Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Allegory of the Man Cave

The boy loves music. He does not have the words to describe this love, nor does he know many words at all. He just listens to what his parents play in the car, at home, on the patio. He plays some of these songs, by ear, on the family’s grand piano, takes music lessons and learns the alto saxophone. He grows up and curates his own playlists, filled with songs his family and friends cannot stand. He loves this music and likes that he does not have to justify this love with words, even now. To him, music just is.

Meanwhile, he watches movies. He loved Star Wars as a kid because, sheesh, how can you not. He enters high school with a curiosity to catch up with the rest, so he looks to the IMDb Top 250. He checks out Platoon, Fight Club, Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator — guy flicks. He cannot believe how much blood and guts he sees. He knows these are not horror movies, where such cheap “splatter” is expected. He is watching serious stuff, with real carnage and no discernible continuity errors.

He lets himself be taken away by the experience of these movies, with their breathless battle scenes, plot twists and Hans Zimmer soundtracks. He declares a movie to be the best ever made if it gives him uncountable goose bumps by the end. He finishes watching a movie and knows, like that, whether he loves it or hates it — especially if he hates it. He hates movies that bore him or do not “make sense.” He hates movies that do not show their violence in slow motion, limbs-flying glory. He also plays a lot of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare around this time, by the way.

He goes to college. He realizes how wrong he was, though not before falling asleep during a few silent films. Okay, he realizes how wrong he was and still sleeps through some silent films since he always manages to watch them at like three in the afternoon in a stuffy room with comfy chairs and always insists he does not need coffee, since his love of cinema will valiantly get him, sans chemicals, through the classics.

But he loves the classics. He loves the purity of this kind of storytelling, which treats plot as a means to engage with themes and not the other way around. He picks up on some radical ideas, on religion, suicide, sex and so on, these filmmakers subtly and persistently floated without bucking the strict censorship codes of their time. He takes notice of how Hitchcock moved his camera or how Kurosawa arranged characters within a frame or how Murnau laid images on top of one another. He does not just “take in” a movie but searches, while watching it, for a system of form, theme and inter-textual reference to tie everything together. He often fails to unite all these strands when transcribing an argument to print, but at least he feels this whole mental process has gotten easier.

He cannot watch the movies he once loved without jamming them through this intellectual crucible. He concludes, with arrogant certainty, that some of these movies, like American History X, are jejune, melodramatic slogs. He is relieved to see Total Recall again and discover a deliberate, gleeful deconstruction of action movie tropes. He is incredibly happy to report that Non-Stop, the latest Liam Neeson anti-AARP advertisement, is not only badass but also an intelligent and measured commentary on post-9/11 security. He knows, now, that some of this entry-level cinema is genius and much of it is overrated crap. He takes comfort in that.

He enjoys what once bored him. He would rather sit through a four-hour documentary about University of California Berkeley than that new Spider-Man movie, though he cannot and will not resist the chance to spin stupid jokes out of the latter. He appreciates the artists out there who see things that provoke them and probe back, whether through documentary or fiction modes. He watches Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up and wraps his head around the fact that perhaps the greatest movie he has ever seen was made for less than Simon Pegg’s Star Trek Into Darkness salary. He cherishes the original, coherent philosophy behind such a film. He esteems, above all else, how filmic the work ultimately is, unable to be replicated in another medium or summarized in a Wikipedia article.

He demands more and forgives easier, like when a film meets those demands only halfway. He believes that effort, effort to elevate thought and raise questions, is what makes the world a progressive and livable place. He sees this as the highest function of film, due to its narrative, humans-telling-stories nature. He continues to love music, all this time, without devising some elaborate theoretical framework in which to place it. He needs some time off, when he can just close his eyes and see something beautiful for what it is.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Nymphomaniac Review

Directed by Lars von Trier
Released in 2014

I don’t know. I mean, what else I have seen by Lars von Trier (Melancholia, Dancer in the Dark) has also left me slack-jawed by the end. The Dane has a knack for translating his cruel, starless worldview into undeniably arresting cinema, both celestial and psychological in scope. But this is just something else. It’s not the inherent pornography of these images that leaves me at an impasse — take “Desire & Cinema” with Prof. Ellis Hanson, English, and your tolerance of, even appreciation for explicit art will grow and make you forever wiser. No, Von Trier attacks something close to home, for me at least: the act of criticism itself.

Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II, a four-hour sexual bildungsroman split in half to facilitate distribution and, in reality, make two times the money, straddles two different modes: Backwards-looking narrative and contemporary criticism of said narrative. The storyteller is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), an intellectual, Stephen Dedalus-type, finds bloodied and incapacitated in an alleyway by his local convenience store. The alley’s vertical, recursive walls echo F.W. Murnau’s German Expressionism — that is, until von Trier rotates his camera some 270 degrees like Gaspar Noé and blasts Rammstein’s “Führe Mich” on the soundtrack. It is the first instance of bathos that totally undermines whatever impression you had been forming in your head to that point, and it sure ain’t the last.

Seligman brings Joe to his humble apartment, where he offers her tea and she tells him her life story. Her story starts at the beginning, with a now famous line, “I discovered my cunt as a two-year-old.” Joe narrates with as little emotion as you probably just read that sentence, so the word “irony” is applicable here, there, everywhere. Played by Stacy Martin in teenage flashbacks and Gainsbourg for most of the latter half, Joe covers a life’s worth, and then some, over four hours: Discovering beauty in nature with her father (Christian Slater, with a poor British accent); losing her virginity to an excitable older boy, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf, same); competing with her friend, while wearing “fuck-me-now” attire, in screwing a train’s worth of men, all for a bag of chocolate sweets; provoking the wrath of Uma Thurman (just phenomenal), playing the dumped wife of one of Joe’s most gullible partners; marrying Jerôme and giving birth to a child whom she does not love; searching for her lost orgasm through routine visits to a sadomasochist (Jamie Bell, sort of incredible here); dabbling in “debt collection,” a.k.a. organized crime run by a typically wraithlike Willem Dafoe; and, naturally, a lot more. 

The tone of the first volume is one of high comedy, where von Trier superimposes numbers and throws in split screen effects to alleviate awkwardness. The second volume, as the later plot summary only hints at, darkens and loses its voice as a result. The sex, meanwhile, is just there. You see close to everything, and sometimes actually everything, but von Trier does not bathe the intercourse in titillating lights or shroud it in I’m-Making-A-Statement darkness. It’s just sex. Moving on.

Throughout Joe’s retelling, Seligman interjects to draw analogies from the literature, music and history he loves. We are supposed to laugh at the extremity and banality of his similes, which range from prowling as fly-fishing and polygamous sex as a Bach fugue. Seligman does not know what to do with Joe and her insatiable sexuality but see her as another great text, to be studied and compared with. He does what a critic is supposed to do, except he extrapolates a bit too much, drawing connections too far removed from Joe’s experience, with which he cannot relate. Seligman hits gold now and then, like when he rebukes Joe’s self-labeling as a sinner when she also proudly disavows religion; in turn, Joe resolves, through minute, Tarantino-esque dialogue, his elitist thought process regarding how one clips their fingernails. Seligman does not judge her and even praises how she has, her entire life, retained her agency — which is true, in that no matter how much you dislike Joe by the end of this film, you must admire von Trier’s unorthodox commitment to female empowerment and, it must be said, some broad tenets of feminism.

Except at the end, when von Trier blows off the head of his own movie. I will not spoil it, but I will say it is outrageously cynical. It negates the film’s thematic momentum in its embrace of nihilism. It is too much. Or, perhaps, von Trier wants to remind us that the world of Nymphomaniac is still a text, and to take anything that is said, through Joe’s narration, her flashbacks, Seligman’s analogies or the very composition of the projected image, as a vehicle not for spoon-fed lessons but some higher, figurative truth.

