24.5.14

You Got Balls Talking About Forgiveness: Warrior (2011)

The perfected male body is something that has emerged in discussion here on this blog, particularly when I was delving through the kung fu marathon last August.  Reading though a Linda Williams inspired lens, I argue that this sort of body on spectacle is somewhat homosocial and somewhat a mastery of technological embodiment.  Though I was unable to devote any amount of writing to the film when I encountered it a month or so back, Rush uses the body as a purely technological beast, one that become tied to a race car and is destroyed or advanced based on a relationship with said machinery.  Though a a year earlier in its release, Warrior is also expressly concerned with how a body could be displayed, altered and pushed forward into a state of ideal existence, one that tis capable of, in turn, competing with other forces, here also male bodies.  The idea of a sporting body then comes into play in works like these and with a runtime well over two hours, Warrior is a text that is expressly concerned with how spectator culture and violence have invariably altered even a seemingly hyper-violent sub-genre like the boxing film.  In many ways because it is a so much a body film, Warrior plays with genre in knowing ways, but as it is intended also to be a sports film at heart, it swelters and paces itself between traditional formalist structures as opposed to outwardly subverting the genre as was done in a work like David O. Russell's The Fighter.  Warrior manages to pull of the rare feat of creating a film about white male figures that are worthy of compassion and empathy, while somehow managing to denote the ways in which their struggles are still from a relatively privileged point of contact.  Acted almost impossibly good, Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton disappear into their roles, becoming two estranged brothers whose disdain and trauma are worn on their bodies, which still manage to exude as a point of idealism and desire.  It is in the disheveled and perfectly cast Nick Nolte where the narrative takes its means to show what is not desired.  In no small way director Gavin O'Connor provides viewers with a definitive stamp on the furthest explorations of the boxing film, while allowing for the kung fu influences that invariably come by way of it specifically dealing with mixed martial arts, to push what is a decidedly realist film into the realm of the impossible.  While I would never call a work like Warrior magical realist, it is not purely a work of realism for too many coincidental moments occur for such an interpretation, nor is it the magical nihilism I have previously placed upon something like Miranda July's The Future.  In as pure a sense as possible, Warrior is a work about bodies in constant motion and as any person who has take basic physics knows, said bodies become quite dynamic upon collision.


Warrior focuses on the emergence of a new mixed martial arts tournament within the sports entertainment field known as Sparta.  Set to occur in Atlantic City, this revelry in all that is violent is the implementation of a Wall Street magnate, who purports to want to find out the strongest man in the world.  While many assume the entire ordeal will fall to the hands of Russian powerhouse Koba (Kurt Angle) it does not stop a slew of competitors from putting their everything into the possibility of fighting.  In the wake of this announcement two brothers move about the space of Pennsylvania, the first being Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) an ex-Marine who lives a purposefully desultory life, only returning for the help of his recently sober father Paddy (Nick Nolte) in training and Brendan (Joel Edgerton) a former UFC fighter who never made it big.  Though Brendan had vowed to remove himself from competition at the request of his wife, his salary as a physics teacher and bouncer at a local strip club fail to pay his daughter's medical expenses leading him to begrudgingly return to fighting.  Thus both brothers enter the Sparta by various means, Tommy does so after showing noted skill when he makes quick work of the American champion fighter Pete "Mad Dog" Grimes (Erik Apple), whereas Brendan only initially working closely with his former trainer Frank Campana (Frank Grillo) becomes his next alternative when his prized fighter injures himself during training.  While the two remain out of contact prior to meeting in Atlantic City, they each climb up the ranks in the tournament much to the surprise of all in attendance.  During Tommy's particularly brutal victories, it is revealed that he was indeed a former Marine and had earned a Medal of Honor, before going AWOL upon the friendly fire death of a close friend.  Brendan continues to strive for victory through hard-earned submission wins, all the while making up for his being suspended from school when it is revealed that he had been fighting while salaried as a physics teacher.  Though each faces challenges during the bouts, for Brendan the challenges are very physical whereas Tommy faces issues of internalizing his own relationships with others, the two ultimately face off in the closing fight, wherein their particular fighting methodologies and philosophical outlooks on life collide, resting in an intense and moving victory for one brother, but a huge step of advancing in the brothers' strained relations.


While I am not particularly fond of the term "balls" which I pulled for the quote for this post, I do think it fitting for the idea of how the perfected body is at play in this film.  In the narrative of Warrior, much is hinged upon the ability of proving authenticity.  For both Tommy and Brendan they are capable of proving their worth as fighters because they can tangibly and effectively destroy their competitors, but for Tommy things like heroism are particularly complex, because while he can show his physical heroism by way of ripping a door off of a military vehicle to rescue a fellow soldier, it is much more challenging to conceptualize rejecting such a label when he refuses to continue work upon the death of a dear friend.  Similarly for Brendan, he can perform his duty as a father and as a teacher with great success, being given admiration in each role, however, when his actions outside of these spaces are made known, his perfected body is a thing to be questioned as it does not mesh with a space of a physics teacher who 'in theory' should have a perfected intellect which is less tangible.  Indeed, to affirm such a concept, the narrative has Brendan obtain nearly all of his victories by submission, suggesting an intellectual methodology that counters the physical prowess of others, say Tommy, but most notably attained in his defeat of Koba.  The two bodies work in constant (dis)harmony of one another, always at odds and collide in an incredible way in the closing bout.  Indeed, this final encounter deeply troubles the idea of the perfected body, by negating any singularity to such a concept.  Both Tommy and Brendan have methodologies that are capable of assuring victory, but when perfected on different avenues they will invariably cause one body to be destroyed.  Here though, the destruction is somehow empowering by way of a homosocial bond because both have the reference point of their father as a bad example of destruction to consider.  Wherein Paddy is a wreck of a man, Tommy and Brendan are exceptional, albeit, troubling in their willingness to destroy their bodies sacrificially.  It is not until both realize that far more can come by unifying their points of perfection than questioning their validity that the narrative shifts.  Again positing the possibility of multiple perfected bodies.  Though a victory is awarded to one of the brothers, it is suggested rather blatantly that it is in performance alone.

