Wednesday, October 31, 2012

'Lights! Camera! Inaction!'

Action holds a lot of stock in Hollywood. A director yells, “Lights, camera, action!” from his or her chair, a gun goes off and a stunt car explodes. Or something — I don’t know, it’s a very tired cliché. The point is that action rules Hollywood movies, even those without car chases or explosions. Atticus Finch would be pretty lame if he sat on his porch for all of To Kill a Mockingbird and just thought to himself, “I should defend that innocent black man … if only I weren’t so tired.” In a Hollywood film, character action, as channeled through an ‘active’ protagonist, underlines theme and generates entertainment.

Few Hollywood pictures can get away with a ‘passive’ protagonist, and, for the ones that do, they strike us as unusual or subtly profound. The ennui of The Graduate or the “Dudeism” of The Big Lebowski are groundbreaking, in retrospect. They subvert mainstream ideals of success, class and masculinity. In indie and foreign cinema, you will find more films with atypical protagonists who do not always steer the narrative.

As proof, I present two great films: City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles and produced in Brazil, and The Pianist, directed by Roman Polanski and produced across a smattering of European countries. Coincidentally, both were released in 2002. Even if you have not seen these films, you have heard of them. You probably have one of these on your laptop hard drive, ready to watch when you’re not in the mood forArrested Development reruns (so, never). Both of these movies feature protagonists who, for most of the plot, stand to the side and watch horrific forces destroy their homes (gangs in the “Cidade de Deus” favela outside Rio de Janeiro and Nazis in Warsaw, respectively). While a screenwriting guru like Robert McKee would decry such inaction, a passive protagonist can reflect injustices — specifically, violence — with honesty and without euphemism.

Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a smart boy unfortunate enough to grow up in a slum, narrates City of God. He introduces us to the favela’s other inhabitants, most of whom steal, deal drugs and murder on a daily basis. With little personal opinion, Rocket’s voiceover ties together a nonlinear plot that spans two decades. His one passion is photography, which allows him to appear active even when he is standing on the sidelines, “shooting” the gang members who are shooting each other. Film theorists have long loved to compare the camera with the gun, as has the general public. While the gun aims, shoots and kills, the camera aims, shoots and preserves (but this philosophizing is for another column). Rocket’s passivity allows us to see, through a naked pair of eyes, the extreme violence (to the extent where children murder other children) infecting his home.

In The Pianist, Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody, in his Halle Berry smooch-winning role) survives the Holocaust through inaction, not to mention a lot of luck. He watches an execution of Jews that, for some reason, does not include him. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising rattles the street outside his friend’s apartment where he furtively squats. Another acquaintance — a member of the traitorous Jewish Ghetto Police — literally pulls Szpilman from his family as they are ushered into a cattle car destined for Treblinka. It makes for a cold procession of events, marked by horrified reaction shots rather than deliberate bouts of action. Schindler’s List, while uncompromising in its images, ends on an inspiring note thanks to Oskar Schindler’s heroism. Stories like Schindler’s provide needed hope when digesting such atrocities, but it is Szpilman’s helplessness that betrays the true darkness of the time, as hard as it may be to face.

There is a sharp cynicism in pivoting mass murder around a passive protagonist. Rocket, Szpilman and, by extension, the viewer witness inexcusable violence while surrendering the resolve to stop it. Even worse, the belligerents are not cackling caricatures but children eased into the drug trade through opium or young men brainwashed to believe their genocide is righteous. The balance of good and evil is a bit off, isn’t it? It’s no surprise Hollywood doesn’t go for the passive protagonist, particularly one under such duress. As we watch the character buckle under forces out of his or her control, we think, “Damn, that could have been me!”

Thus, a passive protagonist steers a film towards realism and away from romanticism. You could say a photojournalist like Rocket as City of God’s narrator likens it to a documentary, though that opens a whole new can of worms as the movie is still a work of fiction (even if it’s based on a true story). Its veracity notwithstanding, a film with minimal character action is likely to provoke and disturb us more than one in which an active protagonist overcomes the odds to save the day. A film like City of God or The Pianist may also offend us to the core, which is likely why some despise character inaction in all cases: Where’s the happy ending? How I am supposed to walk out into the world with a shred of respect for my species after that?