What that truth is, I have no clue. Is von Trier just raising a middle finger to the critics — many of whom championed his work, of course — under some guise of deconstructionism, settling on a thesis along the lines of that immortal quote from The Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons”? Given the way Joe ruins families and seeks out black men for sex, only to call them “Negros,” this throwing-hands-up-in-the-air tactic may be the most fitting way to critique Nymphomaniac. In that, these characters are above critique. Not a very comforting verdict, in my view, but clearly von Trier believes it. His films, and especially this one, must only, truly make sense to him. God help him.

Final Verdict:
I don't know. Let's say 2.5 Stars out of 5 — right down the middle.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Transcendence Review

Directed by Wally Pfister
Released in 2014

Call me old fashioned, but I would rather watch a blockbuster with big ideas, conversing with the issues facing us today as well as millennia of literature and shared cultural history, than another superhero movie. The latest Johnny Depp bomb Transcendence — which grossed only $10.8 million last weekend, off a $100 million budget — fails as an action film, which the trailer makes it out to be, and could use a bit more pep as a thriller, which it actually is. By current Hollywood standards, it is sort of incompetent. But it succeeds, with pleasing consistency and formal rigor, as a film that raises questions, about our futures, plural, our presents and our pasts. It works as art.

I know I am fighting an uphill battle here, praising what Rotten Tomatoes has already canonized as trash, so let me complicate things further with some basic plot summary: Alongside his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), Will Caster (Depp) foresees a world where computer intelligence supersedes that of a human, in that it becomes sentient. An affectless scientist and even drier orator, Caster nevertheless commands a lot of respect, as seen by Elon Musk’s head peeking from the U.C. Berkeley audience soaking in his Jobs-ian keynote. Some radical Neo-Luddite faction led by a noirish Kate Mara (House of Cards) lashes out, bombing artificial intelligence research labs and shooting Will after his speech. He survives the bullet but succumbs to its radiation contamination a month later — just enough time for Evelyn, along with friend and fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany), to “upload” Will’s consciousness to an advanced computer framework the three of them had long been developing, in order for Will to keep on living when his body cannot.

The trailer and poster give away as much, but Will makes it. Or some form of Will — therein lies much of the dramatic tension. Depp’s performance is not notable, but that is kind of the point: Will is so bland it is impossible to gauge any loss of humanity when he jumps to a computer screen. Perhaps Warner Bros. should have put $20-plus million to better use, rather than casting him in such a flat part, but Depp’s presence at least comments, if unwittingly, on the automatic trust we place in celebrities whose faces grace magazine covers. Max doubts this new Will is actually Will, because his crackly, disembodied voice rattles off most megalomaniac demands. But not Evelyn: She senses her husband through the 1s and 0s and agrees to connect Will to the Internet and facilitate his dreams, which are also hers.

This all sounds quite silly, describing the plot like this, but Jack Paglen’s script pushes forward at a believable clip, with only weak dialogue as its cardinal sin. Speaking of sin, the film’s richest dialogue occurs beneath the text and involves the story of Adam and Eve. Named, one can assume, in reference to Eve, Evelyn threatens the world with another Fall of Man, except self-awareness will not now plague humans, who already have it, but a being whose intelligence we cannot fathom. Eve has long been blamed for the Fall; in Paradise Lost, the most admirable defense Milton could summon was to point at Adam and basically say, “She was yours; you should have kept her in her place.” Here, Evelyn’s love drives her initial actions, which put mankind on the brink once again, but it is her genius and unfailing agency which seek to reverse that course.