Key Scene:  The entire casino confrontation between Tommy and Paddy is stellar filmmaking existing within what is frankly an incredibly well-shot fighting movie.

This bluray is cheap, but I also believe it is watch instantly on Netflix.  Either option will suffice, although I would suggest the former as it is a surprisingly cinematic film.

19.5.14

I Put My Whole Self Into Everything I Do: A Face In The Crowd (1957)

The work of Elia Kazan will forever be clouded by his unfortunate relationship with the naming of names what marred American entertainment and politics during and after Joseph McCarthy.  As such, when Kazan received an lifetime achievement award from The Academy, it was met with a degree of hostility and certainly seen as a betrayal to the idea of liberty and freedom.  In doing so, one is led to question what it means to separate an artist from their work, or in turn, attach their name to any action. Indeed, it is not quite as troubling as what occurs regarding the virulent political attacks that Lee has become known for in the past few years and is certainly a far cry from the troubling attachments to the work of Polanski or Allen.  I could never hope to speak to the layer of ethical issues at play in such divisions, but what I can assert is that distancing or rejection should be related to the degree of problematic action.  For Kazan his betrayal of other entertainers was troubling in so much as it was tied to fears of blacklisting and political threats, to act in accordance with these was deemed a moment of backstabbing, but frankly it is situational and while few did take a stand the anxieties of communist invasions were so manifest that any disavowing was met with animosity.  In contrast an issue of direct violation of another human beings liberty is far more troubling and worthy of chastizing, again a discussion for another location and certainly not the intent of this blog at large.  I do provide this bit of a diatribe, because I find the continual exclusion of Kazan from the obtuse cannon for these political reasons f somewhat frustrating as in comparison to say D.W. Griffith and his rather blatant offenses, particularly since Kazan, I would argue is his film making equal.  Having already seen and adored On The Waterfront and begrudgingly accepted A Streetcar Named Desire as a masterpiece, I understand the controversial director's ability to capture the common man and place him in a space of cinematic distress rivaled only by Italian Neorealism to be exceptional.  What makes A Face in the Crowd all the more brilliant is that it takes this initial depiction of the man who is down and out on his luck and pushes it to the impossible by making the tale one of political aspiration, social expectation and cultural madness that is somehow deeply satirical, but also subtly disparaging.  It is in a work like A Face in the Crowd that one can see flickers of inspiration for Altman, while also finding a heavy does of Shakespearian hubris at play.  It is a film with a direct and realized intention and succeeds in its execution magnificently.


A Face in the Crowd begins rather inconspicuously in a jail cell where Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) a journalist and entertainer has taken her show A Face in the Crowd into said jail to find one of the many voices of America.  While the persons present in the space of the jail are mostly dismissive, the warden promises one of the men in the space a chance at an early freedom if he provides Marcia with a song.  The man in question Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith) agrees, albeit begrudgingly, and proceeds to belt out a fiery tune about what he believes to be an ill-fated promise on the art of the warden.  After doing so, Marcia immediately realizes his potential, dubbing him Lonesome Rhodes and allowing him to speak more about his opinions, ones that immediately call attention to acts of oppression.  Lonesome's particular swagger and sense of justice take off like wildfire and before he has even spent moments out of jail, he is offered a show on the local radio station, wherein he takes to task politicians and important figures alike, always and at once making advances towards Marcia, while also sleeping with women as he sees fit.  When even this surge of success proves small, Lonesome is offered a show in Memphis complete with sponsorships and while he is initially flippant about the methods of television, the rough and tumble singer takes to the airwaves with equal fervor and every man ideologues. Through sheer magnitude and occasional drunkenness, Lonesome is able to exploit the act of television advertising by not playing the game per se, but by calling attention to its fabrication, specifically the selling of useless goods.  Indeed, it is Lonesome's selling of a placebo pill called Vitajex that gets him the most acclaim, despite being fully aware that it is nothing more than sugar and caffeine coated in yellow coloring.  With this act, Lonesome is capable of swaying opinion in a grand way or advancing a cause that is flailing, all the while ignoring his relationship with Marcia in favor of younger women and drink.  This prideful approach to life pushes Lonesome to the heights of Madison Avenue, yet when one drunken, on air diatribe is unknowingly captured the bottom falls out for the provocateur and before losing out to his deals completely he attempts to envision his own future presidency, if only created as a result of the very entertainment-based fabrication that made his career in the first place.