The recently released Cloud Atlas may be the ultimate antithesis to such life-negating, humbling fare. The film — which, I will say, is well worth your time — strings together six, century-spanning plot lines, all connected by different incarnations of characters, each played by the same actor. It’s ludicrous. The movie’s official plot summary reads: “An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.” The pitch allows for a lot of car chases, explosions and be-all, end-all character choices, all in service of a lie we would go crazy not to believe.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Visual Collision in Ménilmontant

The following is a paper I wrote for a film class I am taking this semester. Academic writing requires more patience than journalistic writing, both for the reader and the writer. In this case, my aim was to deconstruct a few scenes from a film while also presenting a readable, mildly amusing argument connecting all the film theory jargon. The film in question is called Ménilmontant, a little-known and silent avant-garde film by Soviet-French director Dimitri Kirsanoff. You can watch this beautiful, 37-minute film in full on YouTube.

Stuck in a Nightmare You Can't Get Out of:
Visual Collision in Dimitri Kirsanoff's Ménilmontant

For all the romantic analogies between dreams and movies, is it not rare for us to even remember our dreams? In Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Georges Méliès nods to a young boy in his studio and says, “If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around … this is where they’re made.” Most of us have difficulty recalling the specifics of our most recent ‘sweet’ dream. Less problematic, however, is reliving our nightmares (Suddenly, Méliès’ quote transforms into a creepy omen). The fragmentary structure of nightmares, as we piece them together after the fact, lends itself to film well and has undoubtedly influenced countless filmmakers. One of them is Dimitri Kirsanoff, the Soviet-French director of the 1926 masterpiece Ménilmontant. The silent Ménilmontant stresses filmic storytelling through its montage editing à la Sergei Eisenstein, yet also warps the gap between cuts with an innovative use of protracted dissolves and double exposure. The eminence of colliding images, whether adjacent or superimposed, makes for a very visual, dreamlike editing technique.

The scenes in Ménilmontant that prescribe to a strict Soviet montage style may follow an established set of cinematic rules, but they use this framework to build an intimate series of images aimed at arousing intense emotion from the viewer. The film opens with a brutal struggle: An unknown, and practically unseen, man brandishing an axe hacks the protagonists’ mother and father to death. Those protagonists are two sisters — the younger, more prominent one played by Nadia Sibirskaïa and Yolande Beaulieu as the older, ancillary sister — frolicking in the forest down the road, giggling as a cat scales a tall tree. Thus, their parents’ horror proves a stark juxtaposition; Kirsanoff likely wielded montage editing for this reason. Eisenstein asked the question, “What characterizes montage and, consequently, its embryo, the shot?” and answered it with, “Collision” (21). “Conflict lies at the basis of every art,” he declared (21). This concept takes on social dimensions when imbued with the Marxist class struggle he and his pro-Soviet intellectuals preached (before Kirsanoff left the U.S.S.R., that is). But, for the aesthetic and apolitical analysis of this essay, the Soviet montage method generates action, tone and meaning.

Ménilmontant opens with a close-up of a cottage door and its glass shattering from an unseen force. This shot orients at about 45 degrees from the door’s parallel, and cuts to a perpendicular view of the door and the violence behind it (with a continuity error of the glass intact). We see very little besides a blur of faces and hands. Cut to the doorknob twisting, back to the door, back to the knob — cut to the wife opening and running out the door as the assailant grabs her hair, with the camera framing her face in a startling close-up. Cut then to the husband opening the door (in another apparent continuity error), and the killer following him as he walks out. It then cuts to a strange low angle shot of the wife stumbling out the door, with her white dress covering the screen for a seamless natural wipe into a shot about 180 degrees around, of the killer’s and wife’s feet stepping forward out of frame. In yet another continuity issue, the next shot frames the attacker in a blurry close-up with the open door behind him and the couple completely absent. The husband has his back against a wall in the next shot, while the subsequent shot cuts back to the killer shaking his head side to side in a vigorous, rabid motion. One of the more unforgettable images follows, with the wife jutting into the frame from its left side, only to be pulled in and out of it by the man who is messily murdering her. After two more shots of this repeated action, we see the axe propped against a log and cut to a reverse eyeline match of the husband who recognizes its presence. So does the killer, as Kirsanoff cuts to him in a grinning close-up. The two men wrestle in the next shot, which then cuts on action to the husband’s hand reaching for the weapon in a close-up of the axe. About four more back-and-forth shots like this repeat, and then we see the bloodied wife in a close-up, reaching out her hand and pleading for her life. The most memorable image — the extreme close-up of the husband and his agape gaze of terror — soon follows, as does a still, high contrast image of the axe held high in the air. We then see the killer hack away, only to disappear through the bottom of the frame where our imagination finishes the rest.

