Films usually work upon the same mechanisms, it is what religion in old times simply used to warn against. In more typical dramas, the sin is acted out as some part of life, the more recognizable the better. This was fine for centuries, but the invention of the camera opened it up in great ways. More ambitious films visualize the experience or feeling as it arises, more or less vividly render the hell of it (think Lynch), usually with some the ambiguity and mystery it happens in real life.
This is midway between the two ways.
Framed with religion and the search for answers, the story here is of a young boy on a spiritual journey with his animal self. The boy has previously adopted religion, several in fact, and this deeper perspective he cultivates is the film we see. On a simple level, it is a story of survival, but so extraordinary that you know there’s more to it, hidden depths. Visualized around him, we have a series of meditations inspired by the elements—in tempestuous seas, in the whale magnificent to behold but wrecks everything, in the magical, by day, inter- connected nature of the island but turns deadly by night.
Visually, the experience has been more evocatively done in Tropical Malady, which is on the same journey to inner self (once more a tiger) and clarity. Greenaway has more puzzling symmetries. But it’s a nice film to have, perhaps too clean and cutesy, but clean for a reason.
Here’s the caveat. The idea so simplified in the end, is that we can’t know one way or the other, but here we are, loved ones perish, we continue to be tossed in an ocean of suffering, and that god is perhaps the more attractive story to grim reality, it provides purpose and color, soothes the soul on her journey. This explains the Disney cleanliness, as his mind not dwelling on death.
The sentiment makes sense of course, but suddenly reduces.
Going back, you will see this reductive logic in places, reductive because it IS logic. The most telling spot for me is the following, it is the one that should be the most emotionally powerful, the most purely visual because it is directly of the boy’s soul. Among the meditations, there is one of him being submerged in the sea to the quantum level of soul where images bubble up and form everything else, he goes past the animals, past the symbols, and settles on the face of his loved one, all of it illusory.
It is of course the feeling that has arisen in him, but see how it is rendered. Schematic isn’t it?
Not unlike its notion of god as constructed imagination, which reduces in retrospect by too simple sense. So keep this film to heart, it has its heart in the right place, but imagine how you would do the swim. Zen starry waters without the Disney luminescence maybe?
The magic in it being what it is, not constructed, revelatory as it is.
MISS RAVENEL’S CONVERSION FROM SECESSION TO LOYALTY
In the 1867 Civil War novel Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, a Union captain is assigned at the end of the war, to complete the muster-out rolls cataloging his regiment dead and missing over four years of fighting; to get a sense of the insurmountable task ahead of him, these ‘rolls’ were indeed supplied after Appomattox by the War Department in the form of sheets that measured a yard square.
In the book, the captain is chosen because he is the only one who has been there since the start and made it through, the only one who has the memory to write the chronicle, jot down the history. Though not a masterwork, the novel nicely suggests that there is the killing and dying, but there is a relative truth to it, there is both the struggle and the struggle for this to be a story, one with some invented sense in its mechanism.
Spielberg has no notion of this, never had.
It’s all about what kind of world you think this is. From his perspective, it is all too clean, clearly-defined, closed instead of open-ended, you can see that in the story he chooses to tell of Lincoln, the people as he shines his light on them. Oh, I’m fine with the facts they put in, they could have put more, could have put less. They could have made a fuss for example of Copperhead activities of the previous summer, to make Democrats look worse. More astutely, they could have said that Lincoln’s re-election was at all possible because of costly military victory. Anyway, they have very cleanly managed to convey a complex political situation, the issues at stake.
But again it is a simple-minded effect.
Again with the moral platitudes, again with the flaccid narrative and speechifying, with the good guys on one side, noble in the eye of history if not constitutional law, and bad on the other, malicious fools or at best doddering pawns. It reminds me of the few instances we saw Germans in his Warhorse, flatly inhuman, cruelly whipping horses. Again having the subject be safely self-evident, because what would be those who abolished slavery if not great heroes, villains those who opposed it?
And you can see the same dull unambiguity in his visual iconography of Lincoln—Lincoln as mythic shadow, as weary traveler, Lincoln in the candleflame of legend, popular, pedantic perceptions of the man. How else would you do it?
The one great scene for me is where the passing of the Amendment is given to us as Lincoln waiting in his office, startled by the sudden joyous ringing of bells—there it is, the gap away from ceremony and heated fact, the waiting as gears snap into place, the man alone wondering.
It’s just not for me, overall. Because in Spielberg’s world it cannot be just an army camp the president is visiting, not just life with its clamor and filth, it has to be so that four soldiers, two of them black, recite to him his Gettysburg Address—no soul here, only the sentimental schooling.