The person on spectacle is frankly one of the major themes of my blog nowadays, I am fascinated by how the body is offered up cinematically and the way in which a particular performer can add or detract from the success of said spectacle.  I know it was discussed for its celebratory manner in the previous post on John Woo's Once A Thief, but here it is almost knowingly ironic.  Kazan, no stranger, to the way in which the male body can be constantly powerful in the cinematic presence, manages to still subvert the layers of desire, much as he does with the slightly feminized Brando in both Streetcar and Waterfront.  Frankly, there is nothing feminine about Lonesome and Andy Griffith provides no moment where such an interpretation could be gleaned.  Griffith pulls from a fire somewhere deep in his belly and bellows through his lines, even the ones of despair and angst.  To place a version of masculinity such as this on display required both Kazan and Griffith to understand that it is not only fake, but in a constantly expanding form of performance.  When one initially encounters the film, one might wonder how Griffith could ever hope to top that initial song of freedom as it is hardly contained within the confines of the jail, and by extension the frame of the shot.  As Lonesome's popularity expands so do his opportunities to perform, either by using radio waves to call attention to the absurdity of domestic unpaid labor, while also enjoying the products of said labor, or to allow a space for working class kids to play at the expense of a wealthy radio tycoon, it is constantly growing and always threatening to explode.  Take for example either Lonesome's initial television encounter or the absolutely thrilling Vitajex commercial, both have to move to multiple spaces to capture the exuberance of Lonesome, though multiple screens both diegetic and non to push his message, whereas the Vitajex commercial exists in a temporal and spatial impossibility that is matched only in the decadence of Busby Berkeley show numbers.  Griffith's performance pushes the limits of filmic representation and Kazan constantly opens new doors for the growth to swelter, making the call to attention at the end all the more noted, as it relies on fabrication to succeed in the illusion, or rather disillusion.  So what starts as a loving and endearing depiction of the down and out person growing to stardom shows that even this is met with pride-ridden downfall.  To be allowed a voice in the space of entertainment is notedly powerful, but it is also one that must be always aware of its performance elements, even at its most ironic.

Key Scene:  The Vitajex sequence really is quite amazing, I am quite earnest when I compare it to 30's era Busby Berkeley work.

A Face in the Crowd is one of the many gems that is laying in wait at the expansive Warner collection that is in a DVD-Bluray limbo.  I cannot express enough how necessary it is to view this film.  While, On The Waterfront will likely always be Kazan's most well-regarded work, A Face in the Crowd is quite possibly his true masterpiece.

15.5.14

The Universe Is Endless, The Brave Are Always Searching: Once A Thief (1991)

Though he has rarely received mention here on my blog, I adore John Woo.  I should be clear though, I adore the John Woo that existed prior to Broken Arrow, which has proven to be the demise of his career.  In terms of Hong Kong Action Cinema, nay all of action cinema, Woo is the premier player in what it means to make an exceptional film.  Having been fortunate to encounter Woo's Hardboiled rather early on in my endeavor to be a cinephile, his style and cinematic structure has always been an ideal point and though it is clearly not one loved universally, like de Palma or Pasollini it is almost immediately recognizable, for its washed out and soft lit nature.  It is tough to differentiate some of the works from his most productive years, say 1986-1991, because they almost all deal with a disillusioned cop coming to rediscover their passion and identity by way of challenges from an equally positioned criminal.  The process as scholars have noted is not the simple homosocial bond at work when the cop and criminal confront, but one more deeply invested in fraternal confrontation.  As such family and other factors are always at the forefront of Woo's work, either directly evoked or ever so subtly implied.  In something like Once A Thief it manages to do both magnificently, looking both at the relations of a trio of street orphans turned art thieves, while also suggesting that their relationships, though unique, can be switched, manipulated and extended outward when necessary.  Furthermore, because it is an action film, Woo always seems to evoke a certain degree of celebration in the perfected male body, one that clearly borrows from kung fu films of decades earlier, yet in a knowing way the narrative subverts even these ideals and shows that degrees of ability and perfection are not quite as intertwined as imagined.  I would never leap to the suggestion that Once A Thief is a masterwork of John Woo's career highpoint, but considering how exceptional his output was during this era, to call this lesser is to still place it miles above its contemporaries and certainly shades and entire colors different from his post United States work.  Also, though he is always keen on the use of music in his films, the particular soundtrack for the film by Violet Lam is incredibly fitting, flittering between shades of Hong Kong bar jazz and synthesizers giving the whole film the feel of something form the world of Michael Mann.  As I am sure I have made abundantly clear, I could ramble about Woo for days, but frankly he deserves that kind of devotion.