This all times in at right under 40 seconds, with 34 shots, making an average shot length of 1.17 seconds. The swift editing overwhelms the viewer with the power of these images, while the increasing acceleration of cuts builds tension. Kirsanoff communicates ideas both simple and profound through the “assembly of [the] elements” “of montage” (20). Cutting back and forth, multiple times, from door to doorknob demonstrates the time it takes to open the door; the escalating speed of these cuts, as well as the confused swirl of limbs behind the windowpane, instills in the viewer the desperation this husband and wife must have felt. With the exception of the quick still image of the raised axe, the editing in the opening sustains its invisibility and only seeks to communicate a subjective perspective of a violent event, in hopes that this scene will arrest the viewer. Technical limitations may have stripped dissolves and double exposure from the opening, but the disjointed barrage of this opening scene (rife with perhaps purposeful continuity errors) infuses a nightmarish quality that is achieved through its montage style above all other factors.

But just as some dreams frighten us with confusion and speed, others wring us of energy through lingering images and sensations. Kirsanoff inverts the montage technique in several key scenes, placing one image over another. These overlaps span a breath of time to numerous seconds, with the intent to convey internal character struggle. There are a few, more stylistic touches in this vein, such as when the girls leave home and head for the city: A continued shot of a long, tree-studded dirt road holds steady while the subject — the girls — of the image transports down the road in a series of jump cuts masked by long dissolves. The same technique casts the younger sister and her rapist across his apartment in an effort to expedite narrative and establish an unsettling mood to his abode. 

Multiple pre-Vertov city montages with a liberal use of superimposition occur throughout Ménilmontant; the most powerful sequence would be when the younger sister walks by the river with her illegitimate child. An unsettling point of view shot drifting alongside a concrete sidewalk barrier, focusing on its sharp edges before panning left to reveal the lethal tides just yards away, commences this series. Kirsanoff cuts to a reaction shot of the girl, who keeps on staring into the inviting waters as seen through POV pans down the stream and distorted close-ups of the waves. A shot of the water then lays over a close-up of the girl throughout a lengthy dissolve; as she closes her eyes, the frame becomes solely hers once more. Her exact immoral fantasy remains unclear, — Does she want to throw herself into the water? Her baby? — but the potential of utilizing the river weighs down on her, quite literally, through editing. As her baby wails and she puts her ear to the child in a vain attempt for comprehension, the city begins to meld into her torment. Double (and often greater) exposure centers a close-up of the girl in the frame as blurs of cars and faceless pedestrians layer over. An even closer shot of the girl seamlessly follows as the frenetic metropolitan superimposition continues. Kirsanoff goes so far as to take the girl out of the frame completely and let us see and — through Paul Mercer’s eerie music — hear her agony, one steeped by rape, murder, betrayal and abandonment. An innocuous establishing shot of a bridge now deforms into an indictment of modernity and the toll it takes on the innocent and vulnerable. The girl walks dejectedly through the city as these thoughts continue to wash over and fight within her. What is a nightmare to us cements as a cold, harsh reality to this girl. She wants to wake up from it all but cannot, for the only escape is ending herself, once and for all.

