Friday, August 17, 2012

Angel of Death

Richard Linklater seems to have good taste in movies. I think I read him say he wished he could have lived and worked in the classic Hollywood era, being assigned different projects, not having to worry about financing or distribution; but, I may be mistaken.

Once when I was 13, I was sick with a fever and could not get out of bed. My dad surprised me with a VHS of Dazed and Confused (1993, Richard Linklater) he'd rented and I watched it twice in a row. I've still never watched the same movie twice in a row. But nearly 20 years later, I still have not discerned a Linklater style or developed an appreciation for any of his work since I was a teenager and crazy over Dazed and Confused.

Bernie (2011, Linklater) is one of those films that you watch and think to yourself hey, this is actually damn good; it's like the kind of movies Hollywood made in the 30s; the characters and setting are modern yet authentic, and we haven't seen them before like this; cool, Linklater's doing his homage to 30s rural Ford comedies, like he did with The Newton Boys (1998, Linklater) and Bogdanovich did with The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich) and Paper Moon (1973, Bogdanovich).

But you might also realize, yeah, wait a minute, is competent handling of a quirky black comedy worth 10 wing wangs? Is it worth 100 minutes?

Tough to say.

Bernie's like one of those jokes someone tells and you aren't compelled to laugh, but perhaps produce a sympathy grin or chuckle for the effort.

It almost could have been funny. For me, the funniest moments are when Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) begins abusing Bernie (Jack Black), but they're too fleeting. I'd also laugh harder at five minutes of Andy Dick's old sketch from The Andy Dick Show on MTV, where he played a character based on himself who assaults his Hollywood intern assistants relentlessly though too. Shirley MacLaine's face is maybe also one of the last to have survived classic Hollywood, coincidentally. She looks great in Bernie and we can recall her youthful features from appearing in something like The Trouble with Harry (1955, Alfred Hitchcock) at a time when Hitchcock'd still be waiting to enter his pinnacle.

The extras all look, dress and talk like gaudy real Texans. Sonny Carl Davis and McConaughey's mom are both excellent and are the only other part of the movie I think came off as genuine comedy.

The detailed exposition of Texas and funeral directors, and the detailed production design and art direction, prove Linklater took special care to research and prepare Bernie. It looks great, seriously. I guess it was just too alright for me. Jack Black as the weird-in-a-real-life-way effeminate, pants up to his waist-wearer is continuously interesting, but isn't he supposed to be funnier? Or is this supposed to be dry? Depends on your taste.

Matthew McConaughey as D.A. Danny Buck Davidson has the meat of the film's theme summed up in his final prosecution when he drills Bernie about whether or not he is accustomed to the "fancy" life. That's what sells the drama authentically and hit the story home. It defines the conflict of Carthage and doubles up the ambiguity over which of the townsfolk are for or against Bernie and Marjorie and a big part of what their speculations on the couple focus on.

To close, somthing silly: when Bernie describes the preparation of a cadaver before its final rest, he mentions things like, left hand lightly placed above the right crossed, head slightly turned to the right... And during his tranquil oration about its significance I eerily realized that's exaclty how I was sitting in the theatre. The black box, as Godard said.


Thursday, August 09, 2012

Seasons in the Abyss

After graduating high school I first began devouring Jean-Luc Godard's films and critical essays. I had not gained much from the films, aside from their spontaneous episodic structures and flimsy B movie plots; and, there were the pretty actors, brightly colored pop cinematography with text, novels, paintings and misplaced music cues; finally, the endless references to cinema, including his own.

À bout de souffle (1960, Godard) is Godard's first film and probably his most widely seen; and, it still holds up as a Bonny & Clyde style road film of early 60s Paris youth culture. He'd follow with similar works, but with increasing experimentation and a resulting distancing from audiences, due to his political bent, and ever-diminishing narratives.

Weekend (1967, Godard) marks the end of Godard's early phase, a style he would never return to, in favor of his form of visual essays or lyrical reflection. I'd always be primed for a sacred experience when I popped in a home video copy of Weekend, but last week was the first time I had a chance to see a newly restored 35mm print of it screened in a theatre.

