Saturday, October 3, 2015

Don DeLillo, at The New Yorker Festival


Last night, at the Directors Guild Theater on 57th Street, New Yorker Fiction editor Deborah Treisman interviewed Don DeLillo. After reading a passage from Underworld, DeLillo responded to Treisman’s terse questions mostly at length, proving less cryptic than you might think.

While ubiquitous brochures promised this exchange would be recorded and posted on The New Yorker Festival’s website, I don’t yet see it there. I took notes, so below are transcribed fragments that I believe to be of interest. There are bound to be some discrepancies (in prepositions, punctuation, etc.) and elisions in this rush job, and I will correct these errors when that video appears.

“I’m not at all a paranoid individual,” DeLillo said. The audience laughs. “It’s true.”

On becoming a writer: “Writing has to become a natural thing. You have to wait, you have to be patient, and something will happen.”
“It took two years for me to believe I was a writer, and another two to finish [Americana].”

On starting a novel: “I start with something: Sometimes it’s a sentence, sometimes it’s an image.”
“Start writing at random, and see if one sentence connects to another.”

On note-taking: “I discover a note and I have no idea what I was referring to, and it becomes paper.” A brief silence, closed by audience laughter.

On the inspiration for Libra: “I had to go to Dallas to be sure, and I did.”

On the poetry of his descriptions: “It’s not my language; it’s the language these things came with.”

On re-reading Underworld: “I didn’t find passages I regretted, which is surprising for a book that length.”

-----

Treisman: “You majored in Communication Arts.”
DeLillo: “You know why? Because it meant nothing.”

T: “You avoided press.”
D: “Yes, well, no. No one came around.”

-----


On the Oregon massacre: “The gun is the motive as well as the weapon itself. The gun makes it possible for an individual to make sense of everything that is happening. ... It gives him a motive, gives him a sense of direction. The gun is a substitute for real life, and is the way he ends his life.”

"[Lee Harvey Oswald] was no longer thinking in political terms. … More than anything, the motorcade was passing his place of work. [The assassination was] something to assert his identity, to find his place in the world, to remind everyone that he existed.”

“Many of these young men have the same sense of being nowhere. .. Does he buy the gun to shoot twelve innocent people, or does the gun exist to begin with? What else would he do to find that disastrous satisfaction?”

----

“I certainly never, ever laugh at something I write, never. Some writers tell me they laugh, and this seems like an offense against the state.”

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Late, Late Summer's Writing Update

So it's been over three months since I've touched this site, but I have been busy. In addition to the links below, I have spent my days studying for GREs (the big test and English lit), traveling (Iceland, D.C., upstate N.Y., most recently Orlando), reading (loved A Little Life), tending to a local tech services job (it's easy), and developing a larger writing project still in embryo. Once GREs are over (late October), the plan is to focus on writing, pretty much solely. 

Still, I have been writing film criticism as of late, for The Ithaca Voice. I am proud enough of the work to share it below, and have bolded a stand-out:

For the Voice, I also wrote a preview of the Milestone Films retrospective now playing at Cornell Cinema, replete with interviews with founders (and friends, I should disclose) Amy and Dennis. 

Some bright former classmates of mine founded a blog, and I'm only going to share one post I contributed—a poem.

Then there's always Letterboxd, a site I don't use as much anymore, I'll admit, due to my rather shameful (for a self-attested cinephile, that is) rate of movie-watching these days. But I wrote short things on Ant-Man, A.I. and The Royal Tenenbaums that I don't think are worthless, so there.

Here's to more writing, and keeping ye few readers more up to date come autumn.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

R.I.P. Ornette Coleman

"It's like organized disorganization, or playing wrong right. And it gets to you emotionally, like a drummer. That's what Coleman means to me." 
— Charles Mingus, Down Beat, May 26, 1960

"[The day I met Ornette], it was about 90 degrees and he had on an overcoat. I was scared of him."
— Don Cherry, Jazz, December 1963

"[Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz] causes earache the first time through, especially for those new to Coleman's music. The second time, its cacophony lessens and its complex balances and counter-balances begin to take effect. The third time, layer upon layer of pleasing configurations -- rhythmic, melodic, contrapuntal, tonal -- becomes visible. The fourth or fifth listening, one swims readily along, about ten feet down, breathing the music like air."
— Whitney Balliett

***

"How can I turn emotion into knowledge? That's what I try to do with my horn."
— Ornette Coleman, Esquire, December 14, 2009

Coleman with Prime Time on the April 14, 1979, episode of Saturday Night Live


I had no clue what to do with "Lonely Woman," upon popping The Shape of Jazz to Come into my laptop three years ago, but this encounter would not be the last with Ornette Coleman. At the time, I didn't have much choice: I was interning at Milestone Films, writing the press kit (online here, for what it's worth) for a Shirley Clarke gem they unearthed, Ornette: Made in America, and to do my job right I needed to know this man. The more I read about him and by him, the less I, frankly, understood: Here was the pioneer of "harmolodics," a theory whose tenets still elude me; a man who almost voluntarily castrated himself; a reticent genius who lived through stints of violence and poverty without complaint.