In Ménilmontant, Kirsanoff balances his homeland’s established editing school with a new one very much his own. The “collision” of moving images rooted in Soviet theory creates a bloody collision of axe and human skin, as well as all the victims’ fears piling up until that final point. Superimposition of disparate visual icons expresses one young girl’s inner pain and its underlying cause. Despite colliding these techniques not only in the same film but also often in the same scene, Kirsanoff builds a consistent, surreal mystique to the whole film. Ménilmontant hits so close to home, so often, that the dreamlike feel teeters on raw realism. When that sick awareness creeps upon you, however, it is wise to pinch yourself and be thankful you have the option to walk out of the theater.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Review

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Released in 2012

You either ‘get’ The Perks of Being a Wallflower or you don’t. But if you do, it gets you, too. Ever since the source novel was first published 13 years ago, many have compared Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age tale to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The association makes sense, as both novels derive their power from empathy and resonate strongest with the creatures most demanding of it: teenagers. Not everyone connects with these stories — not because of class, race or age as much as a certain sensibility. Perks, as it is affectionately called, speaks to those with a curiosity unfulfilled by a school curriculum, those with a romantic streak marked by spells of sadness, those who crank up Bowie’s “Heroes” while driving with the top down and windows open because, hell, that’s life right there.

Set in Pittsburgh circa the early ‘90s, Perks tells the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), who narrates from a series of letters he sends to an anonymous acquaintance. Charlie is a shy, troubled and brilliant kid entering his freshman year of high school. Suicide took away his one good friend just months before, and the violent death of his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey) — his “favorite person in the whole world” — on his seventh birthday haunts him still. Struggling alone with remnants of severe depression, Charlie finds the transition more difficult than most. There’s that one girl who calls him a “faggot” for his neat stationary; other bullies join her when they learn he aces papers and completes them early. Perhaps you need to suspend some disbelief to buy that a guy who looks like Lerman can get this much flak, but think back to the dull ones in high school who saw beauty in conformity and disorder in everything else.

With nachos in his hands and nowhere to sit at the football game, Charlie summons a few words to engage Patrick (Ezra Miller), the goofy senior in his freshman shop class. Patrick’s half-sister, Sam (Emma Watson), joins them and Charlie is instantly smitten — I say “instantly” because of the angelic close-up that introduces her, with her face eclipsing the Friday night lights like a halo. After the game, Sam and Patrick welcome Charlie to the “Island of Misfit Toys,” Sam’s too-perfect title for their eclectic group of friends, which also includes “punk Buddhist” Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), kleptomaniac Alice (Erin Wilhelmi) and stoner Bob (Adam Hagenbuch). These are the creative and inquisitive types, some from happy families and others from abusive ones. If you fall under Perks’ purview, you will overlap in some way with one or more of these characters. They scrap the past in favor of the present, bonding over car rides, gifts, dancing, study sessions, movies, marijuana, LSD, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Come on Eileen,” The Smiths and lots of mixtapes.

Most teenage movies fall apart after these introductions, devolving into hedonism or empty moralizing. Perks is not like most teenage movies. In a rare sign of trust, producers handed directing and writing duties to the most capable hands possible: Stephen Chbosky himself. He expands the characters he created with simple but undoubtedly filmic elements (there’s grain on the image!). Soft light diffracts about the theater during a Rocky Horror reenactment the friends stage before a packed midnight screening. Their dance moves bring down the house, despite slip-ups here and there. These kids might as well be you or me during those times we stepped out of our comfort zones with a little help from our friends. Perks appeals to those moments of belonging — when “we are infinite,” as Charlie says — and asks us to cherish the love we get.

