Wednesday, September 18, 2013

For Critics, A Matter of Life and Death

The following column is about words. Written with, surrounded by and about … words. There a lot of words out there, more than you or I could ever hope to read, so it’s a good thing Facebook, Twitter and BuzzFeed “feed” them to us these days in bite-size, GIF-compatible form. Since we all have only 24 hours to the day, these websites make sure we waste at least 12 of them with sensational headlines and hyperlink rabbit holes. This leads to a lot of oversimplification, obviously, which is acceptable if the paired article digs deep into its chosen topic. However, this is almost never the case, and as a result, the loudest online film criticism could not be more vapid.

Consider the short film Noah (not the upcoming Darren Aronofsky one about the biblical flood), currently attracting a lot of attention after its premiere last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg, the young filmmakers behind this clever project, use the awkward breakup between a teenage boy and his possibly disillusioned girlfriend as a means to examine the isolation and obsessions nurtured by Facebook and social media. The 17-minute film tells its story only through computer and iPhone screens, where Noah, the eponymous protagonist, effectively lives. Often, the frame zooms in and zips about from notification to notification, as if we are watching through Noah’s bleary, restless eyes. It is a sad film, one that virtually every student at Cornell can connect with, to an embarrassing extent.

Noah deserves its fair share of praise, yet its status as a short film and one available to watch on YouTubekeeps it off most reputable critics’ radars — at least at the moment. Instead, sites like The Huffington Post have assumed the role of hype man, dishing out a few words of praise for this anti-social media film to anyone they may reach … through (mostly) social media. With the irony likely lost on them anyway, let’s look at what HuffPo had to say: “The Facebook era may now have its Citizen Kane.” Say what now? Aside from the fact thatThe Social Network is obviously the Citizen Kane of the Facebook era for its similar narrative structure, megalomaniac protagonist and critique of entrepreneurial excess, what does this lead tell us? I don’t know who this writer, Michael Bolen, is, or whether or not he has actually seen Citizen Kane. All I know is that those “X is the Citizen Kane of…” tautologies are about as bland as compliments come, except if you’re aiming for extreme, ironic specificity as The Chicago Daily Herald’s Dann Gire did when he called Babe “The Citizen Kane of talking pig pictures.”

Indiewire, perhaps my favorite website if I had to pick one, spread the word of Noah on Sunday with an article providing a blurb and an embedded YouTube link of the film. That was all well and good, yet I found it through the site’s Facebook page (these filmmakers know their anti-Facebook film is making them stars through Facebook, right?), where it posted the article with the tag, “[Noah] will definitely go down as one of the definitive 21st Century films, mark our words!” Now, I doubt the Western canon circa 2100 A.D. will includeNoah (I liked it, but come on), and this seems like the type of hyperbole meant to attract hits. However, I let this one slide. For one, there’s the possibility that the writer was sincere, which is just an adorable thought, and, more importantly, I have some cache with Indiewire. I trust them. If one of their writers, such as Eric Kohn, bets all his critical integrity on 12 Years a Slave and implores me to watch it, there’s a very good chance I’ll direct my movie-watching dollars its way (he gave it an A+, by the way).

Now, compare the headline for Kohn’s review — “Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years a Slave … Is a Slavery Movie for the Ages” — with that of the review by Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan: “Your Best Picture Winner Will Be 12 Years a Slave.” If limited to one, you’d click on the latter, now wouldn’t you? That’s because you love Oscar shorthand, like the rest of us. Oscar shorthand is commonly employed to bestow extravagant praise on movies released between September and December without actually saying anything about them at all. Whereas Kohn’s analysis digs into the themes and techniques behind 12 Years, Buchanan substitutes self-generated impressions for meaningless Oscar worship. Never mind that any self-respecting critic slams the Oscars for getting it wrong year after year, and let’s ignore the fact that Buchanan’s piece isn’t even a review (which is saved for David Edelstein, his very talented colleague) as much as a prime slice of link bait. We are reading a professional critic go on and on about how great a movie is without supplying any real reason as to why.
Critics make a name of themselves by writing insightful, honest and readable analyses, and by doing so on a public, respected and consistent platform. Only once their name carries some weight can they simplify their allocation of accolades. The late Roger Ebert, a preeminent critic if there ever was one, could just call a movie “great” and we would consider it so — of course, he still wrote essays over 1200 words each, detailing the intricate greatness of Unforgiven or Citizen Kane. But he worked to build that reputation, while the nameless machine of online movie hype guarantees its writers will never rise to that level of stature. What makes me, an unknown on the film criticism landscape, the authority on critical authority, you ask? A fair question, one I will mull over as I walk backwards, off this soapbox and out of sight once more.