To many, Weekend boasts the reputation of being something like Godard's weirdest, least accessible movie. The 8 minute tracking shot of a traffic jam is also mentioned often. And sometimes you'll hear people talking about the taboos: the lewd group sex monologue recounted by Corinne, the brutal murder of Emily Brönte at the stake, the filmed bludgeoning of a live pig, or the cannibalism. All of these elements assembled together still elude me as I look for deeper meaning.
But, I'm familiar with a phrase Godard often places in his films, "La Monnaie de l’absolu," which translates to the coin of the absolute, I think. To read this phrase as a metaphor for Weekend, it means something like the film is a currency that travels into foreign markets, but displays two sides.
First, say is the heads side. The heads side are the beautiful actresses outfitted in the latest trends in modern fashion, the shiny new autos, the bright colorful corporate advertising, the idyllic trip to the countryside to visit family.
But the tails side would then include Corinne's avarice, her deceptive debaucheries, her sociopathic obsession with materialism.
There's more. In general, I merely attempt to engage with both sides of the coin. Corinne's erotic monologue does recall the similar scene from Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) where Alma tells the tale of herself, her girlfriend, and the boy at the beach. But in Godard's hands it feels explicit and gratuitous even, in the same way Marquis de Sade wrote. So if globalism and consumerism are clearly subjects that Weekend focuses on, it can be argued that the monologue pushes audience expectations and conceptions about erotic subjects in then-modern cinema. Because, out of context, is the scene nothing more than dirty talk? Does it matter that Corinne is filmed in silhouette? Does it matter that we don't know who the other people are she's talking about?
Corinne is the central protagonist of Weekend, and her journey is still one of the most modern of cinematic quests. She's gotta get to Oinville. Oinville points to something of a twentieth century Sodom and Gomorrah, of consumerism that is. And from point A to B and every stop in between, we can be sure that some form of satire is being launched. The thematic content is as antagonistic as the onslaught of car horns are abrasive--in the theatre I truly appreciated how obnoxious they sound.
It's up to viewers to word their own ideas about Weekend, but I'm here to say I'm just starting myself, in any significant way. There are perhaps confrontations of old and new, or classical vs. modern, as evident in the Emily Brönte burning by Corinne and Roland. There's also the obviously scathing attack on too many people owning automobiles--the disaster of what a trip to the country may look like one day. But to be fair, I doubt I'll ever catch the full extent of the dozens of literary and obscure historical references. It sure is a fun challenge to attempt though.
I've personally been really crazy about dolly tracks lately and just can't get enough. I was astounded to discover how most of Weekend is filmed from dolly tracking shots that maintain a consistent speed throughout. It made the film feel like Godard was our tour guide and refuses to relinquish his dominance over what we see and when; it's like we expect him to yell, "Hey, keep all arms and legs in the ride! Look over here, not there!" Weekend is an alarm that still reverberates, even after having been set off 45 years ago.
To end with a coin analogy: Weekend identifies itself textually with two introductions. The heads side shows, "This is a film adrift in the cosmos." The tails side shows, "This is a film found on a garbage heap." It's both simultaneously.

And Weekend's Corinne saying one of the funniest most memorable lines in cinema, as she esapes the burning wreckage of a car accident, "My Hermès handbag!" still kills riotously.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Dirty Black Summer

There are two kinds of movies I go to see: first, there're the latest releases of my favorite directors and secondly, there's everything else. Right now my favorite working filmmakers are Todd Solondz, Steve McQueen, Claire Denis, Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and Harmony Korine; and my favorite director is David Fincher.

When I go to see a new movie by one of my favorite filmmakers my response is wholly esoteric. I view the film through the lens of auteur criticism. I place the film within the context of the director's entire oeuvre. I project what I believe is the director's identity somewhere, engulfing what is most vital and worthwhile in the work. And then, I look for what's most pertinent and topical current society, and what's most pertinent and topical to my own current state of being in life in general.

Todd Solondz has not only been my favorite filmmaker for the longest--14 years counting back to a vhs of Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996, Todd Solondz) I copped while still in high school--but, I've also found every film he's completed to date to be a masterpiece. 1998 was a watershed year for the development of my critical taste in films because it's the year I saw my first Woody Allen movie in a theatre, and quickly built on this fancy by seeking out other movies released theatrically at the time that amounted to what I found to be classy adult highbrow melodrama like, Your Friends & Neighbors (1998, Neil LaBute) and The Last Days of Disco (1998, Whit Stillman). These types of films are still the closest model to what I am aiming to make with my own films.