Love, in its oh-so-many forms, unites these characters and tears them apart. Sam eventually returns Charlie’s affection, in a romance with many ups and downs. Patrick carries on a secret relationship with the school’s football star despite growing homophobic pressures. Charlie tortures himself with the burden of his aunt’s death, for she died in a car crash after giving him a special birthday present. Charlie’s supportive English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), finds an answer for all the pain the most positive of emotions seems to carry: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”

The cast (which, by the way, includes our very own Julie Leon ’15 as an extra in the first Mr. Anderson scene) dodges the histrionic pitfalls littered about these roles. Lerman delivers a quietly powerful performance that may be tough to watch for those who share or have shared his timid or depressive traits. As for Watson, not once did I think about the Harry Potter films when she was on screen. Far from an overachieving bookworm (it is Charlie who helps her study for the SATs), Sam suffered childhood abuse that left her damaged, and Watson nails the subtleties. And Miller, who terrified as the child from hell in We Need to Talk About Kevin, does an about face here, stealing the best and funniest lines. His role also demands a few potent scenes, whereupon he taps into that familiar melancholy.

I guess you can look at all this and still consider Perks to be routine, or contrived, or stereotypical. Come on, Zach, I’ve seen this all before, you say. You have, yes, and you’ve also heard, smelled, tasted and felt these moments before. Those memories rattle around your brain to this day. Therein lies your power. 

Consider life itself. So much of it abides by routine: We start with the developmental rites of passage mostly out of our control — our first hairs, teeth, steps, words, ‘potty.’ We grow up with ‘play dates,’ television programs and coloring books with shapes that have already been drawn. We begin to process what is going on, how others view us and how we view them. Bam! Acne hits, voices crack and organs grow. We feel miserable. We don’t ask for the purpose of life but for the purpose of living. We grow outward. We begin to notice a pattern. We are surrounded by people playing this same cosmic game. We realize we don’t have the answers to life but everyone else does. We ignore that they actually don’t, because we are having too much fun. We laugh, gossip, cry, fight, kiss, have sex and children. We grow old and settle in routine once more — there are bills to pay. We relax and watch our children start all over, and then their children. We die. What’s the point? Who knows. But we do know the time was worth it when we’re with those we love. We exchange jokes, secrets and mixtapes. And we watch a movie like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and think, “Huh, someone else gets it.”

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

This is Not a Film Review

This is Not a Film
Directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Released in 2011

On Sept. 24, news broke that Iran would withdraw its entries from the 2013 Academy Awards in protest of the anti-Islam video Innocence of Muslims. As we know, American-Iranian tensions run high, but this ill-timed move impedes Iran’s recent cultural breakthrough into the West. Asghar Farhadi won the country its first Best Foreign Language Film Oscar only six months ago for his masterpiece A Separation. He delivered an important speech that night, praising his country’s “glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.”

These politics have tried to hide filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who in 2010 was slapped a six-year prison sentence and 20-year ban on making movies for, among other things, “assembly [of] propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” Panahi’s work, which includes The White Balloon and Crimson Gold, portrays hardships afflicting men and *gasp* women in Iranian society, similar in style and intent to post-war Italian neorealism. This fearless artist, activist and human refuses to be silenced and has drafted a stunning statement with This is Not a Film, which he smuggled into the 2011 Cannes Film Festival on a USB flash drive hidden inside a cake.

This is Not a Film is some sort of miracle — of what, I am not sure. We are assured this is not a film, as the title declares with Magritte-esque mischief (his ban specifies “film-making,” so this exercise must be fine, right?). This is a portrait of an artist — not a document, for Pahani directs, writes (whatever that entails) and edits, granting him illicit control over this work. After beginning with a few static (and immaculately composed) tripod shots of him eating breakfast and feeding his iguana, Igi, in his apartment, Panahi hands the camera to his friend and co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who serves as a prophylactic separating the artist from the art. The meat here has Mirtahmasb to thank, not so much for his cinematic contributions but for his humbling comments. “You are not directing. It’s an offense,” he reminds Panahi when told to “cut.” “So, I’m not the director anymore,” Panahi replies with a laugh. His smile turns cold processing the thought.