All humans are indefinable, I suppose, but Coleman knew that, for him, only jazz could express those multitudes within — just not the jazz of Bird or anyone else he might have heard. His work, from Shape of Jazz to Come to Sound Grammar, sounds unlike any other record of its time, and despite the former's prophetic title, it has not been followed since. Coleman's innovations belong to him, and his son Denardo, and Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and his other immediate contributors — for a guy who alienated many colleagues ("Are you cats serious?" — Dizzy Gillespie, to Coleman's Quartet), Coleman was a supreme collaborator. I'd say that is what reifies his newness into some of the last century's hippest, finest, most meaningful music. Beyond Coleman's taxed, honest embouchure and unpredictable stops and starts, a song like "The Fifth of Beethoven" pulses with Haden's bass and Ed Blackwell's drums, all players locked in perfect sync if only still deciding where to go. 

I may never know Ornette, the man, but I now know his music, and that's a knowledge to be shared, disputed and studied still. For thinking and living through his art, Ornette Coleman leaves us with an image that will never gloss into stasis, always two notes ahead.



*If you don't already have it, Atlantic reissued Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings in March and it's on Amazon for a steal.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Last Column for The Cornell Daily Sun

Today's Cornell Daily Sun issue is the last of the semester, and considering I'm about to graduate, it's also the last chance for me to write for this paper. As luck would have it, my biweekly column coincided with this day. For sentimental purposes, I won't be copy-pasting it here, but I direct you to read my final column — the 46th, since January, 2012 — here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

So Expert, Much Obscure, Wow.

Sometimes comedy hits so close to home it feels like horror. I was a fidgety wreck at Cinemapolis watching one scene in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, in which Josh (Ben Stiller) pitches his six-and-a-half-hour political documentary to a hedge fund bro. Trapped in close-up, Josh botches it, sputtering out undergrad filler (“prison-industrial complex,” “power structures in the global economy,” etc.) before closing with a Hail Mary to the heartland (“It’s really about America.”). The investor, bored as hell, asks, “So … what’s it about?” The horror of incoherence, at your ideas and the words you choose to share them with, is one I have felt many a time at home and at Cornell.
The unspoken reality in this movie is that Josh is a mediocre thinker and a lazy filmmaker, still stuck in that arrogant film student mode where the burden is all on the audience to comprehend the brilliance of your pièce de résistance. His documentary is boring (its footage is mostly of a renowned but colorless academic espousing his wide-ranging theory, in front of bookshelves or at an underlit dinner table), and it’s boring because Josh has no mastery of the rhetorical tools of filmmaking — like camera placement, sound or editing — that would involve the viewer, no matter how well-read he or she is, to care about the big issues his film tackles. Baumbach, on the other hand, is a subtle enough filmmaker to disclose Josh’s mediocrity without outright stating it, and one of the funniest, and trickiest, aspects of the film is how everyone lectures about the problems they see around them while remaining oblivious to their own. Can you relate?
Incoherence and obliviousness, together, make a distinctly modern comedic pair. Baumbach is not the first to venture into this subgenre of “cringe comedy,” as the Internet calls it, but he does not have a great deal of predecessors either. Of course we have all seen an intellectual caricatured as removed, dainty or impotent in an older film, book or TV show, but the manner in which Baumbach and Stiller render Josh’s esoteric babble engages more ongoing questions, like pretentiousness and privilege. In sustained, awkward close-up, Josh gives himself more than enough rope to hang any prospect of funding, and the discomfort we feel while watching him is sympathetic, if not empathetic, because words have, presumably, failed us all before. At the same time, Josh can spout this pseudo-intellectual nonsense in part due to his white male/Blue Steel privilege, which gave him an unearned soapbox long ago. He should really be trying harder, but still, damn, is he human.
Every thinker fears incoherence. You stumble upon an idea you think is novel, but then you must secure the argument, with the innumerable steps involved, in order to share it with the world. Otherwise your thought is just an abstract glob of noise. (I should know: I’m revising an honor’s thesis at the moment.)
“Noise-shaped air,” on the other hand, is a perfect phrase from the fourth season premiere of Armando Ianucci’s HBO comedy Veep, and it is used to describe the euphonic, fill-in-the-blank insincerity of a speech President Selina Meyer shares before Congress. Veep explores the other extreme of nonsense language — the political sermon — and how inane it sounds when spoken by someone like Selina, a woman with a preternatural gift for inventive vulgarity. I hope to one day buy a leather-bound book of her and the rest of the cast’s putdowns, because they are what make Veep the funniest show right now, but Selina’s facility with disingenuous but nonetheless effective public oratory elevates the show to conscious, critical heights. In the premiere, she riffs off a teleprompter glitch, which spells her presidential ambitions with the placeholder text left from earlier brainstorming: “FUTURE WHATEVER.” With conviction in herself and the drivel she is about to say, she sells worthless platitudes (“Whatever we have in store cannot be unknown. But given time, it can be understood. The past was once the future … ”) and her esteemed colleagues greet her noise-shaped air with rapturous applause.
In “The Universe,” one of their most popular sketches, Tim and Eric, from Adult Swim, make fun of a kind of language in between half-baked academic-speak and hollow, wowing rhetoric. Tim Heidecker, squeezed into a black turtleneck, talks about the wonders of the universe as intentionally crappy video effects whiz around him. “Picture a hot dog bun,” he says, as a hot dog bun fades on and off the screen. “And throw all the stars, the hundreds of stars, that there are in the universe into a … into a bag, and put the universe into a bag, and you, all of a sudden, they become, um … ” His face crumples into a pudgy frown as his tortured metaphor escapes him. I laugh every single time I see it.
Tim and Eric, premier parodists of white male pastiness, find funny the way self-appointed experts attempt to streamline their ideas, particularly when in extreme close-up. They share their so-called research with can-do cheer, living up to the democratic mission of popular science when they turn to metaphor or when Eric Wareheim says, “And us humans can’t even fathom the concept of that kind of time because it’s really really really really really really really really fun!”
But ultimately, Tim and Eric seem to say, incoherence is inherent to any discipline, if it truly is a discipline. True intellectual work requires logic, evidence and manageable innovation, yes, but it’s unlikely the casual reader can just walk in and comprehend a field written by experts. Communicating those big, important ideas should be done in a respectable way, without off-color humor … which is where Tim and Eric, Noah Baumbach and Armando Ianucci come in.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Modest Mouse Concert Review