Once A Thief, as noted, focuses not on a singular thief, but a set of thieves who make their living stealing art.  The group consists of the rambunctious and flippant Joe (Chow Yun-Fat), the stoic, but definitively opinionated James (Leslie Chung) and Cherie (Cherie Chung) the romantic interest of both men, as well as the cohesion to the groups somewhat wild methodologies.  Finding themselves fresh off of a major heist in Paris, Joe and James agree to settle down and remove themselves from the heist business, much to the pleading of Cherie.  However, when the group is offered two million dollars and a considerable amount of bragging rights to steal a painting from a well-guarded castle they prolong their retirement and are successful in their theft.  Yet, the aftermath leads to a car chase and in the process Joe is injured in a kamikaze-like wreckage, leading to his being paralyzed from the waist down.  Initially, James and Cherie believe Joe to be dead and continue on their life together, entering into a relationship and stepping out of world of heist considerably.  However, when it is revealed that Joe is indeed still alive the group dynamic change, as Joe tempts James back into the business, while also causing Cherie to reconsider her marriage.  Yet, Joe's immobility means that initially he must use wit as a method to gain information, passing his disability off as something that gains him access to bidding parlors, where he can confront his wrongdoers as well as elicit information to aid in their theft.  Cherie even partakes in the process using her female traits to seduce a higher ranking museum owner into dancing, quickly stealing a key to have James make a print.  This all occurs with a backstory that acknowledges the double upbringing of the trio, one that is headed by the violent and negative figure of Chow (Kenneth Tsang) who used their youth to exploit his own gains and the far friendlier cop Chu (Kong Chu) who teaches them to be productive citizens, although they still stray the way of thievery.  However, what ultimately commences is a confrontation between the trio and their respective paternal figures, one that is heavy in shootouts, fighting and aggression.  In the process Joe reveals just how non-limiting his disability is and helps to ward off their challengers, retaining a safe space and seeming intent to return to a life of normalcy, one that is might still involve an occasional art heist.


So if Woo's action cinema is about spectacle, what does one take as the point of most spectacular engagement.  The obvious answer here might be the feats of heroics and athleticism that are generously inserted throughout the film, whether it be Joe dancing in a wheelchair, or the taut and frankly quite thrilling retrieval of the painting perched above the electrical floor.  These moments are great and from a filmmaking standpoint evoke all the necessary points to be deem thrilling, but I would argue that the real spectacle at play in Woo's film comes by way of performing and engaging in symbolic roles which take with them various social stigmas and presumptions.  From the earliest point, the problematic relationship with authority that the trio possess seems almost entirely rooted in their troubling relationship with the aggressive Chow, whose father status is never questioned in the minds of the group, yet his awfulness is wholly acknowledged.  Indeed, it makes the emergence of Chu all the more curious, because despite their dismal living state, they are initially hesitant to leave Chow, because they associate him with provisions such as food and shelter (even if minimal).  It is not until Chu buys them food that their understanding of his role alters.  Indeed, this occurs to further extent when Cherie is navigating the relationships between Joe and James seeing the former as a point of desire that acts like a brother, where as she sees James as a brother who is acting like he is worthy of romantic affection.  It is not until Joe is deemed non-existent that Cherie change her frame of reference, although the narrative makes its situational elements clear and certainly affirms this when Cherie leaves James to be with Joe in the end of the film, at least in an emotional sense, because Cherie is pregnant with James's child.  The result is some bizarre triple space of paternal and maternal and a maternally acting paternal figure that is more joke than reality, although such a presence undoubtedly occurred in Hong Kong at the time.  These are but a few of the layers of how things are performed and another layer could be added to how the idea of disability is performed in the film, but considering its integral nature of the narrative, spoilers will be avoided.

Key Scene:  The castle art heist is really gripping, more so than I am use to from Woo, particularly as is the case for hims moments that he plays up for humor.

This is a delightful addition to my Woo viewing cannon, but I will admit that it might be decidedly hard to come by so renting it or tracking it down alternatively might be ideal.

11.5.14

It's Not About You, You Mathematical Dick!: Good Will Hunting (1997)

Oh my it has been nearly a month and some change since I scribed anything here on the blog.  I have just come up for air from a hellish semester, which included many papers, a few presentations and a ton of other things.  All the while I was watching countless films, but failed to put together my thoughts on any of them in favor of reading or writing (mostly about film) in its various formats.  While I doubt I will be blogging with any consistency over the summer, I do hope to be much more present than I was at the end of this school year and I might even be bold enough to attempt to have a marathon in July or August, who sees, I would have to pick a genre and commit to it and definitely plan ahead of time.  With that in mind, I have indeed been watching some rather enjoyable films, a few of which I desperately wanted to write about but simply did not have the time whether they be the deeply engaging documentaries like Michael Jackson's This Is It and the Japanese political study Campaign, or Koreeda Hirokazu's newest film Like Father, Like Son I had thoughts that were shared on Letterboxd, but little time to outright reflect and compose a string of thoughts on the film.  I even had an entire idea bout how I was going to talk about the mechanized nature of King Vidor's adaptation of The Fountainhead, but this too fell to the wayside when I was finishing up work for professors on the last days of class.  I have found something to return to the blog with in the way of Good Will Hunting, one of the countless films that was present on my shame list, particularly since I am a fan of the work of Gus Van Sant, and was fully aware of the critical acclaim surrounding this film.  Although it does suffer from falling to the wayside for other more contemporary Oscar babes, there is something particularly profound about what is occurring in Good Will Hunting that culminates into the rare perfect film a topic I know I have discussed in the past.  Between the precise writing of then aspiring stars Damon and Affleck, a idiosyncratic, yet universally accessible performance by Robin Williams and the keen eye of Van Sant, it is hard to find fault in a work like Good Will Hunting.  Furthermore, it is hard to create a narrative that exists within the space of Boston that does not instantly become muddled in its own seedy, working class ennui, so much so that the narrative itself becomes sullied in its insistence on being rough around the edges (a fault that is present in some of Affleck's directorial work).  Unsullied by any falsities, Good Will Hunting is the ideal Oscar picture, one that is sound in its execution, but never too on-the-nose to be rejected as a pandering to the masses.


