Some Quick Reviews Part 2: Movies

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Ah the silver screen, how I love thee. Though I’ve seen more than just these two movies these last few months I’m going to just talk about Anomalisa and Down By Law because they interested me the most, and they were the only movies I haven’t seen before.

Anomalisa

I’m a pretty big Charlie Kaufman fan. I haven’t seen all his movies – Synecdoche New York and Being John Malkovich have somehow evaded me – but his imagination and sincerity really do something for me. He really has an ability to zoom in on the minuscule moments of everyday existence that form the tragicomic lives of the every-man. In his movies there’s the basic humanness of everyone is laid bare, with all the pettiness and hope that that brings.

Anomalisa could be called the natural progression of Kaufman’s work. It still has elements of his thought-experiment-esque, mind-screwy, reality-warping, style; but its much more understated in Anomalisa. Here there aren’t layers-upon-layers that must be unraveled. The idea is simple: a man sees everybody as being the same – same face and same voice – until he meets Lisa, who stands out. From this concept we see the weight of loneliness, and the cost of assuming you deserve better. In some ways it’s like an understated Fight Club, but if Tyler Durden never really showed up.

This is probably the least laugh-out-loud movie that Kaufman has made. There’s humor, sure, but it never got more than a dry chuckle out of me. It’s a quiet movie, it almost feels like watching life sometimes, but it still held my attention the whole time (the wonderful puppetry and camerawork probably helped). I could definitely see Anomalisa being tedious for some, there’s not much that actually happens in the plot. If you like quiet movies that are willing to explore relationships and characters at the expense of the action, then I would recommend looking into Anomalisa.

Down By Law

I was very excited to discover that Criterion had given Down By Law a Blu-Ray release. As a fan of Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch, and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, this seemed like the perfect movie for me.

The plot in a nutshell: A New Orleans pimp and disc jockey are both framed (for completely different reasons) and are sent to prison where they live in the same cell. An Italian immigrant who committed manslaughter is also put in their cell. The three learn to live with each other in prison until they discover a means of escape into the swamps of Louisiana.

Honestly, I was expecting this movie to be funnier, but that was mainly because it’s usually described as a comedy. This isn’t to say that the movie is bad, more that it threw me off-guard. It does have plenty of funny moments – especially once Benigni shows up – but there’s a lot more to this movie than comedy. Though Jarmusch described the film as “neo-beat noir comedy” I think I would say there’s more “neo-Beat” and “noir” than comedy.

The film does have an interesting stylistic arc, beginning with the gritty life on the streets, moving to “odd-couple” style dark comedy in the prison, then dissolving into a fairy-tale journey through the forest in the end. These thematic transitions aren’t always smooth, but they aren’t so abrupt as to lose the viewer.

All the lead performances are great. The characters are understated but understandable, with a quirkiness that reminds me of O Brother Where Art Though. Benigni steals the show though, his physical clowning and his playing with language are charming, but he’s never so cartoonish that the out-of-place becomes otherworldly.

The soundtrack (provided by John Lurie, with a few Tom Waits tracks thrown in) is phenomenal at providing the tone that the movie requires. Robby Müller’s cinematography is also amazing – perhaps being the best thing in the movie. There’s plenty of amazing shots of New Orlean’s streets and bayous in black-and-white, adding to the feeling that this is a movie set in the mind, rather than the real world.

I haven’t checked the extra Criterion goodies yet, but they seem pretty promising. There’s plenty of interviews and Q&As to listen to, and some behind-the-scenes footage as well.

Down By Law is something of an art-house flick, but it isn’t so pretentious or strange that it intentionally alienates. It feels like a film from the 40s or 50s, despite its being released in 1986. If you want something a little like a noir-fairytale-dramedy then you should check this out, because it might be the only movie that fits that description.