Modest Mouse
Barton Hall, Cornell University
April 19, 2015

Courtesy of Michelle Feldman // The Cornell Daily Sun

I wrote a review of Modest Mouse's concert at Barton Hall here. Of the three shows I've seen from them (also 2012 Governors Ball and 2014 at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester), this was the best, though I've been arguing with a few people who disagree...

Thursday, April 9, 2015

It Follows Review

It Follows
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Released in 2014

Somewhere north of Detroit, Jay (Maika Monroe) is treading water in her family’s above ground pool when she spots an ant crawling up her arm. Her expression is almost blank, lifted by a slight, dreamy smile — she could be thinking of her date with Hugh (Jake Weary) that night. She gently lowers her arm into the water and with it, the ant, which now squirms. Whether or not the filmmakers fished it out after completing the shot, the character that is “Ant” surely drowns. Jay meant no malice, nor is this scene the first in the portrait of a college-age psychopath. She probably meant nothing at all in the mere lowering of her arm. But death, miniscule as it may have been, resulted from that simple motion, and death will soon in turn follow Jay as a meaningless, inexorable force.
It Follows is an unusual and unusually memorable horror movie in that its monster is Newton’s first law of motion. Well, if you’re going to be picky, actual people assume the role of the monster, some of them innocuous in appearance and others not so much, like a creepy old lady in a hospital gown or a seven-foot-tall man without eyes. The monster cycles through so many dissimilar identities that the only constant is the way it walks — slowly but steadily — toward the person it has isolated to kill. It can be easily outrun if that person pays attention to his or her surroundings, and so becomes a paranoid wreck. But the monster cannot be stopped. In lieu of an effective opposing force, the person can pass the curse by having sex with someone else, and even then if it kills — in painful, gruesome fashion —the next person it will come back for the one before.
Jay is the lucky one chosen by Hugh, a handsome out-of-towner always looking over his shoulder, to next bear this terrifying burden. They have tender, consensual sex in the back of his car, gratifying for both involved. After, she talks of love in measured, shameless terms before he crawls on top of her and clasps a chloroform-soaked rag over her mouth. In an agonizing long take, her eyes dart in terror before she falls limp. She awakes tied to a wheelchair in an empty parking garage, where Hugh describes her raw deal. “All you can do is pass it on to someone else,” he says. For proof, he shines a flashlight on a nude woman walking toward her from a distance, and allows the figure to get real close before wheeling Jay, who is wearing only a bra and underwear, to temporary safety.
What may read as a convoluted update of the “Dead Teenager Movie,” to use Roger Ebert’s term for the slasher films primarily concerned with ogling at and then dismembering promiscuous young women, is instead a sly, nightmarish contemplation of mortality. David Robert Mitchell, who wrote and directed the film, suspends his characters in a dreamlike haze that downplays the logic, or lack thereof, of the monster’s behavior and the violent ends its victims meet. Jay’s emotional state, which ranges from bliss to knee-buckling helplessness, takes precedence above all, expressing not just a vulnerable body but also a maturing intelligence that for the first time grasps the inevitable outcome (take a guess) that meets all bodies, not just those stalked by naked weirdos. By foregrounding his protagonist’s inner life and cutting often to the talented, convincing Monroe in close-up, Mitchell instills It Follows with a sense of existential dread that lingers long after the credits roll.
Thankfully, Jay does not struggle alone. As she seeks a way to dispose of the monster once and for all, Jay is joined by her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe); her friend, Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who snacks and reads Dostoevsky off a clamshell e-reader; the sexy, Johnny Depp-type neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto); and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), the boyish childhood friend who has long had a crush on Jay. The film captures a low-key camaraderie between long-time friends who realize they don’t have many more years of bumming around left. That togetherness is what keeps Jay going, as it does for all of us.
A pistol figures prominently in the final act, which is disappointing. Bullets are as fatal as Nerf darts in good horror, as anyone who has seen Halloween knows. John Carpenter directed that 1978 classic, and he is the unmistakable influence behind Mitchell’s style and Disasterpeace’s brooding synth score. Mitchell deigns to one jump scare (hey, Texas Chainsaw has one too), but for the most part he and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis engender fear from staring at still, seemingly (hopefully!) inanimate objects (i.e., a closed closet door) or having a figure simply walk from the background to the foreground. Mitchell finds the most horror in corrupting the familiar, and thus evoking the uncanny, which leads naturally and unpretentiously to questions of mortality, public versus private space and deceptive surface appearances.
It Follows’ creepiness is hard to shake because its world is so close to normal, so open to growth and pleasure without shame. Gun flailing aside, these young adults are smart enough to recognize that this monster is undefeatable. It is a force they must find a way to ignore for as long as possible until they are ready, one day, to face it on their own terms.
This article was written of The Cornell Daily Sun.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Netflix State of Mind