But this is why it troubles to speak of it, because as you watch it, the doubt and inner turmoil is there, the morally fickle North and hostility to negro equality is there, the bartering of half-truths for necessity is there, the radical galvanizing as a byproduct of bloody war.
So I’d ask anyone who likes this to more carefully differentiate solid scholarship in Goodwin’s book, the historic legend of the man, some narrative complexity in the script, versus insights in the film and cinematic dimension in the presentation of people whose life is not in any book. Historic persons or not, the life you have to imagine.
The difference is between researched history, and bringing it alive as fiction, which is what all filmmakers do, and why Spielberg so often fails when he tries to portray life. You could get the hats and wardrobe historically right, the correct type of wood in the benches, the words and gaslight, but still make a cartoon.
So this is why I blame Spielberg. Film is a matter of representation, of creating the illusion of a world that moves. So the facts are here, but making it alive is a matter of erudition on the part of the filmmaker, a feel for either people or cinematic devices.
Spielberg has taken some narrative complexity, and as he shouts action and we should have the flow of what is real life to his characters, he can’t help but reduce, some truthful moments in Lincoln reduced by juvenile moments elsewhere, the same juvenile handling of people I find in all his other films.
So this is everything he would most like to be thought of as, versus who he can’t help but be. It’s a silly film.
I know I will like this more when I see it again, because I’m already sifting through and discarding the useless bits, those bits that have to be there but aren’t of the soul of the story. I’m also discarding Anderson’s habit of a dialogue-based story, because all there is to appreciate here should be visual. But right now, all I can say is that all the stuff about Scientology hurts this as much as Eli’s petulant god hurts Anderson’s previous film. It is neither here nor there that this man is a thinly veiled Ron Hubbard.
Let me just say, it’s a marvelous film deep down.
But writing Hubbard in there, and making sure that we know, means you have to have all sorts of extraneous scenes—the scene where a sensible outsider challenges him for proof, the scenes where we infer he is a swindler, the scenes of kooky ‘processing’ nonsense, the duped, servile drones, and so forth. The thing is Scientology does all its own ‘outing’, it doesn’t merit a film exposing them as fools. And without Scientology in the thing, the notion of stored past lives could come to the fore with actual clarity.
No matter. The story here is of a man who came back from the war a shattered being, or maybe he was shattered from the start, and the war merely shuffled the broken bits some more. All the Scientology stuff starting when he meets Hubbard on a ship, that is to illustrate that without the certainty of killing, the beach reverie of loose instincts, back in waking life it is all anxious and fluid, you have to be your own master. That is postwar noir in its essence—Woman on the Beach, Crossfire, Deadline at Dawn, wonderful films. But again, in the context of a devious cult, it is all a bit hard, notation where should be music.
What is music?
The letter he received, and us at the time doubting him. His memories of a girl back home, and us again being unsure of improvised answers, embellished truth like the happy pictures of couples he takes—a startlingly effective motif that is sorely abandoned. The notion of a fresher previous self in the waiting summer girl, the semiconscious shift from memory to making it all up, to vanishing in your desert. The talk of bringing it all back intact, and living in it, and coming from Scientologist lips, us knowing that is all disastrous distortion.
The (imaginary) phonecall in the cinema that ‘ties up’ the story, where he is still needed in life.
It will hit home if you are past a certain age, this notion that you can look back at a certain time, this is not abstract, maybe for you it was the end of summer of that year after finishing highschool, when life could be everything, and you hadn’t yet time to think about all the ways to screw it up.
And it is powerful but could have gone either way.. Hoffman is adequate, but the film is what it is because of Phoenix. He tops Day- Lewis as far as I’m concerned, he has gone madder than his required role to wipe off the actor going mad. Truly masterful stuff.
He makes up for Anderson lacking in visual invention, what Anderson isn’t able to show in images, Phoenix pumps in his veins. Some of the filmmaking craft is impeccable, stately and brings the 1950’s alive, but he needed to cut off from talk and drift as the man does through currents of life. Still, when all’s settled, I’m sure this will be one of the year’s best.
Tarantino at his most epic (as said by some) defeats for me the whole point.
Overlong and sloppily put together, the film mainly suffers from Tarantino’s specific philosophy, or lack of one. He is a writer first, writes frothy scenes of some tension but never pays mind to the submerged undercurrents of soul, the actual life that give rise to the tension, and then separately pulls visual skin from several places to dress his short sketches, films, music, cool tidbits of pop culture. At its best, this can create a narrative energy that carries you along, it’s infectious in short spurts.