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Up on Lavender Hill

Consider Lavender Hill as a needed counterpoint to GleeModern Family and other mainstream films and television shows that feature out and proud LGBT characters. While the creators and financiers behind these shows deserve (and have adequately received) praise for representing a long-neglected chunk of the population, aren’t these representations fairly one-note? Some gay men are flamboyant and fashion-minded, yes, but not all — not even half of them. In this sense, Lavender Hill, with its moving and honest documentation of LGBT life, past and present, should hit any sensible human being like a clarifying tonic.

In this 26-minute documentary, filmmakers Bob Hazen and our very own Prof. Austin Bunn, performing and media arts, resurrect a slice of unsung local history that could hardly be more relevant today. This lovely little film looks at a commune that thrived in the ’70s, just 15 minutes south of Ithaca on a wild patch of land in West Danby, NY. The commune, named “Lavender Hill” after its abundant flora, housed a self-sustaining population of gay men and women, a pairing former resident Mitchell Karp now remarks was “quite unusual” for its time. There, they enjoyed a hedonist lifestyle that involved drugs, music and “love fests” (Yvonne Fisher, another former member, admits the current nomenclature would call “orgies”), challenged by punishing winters and the austerity of such an isolated environment.

Cutting between 8mm home videos shot by Sunny Bat-Or, a resident who passed in 2001, archive footage, contemporary interviews and B-roll of Lavender Hill today, writer-producer Bunn and editor-cinematographer Hazen ground their story in LGBT history yet prioritize the humanity of their subjects over any politics or polemics. Opening with a quote from author Larry Mitchell — “Romantic love, the last illusion, keeps us alive until the revolutions come” — and billed with the lowercase subtitle, “a love story,” this film takes interest in the time before anything resembling today’s current LGBT landscape. Back then, the lives of those who sought their peers and nature for a comfortable existence skirted somewhere between fantasy and tragedy. Some of their problems were humorous inconveniences — the winters were so cold and the outhouse so far away, that “people burned shit” on the stove — and romance faced its universal obstacles, such as infidelity. But others overwhelmingly discriminated against gays and lesbians, like when Lazar Mintz, the twin brother of surviving member Zelik, perished of AIDS in 1988. It was his death that marked the end of Lavender Hill; the real world demanded their return. 

The past is past, so what makes this documentary special is how Hazen and Bunn inform the lives of the members today with what happened all those years ago. For one, closing subtitles clue us in to what they’ve done with the time since Lavender Hill: Zelik Mintz is a psychoanalyst in New York City, and David Hirsch co-founded Ithaca’s Moosewood Restaurant, co-owned by fellow member Ned Asta. Near the end, Yvonne Fisher, today a psychotherapist, wonders aloud whether she regrets not marrying a man and having children. She then pauses before speaking, with a measured calm, about how Lavender Hill taught her to embrace her own identity, with its set of atypical but conducive norms. The many close-ups, particularly those of Fisher and retired Ithaca real estate broker Allan Warshawsky, capture both the grace and hard-won life experience that the years on Lavender Hill instilled in its members. Today, these men and women may not look like or act in the manner of most LGBT icons in pop culture, but they carry the screen nonetheless. They stand for nothing more than themselves, which is all one person can stand to bear.

Prior to Lavender Hill’s Thursday screening at the Schwartz Center, I spoke with Prof. Bunn — who also co-wrote the Sundance hit Kill Your Darlings, starring Daniel Radcliffe — about what he learned from his work. When asked about the precarious conditions these commune members lived in, he turned the question onto me, and I will, in turn, pass his questions onto you.

“Can you imagine building a house with your best friends, right now? They were you. That was part of it, building a house, believing you could live off the land. The downsides? The winter, burning your own shit to survive, discovering that your friends have limitations as to how much they can cope with you. There are things that were pretty hard for those people. Communes have cults of personality and they have centers, and in this experience there were two guys who fell in love who were the parents of the experience, and their breakup split the whole thing apart.

“One question that has been on my mind is, could this happen again? I think your generation, the millennial generation, has all the energy and wherewithal, but is way too technological and media-oriented to give it up. Could you live without your phone?”
Lavender Hill will accompany Bryan Horch’s award-winning short Spooners at the Film Forum in the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts this Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free, and Bunn, Hazen and former commune members will conduct a Q&A afterwards.

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

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Butler Review

The Butler
Directed by Lee Daniels
Released in 2013

For a review of a movie like this, it is best to get right to the point: Lee Daniels’ The Butler is excellent. Typing those words, pairing this kind of perennial, distractingly star-studded Oscar bait with a word like “excellent” surprises me still. But if a review is anything, it must be honest, so I will be just that. The Butler not only moved me more than any other film this year (save for, perhaps, Fruitvale Station); it brought to life one of the most turbulent and inspiring periods in our country’s history while psychologically, socially and politically picking it apart.