Good Will Hunting focuses primarily on the title character Will Hunting (Matt Damon) a former orphan turned janitor who works at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, although his presence goes quietly unnoticed considering his occupation.  Will stays, instead, close with his friends from the working class Boston area, specifically Chuckie (Ben Affleck).  The group tends to spend their evenings drinking and occasionally brawling against local rivals.  It is during one particular day that Will takes it upon himself to solve a presumably unsolvable equation put forth by praised MIT professor Dr. Lambeau (Stella SkarsgĂ„rd) that things change drastically.  The surprised Lambeau seeks out the janitor and attempts to convince him of his skills and indeed saves him from having to spend time in jail by noting that he could instead work as one of his students while also receiving counseling.  Will, however, jaded by the system of orphans, wherein he was subject to various types of abuse, finds ways to challenge the authority of the figures who are 'helping' him while also proving that he is smarter in every way, particularly by reading their works or outwitting them in their methodologies.  Nearly at the breaking point, Dr. Lambeau seeks help from his former college roommate turned community college psychology professor Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) who happened to grow up in the same working class neighborhood as Will.  Although, his methods are wildly unconventional, even Sean immediately finds Will a handful, taking particular offense when Will begins prying about his late wife.  Still, Sean sees through Will's defenses to find the pained figure and pushes to make the young man see his potential, allowing him a space of silence and only affording him a point to speak when he feels it necessary.  Yet, a variety of other endeavours challenge Will including a burgeoning romantic relationship with Harvard student Skylar (Minnie Driver) and the prospect of countless jobs from agencies who seek to profit from his mathematical mind.  Will seems resilient to change, as it would require himself to open up and approach a world that he only knows as harsh and violent.  When he seeks reassurance in safety from Chuckie he is met with surprise when Chuckie too demands that he leave Boston for bigger and better things.  Though gracious to Dr. Lambeau for the opportunities, Will choses his own path one that he is guided towards by Sean and by the closing of the film,  Will choses  to move towards the future and escape the safety and solitude of his troubling past.


What makes Good Will Hunting work as a piece of cinema is almost entirely tied to its formalist and structuralist element, indeed, this is often the case when I throw around the phrase 'perfect film.'  In most situations it is evidenced of a well-made a perfectly composed piece of art.  Although there are exceptions when the film choses to be systematicaly subversive in its construct yet still achieves a high degree of success (Breathless, The Night of the Hunter and Nashville come to mind), Good Will Hunting is outright a piece of poised and precise filmmaking.  Gus Van Sant is an exceptional director and clearly works from a space of ideal versions, as opposed to simply churning out another film for profit.  I am fully aware that he has come under criticism for more recent works like Restless, but I even find that to be an exceptional work.  What he manages to evoke as a filmmaker is nothing short of a vision.  Taking on the work of newly emerging writers is one thing, but to chose to cast them in the lead roles is another risk all its own.  Furthermore, Van Sant realizes the power of the unconventional, his own queering of cinema taking on multiple layers in every work, here subverting the idea of who can play a serious role and how violence and trauma can manifest themselves in the subtlest of manners.  In one of the more telling scenes of the film, Chuckie is bemoaning Will's lack of ambition and the entire portion of dialogue is delivered by Affleck, yet the camera pans past Affleck to capture the reaction shots of Damon who is putting acting sublimely, each gesture of his brow or slight curling of his lip reacting.  A lesser film would have done a proper shot/reaction shot composition and thus the emotiveness of the scene would be lost.  What makes Good Will Hunting reside in the space of the perfect is that it works nearly organically, the camera follows action and at times viewers are led to believe that the actors themselves are working in a space of purely improvisational dialogue, this is almost certainly the case for Williams whose comedic moments add a delightful flare to more than one occasion of tension.  Where the film works beyond the normative is in how Van Sant frame desire though, in what seem like throw away moments, a lingering arm over the shoulder, or a head being slightly out of frame, becomes a suggestion on the complexities of relationships that manage to make Good Will Hunting both specific to one young man's journey and decidedly universal in its advocation of escaping the many points of complacency life might offer.

Key Scene:  The lecture that Chuckie delivers to Will while on lunch break at the construction site, is really the crux of this film, although it is one of many moments of absolutely astounding formalist filmmaking throughout.

This is a definitive work of contemporary filmmaking, to avoid it because it is critically-acclaimed would be a dire mistake.  If you have not seen it, seek it out immediately.