This time, he has delivered the sketches in the form of the western he has long threatened to make, in this case Italian. I have seen most of the spaghetti westerns he takes from, probably all. These differed from their American counterparts in a key way—the stories were not about a clean sweep of destiny from one coast to the other, because Italians wouldn’t know Kansas City from Santa Fe, which liberated them to do a sort of abstract comic opera of the West.
Films like Django were all about the visual sketch and archetype, entirely about the image of the man dragging the coffin. The sensibility goes back to centuries of comedia dell’arte, an appreciation for mannered masked life, episodic gaffe and irony, countered in the films with the rustic simplicity of the western. Being a writer first, few of Tarantino’s episodes are visually thought out, the effect is nothing like Good Bad Ugly or Grand Silencio, where wry humor or absurd violence is chiseled to rise out of silence with the cicadas.
In tandem with this is my main complaint.
By all means, have the frothy patter, it’s Tarantino’s staple and one he is good at. But he is simply unable to visually integrate his wordplay with images, just can’t do it, probably he doesn’t even think it is an issue, or it’s how movies work. In the film, you have individual scenes anchored on the spot in some kind of bartering going on, and wholly separate visual interludes, usually a montage of cool music video shots played over to music of his choosing.
These are entirely independent of anything, sloppily slathered from the outside; blood spraying on cotton, slow-motion riding and shooting. It’s such a sloppy way to make a film, sloppy like the man we see in interviews. There is not a single image here I will carry with me. Which wastes Waltz and Jackson putting on an excellent show, and to a lesser extent Foxx.
And of course, all filmmakers reach out and borrow, Tarantino’s problem is that he borrows fashions and what is incidentally attached to it, never the inner logic, the notion of life a certain way that on the outer level is the image we see.
Let me illustrate this in the film. Django being a slave, in order to freely go about in the slaveholding South he has to be in disguise, Dr. Schultz tells him to pick out his costume and character. The rough-hewn ex-slave picks a frilly Little Lord Fauntleroy costume, and we get the silly image of him on horseback.
How about instead of Fauntleroy for a quick snicker, Don Quixote? And borrow with the costume the logic of self-deception, and patiently mold and weave this through the film. Foxx in his pointy beard, and sculpted intense face does look the part, a black Quixote on heroic adventure. Schultz as his Pancha, an educated Pancha who ‘writes’ him into the story.
I’m just throwing ideas. Instead of simple scattershot amusement, something that more deeply involves. And take this in a million directions. And visually distort truth, and fool with Southern chivalry and have us question the heroism. How about a Broomhilda as Dulcinea who doesn’t know anything about him, but goes along because it means freedom?
I’m not saying this will be deep because in itself the theme is something, or it references a respectable work. It can be deep, in the sense that you more deeply involve more of us in the viewing. Tarantino has grown, but only the size of his canvas—a small view stretched to epic length.
I quite like the approach here—’realistic’, first- person camera, and abstract interpretation of Bronte’s classic text as vague glimpses from memory. The idea is that the film would center not on sharp emotion, but in walking away from it in confusion and bewilderment. And I like the emphasis placed on weather as extension of soul. It should all work in theory.
I do mind however, that it omits the framework of relative truth and the latter segment of the story with the grown Haretone, where Heathcliff fully brings to life his shattered inner world, both of which are crucial to what this is. Without these, we have an overlong blur of obsessive memory, too dry and vague to be of consequence. Which is a bit of a puzzle to me, because I should like this.
I like Malick, who is all about visual soliloquy. This is more in the vein of Haneke, which I think explains it. Arnold likes Haneke, many of the same things as he does. Her Red Road was a Cache of sorts. And she does frame her Heathcliff as a wild man out in the wilderness, always outside looking in through windows at life that plays out in the Grange, usually at night, a spectator to a sort of film within the film like the CCTV woman in Road. Again visual excerpts, memories. It is all being recalled.
That is at the quantum storylevel which I describe in other posts, the film being shaped by what the character watches of himself watching, which goes back from Cache to Blowup, to Rear Window. All sorts of wonderful things could be shown through the windows, small things of life as it rushes back to him. But they aren’t, so it drags and tires.
The Oscars are famously fuddy in a cinematic sense. So, having earlier this week murmured at the snubbing of Moonrise Kingdom, I am now pleased to see this film take its place in the lineup. Part of me is not convinced by some of it, for instance that we should be shown in films the achievement of a perfect happiness as the ending depicts here, if you will a happiness that is happiness because it is perfect. In reality, things rarely fall into place but that shouldn’t preclude happiness of the present moment, being whole now with just this whatever it is, in a Buddhist sort of way.