Todd Solondz is the new Woody Allen. Of course, despite the fact that Woody Allen is still alive and making movies. The new Woody Allen movie was actually playing in the same theatre last week when I went to go see Dark Horse (2011, Solondz).

Palindromes (2005, Solondz) marks a shift in Todd Solondz trajectory. It provides a coda for his first three films in the way its multi-actored-single-protagonist device turns the movie into a surrealist work. Before Palindromes, Solondz would puncture the prosaic world of his Jersey misanthropes with a single surreal shocker scene. I like to think of the first three Solondz movies as, to appropriate the label thrown at Woody Allen, "his early funny ones." I find Solondz to have matured after Palindromes, which is why Dark Horse came as no disappointment.

To get the Woody Allen comparisons over and done with, one final note about the parents of Abe (Jordan Gelber) is that the actors portraying them are both remnants from an earlier time in Allen's career. Christopher Walken is practically a Solondz prototype playing Annie Hall's brother in Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen) and Mia Farrow starred in 12 films directed by Allen.

Abe's parents are the most adorable, cuddly, even stylish 65+ year olds I can think of. Farrow's glasses and pastel accented outfits are youthful in a way that didn't seem ironically ridiculous.

Something that recurs throughout the films of Solondz is the dilemma whereby his characters are incapable of attaining happiness, yet in ways that don't seem to be worthy of our genuine empathy. Solondz shows us how feeble we are and makes us feel guilty over having the nerve to express feelings of forlorn emptiness.

Dark Horse is also Solondz first foray into genuine surrealism. Not here and there, but as a whole Dark Horse places the viewer in unknowable states of subjectivism throughout the narrative. Who's view are we seeing this through? Is part of this imagined or a dream? Is all of it?

Surrealism has never had a more adequate form to support. Solondz is still in New Jersey and still concerned with an upper-middle class Jewish family. One of the most glaring tonal contrasts comes from Abe's chirpy demeanor in the face of his comically pathetic future. He's even challenged a few times by this when characters ask if it's ironic or not.

Dark Horse is intimate and engaging with the tiny little corner of the world it depicts. Among the details that stimulate audience conceptions are Abe's yellow Hummer, just like the one in Bad Boys II (2003, Michael Bay); his rhinestoned necklace with his name on it; his oversized brightly-colored jerseys and polos; his nerd layer, where seasons 1-9 of The Simpsons on dvd are on display; the innocuously braindead brand of twee bubblegum he jams out en route to his various errands; and of course the Lionel auction he's bidding on on ebay.

Hollywood is ruled by a conspiracy that commands its films to have sympathetic characters, a protagonist the audience empathizes with, a clear goal with obstacles that the protagonist pursues while experiencing some significant character change afterward, an uplifting ending, etc... However, Dark Horse avoids most of these obnoxious edicts by having Abe suffer the ultimate of tragic endings, accomplishing nothing, suffering for no fault of his own necessarily, and finally unable to do anything about it. But this provokes other questions like, "what could he have done different, really?"

The performances are so soft, as is the direction and writing. Solondz has huge balls to make these kinds of movies that would seem to be a huge red flag to any producer. Luckily, this played for a week here in Austin and I've never felt so enamored by something so seemingly slight.


Wednesday, August 01, 2012

How the Gods Kill

One of the best things about Alien (1979, Ridley Scott) is how it went against the common wisdom of classical Hollywood filmmaking that always thought it best to not show the monster. In Alien, a classic horror model, a monster hunts a small group of people and picks them off one at a time; the ending is one of the modern prototypes that define the final girl subgenre of horror. But the audience is eventually confronted with what lurks in the dark. The H.R. Giger creature designs still stand as the most memorable of all movie aliens next to the Star Wars franchise's more family friendly characters and E.T.

To crib a style from some of Godard's critical language, we don't remember why the space truckers are on a mission; we don't remember who sent them; and we don't care what Ripley actually accomplishes other than saving her own life.

But, we remember the alien baby popping out of someone's stomach and the other one that looks like a crustacean and sucks face; we remember the wet, slick, reptile-headed monster with the mouth that comes out of a mouth; we remember the android bleeding milk as he dies; we remember that Ripley was the last one alive on the ship and in her bra and panties, she saves Jones.