That period is, of course, the civil rights movement, as seen from the vantage point of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whittaker), a black White House butler who served Presidents Eisenhower to Reagan, and who screenwriter Danny Strong based loosely on the little-known Eugene Allen. Cecil learns early in his career that the room should feel empty when he’s in it, and that the white men (and occasional woman) who fill these spaces of privilege expect faultless service and Uncle Tom-ism. “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House,” says the building’s black maître d’, with a mild smile. Cecil Gaines must wear two different faces: one stoic yet grateful, in front of the white man; another entirely before his wife (Oprah Winfrey, of all people) and two sons.

This clash of personae tears Cecil apart over the span of 34 years and makes for some incisive social commentary, but The Butler succeeds as drama and art (yes, I used that word) because Cecil’s eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), takes notice. Louis grows up ashamed of his father and what he sees as his demeaning line of work, even as Cecil puts more than enough bread on the table, including starched polo shirts for his sons. At Fisk University, Louis finds his calling in the Freedom Riders and perseveres through the beatings, obscenities and, most harrowingly, firebombs hurled his way.

Louis’ militancy should inspire any conscious viewer, yet Strong and director Lee Daniels coax some crucial moral ambiguity, not to mention over two hours of narrative tension, by pitting Louis and Cecil against one another and allowing things to get, well, ugly. While history has deemed Louis’ sit-ins across the South as a watershed moment in non-violent activism, the jury is still out on the Black Panther party, which Louis dives into with an anarchic zeal, much to the dismay of his father. Cecil may have stood against progress by discouraging Louis from getting involved in any of the political affairs that he himself carefully avoided all his life, but he valued the cogency and safety of his family more than anything else, which no father could blame him for. They scuffle and bare their teeth at one another, each believing with all their might in a code of conduct that the assimilation of their era soon enough deems irrelevant.  Whereas most civil rights films make time for the suffering of their black characters only to bestow the ultimate agency onto sympathetic white characters (see The Help), The Butler keeps the struggle within the black family unit, where the oppositions were often more trenchant and deep-seated than most of us, at least I, could ever believe.

Let us not forget that this a movie about a butler serving the Oval Office, where Daniels unleashes a drove of character actors and former A-list talent to fill the President’s seat. James Marsden may sound more like Mayor Quimby than JFK, but he brings smooth style to spare. John Cusack plays Nixon straight, with little makeup and surprising generosity, while Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber and Alan Rickman throw on bald caps, witch noses and a greasy toupee as Ike, LBJ and the Gipper, respectively. Those last three performances veer into camp, which Daniels, as the director of The Paperboy, can handle, tonal inconsistencies be damned.

There are about a million other actors to mention, including Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan (there seems to be no ulterior motive in her firm yet warm portrayal) and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as Cecil’s genial co-workers. Many of these roles are paper thin, although none is as troubling as the plantation owner played by Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike). In one of the earliest scenes, this brute of a man rapes Cecil’s mother (Mariah Carey, actually) and blows out her husband’s brains, all in front of a (understandably) traumatized young Cecil. Now, I don’t doubt events like these occurred, but as one of the gateways into this film’s world, it proves especially jarring. Such plantation killings bring to mind the 19th century and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; 1920s hate crime is more often associated with lynching, a motif Daniels also employs. This is a nitpick, in a way, but it simplifies Cecil’s conflict into some binary of white versus black, whereas the rest of the film opts for more internalized and relatable struggles.

Movies like The Butler — the sentimental, decades-spanning Academy-Award-for-Best-Makeup-Oscar-hopefuls “inspired by true events” — are flawed creatures. As much as you cried throughout Forrest Gump, doesn’t that one look funny the more you inspect it? What was its theme, its purpose? The Butler holds up to scrutiny because Strong and Daniels had the clear mind to keep the family dynamic at its core, where history bleeds into their lives and not the other way around. Cecil may win over the hearts of the world’s most powerful men, and Louis may help topple Jim Crow, but they only got there because of the other, whether they like it or not.

Final Verdict:
4 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, September 4, 2013

Hollywood's Super (Violent) Heroes

*Minor spoilers for Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Iron Man 3 ahead*

No phenomenon fascinates me more than violence, and no medium of art enthralls me more than film, so I am, naturally, very interested in violent films. That is not to say I like bloody, gory movies — your Hostel’s and Human Centipede’s. In fact, I really loathe that kind of queasy, exploitative fare, but not as much as the modern model of the Hollywood blockbuster, with its far more troubling, almost subliminal degree of violence that needs to stop … now.