But on with the film.
I come to this as a viewer steeped in narrative dissonance, paradox and asymmetry, these are all things I value in the films I see, in particular when those are carried in a visual way—the Japanese are masters of this, try and track down the seldom-seen All About Lily Chou Chou.
The story here is that we follow a distressed group of more or less delusional people who suffer the usual social frictions with an unusual acuteness, precisely the fact that things are not into place but broken, and through the film overcome their damaged selves to come out on the other end, still more or less damaged but whole. In truth, we all walk through life with delusional expectations of the ideal life, this is just comically exaggerated in this group.
This is most clear in the football-obsessed father, who outgrows his compulsive disorder that in order for his team to win, things or people have to be in a certain place, in a certain order. They don’t, life fluctuates. It can go either way. The acceptance of this fundamental truth is what in my eyes sets this apart from something like The Descendants, a touristy film that mistakes manufactured beauty (linked to memory as a Hawaiin postcard) for purity.
The beauty is all in the recognition that things are damaged, dissonant, incomplete. Which brings me to my main point—all of this is wholly carried in the narrative in a visual manner.
The obvious first. The narrator is clearly delusional—to that effect throughout the film the camera is tightly screwed at eye-level, intensely prowls as he does and bursts into views. The narrative has a bipolar energy, with mood swings all over the place. In that vein, I would have liked more swings in the mood, in the ‘color’ of the camera, together with more visual narration, but so be it, the film is dialogue-driven first, plot-focused.
This type of first-person camera I have elsewhere remarked that can achieve the literary effect of stream-of-consciousness, of consciousness hovering in and off itself, where what we see is not necessarily ‘real’, but as Malick exemplifies and Herzog before him, can lead to ecstatic perceptions but of ‘real’ intensity.
The filmmaker is aware of something along those lines, you will see in the scene where the man attacks his father in the wedding video scene, that suddenly images from the earlier assault that was the breaking point burst into view.
In line with bursting views, mood swings, and the acceptance of a dissonant life is the dancefloor climax—things fall into place when you commit to the dance together, the dance as love, but this doesn’t have to be the ideal dance as you’d normally expect, a 5.0 will do.
And in the actual dance, we have abrupt swings from ballroom jazz to rock’n’roll, from normalcy to how these people experience feelings. The dance reflects who these people are together, a little sloppy but committed.
That’s all more than enough. What makes it so enjoyable though, and ultimately exhilarates, is that the whole is continuously stitched with paradoxical behavior. I only recently discovered Lubitsch, whose famed ‘touch’ was about exactly this.
The finale still bothers, but I can write it out of my mind. This is good stuff.
I used to like the guy in the days of his TV Borat. His various personas are of course ridiculous, but you laughed because the people and dumbfounded reactions seemed genuine, the situations real and exposed prejudice that you know to exist in the real world. But it had to seem like he was sketching as he went, exploiting ordinary foolishness.
With each new movie, he has diluted this. Borat partially managed the spontaneity, but only in spots. Bruno messed this, because he was himself coarse and homophobic there, and despite the faux documentary format, you could no longer kid yourself that it simply happened.
This is an ordinary movie, closer to his Ali G. There is a romantic involvement.
But very few of it works, at least in that spontaneous vein that set him apart from Sandler and like comedians. It’s not funny if it’s scripted.
In Texas Chainsaw and assorted slasher movies,—you may gleam the broken once human face behind the mask, a sharp flash of wounded animal instinct, or even nothing but purely automatic evil—which is fine, we have a territorial monster who is out to kill, to recreate past trauma, what have you. The movies can be good or bad, that is something else. I’m talking here of our situating in relation to evil.
Something like Manhunter is much more complicated. There is once more a human monster, we see why he deserves to be put down, but we go on to have an anchor in his world, and that world is revealed one of desires and urges fundamentally no different than our own, perhaps more magical. The result is both the thriller and the real shocking thing, a softer understanding of fluid self.
This is bad in all the parts, but in particular this: here, we are made to feel that the ‘monster’ is only the horrible product of cruel, small- minded prejudice, and then we are violently yanked from that sensitive position. It was all as whispered. We do not have, as we shift to his world, some understanding of soul, but suddenly calculated malice. We were duped, but in such a way as to side with dopes.
The good news first. This is more Aguirre than it is Gladiator. The premise is a cleansing journey of sorts past the walls of the known world into uncharted, savage soul. (the time is the Roman conquest of Britain)
That is on paper. In the actual film, you have cliché action and a crushingly obvious story of personal redemption against republican hypocrisy, which in conjunction with an awful Channing Tatum effectively kills the film.. Recently, Valhalla Rising did this type of film better, but was elsewhere constrained for my taste by ornate, desperate posing. Anyway, that is that.