Finally, Alien's also such a strong space horror because its own cache lies in its mystique. They show just enough of the monsters to let us stare in wonder, and they don't talk about any higher purpose for being there. They merely act as a Hawksian team and devise a way to survive.

On the other hand, Prometheus (2012, Scott) was made by Ridley Scott at 73 as opposed to 41. I'm ageist, okay? I don't think most directors have the same vitality or edge that they did in their youth or even middle aged periods. I'm thinking mostly of Americans who made their mark in the 80s: Brian DePalma, John Carpenter, Walter Hill, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, and Jim Jarmusch, for example.

So I'm not necessarily comparing Alien to Prometheus. Prometheus does however remind me of the Star Wars prequel trilogy and moreover, Micheal Bay's Platinum Dunes production practice of rebooting the first installment of 80s horror franchises with a sort of pilot that surveys all of the most memorable kills and motifs from the entire run of its predecessor.

And there is often a sense of most of Blade Runner finding its way into Prometheus--evident in the premise of the movie. The driving force is that Weyland wants to meet his maker. And on the note of themes, I was a little disappointed in the recurrent dialogue about believing "because I choose to believe," which just feels really Matrixy. The opening images of spacious green vistas also recall how Ridley Scott inserted outtakes of the opening helicopter shots from The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick) into the ending of Blade Runner. And the romantic scene in Shaw's bedroom where she spends the night with Holloway is reminiscent of similar scenes between Deckard and Rachael, mostly due to the design of her flat and the white balanced spot light outside that pierces into their solitude like Big Brother or something.

Fifield's line: "I'm not 'ere to be your friend, I'm 'ere to make money" reassured me though. Awesome. It's like Ridley Scott is letting me know this is tongue in cheek and he's in command. He's not here to draw us into a yarn, he's here to blow us the fuck away. And I suppose that matter of taste will likely be what divides the Prometheus audience.

Cutting edge special effects and post visuals shot on a Red look as good as I've scene, and the ships, gizmos like Fifiedld's pups, and spacescapes lay the foundation. Some pseudo-supernatural mythological origin of the species type exposition and mock historical evidence that's supposed to be the Lascaux cave paintings fill out the setup.

The Giger look is cast over this thing far and wide; and the dark, sensual, shiny, black, biomechanical, occultish, alien world and the Engineers are prominently featured at their spookiest. The space suits with the bubble glass helmets are something I seek out in sci fi, and they look cool here. The elements build as one and Scott even appears to have restrained his coverage.

But Prometheus's genre is blockbuster effects exploitation thriller.

To start with the sex, Charlize Theron as Vickers enters in a wide shot from slightly overhead as she does pushups, drenched in her own sweat (this guy made G.I. Jane, remember?), wearing the standard 2093 underwear that consists of an Ace bandage bikini (tubetops for the standard female issued sets). (There's even a hard cut from this scene to the floor of an examination room that Shaw is vomiting on, really emphasizing the image system of wet substances.) Pretty much anytime Theron's onscreen she's outfitted in some tight eye-cocaine infused bit of spacewear that clings to her body like the way the aliens cling to their hosts. Am I stupid for thinking Vickers is human? I do.

And the third act really takes us into the wham-o. It starts with what is definitely the strongest setpiece: Shaw's automatic operation machine C-section to destroy the alien spawn inside her womb. Shaw is of course wearing one of the sports bandage bikinis, soaked in her own obligatory sweat, and claustrophobically confined into the cramped chamber, which is glass so we can see into, as she moans while getting blood-spattered, with the camera even having the audacity to view her from a setup that looks in between her legs while all this proceeds.

Then there's the violence. The third act is again where the wham-o is most evident. While the first act is exposition and the second is composed primarily of space spelunking, the silica storm must be tied as the other strongest setpiece. I had not seen anything like this in the space sci fi stuff I've watched, and it was impressive to be caught up in. The snake-like alien that kills Millburn is something of a midpoint, and marks the beginning of the gore effects we'd all come for. And while Shaw's trying to do something about her demon seed, the zombified Fifield show up to the ship's entrance just to keep things thrilling. When Vickers torches Holloway I knew I was sure that Ridley Scott had pulled this off. Scott's returning to the world where he created a legendary space ballad to follow it up with a space opera.

To close with another ageist statement: I have a hunch that most of the people who really hate Prometheus will be around 18-25, but older fans, already familiar with the franchise, will appreciate it.