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The Revenant: Artistry and Subtlety

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I’ve just returned home from watching The Revenant, a film as rough and gruesome as its hero’s face. It’s a heavy film, weighed down by its subject matter, its setting, and the way it tells its story. This isn’t to say that it’s bad – its an incredible film, and one that I enjoyed – but there’s a lot in it that I just can’t form an opinion about.

Before getting all negative I’m going to talk about what the film does well. First off, the camerawork is superb. Director Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are very fond of the “big take” and their mastery of the technique shows. Many of the most hectic scenes – a raid by Native Americans, an attack by a grizzly bear, a hand-to-hand duel with knife and tomahawk – are displayed with incredible detail, utilizing beauty and brutality in a cinematic dance. The static shots are also vivid, utilizing the North American landscape with amazing effect. All the performances are good – and some are great. Tom Hardy is ferocious as the traitorous and greedy Fitzgerald, but his performance takes a backseat to DiCaprio’s tortured, abused, and determined Hugh Glass. From a technical standpoint the film is a marvel.

Now for the … other part. Simply put, this film is not subtle. The visual symbols and motifs are so bold as to be bloated. The soundtrack, though fitting for the movie, is constantly thundering throughout the film, sometimes to the movie’s detriment. More than once I found myself thinking “this scene would be a lot more emotional without the emotional music.” Yet, for all the grandeur of the movie, I can’t seem to find out what its trying to say. Yes, we are supposed to sympathize with the Native Americans, but their pain at the hands of white settlers is shown through the eyes of a white settler, a sympathetic white settler, but a white settler nonetheless. Crow, Glass’s Native American son, has seen is mother killed, his village burned, and travels with white trappers who hate him. Yet his rage is expressed through Glass. There’s a scene where an Arikara chief lists the atrocities by settlers to French traders. Its all true, but it feels like the film puts in this scene to simply say “this is a movie that deals with these issues!” rather than, well, dealing with the issues.

One could make the argument that the film isn’t about  the native-settlers conflicts, or about racism, and sure you could say that the film’s main theme is about revenge. Glass is betrayed, his son is killed, he’s left for dead, and he sets out for revenge. Okay. But even with this interpretation I can’t really figure out what The Revenant is trying to say. Is revenge good? Is it bad? Is it futile? Are the natives supposed to highlight the consequences of revenge? Is the bear attack a metaphor for the damage of generational conflict? The movie doesn’t really bother to say. It just waves its arms and screams about brutality and revenge and suffering.

Again, this isn’t meant to undermine the many successes of the picture – its certainly a movie that makes me think. But maybe if it had spent more time making it clear what it means to say, rather than being as loud as it can, I would be able to take a little more away with me.

Star Wars: Styles and Cycles

I finally saw The Force Awakens yesterday, and I’m still digesting my thoughts about the film. Star Wars is such a heavy, cumbersome cultural entity (and I don’t mean that in a bad way) that it can be hard to simply have fun watching a film – even one so dedicated to being fun as this one- without multiple screenings.

I clearly remember talking with my friends about the film excitedly, trying to pick apart the possible themes and twists that the new trilogy would possibly have in store. We were particularly interested in the themes of cycles in Star Wars, partially the cycle of “dark side unbalances the Force, then balance is reestablished,” but also larger thematic and political cycles. Throughout most of the Expanded Universe the stories of Star Wars have largely dealt with conflicts between large, militarized, totalitarian forces and democratized, modernized forces. Now, most of the EU is no longer canon – but I have the feeling that this formula is likely to keep being used, at least within the “old republic” history of the Star Wars universe, but what about the future that has yet to be written? In The Force Awakens we see these familiar forces facing off again, but both are juvenile – beginning to take their first steps. In the prequel trilogy we see the forces at work that plunge the galaxy into an age of darkness, with the original trilogy establishing a “New Hope,” as it were, in Luke and Leia. But even with the Empire destroyed this conflict isn’t over, so where will it go? Will it cycle back to the beginning? Or will the cycle be broken?