The really bad news? The film is more Apocalypto than it is even a bland Aguirre.
Let’s see a bit closely. In the film, a young army commander has a recurring vision, that is an imagined vision of his dishonored father in combat, and the pursuit of that vision brings him to the edge of the world and creates the story we see, which is about looking past the parapet into innermost soul. From that point on, you have more battlevisions, the encounter with the Painted People and the hallucinative tribal dance that ensues, and the ‘dead’ coming back to rally under his banner for a last stand against mystical savages. And you will see in connection with both nature and glimpsed memories, the frequent usage of Malick’s camera, which has been getting a lot of Hollywood traction.
All of this culminates with an image that is indicative of the overall sensibility. The tribal opponent is defeated in the end, and as he drowns, the warpaint is washed away and we see a human face—cleansed in death of savagery?
Oh, I’m sure the filmmaker would explain that was not his intention, or that it’s from the protagonist’s pov, but it’s off for me. We’re just not in sensitive hands here.
I don’t know if Sandler helped sink this by mere association or what. The humor is broad. The message against prejudice is as heavyhanded as in Brave, but simply blurted out to us. The computer animation is typical, nothing to see—both horror-themed stop motion films of this year trump it with ease. The horror sketchbook feel is much better captured in Frankenweenie, by a filmmaker who actually loves the stuff. ParaNorman has the fancy characters and dazzle for the kids, but offers us a richer, more visual experience on the same subject.
By contrast to those other films that show creators immersed in at least some aspect of their work, this gives the feel of a mass-marketed product—never more obvious than in the songs performed, ranging from punk rock to club music.
I haven’t followed Statham’s exploits, but expected this to be much worse.
It isn’t very good even in its milieu, but why it was passable for me is because there is a pretty loose structure, the film is simply not bogged down to an ‘epic’ trajectory—a superspy guy (a ‘mechanic’) trains a younger one as possible replacement, there are two preparatory missions, the ‘big job’ which is not that big in the end, and it goes on to a fatalistic confrontation between the two.
The whole background of the killing business is pretty ridiculous, but the action is half-decent and Statham looks pensive.
This is pretty ordinary in its packaging and the ending pretty much ruins it beyond repair, which keeps me from endorsing it.
The start is modestly unremarkable, a young girl with her father may not be alone in their country home. But for about half an hour in the middle, the film was startlingly effective for me, which elevates it in my eyes above simple gimmickry.
The film was conceived as a night’s wandering through a scary house, but the decision was made to shoot in the Blairwitch mode. Oh, there is no mockumentary angle to it or jittery camera, but the film is shot entirely with a subjective camera, always at arm’s length of the character. There is even a scene near the end common in this type of film, where the girl using a camera, snaps a series of pictures that momentarily light up the dark attic.
I maintain the Blairwitch camera to be a major cinematic step forward, but so far squandered in the wrong hands. Why do I say this? Every innovation in film worth noting has been in the direction of a more submersive first-person experience, it is all about perfecting our illusory placement. They had dabbled with a first-person camera in the 1940’s, but it proved cinematically unwieldy. Jonas Mekas was hailed as a visionary in the 1970’s for filming what was essentially private visual diaries.
The prevalence of camcorders has resulted in the recent crop of films, most of it not worthy of notice. This seems like an elegant solution to that—subliminally, it registers as a first-person experience, while doing away with the cumbersome framework of someone supposedly filming this.
So the first narrative device that elevates this, is that we are constantly tethered to the girl and explore as she does, which achieves the required submersion. The second one is even better, ever-so-slightly we shift from a ‘real world’ to her world of nightmare and fractured self.
Which is what the Blairwitch camera is most purely about—consciousness tricked by a story (in that film, an old witch legend) to hallucinate images of that story. In simple terms, in this mode—once we do away with the docu framework—we can have both perceptions of a story and impressions of images that create that story, something akin to memory.
Unlike Insidious, that shift to the other side of the mirror is completely seamless.
The ending is dumb and spells everything out, yanking us from fluid unreality to psychological explication, so viewers content themselves that the whole thing was cheap from the start. Which is too bad, because both these devices are purely visual, and pretty effective on this level.
So, I recommend this to you not for what it is, but as a very clear sketch that shows what can be done. Maybe this is going to be rediscovered, those bits worth it, when twenty years from now Olsen is celebrated as a great actress.