If you saw Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, White House Down, World War Z or The Wolverine over the summer, you might have an idea as to what I’m getting at. Former Indiewire critic Matt Singer called it this summer’s crop of movies’ “PG-13 Problem,” while other critics, from Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan to The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, decried the stain of 9/11 on this year’s action movies. The sanitation of violence and the evocation of 21st century terrorism go hand-in-hand — look at Man of Steel. At the end of that film, Superman and General Zod face off for like 30 minutes and take down about half of Metropolis with them, totaling, according to Watson Technical Consulting, around $750 billion in property damage and 129,000 civilian deaths. That’s more than 9/11 right there — closer to Hiroshima. But the real problem is that all this death goes unacknowledged under Zack Snyder’s direction. Without the disfigurements and falling, flailing bodies such destruction entails, or even a reflective moment where Superman acknowledges the losses he partially caused, Man of Steel earns a cozy PG-13 rating. Bring the whole family.

These “implied deaths” — to borrow Matt Singer’s phrase — have no emotional impact on me, no matter how long I think about it. That’s the problem. When the loss of life in a movie boils down to unquantifiable statistics and Joseph Stalin references, we are losing something. Man of Steel was especially awful, but even the half-decent offerings from the summer staged similar bloodless bloodbaths: Khan razing San Francisco with the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek Into Darkness; Tony Stark, in a borderline patriotic display, ordering all 42 of his suits to kill the Extremis mutants in Iron Man 3; the side of a plane blowing open mid-flight, sending all the zombies on-board flying out like rag dolls in World War Z. At least World War Z showed these zombies hurtling toward their death, though the decision to end all trailers of the film with this shot — a spot reserved for a blockbuster’s “money shot” — suggests a more callous, “Doesn’t that look awesome?!” intent. The budgets for these large-scale flicks has ballooned year after year, with more money dedicated to constantly improving special effects technology. These filmmakers want to make sure you see what they are paying for, and almost all have come to the conclusion that the best approach is to kill a hell of a lot of (fictional) people, in the coolest way possible. We have arrived at a very depressing place, where incomprehensible massacres serve as nothing more than set dressing.

For all the trash talk hurled at The Lone Ranger, some of it deserved, I will defend its grotesque, off-the-wall scene where the bad guy stabs a dude in his sternum, carves out his heart and proceeds to eat it. It was definitely at odds, tonally, with the rest of its Disney production, but at least it shook me, inspiring a WTF or two, even if director Gore Verbinski concealed the real gore off-screen. I do not care if filmmakers think violence is an inherent fact of life or a horrible disturbance in the otherwise positive human experience, but they have to provoke us with it and, most importantly, comment on its existence.

Of all Hollywood movies this summer, I cannot think of any that truly justified its use of violence. Rely on the independents, then, to bring brains and a sense of morality to the cinema, perhaps none more than Fruitvale Station. With Oscar Grant, a 23-year-old who was killed by a BART police officer in the early hours of New Years Day, 2009, as its protagonist, this film dodges the gangsta scenery that Hollywood loves to trot out whenever a young African-American male assumes a lead role. Instead, director-writer Ryan Coogler lets us live with Oscar for his final 24 hours. He plays with his daughter; loves his girlfriend, despite their fights; cooks for his mother’s birthday; lies to his family about losing his job. Oscar is like anyone else, with flaws to spare. Coogler stages a harrowing, protracted sequence at the end, when Oscar is shot and grasping for life, that communicates a painful message: No one deserves this. The chaos descends from nowhere, ensnaring him and his loved ones in a pain that Coogler captures through shaky cam and agonizing close-ups. The death of one man is a tragedy, indeed.

Fruitvale Station reportedly cost somewhere around $1 million in production expenses — that’s like a day’s worth of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine protein supplements. After watching Lawrence of Arabia this past Sunday at Cornell Cinema, I long for the challenging, mature spectacles Hollywood so rarely produces anymore. In that 1962 epic, cinematographer Freddie Young fills the screen with legendary shots of Middle Eastern landscapes and architecture. Yet director David Lean balances all that with some wrenching close-ups of Peter O’Toole’s face as he, as T.E. Lawrence, hesitates and then orders the massacre — “No prisoners!” — of hundreds of fleeing Turkish soldiers. It’s one of the most disturbing things you’ll ever see, because Lean forces you to think about, and literally look at, the blood on this man’s hands — he’s the hero, for god’s sake, of this whole movie! But I guess he was no superhero, who don’t got the time for sissy introspection, and whatnot — they have an explosion quota to meet.

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