The smart money these days is on Netflix, as both a growing, deep-pocketed agent in the television and movie industry and an attractive new model for how this entertainment can and will be consumed. What started as a mail-order service for movies and some television shows on DVD is now a primarily digital venue for streaming some of the most popular television. It offers movies too, of course, but as far as their quality, The Onion said it best last year with the headline, “Netflix Instant Thinking About Adding Good Movie.” Consider the tendency for movies, especially old ones, to just vanish from the service as TV new and old, from House of Cards to Friends, colonizes the most valuable real estate on its homepage, and we can conclude that Netflix has its own smart money on television rather than movies.
That’s an image Netflix is working to change. This fall, Netflix plans to premiere AAA films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II and Cary Fukunaga’s war drama Beasts of No Nation the same day they open in select theaters. Chances are you will know full well that Beasts of No Nation is available to stream if you load Netflix around the time of its debut. It’s likely that it, like this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga, will have a prominent “Netflix Original” logo over its home page banner ad, or some other graphic claim to ownership that can be easily, imperceptibly mistaken for authorship.
But Netflix is not making Beasts of No Nation. Fukunaga has written and directed the film via Participant Media and Red Crown Productions. Netflix bought the rights for day-and-date streaming, but it has no more claim to authoring the film or the Crouching Tiger sequel or Virunga than Fox Searchlight Pictures has for The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Tree of Life, both of which it distributed.
Do you refer to The Grand Budapest Hotel as Wes Anderson’s film, and The Tree of Life as Terrence Malick’s? I do, even if I still wish to stress that Ralph Fiennes and production designer Adam Stockhausen contributed much to the first film, as Jessica Chastain and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki did to the second. But as a cinephile and film student, I prescribe to the auteur theory, which holds the director as the primary author of any given film (even, crucially, the supposed trash). I would gather many people passionate about movies, whether or not they call themselves “cinephiles” (even I hear that word and think “doesn’t get much sun”), prescribe to a general belief in the auteur theory. The Oscars reinforce it — since 1990, 19 of 25 Best Picture winners also claimed Best Director — and the living legend status of someone like Martin Scorsese shows that we recognize and value the voice behind the camera, especially when it’s as open to caricature as his.
For the longest time, the auteur theory has evaded television. Showrunners like Mad Men’s Matt Weiner claim authorial primacy, with their dual head writer and executive producer credits, though premium networks like HBO and Cinemax have lately challenged that notion by hiring distinctive directors like Fukunaga and Steven Soderbergh for full seasons of True Detective and The Knick, respectively. Networks also retain greater visibility than movie studios because they have commercials, watermarks and password-protected streaming platforms to burn into your brain that, hey, this is an AMC (or NBC or HBO) show. Studios get a trumpet fanfare or roaring lion at the beginning, but they all have to share the same theaters, which have their own pre-movie promos to blast their brands and coax you into buying $8.95 tubs of popcorn. Both studios and theaters, however, tend to shut up once the lights dim and let the movie just be its own immersive thing.
Netflix has capitalized on its unprecedented hybrid status — part viewing platform, part big-money financier, part library — to disrupt these rules. But does it fulfill all those roles satisfactorily, or place too much emphasis on one over the others? As a platform, Netflix’s image quality has improved alongside our wireless routers, so there’s little room to complain there. But why have Netflix’s recent spectacles of checkbook-signing been accompanied by a remarkably inconsistent, waning library? Is all this money really going to Adam Sandler and not to securing Woody Allen’s filmography for more than a few months at a time, to say nothing of classics and hidden gems made before 1980?
Regardless of who “made” a streaming TV show or movie, we watch it “on Netflix.” The move away from physical media, as sad as this Blu-ray fanatic may be to admit it, has created a dependency on streaming platforms for both content and the range and history of that content. Netflix being the most powerful of these platforms, it has grown disinterested with history, instead favoring its capacity to shape the future. Ironically, that future resembles the past, the time when a producer like David O. Selznick claimed authorship behind films like Gone With the Wind and Rebecca, films he didn’t direct. But Selznick was so involved in the movie-making process that he can at least claim credit for one of those two (it’s the one not directed by Hitchcock), while Netflix only chooses and bankrolls original properties and has no hand in their actual production.
As we move through this Golden Age of Digital Content we should be able to recall who is really making it. Netflix does not make it so easy, as it zooms out to wave an arm at its other tantalizing offerings once those pesky credits roll. If you click on the director or star of any given film, it redirects you to DVD.Netflix.com, which is blockier and often useless, given how few filmographies are fully available. Given that Netflix is here to stay, that paucity needs to change if the industry wants its backlog to be viewed legally whatsoever. More than that, however, shining a light on the true authors behind these films directs viewers to engage not just with a single movie but with a varied filmography, epochal movement or entire medium. Auteurists may be an obsessive, idiosyncratic bunch, but our gift for disposing income knows no bounds.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Ravi Coltrane Quartet Concert Review