Will does not make it easy: In the midst of his underground Southwest research facility, he sets up an intimate ski lodge bungalow for the two of them to share. Evelyn can only speak to his likeness on a screen, but when Will recounts his memories of how they fell in love, it is impossible to deny the grounded, human feeling of the moment. Yet director Wally Pfister has us doubt this exchange, for he toys with the multiplicity of screens Will uses to reach her. First Pfister gives us a standard shot reverse shot, with Evelyn curled on a couch and looking up at Will, who is framed and flatters like a cool Humphrey Bogart. At the end of this unusual love scene, however, Pfister frames Evelyn as before, now joined with another screen of Will’s, one she does not see. It’s the same Will that is projected on the other screen, we assume, but it hovers just over her shoulder, whispering sweet nothings into her ear like a serpent. Will is both human and machine, God and Satan in this one scene, embodying divine paradoxes in a plausible, fascinating conceit.

Considering he only got to sit in the director’s chair due to his Oscar-winning tenure as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer, Pfister recognizes the visual supremacy of his medium. Crumbled, monochromatic desert reminiscent of that in the video game Fallout: New Vegas contrasts with sleek, Apple Store-white corridors — the former dwarfs those standing in it, thanks to the inhospitality of nature and such, while the latter merges with Evelyn, who has a penchant for white, as she walks through them. When Will’s cyber self begins to incorporate nanotechnology, blue strains of sentient particles ascend from the desert ground into the air we all breathe. I think of a line Cormac McCarthy uses to describe post-apocalypse in The Road: “The salitter drying from the earth.” That archaic word, “salitter,” means “the grace of God.” Here, Will extracts this essence from the earth only to join with it and, he hopes, create it in his own image.

There is a whole political dimension to this film, too, which presents a scenario of miraculous health care, through Will’s technology, only to rule it a reckless fantasy. It is not a very weighty take on the issue, but at least it beats Elysium. In fact, Transcendence trumps a number of recent movies at their own game: It is a more literate Biblical movie than Noah, a wiser dissection of private and public surveillance than Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a knottier machine-man love story in that one scene than all of Her. This is smart, big-budget filmmaking, folks. So what if Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman’s characters are so bad I purposefully neglected to mention them until now? You will not remember them — seriously, there’s not even, like, camp value in their awfulness — but, if you keep your tomatoes holstered, you should remember the rest.

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Still Life's Uncanny Distractions

Below is a short blog post I wrote for my Global Cinema II class. I talk about Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life (2006).

Still Life commits to such an elegiac, slow burn style of realism that it shocks us when it does not. A digital video camera pans to the right, capturing passerby against the backdrop of a river. A man drives a sledgehammer into crumbling concrete, over and over. A Brutalist façade rockets into space—wait, what? Jia Zhang-ke throws us off at these moments, when the quiet misery of his characters butts against unplanned bouts of surrealism. He pursues the “uncanny” to alienating, politicized ends.

Almost midway through the film, Jia passes the baton from Sanming, the down-and-out miner looking for his wife, to Hong, the reticent nurse looking for her husband. He does so in about the strangest way possible: Sanming rests by a riverside bannister as the camera pans left, capturing mountains about a mile away in what is now an extreme long shot, save for a bannister chassis at the bottom of the frame. A hollow din is heard on the soundtrack as a heavenly light appears over the mountain, floats over the river and then shoots out the frame. Jia’s slow-moving camera carries the motion to the next shot, where Hong stands downstream, with only river, mountains and some buildings visible in the background, and follows the sight of the UFO. The apparition jets over the mountains, where it is never seen or spoken of again, but we sure remember it. 

This random burst of sci-fi, replete with an ominous, purposeful soundtrack, tears Still Life’s world from its muted reality. Considering that Americans may be the demographic most enchanted with UFOs, this is not a bad thing. We want to make sense of that sequence, which is a productive urge so long as we do not get obsessed with banal, irrelevant topics like plausibility, origins and so on. To me, the UFO signals an environmentalist message, in that an alien creature skirts just by Earth only to disappear because all it sees is decay. If the alien was set on destruction, in keeping with sci-fi genre tradition, it sees that its job is nearly complete without any input at all. The strangeness of its appearance, to us, mirrors the strangeness of what it must be seeing, from above.