16.3.14

Angels Always Speak German, It's Tradition: A Dangerous Method (2011)

While I had seen a few David Cronenberg films well before I had decided to "get into him" as a filmmaker, it was around June of last year that I finally encountered him as a director proper and slowly notched his oeuvre off of my needs to be seen list.  Considering that yesterday was his birthday and that I had A Dangerous Method delivered the other day via Netflix, it seemed far to serendipitous an opportunity not to take.  I am aware that there has been a sort of tapering off of the love for Cronenberg by his fandom as his films have move far away from their more gore inspired roots to something that at first glance seems to be cerebral and less physically affective.  I can see the confusion for certain, but I am also wholly aware that body gore and affect do not need a visual component to work wonders.  Indeed, it is with almost perfect precision that Cronenberg is able to take the deeply psychological and disturbing elements of the interior and make them work on the body without really showing the gore he has become synonymous with the director.  Sure there are some deeply graphic scenes and the film is disconcerting, but this is Cronenberg moving in a new direction, after all as of yesterday the man is seventy one years old!  To make The Fly or Scanners is simply not his world anymore, like most directors (Tarantino excluded) maturity brings forth a new look at the world and a far more introspective execution in his films.  Hell, even Michael Bay seems to be moving in this direction and it should be no surprise that it occurs with the master of gore.  If one is looking for film to affect them on a deep level, then Cronenberg is continuing to succeed in a way few are and were he not being overcome by the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher, I would be prepared to argue that he is one of the most important directors working today, but at seventy one to be mentioned in the same breath as the former filmmakers is a success all its own.


A Dangerous Method focuses on the work and life of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) as he continues to establish himself in the field of psychoanalysis, despite having to do so under the rather intense and broad shadow of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).  Although, Jung knows that this is a near impossibility when he is provided with the patient and prospective psychoanalyst Sabrina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) things change drastically.  A frantic and disheveled woman, Spielrein, nonetheless, proves a counterpoint to so many of Freud theories, completely throwing the theorists understanding of abject desire and erotic fixation out the window.  Jung begins pouring his entire studies into working with Spielrein, while also guiding her along in her endeavors.  This act comes at the frustration and anxiety of Jung's wife Emma (Sarah Gordon) who is busy attempting to provide the doctor with a son, the only way in which to assure that his name will continue to possess legitimacy and avoid the existential fear of losing one's name.  Yet, this seems to be of the most minor concern to Jung, who finds the navigation between patient learning and desire for Spielrein to become less and less clear, particularly when she begins making advances towards him, seeing his role as authority figure and teacher, overlapping with her own problematic relationship with her father.  It is not until Jung is given another psychoanalyst turned mentally ill patient in Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell) that things change.  Gross argues that Jung must engage in relationships with his patients in order to assure that he will become happy and better achieve a relationship.  Blinded by his already repressed desire, Jung takes Gross's ill-offered advice to heart and begins a relationship with Spielrein, one that puts his familial relations at odds and eventually leads to his contentious and troubling confrontations with Freud.  Finally, believing he has become friends with Freud, Jung offers up his dreams for interpretation, hoping to receive the same in return.  When this does not happen, Jung questions the entire structure of authority, although this happens far too late to solve things with either Spielrein or his family, instead, Jung pours everything into work and solitary studies.


If one were to extract the psychosexual element at play in this film, it would read as pretty much another period piece of desire, lust and repression in a time of hyper-conservative conformity.  There have been other films about the era of psychoanalysis, but the limitations of censorship often cause them to be confused and lost in safe narrative construction.  Cronenberg, as most know, has always pushed the boundaries and buttons of censors, using giant bugs and non-linear narrative to make one of the greatest examinations of repressed sexual identities in modern cinema.  Here, he is dealing with the perverse and in no small way he does so with it expressly meaning to shock.  Under the guise of the cold medical rhetoric, Cronenberg is able to talk about the most uncomfortable of human functions in banal terms.  When the psychoanalysts talk of the various fixations, many of which involve relieving oneself, the overlay of Jung consuming things makes a clear connection that human bodies are subject to exchanges that are in a constant ebb and flow.  It is not so much an act of pleasure in the context of this film as it is replacing voids that are physically lost.  Cronenberg takes the guise of excretion and argues that it is in these basic human desires that psychoanalysis seems to be replicating a mental understanding of something physical.  It is heady academic theory and at this point has become more a point of literary consideration than anything certifiable, indeed, most psychologist just teach it as a point of historical curiosity.  Where Cronenberg seems to relish most in regards to narrative is within a consideration of authority, it is in this space that he seems to find the body at a loss, a surprising moment for Cronenberg, who had prior tied the body to the world of television and video games.  In the space of this narrative the body is a thing that can only be punished by authority, because rewards are seemingly less physical and far more cerebral.  The basest of human desires often coming in as, again, fillers for hopes of approval.  In the vague and dreary endings that have come to signify the filmmakers works, desolation and ennui fill characters who are blindly hoping for something far grander, but still linger on the failure and limitations of the body.

Key Scene:  I was initially hesitant to embrace Knightley's performance as it seemed to be very Oscar-baity, however, one scene involving her recollecting a dream to Jung where she is in the foreground and he in the background.  It is deeply intense and cinematically engaging.

I rented this, but intend to buy it soon.  However, it is a different kind of Cronenberg than most expect, so I would suggest doing the same before pulling the trigger on a purchase.