Courtesy of Jasmine Curtis / The Cornell Daily Sun
I reviewed the Ravi Coltrane Quartet's Friday night set at Bailey Hall, which will surely be the last time I cover a concert in one of my favorite venues, at least for The Sun. I rarely take up the opportunity to write about jazz, but with this piece and last week's column so close to each other, you might be able to guess that this music has been on mind as of late. Link to the story above as well as here.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Run All Night Review

Run All Night 
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Released in 2015

Blood runs thicker than water in Run All Night, but the water might as well be out to kill you, too. Enraged Irish mobsters, crooked cops and one smooth assassin are merely the humans out for Liam Neeson and his son, as rain, fog and blasts of fire also engulf their surroundings with a hostile agency. The inevitability and omnipresence of violence on display is downright Biblical, and mature in a way that the revenge camp of Taken, the movie that started this whole party, is not. If director Jaume Collet-Serra does not match the smooth classicism of Non-Stop, his genre jewel from last year and the finest Neeson vehicle yet, then he lacquers Run All Night’s unremarkable script with enough grit to make for some essential, elemental action cinema.
Jimmy Conlon (Neeson) must protect his estranged son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), because he himself killed the son of his best friend, Shawn. The kid (Boyd Holbrook) was about to shoot Mike, and he was a brat who insulted Jimmy on the regular, and Shawn pulled out enough hair over his son’s delinquency to end up being played by Ed Harris, but when your son ends up clipped in a Brooklyn kitchen, you are not too open to being eased by words that start, “Well, in the long run…” So Shawn releases the hounds, so to speak, ordering his people to snuff out Mike’s life first so that Jimmy will feel firsthand the pain of losing a son.
Jimmy and Mike do a lot of running through streets, subway tunnels and the projects, obviously. But the many chase scenes do not grow tedious, because Collet-Serra opted to shoot on location and cinematographer Martin Ruhe knows how to lens New York City. Even when flanked by neon, these men are bisected by shadows, which naturally populate the dingy corners in which they find refuge. Fight scenes draw attention to bloody mouths, trembling heels and the scum on bathroom floors as much as punches swung. The violence is literally too dark and the scuffles too messily desperate for Jimmy’s particular set of skills to provide fodder for “oh, snap!” humor à la Taken.
Brad Ingelsby’s script has only one good line, I think. It’s when a platoon of police cars and helicopters surround the project where the two are hiding, and Jimmy turns to his panicked son and says, “It’s a big building. We got some time. Let’s wait.” The rest is merely serviceable, while many of Shawn’s lines sound lifted from what Don or Michael Corleone once said (“I am a legitimate businessman,” “There’s not enough money in the world to pull me back in”). Of course, Harris makes it all work, embodying through his ghoulish mask and rising cadence the unhinged volatility that comes with grieving while searching for blood.
Playing an unapologetic killer many shades darker than his Matt Scudder from last year’s ace A Walk Among the Tombstones, Neeson can’t do much to make him sympathetic but play up his quotidian flaws: alcoholic, sickly, single. Jimmy remains bad to the bone, and one senses his father bear instinct is conflated with a renewed taste for blood. When pointing a gun, Jimmy hardens his face before taking the shot, leaving a brief pause between reaction and life-ending action. He is so good at killing that he has time to consider and perhaps even savor it, which must cycle back into an unending, bloodletting feedback loop.
While the computer-generated scene transitions that fly over broad swathes of cityscape do their best to distract from this fact, Collet-Serra has a talent for capturing the minute, physical gesture. He wrings suspense from the act of reloading, and how, in the heat of battle, those with empty clips must compromise by using their knees or tips of their fingers to do so. He rarely brings bodies together in proximity or even in the same shot, since everyone is out to kill one another. Only after one character lands a fatal shot on the other, near the end, does Collet-Serra allow the two adversaries to unite again and lean on one another in a heartbreaking display of belated gentility.
The film turns into a horror show when Common pops in as a ruthless, machine-like hired gun, with a night vision eyepiece that hammers comparisons with the Terminator into almost-fact. His character is a cliché, though Common brings the cool, which anyone who saw him earlier this month at Bailey can testify he has in spades. An interesting twist is that the aforementioned fog and smoke screws with his night vision piece, and so multiple times he is forced, mid-fight, to tear it off, making him a chump like anyone else. Maybe God is raining down all that hellfire not to kill the Neesons, but to force his enemies to treat him with a little respect.
3 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Cornell's Critical History: Whitney Balliett '51


I dug into The Cornell Daily Sun archives this week to discover dozens of great clips by one Whitney Balliett '51, the long-time New Yorker critic regarded for his writing on jazz. Except when he was a Cornell student, during the late 40s and early 50s, he wrote predominantly about film. And his prose, even at such a young age, was vital, terse and precociously sharp. It rewards reading all these years later. I invite you to check out my piece, which includes plenty of vintage Balliett excerpts, here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Pretentiousness With Purpose