Perhaps this is the fulfillment of the Old Testament of the Star Wars universe, ushering in a new age – both diegetically and extradiegetically, in the story and the structure of the films. While the latest film is good, and its threaded many promising narratives, it suffers a bit from trying too hard to ride on the nostalgia of previous films. Its strongest moments, in my opinion, are when J J Abrams uses his own style while still staying true to the heroic narrative. In the future I hope other directors (and audiences) will be more comfortable with stylizing the films to fit this new Universe and its new stories.

Tragic Fantasy – A Filmmaker’s Manifesto

In times of hardship, conflict, and change, people will gravitate to escapism. The fantastic is sought out and produced as a cultural painkiller, offering cathartic release, hope, and feelings of agency. However, as escapism is pursued as an alternative to hardship there enters a risk of separation from reality, rejecting the responsibilities of the real in favor for the pleasure of certain fantasies.

Film offers a greater element of fantasy than other mediums through its unique use of editing, lighting, close-up, and framing. When images are watched on a screen, moving in quick succession, we accept them as they are. The painting is seen as a still, unchanging, its reality contained within a frame, examined fro the outside. The written form is taken one word at a time, analyzed, compartmentalized from word, to sentence, paragraph, chapter and volume. Theater is seen in acts, conforming to the stage.

Film’s ability to manipulate space and time while maintaining continuity within the mind of the viewer presents it a unique opportunity in the realm of the fantastic. That is, when the viewer sees the unreal in a film – whether it be a monster, an impossible action sequence, or a remarkable location – it is accepted as reality. But when the film ends, the mind must reject the fantastic that was witnessed only moments before. This gives rise to what I call the tragedy of the dream, and, conversely, the tragedy of the nightmare.

THE TRAGEDY OF THE DREAM

In a dream we feel we are part of the fantastic. The unreal usurps the real through the use of familiar images that are mixed and matched in unusual and taboo ways. When we awake the true reality comes into conflict with the dream reality. We feel a sense of tragedy upon realizing that the fantasy we experienced is at odds with our reality.

THE TRAGEDY OF THE NIGHTMARE

In a nightmare a similar process is at work, but the tragedy is reversed. When we awake from a nightmare we feel relief that the reality of the dream is at odds with our own reality, but we then experience tragedy when we see that our reality contains vestiges of the nightmare. If I awake from a nightmare where I am chased down an endless, dark hallway, I shall reasonably experience fear when I encounter a dark hallway in real life.

THE ROLE OF TRAGEDY IN THE FANTASTIC

When we see a movie that we enjoy we are drawn into its reality. If we envy that reality we feel the tragedy of the dream when the movie ends. We attempt to rebuild and reenact the fantasy within our own world. If we fear the world of the film we experience the tragedy of the nightmare, and we seek to remove the elements of the fantasy that exist in our reality.

This is film’s greatest power, and its greatest danger. To utilize the tragedy of the dream and the tragedy of the nightmare allows us to rewrite our reality and work towards common goals. But it also has the chance to be abused, to create propaganda and turn us against our own world.

IMPLEMENTING THE TRAGEDY OF THE FANTASTIC

The advancement of film editing, effects, and post-production lies at the heart of fantastic tragedy. All of these elements help build the unreal in the film through manipulation of space and time, and the creation of unreal imagery and sound. Ultimately, the film should create a reality upon which fantasy imposes itself. The viewer must be drawn into the fantasy, only to find rejection. Either the viewer must reject the world of the fantasy, or the fantasy must reject the world of the viewer.

However:

The advancement of these technologies and techniques must never allow the elements of the unreal to overtake the real. A film must present a world that is real. The elements of the fantastic must encroach upon this world and be recognized for their unrealness in the tradition of surrealism, magical realism, and horror. To present the fantastic as a part of reality merely promotes an attitude of conformity where the hardships of reality are avoided and ignored in the search for a few moments of escape.