13.3.14

I Do Not Do Animal Acts: Body Double (1984)

I really do not have the time in my day to throw out to blogging, because I keep squandering any free time available watching movies, but it is also spring break around these parts so I am mastering the art of unproductively quite expertly, paired ever so dangerously with the recent change in time via daylight savings.  I really wanted to talk about The Lego Movie when I saw it two weeks ago but kept putting it off, so you are now forced to read as I wax poetic about what might be my new favorite Brian De Palma film in Body Double.  While I know that I have promoted my adoration for Blow Out in the past and, indeed, have been known to even outwardly defend that film, it cowers in comparison to this meta, post-modern film about making films.  I often find myself deeply frustrated when cinephiles or fans of De Palma point to works like Scarface as his crowning acheivement, because to me those are rather cursory works that are accessible, but do not truly possess the seedy, grotesque absurdity that makes something like Blow Out, or Body Double work.  What pushes Body Double to the next level is more than it simply being the better of the two film, indeed, it also involves what I see as an outright homage to the work of Alfred Hitchcock to a point of knowing satire.  There are sequences that are ripped wholly out of Rear Window, while others are expertly inserted from Vertigo and even lesser works by the master of suspense.  However, what should be cinematic remains disconcerting, because De Palma works in a medium that no longer holds the unknown attachment of viewer to subject that was classic cinema.  Between the humorous homage to the now long forgotten video rental store and enough point of view cinematography to make a found footage film seem derivative, Body Double taps into a moment of change in the genre film and absolutely revels in the ensuing nonsense.


Body Double focuses on Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) a struggling actor whose claustrophobic tendencies lead him to fail miserably when cast in a part as a vampire.  To make matters worse for Jake, he returns home to find his girlfriend in bed with another man.  Distraught and desperate, Jake begins drinking and perusing ads for a new job opportunity.  During a tryout for a part in a Shakespeare adaptation Jake meets Sam (Gregg Henry) another actor who is on a string of success.  After befriending Jake, Sam invites him to stay at a friends house while they are out of town.  While Jake is already grateful for the offer, since he has moved out of his apartment, the added benefit of having a neighbor, one Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) who performs stripteases in the house across the street is purely added benefit.  While Jake's voyeurism is unchecked at first, when he is enjoying the spectacle one evening he notices that an electrician has also taken a liking to the show and the two are witness to a moment when Gloria's boyfriend beats her.  Attempting to help Gloria, Jake begins stalking her, only to have the electrician from earlier do the same, even going so far as to steal her bag on the beach.  Jake attempts to stop him, but is slowed down by his claustrophobia.  It is after this that the electrician breaks into Gloria's home and manages to kill her, leading to Jake becoming a suspect with the police, although he is able to evade guilt as he was clearly out of the space of the murder.  Suffering from insomnia, Jake takes to viewing pornography, wherein he notices a girl named Holly Body who looks and dances quite similarly to the now dead Gloria, leading to the curious and still infatuated Jake entering the world of pornography.  When it is revealed that Holly's similarities were not accidental the narrative takes a turn regarding deception and identity all the way till the closing shots of the film, which are followed by an equally mocking final sequence that suggests all cinematic endeavors are predicated on duplication and deception.


I mention that De Palma's film is an exstension of the work of Hitchcock, precisely because it is so heavily and blatantly invested in voyeurism.  In a previous post I discussed the manner with which a film like Friday the 13th, if wholly accidentally, reimagined the understanding of voyeurism and the viewers involvement in violence on screen.  If it was purely a sign of a changing relationship of gore cinema to the viewer, then one could certainly argue that De Palma is acknowledging such a binary and knowingly mocking it.  Indeed, the opening panning shot of the film undermines the viewer complacency tradition by going for a jump scare immediately.  Yet, in a doubling down of subversion, the scene quickly becomes less scary when it is revealed that the scary figure is Jake in makeup and that Jake is failing at his job.  This is repeatedly drawn attention to throughout, whether by the narrative jumping spatial and temporal bindings to show the fragile mental state of Jake, or by never clearly distinguishing a diegetic divide between the voyeuristic acts of Jake and those of the viewer.  Indeed, this comes to nearly perfect fruition during Gloria's murder where the camera shows the murder happening in a more traditional sense, while Jake's point of view is invaded by an attacking dog, as if to imply that the viewer is invested in seeing gore so much so that they are willing to negate the viewer/subject construct when it no longer fits this mold.  One might recall the work of Linda Williams in Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess wherein she suggest that voyeurism and masochism occur in three genres of film, the slasher, the melodrama and hardcore pornography.  The former and latter being rather distinct within the film and openly mocked for their fabrication.  However, the use of melodrama is also knowningly incorporated to subvert viewer ideologies, when Jake and Gloria kiss, almost wholly borrowing from the famous Stewart/Novak kiss in Vertigo, here with the same disjointed paranoia, one whose doubled body implications layer on as the narrative moves forward.  If anything, Body Double is the concerns of Williams at their most realized.

Key Scene: While there is so much to choose from, the sequence leading up to Gloria's murder is perhaps the most realized, particularly in terms of editing and its affects on narrative constructs.

This is a must see film and a gem from De Palma's ouevre.  While I would say get the bluray, it appears to have gone OOP immediately after release.  As such, the DVD will suffice accordingly.