I’m not saying I’m pretentious, but I can understand the misperception. All this babble on form, “being” and international art cinema, to what end? Why can’t I just enjoy movies for what they are and end a review with a thumbs up or thumbs down? Why the need for this loose syntax and suspension of decisive judgment? And why am I writing with the assumption that you’ve been following my column up to this point?
I’ll accept the last question as a potential problem of mine, but I know, from website analytics and reader emails (or lack thereof), that my audience is slim and composed mostly of friends who also have the time to ask questions of aesthetics. So if I write in an excessively familiar style, The Daily Sun Arts section will survive to see another day. Ya feel.
But the other questions are game, since shouldn’t criticism seek to clarify and not further obscure? Deconstruction, which I have been lately exposed to yet again, says no, but let’s limit our discussion here to the kind of cultural writing you’d find in newspapers, magazines and blogs, not academic journals. Is a lyrical tendency in criticism allowed, or should a critic’s prose seek to explain, determine and solve?
Accessible criticism, especially the sorts you’ll find online, has sided with the latter camp as of late. Most reviews dish out plot summary, with requisite compliments or swipes at the acting, script and image-prettiness, and perhaps end with a note about the film’s sociopolitical relevance. The pieces that ‘go long’ (as in long-form) trace a film’s symbolism and propose one-to-one meanings for choice shots, objects and character actions.
The films of Christopher Nolan and David Fincher are exhaustively analyzed along these lines, but as much as I’d like to gender this kind of discourse along ‘white male’ lines, it also thrives in popular progressive criticism. Critiques that claim to uncover a racist or sexist subconscious to mainstream films often raise good points but move so far away from the text at hand or zoom in so close on one aspect, sans context, that they overlook a perhaps resolute, invigorating ambiguity. What if a film embodies not just one stance — say, feminist or anti-feminist — but many of them at the same time? Is this not the age of dismantling binaries?
In her 1996 piece on Pulp Fiction, “Cool Cynicism,” bell hooks set the standard, to my limited knowledge at least, for how to write intersectional film criticism. She uses colloquial language to sneak in innovative theses, like when she starts a paragraph saying, “Tarantino’s films are the ultimate in sexy cover-ups of very unsexy mind-fuck.” That sentence may not make sense when you first read it, but it does if you take your time poring over it and, crucially, reading her supporting evidence.
bell hooks practices a form of criticism veering on poetry, and it is that poetic spirit, and with it an amorphous form, that separates intelligent analysis from superlative, risk-taking work. Yet isn’t poetry kind of antithetical to criticism? Poetry keeps its cards close to the chest, only admitting what it aims to say if the reader focuses, contemplates and re-reads. Which brings me to my central question today: Must a piece of criticism be read once to be appreciated, if not understood?
Methinks those who would say no would also be reluctant to revisit a film that has a reputation, in any way, as difficult. I have not had the chance to review Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice yet, but if I did I would definitely see it once more, maybe twice before attempting to unlock it. I am in the midst of an honor’s thesis on cinema, and repeated looks at certain Thai, French and Iranian selections have divulged details, be they plastic or political, that has increased my respect for these filmmakers a thousand fold. But while I hope to offer some coherent insight on these artistic subtleties, I also shy away from ascribing definitive explanations, opting for a twisty-turny style of prose that may be driving you mad on this very page.
A poetic tendency drives practically all the best critics, from bell hooks to Roger Ebert. “The world as processed by the mind, with finally only the bright bits magnetized by emotion remaining to flash against darkness,” is how Geoffrey O’Brien, a published poet in his own right, describes the sieved reality of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which is no stranger to charges of obscurantism. Manny Farber, one of the most distinct and byzantine voices in the history of film criticism, offers the following when praising the “underground films” of such old Hollywood directors as Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks 1918: “In the films of these hard-edged directors can be found the unheralded ripple of physical experience, the tiny morbidly life-worn detail which the visitor to a strange city finds springing out at every step.”
Do these quotes make sense? Not in any clean, easy sense. But they preserve something attractive and — this is most important — intrinsic to the films under scrutiny, and so testify to their merit. In her treatise On Beauty and Being Just, the endearingly esoteric critic Elaine Scarry writes, “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” Criticism will often fail to match the beauty from which it is inspired, but it should at least keep the wheel of appreciation and close attention ever turning. There is, after all, no community when every critic aims to to have the last word.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Monday, February 23, 2015