The key set piece in This is Not a Film, if it has one, considers these ramifications. On his living room carpet, Panahi places strips of masking tape in a box, outlining a room where his next film would have taken place. He reads from his script, using his hands and feet to visualize ideas for shots and blocking. These concepts prove potent — Panahi lowers his hand from a ceiling fan, covers a few feet of air, describes an inexistent rope and moves a chair underneath. He need not mention suicide. Panahi breaks down upon realizing, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” Frantic to validate his art, Panahi then scans through DVDs of his past work to highlight a scene inCrimson Gold when amateur actor Hossain Emadeddin (a real-life schizophrenic) did “the directing on [him].” Emadeddin’s performance was unpredictable — emotion without ego — and “leads you to how you explain the film.” That Panahi champions actors over other filmic devices like editing and directing speaks to his humanism and respect for his colleagues — untapped qualities when holed in an apartment alone. “The film must first be made for us to be able to explain it later,” Panahi concludes in a statement so banal it grazes wisdom.

Pondering that quote, I realize I am analyzing This is Not a Film like a film. There are some beautiful shots here that could not possibly be framed without an eye for aesthetics and mind for meaning. It is safe to consider this a “film” when examining its construction, which is purposeful even if likely derived from chance encounters. Fellow Iranian director Rakhshan Bani-E’temad calls Panahi as the latter sits on a couch, perusing his laptop. While the two speak about their peers’ support for Panahi’s plight, Igi the iguana crawls on a sofa across the room. Just as Bani-E’temad says, “Everyone is getting scared off,” Panahi looks at the iguana and cuts to a shot of it hiding in a bookcase. Too clever for coincidence, I’d say. He lets the iguana direct him, but he ultimately directs the audience.

At the end, Panahi finally wields the camera and exits the apartment in a brilliant sequence I would rather not spoil. Earlier, however, there is an analogous moment that commanded my attention. Gunshots outside his apartment interrupt one of his monologues, and he opens up a window to inspect. His ears register the violence and a hint of sadness stains his face. He looks down, in despair, we think. Nope: He pulls out his iPhone to record the sounds and images for all else to see. This is Not a Film is not a plea for help but rather a display of defiance against unjust forces. In any other movie, the hero picks up a pistol or an AK-47. Here, Jafar Panahi picks up his camera and shoots away.

Final Verdict:
5 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Looper Review

Directed by Rian Johnson
Released in 2012

Looper is a very good sci-fi movie with a very cool premise. Like Inception, sometimes that premise gets in the way of the story, and like Prometheus, sometimes that story takes one turn too many. But for a film centered on time travel, Looper does its best to remain sober, introducing its made-up rules and paradoxes without obsessing over them. Director and screenwriter Rian Johnson even finds a way to fuse all the fake science with the film’s message and direction. At the very least, it makes for a stunning first act that tapers into a solid but lesser final act upon the introduction of a woman and child (Remember I Am Legend?).

The year is 2074. Time travel is invented and immediately ruled illegal. Naturally, a seedy criminal syndicate manipulates it to kill undesirables. For some reason (DNA tracking?), disposing of bodies is next to impossible in the future, so the target is draped in a hood, strapped with a slate of silver bars (it’s a strange image to describe) and blasted 30 years into the past. In 2044, a “looper” awaits the poor chap to apparate (spellcheck tells me this is not a real word, which makes me sad) out of thin air, at which instant he blasts a hole through the target’s chest with a “blunderbuss” shotgun. It is about as impersonal a murder as one could carry out within such close proximity: Learn French with Rosetta Stone as you wait, listen for the thwap of space-time being breached and pull the trigger before the hit can make a peep.

That is how Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) conducts his business, at least. When not a heartless killing machine, Joe roams the decrepit streets of Kansas City, pumped with normalizing drugs administered through eye drops. He is numb to the world’s poverty and violence, in a daze not unlike Ed Norton’s character in Fight Club. Seth (a reliably flustered Paul Dano) could be considered his friend, but Joe makes a crucial decision that negates even that. The time comes when Joe must face himself — literally. Part of the deal with being a looper is “closing the loop”: unknowingly shooting your future self when the syndicate cuts your contract. The hitman then has 30 years to live in peace, until the gangsters come after you to take you out ... which they already did (time travel is confusing, huh?). Joe’s problem, however, is that his future self (Bruce Willis) appears without a hood, staring him right in the face. Young Joe hesitates, allowing Old Joe to escape.

