity instead? Knight of Cups ended up being very pretty pretty pretension. Christian Bale was not happy."

Ray: "I wrote up my rationalization for KOC. Another eccentric perspective: those two movies were shot almost back-to-back, what, three years ago? Maybe at his age he’s now interested in making a few more finite productions rather than leaving a mass of sprawl behind."

Me: "I think he's just cashing in on his mystique. Real inspiration vanished back around the days of Badlands."

After that, our conversation ended amicably.

So, perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps the emperor Malick wears clothes after all, and all will be redeemed when Song to Song opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 17. 

But I doubt it.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Video production notes: Entrapment directed by Morgan Honaker

Five years ago, I taught a rather small video production class who wrote, story boarded, and shot a horror film at a local mansion in a small town in South Carolina. Morgan Honaker directed it, and I appreciated her perfectionist style under those essentially amateur conditions, never accepting any shot until it suited her. She says that she is embarrassed by this video now, but I still like its suspense and its abrupt and bleak ending. I could discuss problems with the acting, but given the tight time constraints, the impatience of those involved, and everything else, I still say that Entrapment is one of the best movies made in my video production class, in part because I showed it to a more recent group, and one of the students screamed twice in the course of viewing it.

Here's the link to the video.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Video production notes: "A body lying on the street": Third Night by Afterglow Films

About four years ago, Afterglow Films of my video production class made Third Night (directed by Ryan Gonzalez). The video concerns romantic obsession that reminds me a little of Vertigo:



Here's an interview with the director. In comparison to OK Keyes and Morgan Honaker, Ryan liked to shoot fast and loose, making him the more Godardian director of the bunch.

Also, here's a blog post about the long night in which Erik spent much of his time lying on the cold street in his pajamas as Ryan and his film crew shot the van accident (note: I changed names at the time to protect the guilty):

Video production class--day seven and eight--high definition roadkill

"That's not blood. It's just red."
---Jean-Luc Godard

1) How does one shoot a scene where a young man stumbles out of a house at night and gets run over by a van? After a long day of shooting tracking shots of soccer players running (using my car) and a chase scene through the hallways of the school, we loaded up the cast and crew in a van and drove across town to the house of a student whose family was kind enough to let us use the premises. I learned en route that a millionaire lived across the street who might call the cops on us if he sees a body lying on the street. Once there, at about five pm, with the light of the cold overcast day dimming fast, we videotaped Kyle in his pajamas repeatedly stumbling out the front door and gradually working his way towards the street.

Then we parked the van past the "accident" and asked Kyle to lie on the asphalt face down with one arm twisted sideways and not move. Over and over again, the driver stepped out of the van in horror, leaving the door open with the beeping warning sound supplying the only sound, and he would check for Kyle's pulse and step back, aghast, before finding the mysterious photo underfoot. As the director and the cameraman positioned the camera from various angles around the body, a car would appear down the street, and hesitate. Perhaps the driver wondered about this body lying there in the middle of the road with a bunch of cold students standing around it grinning. We had several self-conscious awkward moments like that until we could persuade the drivers to drive on by, with us shielding Kyle's body in the process. At one point, the millionaire did appear when we needed to shoot a take from the front of his lawn, but he proved nice enough and didn't mind. Afterwards, the family of the student graciously invited us in from the cold to eat some rice krispy cakes and peanut butter clusters in their home. After shooting one last take of Kyle stumbling down a hallway in his sleep-walking delirium, we finished for the day.

2) Today, the class began the switch into editing mode. I shared with them the scene in Donnie Darko where Darko's girlfriend Gretchen gets run over, just by way of example, then we discussed different basic editing concepts like classical cutting, master shot, sequence shot, cutting to continuity, matching on action, and such. Given that one student has much of the main footage on his MacBook, I was concerned about him having to do the lion's share of the editing once the principal photography ended, so we divided up the class into groups--one will help the editor, the others will fashion a trailer for the film, a making-of featurette, a short music video promoting the class, and a blooper reel. We also spent some time listening to various possible songs for the soundtrack off of one of the computers (mostly using YouTube), and it proved very difficult for the class to agree on a song. For the chase scene, for instance, we tried out "On the Run" by Pink Floyd (too psychedelic), the music for the parkour chase scene in Luc Besson's District 13 (too techno, a frequent complaint), Def Leppard's "Photograph" (bleh), and the theme song from The Exorcist (too well-known). I confessed to the class that any song by Coldplay makes me break out in hives. We may end up using songs by Radiohead and Muse. The director also decided to wait for a rough cut before matching more songs to certain scenes.

3) By the afternoon, we shot a brief classroom scene that kept being interrupted by piano and trumpet playing nearby. Then we watched of the raw footage of the past few days, and while much of it was fine, I was dismayed by the little mistakes that kept sneaking into takes (the corpse blinking, people looking at the camera, shaky pseudo-steadicam shots, awkward compositions, etc.). Given the set-up of the class, the limited amount of time to shoot, and the aleatory conditions around us at any given moment, it is very hard to not get impatient, to not rush the next shot, and we pay every time there's a small mistake magnified in the camera lens. It's frustrating to see all of the imperfections in spite of all of everyone's best efforts to avoid them. Then again, we have time to reshoot, edit, and polish for the next few days.

4) Lastly, we worked on a title. I've heard that Woody Allen comes up with his titles last in the process of making his films, but we need one sooner so we can incorporate it into all of the extensive DVD extras and featurettes. Students came up with Their Eyes Were Watching Kyle, Collision, The Lady and the Laughter, End of the Night, A Lesson in Obsession, Ms. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Obsessing and Love the Laughter (a popular favorite to be used for the blooper reel), Fixation, Fetish, The Most Dangerous Photo, Mania, The Sound and the Photo, To Love a Picture, Citizen Kyle, Kyle's Road Trip, There Will Be Roadkill, Avatar 2, and Follow the Laughter. We finally settled on Third Night for now.

Tomorrow, the class will begin to piece all of this fragmented footage together.