And yet the UFO’s symbolism must speak to the characters lives, as well, considering it swaps the narrative perspective in one fell swoop. The camera leaves Sanming out of frame when the UFO first appears, so we are unsure if he actually sees it or registers shock at the sight. The camera rotates around Hong, however, emphasizing that she sees it and finds it intriguing. The juxtaposition between Sanming’s resting posture, with his back to the river, and Hong’s erect, attentive stance stresses the latter’s agency. In that previous masterful, unbroken shot set on a boat, where Sanming holds liquor with outstretched hands to no one’s notice, we notice his utter ineffectiveness. His invisibility becomes almost a surreal device on its own, and so it is fitting that he vanishes from the frame when a moment of life-changing consequence occurs. Hong may be the only human who notices the spaceship, and yet she continues about her day. The matters of extraterrestrial life mean nothing to her, for she has too much, too close to the ground, to fix first. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Unknown Known Review

The Unknown Known
Directed by Errol Morris
Released in 2014

Donald Rumsfeld is a genius who found his calling in politics, which explains why he is utterly empty inside. Such is the infuriating thesis at the heart of Errol Morris’ new documentary on the former Secretary of Defense, and Rummy does not break once while staring down the barrel of Morris’ Interrotron. A bunch of times, he does this terrible grin, resembling a skeleton or, as Morris sees it, Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. In a four-part, must-read New York Times series on his research on and time with Rumsfeld, Morris concludes, “I was left with the frightening suspicion that the grin might not be hiding anything. It was a grin of supreme self-satisfaction and behind the grin might be nothing at all.”

The Unknown Known will madden those who think Morris lobbed softballs at his subject. As far as Rumsfeld goes, what you see is what you get. We get a sense of his intelligence and to what shameful ends he put it to use, but not much more. In place of the catharsis Vietnam SecDef Robert McNamara croaked through in Morris’ similar, Oscar-winning The Fog of War, we get an essay on the weaponization of words and the tenuous justifications for modern warfare. To appreciate this film is to unpack it. For that reason it is a far more intellectually demanding film than The Fog of War, and thus a superior one in my view.

Save for an early recounting of the events of 9/11, Morris structures his film around a chronological run-through of Rumsfeld’s career. Set against a black backdrop, Rumsfeld addresses Morris’ camera in his self-described “cool, measured” way. While Morris smothers a photo montage of Rumsfeld and his wife in sappy music, Rummy retells his marriage proposal in laughably clinical terms: “I was correct. It was a good decision. It just wasn’t part of my plan.” He lights up when talking about himself, such as his behind-the-scenes machinations in the Nixon and Ford administrations. In the former’s case, he ducked out soon enough to avoid Watergate while in the latter’s, Rumsfeld criticizes his old boss’ weaknesses in leadership. In tandem with a fellow named Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld resigned in protest as Chief of Staff, spurring the ensuing “Halloween Massacre” where Ford reshuffled his Cabinet. Rumsfeld got a promotion, to Secretary of Defense, out of it all.

The way Morris cuts together the Halloween Massacre sequence clues us into his complex take on his subject. Superimposed over footage of Rumsfeld’s swearing-in ceremony, newspaper headlines whiz by, all praising, through so-called objective language, Rumsfeld’s ruthlessness in getting what he coveted. They all ostensibly fuel his ego as he strides down the red carpet, with honor guard in tow. The media’s love affair with political drama can be held accountable for incubating a man like Rumsfeld, whose indisputable intelligence benefitted only himself, when all is said and done. The jokes he cracks with the press on the lead-up to the Iraq War humanize him, to an extent, but they disturb more than anything else for we notice a collusion between interviewee and interviewer, as frustration with Rumsfeld’s nonsense evasions cools into inappropriate comradery. If this reading needs further evidence, consider that the other time Morris uses this flying newsprint-over-archive footage approach is with Osama bin Laden, when he descends a mountain with his walking stick and headlines express confusion over his whereabouts. They are both boogeymen made stronger by the noise they leave in their wake.