87th Academy Awards Breakdown

The Oscars matter insofar as without them, fewer people would have seen or at least have the privilege to consciously ignore small, human-sized movies like Boyhood, Whiplash and Still Alice. Or so the thinking goes; a world where works of art are not pitted against each other in competition, where the long months of campaigning and op-ed defaming makes each final victory feel more than a little pyrrhic, could very well be more egalitarian and receptive to intimate, intrinsic artistry — but that is not the world in which we live.
For better or worse, Sunday’s 87th Academy Awards reflected the conflicted state of things in America today, with every forward-pushing acceptance speech tempered by a nostalgic spectacle or tone-deaf joke. There was, as per usual, no lack of self-congratulation.
Birdman fits the Best Picture profile, given the film’s insular regard for itself, which aligns perfectly with the Academy’s. Along with other recent winners The Artist and Argo, it offered Hollywood the chance to stop, light a smoke and think, “Aren’t we great?” The ceremony’s low points belabored this self-love, stretching the broadcast’s runtime to the longest in eight years, while the brightest moments shined past any one film or celebrity to illuminate, as only an awards show can, a myriad of political issues.
The low points, I am sorry to say, almost always involved the affable, seemingly perfect host, Neil Patrick Harris. He started strong with a song and dance number that ran through movie history and brought Into the Woods star Anna Kendrick on stage for harmonies. A cynical Jack Black jumped on stage to rant, in his own singsongy way, about the omnipresence of superheroes, “formulaic scripts” and, reaching for his smartphone, “screens in our jeans” in movie culture today, to much applause.
Without such an irascible counterpoint for the rest of the show, Harris struck a tone at once overly chipper and flippant. For the whole show, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer had to go along with a gag where Harris locked his “predictions” in a box that, when revealed, proved how the whole show is predictable, scripted or just ill suited to three-hour joke set-ups. His banter punned on Reese Witherspoon’s name or the furry ball dress of Dana Perry, just after the Best Documentary Short Subject winner opened up about her son’s suicide. His Birdman/Whiplash parody, where he took the stage in tighty whities to Miles Teller’s accompaniment on drums, displayed his most obvious assets without hiding, at least to awards season addicts like me, that Fred Armisen and Kristen Bell made the same joke at the Independent Spirit Awards the night before.
What this show never fails to deliver are the moments of unscripted awkward that, against all the micromanaged rehearsals leading up to it, scramble the evening’s gloss. I should disclose that the so-called disasters, like John Travolta’s garbling of Idina Menzel as “Adele Dazeem” last year, are my favorite parts of any live broadcast — anyone who follows up how embarrassing Travolta was with the decree that “he should never be up there again!” is no fun. Thankfully the show’s producers are fun, and reunited Menzel with Travolta, who after being introduced as “Glom Gazingo” petted the Frozen singer’s cheek as if he were Romeo.
It was the creepiest, most GIF-ready snippet of the night, though equally weird was when Terrence Howard took the stage to introduce Whiplash, The Imitation Game and Selma. Midway through, he paused to say, “Our next film … is amazing. I’m blown away myself right now,” before reading the synopsis not to Selma, but The Imitation Game. Drunk off emotion or some other drug, Howard could barely convey his enthusiasm for the other injustice-themed also-ran in the Best Picture race and not the good one. It felt like anything could have happened during his minute on stage; Imagine if Travolta just wandered, out of focus, in the background.
While Tegan & Sara, The Lonely Island, Questlove, Mark Mothersbaugh and Will Arnett hit peak goofiness during The LEGO Movie’s “Everything Is Awesome,” it was John Legend and Common’s performance of “Glory,” from Selma, that provided the moral center for the night. With lyrics evoking both the march to Montgomery and the Ferguson protests and a grand backdrop of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, “Glory” struck a chord with the audience, bringing star David Oyelowo and Chris Pine to tears. It’s easy to be cynical about such emotional displays at awards shows, but the way Legend brought Dolby Theatre and viewing parties across America to silence during his final solo cut through all the noise to contemplate the seemingly irreconcilable divide that exists in our country, the Academy most certainly included, to this day. Lady Gaga’s Sound of Music medley, though impressive, felt too sweetly nostalgic after such a conscious musical statement