28.2.14

Two Old-Fashioneds, For Two Old-Fashioned People: Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)

I realized as today rolled in that I had all but failed to blog this month, which I am constantly apologizing for during this semester.  It might get better in the upcoming weeks, but as it looks there is hardly any end in sight.  I even had big plans to do a Zatoichi marathon this month and that has managed to fall to the wayside.  My busy status is wholly revolving around things that I enjoy thoroughly though so it is far from a complaint and merely a reality, so for me to report back on the movies I am encountering necessitates two things to work simultaneously.  First, I have to be deeply moved in a way by such an encounter as to be determined to set aside time to write a blog about the film in question.  Second, this being profoundly moved by a film also has to occur at a time when I could still manage to set down for more than a few minutes and compose valid thoughts on the subject.  Since writing nearly half a month ago about Lilies of the Field I have seen some great stuff (Nanook of the North, Stalker and Love Jones) and I also saw some atrocities (Arcade and Broken Arrow).  I wanted to write at great length, but alas time did not allow.  In fact, Broken Arrow took me four miserable late nights to finish.  What I come to write about today is something so off the radar that had I not been fortunate to be a member of The POV Cineclub, I would likely have never encountered the work.  The film in question is Leo McCrary's Make Way For Tomorrow, a little film from 1937 that just happens to fit so delicately in the cracks between the classics of the silent era and the wonderful works of World War II America.  Were the movements altered in even the slightest of ways, this film would be completely overlooked.  While the subject matter is hardly related, I would not hesitate to assert that this has the same sort of rediscovered classic status that is afforded to The Night of the Hunter, here, however, the sentimentality runs thick only to dry up by the end and the narrative is not something that causes a viewer heart to begin racing, but, instead; to wrench in the most jarring of manners.  The open acknowledgement on the part of Yasujiro Ozu that this film was one of his major influences is no surprise, particularly given the staging and angles incorporated in this shot, never mind it possessing what might be one of the most curious breakings of the fourth wall ever committed to celluloid.


Make Way For Tomorrow centers around the Cooper family, more specifically the parents of the children who are now grown and living on their own at various locations within the United States.  The father George Cooper (Thomas Mitchell) is facing a reality wherein his old age and failing vision have led to his being less successful at bookkeeping and subsequently retiring.  Alongside George is his loving wife Lucy (Beulah Bondi) who is also dealing with aging and the inability to take care of major chores in their home, one that in the past had housed their four children, centering specifically on their oldest son Barkley (Victor Moore).  With the impending mortgage on their house becoming due George and Lucy are threatened with eviction, calling all of their children home to deliver the rather unfortunate news.  When it becomes clear that staying in the home is not an option, the two parents ask for help from their children, minus one who cannot extract herself from life in California.  While the children all attempt to save face, while also side stepping the burden of taking care of their children, Lucy ends up moving in with Barkley and his wife and daughter, while George moves in with the considerably disgruntled but nonetheless accepting daughter Anita (Fay Bainter).  While the two parents prove to throw off the tense infrastructure of the various spaces they occupy, they seem to want nothing more than to live under the same roof again, George hoping to find a job and have Lucy move in with him again, whereas Lucy attempts to be as amiable as possible to Barkley, even going so far as to help her granddaughter Rhoda (Barbara Reed) hide a burgeoning romance from her mother.  Yet, when these tense structures fall apart, it is the parents who are deemed the problem and Berkley succumbs to the reality wherein he must send his mother to a nursing home, while the family agrees that it is best for George to head to California.  Given then only a few hours of time together before what will likely be their last time together, George and Lucy spend the evening as thought it were their honeymoon all over again, completely overlooking the dinner they had planned with their children.  In the closing moments, the aged couple share a kiss and a goodbye that could give Casablanca or Brief Encounters a run for their money in melodramatic despair.


One might be a bit curious as to how a seemingly innocuous and overlooked romance/drama film from the 1930's could even begin to reflect the ideal film for this genre, but I will gladly put this in the same framework as Brokeback Mountain or Her, wherein it requires viewers to renavigate their understandings on how love works in film and who is allowed to be depicted in such engagements cinematically.  Indeed, if their is a more heartfelt couple in cinema than this, it is only in gradations, because where other romantic films are wrought with melodramatic sacrifice or one-sided desire, this is as intense a shared love as any and one that is delivered with such earnestness from Mitchell and Bondi respectively.  A 1930's romantic film is usually signified by its over-the-top performative elements, but the subtlety and simplicity at play here work wonders for the narrative arch as a whole.  The struggle here is not one of unseen forces (sickness, war or Shakespearean rivalries) which create an insurmountable barrier, but a unwillingness on the part of a few children to return the care and love their parents directed at them, assuming this entitlement to go on forever.  Indeed, as George carefully observes, it is at after the age in which it is alright to tuck them into bed that things get complicated, because while they still expect that sort of guidance, care and aid, their gratefulness will have either manifested itself or completely gone to the wayside, and in the case of the Cooper children it is decidedly the latter.  Even Rhoda who is capable of exploring the world of romance, is only able to do so out of the kindness of her grandmother, who is later exploited and blamed when Rhoda attempts to elope with an older man.  As such, when the two elderly parents are finally able to enjoy their last day together, the romance swells and the world suddenly seems wholly in their favor, between car rides and free cocktails the two receive more than they had hoped for and certainly everything the viewers had desired for the couple, making the fourth wall moment all the more curious, because it is as though the viewer is willing that kiss and George and Lucy break the fourth wall to remind viewers that it is their story.  It takes Linda Williams's notion of genre, gender and excess to its most...excessive, all the while blowing the lid off of presumptions about cinema of the particular era.

Key Scene:  The almost kiss and the turn to camera is so unusual that it takes the best scene, although Lucy on the phone during the bridge game is also quite good.

The Criterion disc looks about as well as a film from 1937 could hope to and frankly it is so overlooked that any love directed towards it could only aid a better transfer in the future.  Buy it accordingly.