Johnson wrings this first encounter for more suspense than seems possible, given how this scene serves as the hook for all the movie’s trailers. An economic sequence cuts between a slowly zooming-in shot of an unnerved Young Joe and the rippling vinyl tarp that awaits his next victim. When Old Joe finally materializes, we see him from Young Joe’s distant point of view, followed by an extreme close-up of his eyes and then Young Joe’s eyes. It is filmic storytelling that would make Hitchcock proud (the scene is revisited later with a single, quiet long shot, parodying the earlier tension). A little troubling, however, is the heavy makeup applied on Gordon-Levitt’s lips, eyes and nose, in order to achieve a greater likeness to Willis. The effect is uncanny, in the disconcerting way; I often thought, “Hey, that’s JGL wearing makeup.”

But back to Hitchcock. The crime goons — called “Gat Men,” after the comically oversized revolvers they wield — pursue both Joes after Old Joe gets away, and Looper uses the classic Hitchcock “wrong man accused” trope in regards to Young Joe. But what if the “right” man is the “wrong” man? And what if one person is two different people? The movie sits the two Joe’s across from each other in a diner booth, rivaling the famous Pacino/DeNiro scene from Heat. What would you say to your younger self? Old Joe is downright hostile, scolding Young Joe’s drug addiction and reckless indifference. A sensible path forward would pair the two together, yet Old Joe retreats back into the dark in order to avenge a death, while Young Joe moves toward the light in inverse of Old Joe’s reprehensible actions. Due to some temporal overlap best not overanalyzed, Young Joe can scar or tattoo himself to communicate with his old self; the implications of this loophole are maximized to terrifying effect early in the movie, when an older version of a character literally falls apart while his younger self is tortured (it’s a brilliant scene worthy of your nightmares). The communication between the two Joes plays with (‘pains’ is also valid) your mind and posits life as a constant flux.

Unfortunately, a lot of this magic dissipates in the final 45 minutes, when the subject pivots to Sara (Emily Blunt, surprisingly) and her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). The two live by themselves in a rural Kansas farmhouse, which Sara fiercely defends with a rock salt shotgun. She also, naturally, serves as a love interest for Young Joe and allows him to spill open his deep-seated torment. The pace slows down during these scenes, which is fine, and Gagnon’s performance as the troubled child never succumbs to (though it may verge on) camp. But the bond between Young and Old Joe ceases to consider the abundance of existential conflicts the script initially flirted with, and Young Joe’s diminishing screen time robs his final decisions of their allotted impact. Instead, the story focuses on the standard “killing baby Hitler” paradox and throws in telekinesis (lifting things with your mind) as an excuse for lame special effects. Johnson works hard to make time travel appear plausible and seems to joke in the beginning that a genetic mutation has granted 10-percent of humans the ability to suspend quarters in mid-air. The subsequent about face — with the expectation for us to take this paranormal ability seriously — contradicts prior expectations and reverts the final act into a capable but far more ordinary film when compared to the preceding brilliance.

A lack of humor could be culpable for these tonal and narrative inconsistencies. Johnson introduces his world’s quirks early and efficiently, but poking fun at their logical gaps could have secured a defense against all but the most myopic sci-fi geeks. Indeed, the film’s funniest joke is also a grim one: When Young Joe tells crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) that he’s learning French because he wants to visit France, Abe replies in a monotone, “I’m from the future. You should go to China.” Ok, maybe not wholesome laughs, but Looper could have at least afforded a lace of sarcasm, right? The Gordon-Levitt voiceover is set, the Kansas City streets are caked in crime and cynicism is practically a pre-existing condition. It all sounds like a film noir, which Johnson and Gordon-Levitt exercised in their 2006 hit Brick. Perhaps our era’s rampant flippancy will erode into abject despair by 2044. I’ll arrange for a time warp with the loopers when that day comes.