If this trend continues we risk erasing the tragedy, and embracing fantasy wholeheartedly as reality itself. We must embrace fantasy for what it is. We must embrace the tragedy it provides us. Films cannot move towards false reality in good conscience.

To embrace the tragic fantasy is to promote thought and the reexamination of our own reality – its wonders and its horrors. Tragic fantasy is the reclamation of the technology and aesthetic of the screen, the reclamation of the modern psyche and the reclamation of our world and our art.

-Patrick Higgins

The Cinema of Dreams

In my World Cinema class we’ve been studying Russian film from the 1920s, specifically Russian montage. Reading the essays of Eisenstein and Vertov started me thinking (as I am apt to do) and I began to wonder about my own theory of film. Obviously I’m not a very experienced filmmaker, but I dabble, and any amount of filmmaking demands thought and therefore theory.

I’m not sure if I can effectively lay out my manifesto, if you can call it that. It might be more aptly described as a rough draft, or even just a hodgepodge of ideas. In the future I may be so pretentious as to write a paper on these thoughts, but for now I will sum them up here.

Many filmmakers and critics have noted that, through its unique use of editing, lighting, closeup, and frame, that film offers a greater element of fantasy than other mediums like theater and painting, or even writing. To paraphrase Bálazs: the film, as a collection of images, is composed of the real. Only the components of making a scene before filming, coupled with the act of editing make film an art. When images are watched on a scree, moving in quick succession, we accept them as they are. The painting is seen as a still, unchanging, its reality contained within a frame, examined fro the outside. The written form is taken one word at a time, analyzed, compartmentalized from word, to sentence, paragraph, chapter and volume. Theater is seen in acts, conforming to the stage. Where the process of editing manipulates time and space, melding individual shots and frames into one scene, the theater must remain separated from the viewer by the space of the stage.

This is not to detract from other mediums, but rather to point out that film has a unique form – and this form must be utilized. Film’s ability to manipulate space and time while maintaining continuity within the mind of the viewer presents it a unique opportunity in the realm of the fantastic. That is, when the viewer sees the unreal in a film – whether it be a monster, an impossible action sequence, or a remarkable location – it is accepted as reality. But when the film ends, the mind must reject the fantastic that was witnessed only moments before. This gives rise to what I call the tragedy of the dream, and, conversely, the tragedy of the nightmare.

In a dream (a good one at least), we feel we are part of the fantastic. The unreal usurps the real through the use of familiar images that are mixed and matched in unusual and taboo ways. When we awake the true reality comes into conflict with the dream reality. We feel a sense of tragedy upon realizing that the fantasy we experienced is at odds with our reality. This is the tragedy of the dream.

In a nightmare a similar process is at work, but the tragedy is reversed. When we awake from a nightmare we feel relief that the reality of the dream is at odds with our own reality, but we then experience tragedy when we see that our reality contains vestiges of the nightmare. If I awake from a nightmare where I am chased down an endless, dark hallway, I shall reasonably  experience fear when I encounter a dark hallway in real life.

A similar process occurs when we are in the movies. When we see a movie that we enjoy we are drawn into its reality. If we envy that reality we feel the tragedy of the dream when the movie ends. We attempt to rebuild and reenact the fantasy within our own world. If we fear the world of the film we experience the tragedy of the nightmare, and we seek to remove the elements of the fantasy that exist in our reality.

This is film’s greatest power, and its greatest danger. To utilize the tragedy of the dream and the tragedy of the nightmare allows us to rewrite our reality and work towards common goals. But it also has the chance to be abused, to create propaganda and turn us against our own world. Worse yet, there is a growing trend in film to make special effects as “real” as possible – moving closer and closer towards virtual reality. If this trend continues we risk erasing the tragedy, and embracing fantasy wholeheartedly as reality itself. We must embrace fantasy for what it is. We must embrace the tragedy it provides us. Films cannot move towards reality in good conscience.