Throughout the film, Rumsfeld reads aloud a handful of the thousands upon thousands of memos, called “snowflakes,” he wrote during his tenure at the Pentagon. “Subject: Terminology,” he begins, before boring into three terms — “unconventional warfare,” “guerrilla,” “insurgency” — with which he sought to define the Iraq War, precisely because they are vague euphemisms. He boasts how he got rid of unwanted words from the conversation, oblivious to how that approaches Orwell’s Newspeak. He clings to his infamous “unknown unknowns” — things “we don’t know we don’t know,” “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence,” et al — as grounds for invading Iraq, sounding like Fred Leuchter, the Holocaust denier Morris interviewed for Mr. Death. He said, after a trip to Auschwitz, “It’s not what I found that convinced me. It was what I didn’t find.”

Rumsfeld gets it right, once. He reminds Morris how, back in 2008, Obama opposed the Patriot Act, indefinite detention and Guantanamo, yet they remain with us to this day. “That validates the decisions made by George W. Bush,” he says in what may be his most humble statement. The bigger and more connected our world becomes, the more grounds there are for suspicion, for actionable “intelligence.” Rumsfeld may be loathed more than most, but his breed will continue to occupy the highest offices. Morris cannot shake the moral void behind those eyes, like when he exclaims, “Wouldn’t it have been better not to go there [Iraq] at all?” and all he gets back is a smile and “I guess time will tell.” But this film comes short of excoriating Rummy for 106 minutes and that is a wise choice, since such polemics are easy and self-evident at this point. What Morris does do is open up this focused but failed probe of a man to capture the rest of America in silent consent. Rumsfeld acts on our country’s worst tendencies, with more intellectual arrogance than anyone else, but he does so because such violence is kind of part of our deal.

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Squirming Through the Classics

Over break, I watched 26 feature-length films. Aside from a few mediocre new releases in theaters and on Netflix, these movies were classics, either from the art house tradition or the Golden Age of Hollywood. Before you question my sanity, know that I really enjoy these kinds of movies and I had some company — Sam Bromer ’16 dedicated his column last week to praising the intellectual value of some Criterion Collection films we watched. I agree with him that you feel good after sitting through demanding, “more nutritional,” as he puts it, fare from the olden days. That is, you do until a movie’s age begins to show, and not through cheesy special effects.

If “theme” is the artistic essence of narrative film — a reader of film cares how plot, aesthetics and cinematic form bring out a theme or question — then “representation” is its thorny by-product. A man filmed in a medium shot is more than just a man: He is a character, the actor playing that character and, whether the filmmakers intended him to be or not, a symbol. For what is anyone’s guess, though if that man wears a cowboy hat and talks, walks and looks like John Wayne, you can bet he, the man on-screen, stands in for ideals of honor, chivalry and masculinity. Of course, the same close reading should be applied to female characters as well, and it is there where things get awkward, especially when diving into the classics. 

John Ford was a master of his craft, winner of a record four Oscars for Best Director and a go-to textbook for formal nuance — he told stories through images and saw a script as just a “skeleton.” Being a pioneer of the Western genre, Ford included a lot of American Indians in his films, most of them silent, savage antagonists. That’s the case inStagecoach, the 1939 hit that made a star out of Wayne (and viewable now on Hulu Plus). While he atoned, somewhat, for past racism in his morally gray 1956 masterpiece The Searchers, his depiction of women remains interesting for the notes he struck right as well as those that were off.

In Stagecoach, Wayne’s character falls in love with a “woman of ill repute,” a common archetype in the lawless Old West of myth. There is a moment when Dallas, the prostitute, exposes her leg while climbing into the stagecoach, to the catcall of one old bastard, but for the rest of the film she keeps herself covered, even conservative in appearance. She seems ashamed less of her line of work than the reaction she spurs from others, like the ladies behind the town’s Law and Order League, who are reminiscent of 1920s Temperance activists. Wayne’s Ringo smiles at her and prods his male peers to treat her with the same respect they automatically afford the pregnant aristocrat in their midst. Dallas appreciates Ringo’s kindness but hesitates, at first, at validating his romance. As the film progresses, Dallas acts as compassionate midwife, skilled homemaker and an increasingly vocal presence.