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Beyond Sight and Sound

Is art for everyone? The question arose as I debated the merits of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master, with friends after seeing it for a second time Friday. Zach Siegel ’15 admitted something along the lines of, “It is hard for me to see movies as art because of how much effort it requires.” Many face this impasse, and justifiably so. For all the Oscar-caliber acting and striking images in The Master, the movie does not entertain in a typical sense. To walk away with a substantial opinion of the film, you must choose to deconstruct what you see and hear — and try to glean some meaning from it all. With that choice comes the freedom to call it good or bad, “amazing” (The New York Times’ A.O. Scott) or a “muddlement” (Roger Ebert).

Inexorable stereotypes enter the public consciousness when, instead, moviegoers should give this conflict a fresh take. These sayings, jokes and insults usually define audiences as either brainless pleasure-seekers or elitist contrarians with some inferiority complex. The latter ridiculed Transformers, and vice versa for The Tree of Life. People certainly fit into these groups, but those who straddle both stand to gain the most from art.

Critics are not immune to the thrills of Indiana Jones, the sentiments ofBabe or the laughs of Tropic Thunder. If engaging a critical mind robbed sensational pleasures, there would be more to lose than gain in the long run. Yet there remains a unique satisfaction in looking inward, in trying to comprehend why we react the way we do. Considering we often fail to find answers on our own, we have to look beyond our gut emotional reaction — i.e. examine a thoughtful film’s composition — to reach within.

Film criticism requires some education and even more inertia. Not all movies deserve the same attention, so it is best to acquaint yourself with the established classics like Citizen Kane and Psycho and read why they are so acclaimed. Take the words from great critics as truth — for the beginning. You learn to question another’s praise or panning when the evidence you collect from a viewing does not match what he or she describes. You can even take offense if a film’s message rubs you the wrong way. Analyzing a film can intrude on the emotional experience of it, at first. Any initial stress from clashing cognitive and sensational brain activity does indeed dull over time, as the processes merge and work in tandem, automatic and ever-improving.

Hollywood, obsessed with box office and bankable stars, has perpetuated the stigma that film serves no purpose other than mass entertainment. It is an unfortunate conclusion, as no art form has carried more importance or power over the last century. My English teacher in high school taught a packed film class. Despite hopes many held for an easy A, we approached each film like a literary text, identifying image motifs, camera angles and countless other techniques. It was not easy at first — some neural rewiring was necessary. But just as learning more words allows you to connect with your feelings in more tangible ways, grasping a shot’s inherent meaning connects you to the film’s greater purpose, in turn inspiring your own thoughts.

Art house staples such as Mulholland Dr. or 8 ½ present endless depths for study, but the more accessible palette provides plenty of its own. Modern filmmakers have heeded the words of the great critic Andrew Sarris, who in 1967 observed that his colleagues were “demanding that there should be more fun in art, and more art in fun.” We knowJaws is awesome, but what if the shark is not the enemy? With less than 10 minutes of screen time afforded to the animal, what does the film have to say about humans? As The Joker in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger cemented his legendary status and chilled audiences to the bone. How do we translate his presence into concrete language? That unforgettable silent shot where he shakes his head out of a police car window could lend some clues. The visual metaphor of a dog is there for the taking; we now have proof when we cite his “animalistic energy.” And how is Walter White so badass in Breaking Bad (the most filmic television show yet)? His actions speak for themselves, but note the handheld tracking shot into White after he sneers “Stay out of my territory” to some amateur meth dealers. The director pulls these strings to make your stomach sink, and we know how and why.

This all applies to negative criticism, of course. It is not enough to just call The Hangover Part II “bad” and expect anyone to listen. Expose its blatant self-plagiarism in using the same structure, music cues and shot composition as its predecessor. You won’t stop millions of dollars from flowing in, but you will make a substantiated argument and reaffirm (or even redefine) your own ideology.

Perhaps this mental engagement depends on your awareness of not only the screen but of yourself. Concern, too. Great movies can touch some nerve you’ve never felt or evoke a memory too powerful for words. Do you want to investigate further as to why it did these things? Well, you must first learn how, and this education is unending. Visceral revelations await. “If each person realized how distinct and unique he or she is, well, then, art would become normal everyday expression,” the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage once said. Care about what you watch and it may care about you, to a startling degree.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.