Ford builds sympathy for Dallas by moving her away from her past and toward respectability — he is far from a feminist. He is more a Catholic than a misogynist, subtly coding prostitution as bad, yet he also satirizes the hypocrisy of drunk, stupid men who look down on Dallas and then hope for the flash when she will show some skin. Dallas is an admirable character, though not a very strong or self-made one. We like her because Ringo does, because this Male Gaze finds her appealing. Today, we find Dallas’ characterization flawed but, if we put the film in context, we recognize she, and Ford framing her, oppose prejudice, to an extent.

So it is awkward to fast-forward nearly 30 years to Sergio Leone’s 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West. The film is incredible in many respects, from its tense wordless opening to Henry Fonda’s uncanny bad guy performance. Yet there is a dimension or two missing from Claudia Cardinale’s character, a voluptuous widow who crooks and vigilantes fight to control, both for her land estate and other, obvious assets. She is at the center of the conflict, and yet Leone does not afford her much empathy. She stays tight-lipped through most of the film, not airing her grievances, while falling into positions of increasing undress. Cardinale is a beautiful actress, so the men are probably not complaining, but one wonders why the sole female character is so used and abused throughout this canonical film. Perhaps a degree of irony is lost on me; if so, its subtlety is too refined.

These two films stop short of the pretty shameful “slut shaming,” as we call it today, that can be seen in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Early on, a gregarious psychopath murders the promiscuous wife of our protagonist, who told the killer in confidence how he seeks a divorce. Prior to her death, the killer follows the wife as she giggles, licks an ice cream cone and pulls around anonymous, extramarital lovers. Just before he wraps his hands around her neck, she gives him a seductive glance, as if she wants to fool around with him too. Her subsequent murder strikes us not as awful but deserved — she was asking for it. I do not believe in that conclusion one bit, but I don’t have much choice from how Hitchcock, who never was known for being gracious to women, orders and frames the scene here.

I still take something from Strangers on a Train because, you know, Hitchcock did it. Young filmmakers can learn their craft just from breaking down how he orchestrates any given sequence. Yet I do not disown this film’s politics just because I find them wrong. Critic Peter Labuza wrote last month how “Dated films are vital to our understanding of the past.” Hitchcock is a legend who lives on, but his time has passed. A filmmaker could and should steal from him today, if only to fix where the master failed.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Noah Review

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Released in 2014

My favorite episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm is called “Palestinian Chicken.” In it, Juliette, the wife of one of Larry David’s so-called friends, gives Larry a mission: Keep her away from dessert, “no matter what.” She lost 65 pounds through a careful diet, so her request sounds logical, disciplined. After the meal, Juliette tiptoes to the dessert table, peers side to side and reaches for a cake. Larry comes out of nowhere to grab it from her hands, and when she tries to laugh off her earlier charge, Larry whines, “But you said, ‘No matter what.’ This is the what. That’s why you asked me and not these other people, because you knew I wouldn’t let you!” He refuses to relent and the two tackle each other to the floor.

Replace Larry with the Biblical Noah, Juliette’s request with the word of God and the cake with the lives of Noah’s wife and children and you have the conflict at heart of Noah, the new film by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream). I realize that is a rather flippant analogy with which to place aside an adaptation of a sacred, 2,500 year-old text, but A) this is 2014, “God Is Dead,” yada yada yada, and B) Aronofsky has no intention to make a sanctimonious Cecil B. DeMille film. This is a film that rebukes blind faith, esteems free will and, through meticulous time-lapse sequences, promotes evolution. And like Larry David, Noah is less a hero than a dogmatic asshole. Aronofsky secularizes the story of Noah to the point that you, whatever your beliefs, should glean a provocative message or two regarding faith, human violence, love and so on. You will just have to fight against an unfocused screenplay and a truly erratic visual style to appreciate the film beyond a superficial, hey-look-it’s-Emma-Watson level.

The film opens with a montage of the events between the Garden of Eden and Noah’s time, covering 10 generations, thousands of years and a whole lot of bloodshed. It’s a trite way to open a movie tackling the dilemmas of human existence, since it reminds us of Lord of the Rings or any “Previously On ...” TV recap. But it introduces us to the Watchers, angels cast from heaven and doomed to lumber about the earth as rock giants, whose disfigured appearance I’d like to call “Doom Rococo.” They partake in some CGI-heavy battles later on, so you sense their presence is motivated by blockbuster expectations more than any narrative or thematic necessity. Thankfully, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel justify their silly creatures with a subtle, melancholy conflict regarding the afterlife that comes to a head at a hectic scene of warfare right before the Flood. With Frank Langella voicing a prominent Watcher who helps Noah on his task, these beasts are more human than you would expect, which is a quietly impressive achievement.

Noah’s task is, of course, to build an ark in order to spare “the innocents” (a.k.a. animals) from the wrath of “the Creator” (not one use of the word “God”). He receives his mission through a pair of wordless, expensive-looking dreams that realize the terrifying image, “The waters of the heavens will meet the waters of the earth.” He has the assistance of not only the Watchers but also his immediate family, including his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), his put-upon son, Ham (Logan Lerman) and his adopted daughter turned daughter-in-law, Ila (Emma Watson). There is a lot of incest, implied and otherwise, in this film, and Aronofsky gives us no comment on it, which is weird. What he does stress is the ignominy of infertility, which a childhood wound inflicted upon Ila. And yet to be “barren,” might be part of the Creator’s will, given his plans to wipe his finest creation off the face of the earth. That question — should I kill my family? — taunts Noah for the second half of the film, as they pass time in their ugly brick of a boat.

Yet Noah dilutes the potency of that central question. For one, the screenplay wanders. As gnarly as the scene-stealing Ray Winstone (The Departed) may be, his character Tubal-Cain serves as a standard-issue villain who distracts us from the meat of this story. Which is ironic, since he is the carnivorous exploiter of the earth’s resources to Noah’s vegetarian, forager family. In a very Game of Thrones-esque sequence at a miserable village, the film conflates meat-eating with pollution, prostitution, even cannibalism — its environmentalist message is as sensationalist as Elysium’s health care politics were naive.

Then we get to the film’s visuals, which oscillate between spectacular and nondescript. Aronofsky delivers his signature hallucinatory montage (remember the eye-opening one from Requiem?), here a triptych of Eve plucking the apple, the serpent and Cain’s raised fist over Abel. It’s awesome. Nor will I forget the sight of Noah’s bare feet standing on a blood-soaked sea of volcanic ash, or the sight of green water lapping against a urine-yellow skeleton of some mammal that, presumably, snuffed its species before the rain begins. The most upsetting image calls back on European art, in particular Francis Danby’s The Deluge, as it depicts wailing human survivors hanging onto a mountaintop besieged by waves. There is beautiful stuff here.

And there’s the rest of the movie. For whatever reason, Aronofsky opted for handheld close-ups of not just Noah but everyone. It looks like The Hunger Games — the first one. He ignores the production design and restricts his mise-en-scène (lighting, costume, blocking, symbolic geometry) to his actor’s faces. I mean, they’re good looking, but come on. Perhaps Aronofsky sought to empower his female characters by allotting them more screen time, for Jennifer Connelly owns every second. Such is a noble aim, yet in this case it leaves Noah, perhaps the most troubled protagonist in any recent blockbuster, a puzzle unsolved. It’s one thing to plunge into his psyche and emerge with no sure diagnosis; it’s another matter when an analogy between Noah and Larry David sticks.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.