When “Glory” rightly won Best Original Song after, Common and Legend were one of many to unashamedly marry thank-yous with impassioned political statements. Common pleaded for equality and freedom of expression via mention of the Charlie Hebdo and Hong Kong protests, while Legend stressed the disproportionate amount of incarcerated black men in prison. Best Documentary winner Laura Poitras, with her Edward Snowden-starring Citizenfour, urged awareness of the surveillance state, while Patricia Arquette, who won Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood, stumped for gender equality as Meryl Streep, flanked by a cheering Jennifer Lopez, pointed and hollered in approval. Graham Moore, Best Adapted Screenplay winner for The Imitation Game, seized everyone’s breath as he confessed to attempting suicide 18 years ago. He followed this harrowing anecdote with the hope that his presence on stage will inspire those younger than him, who feel like they do not belong, to “stay weird” and “stay different.” It was a powerful speech.
The thing about Graham Moore winning, though, is that he wrote an awful script. “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” is a line The Imitation Game trailer holds dear and the movie itself repeats, out of the conviction that historical characters speak as if composing their memoirs. Share that quote on the Dolby stage, however, and it naturally, indisputably belongs. The Oscars so rarely award real art because they, themselves, are not art, and they don’t need to be. The most memorable moments are inspirational, rousing and morally good. Great movies are rarely any of those things, and never all three at once, but “the movies,” the mystique of Hollywood that the Academy and theater chains sell, is, always.
It is that feeling of uplift, if oh so fleeting, that jettisons Eddie Redmayne’s light track record and The Theory of Everything’s deadness from my mind when he took the stage for Best Actor. His youth, his recent marriage and his humility made for an infectiously adorable speech, which filled the room I watched from with high-pitched “Awww”s. Julianne Moore deserved Best Actress not just for her work in Still Alice but for her unparalleled career, yet her speech was what we wanted to hear for its focus on love, family and community. The work itself has no hold on the rapture of the Oscar moment — before all the lights and cameras, only gratitude, conviction and a manageable dose of human weakness thrive.
Birdman’s second-half sweep — in Best Cinematography, Original Screenplay, Directing and Picture — introduced the manic, musky humor of the film into the speeches, which did not vibe well with the prevailing Oscar ethos. I have already expressed my unfavorable opinion of the winning film, which I think is little more than clever. Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel were the rare masterpieces to actually make it into Best Picture consideration, which makes their loss more painful, since cinephiles more often than not revere their favorites in closet-sized shrines, without much notice from the outer, louder world.
But Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman’s director, said something that resonated with me during his acceptance speech, which went as follows: “Ego loves competition, because for someone to win, someone has to lose. But the paradox is true art, true individual expression, as all the work of these incredible fellow filmmakers, can’t be compared, can’t be labeled, can’t be defeated, because they exist, and our work will be judged, as always, by time.” I can’t say I think his film, with its Justin Bieber references and inexplicable gender politics, will survive that ultimate test, but I thank him for taming that ego this awards season has fed so well, for just a moment, to remind us of the absurdity of this whole artless enterprise.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

When Movies Lack Music

Music is sexier than movies, and I imagine few would jump to disagree. Movies follow people as they bumble and chat and fight, and the good ones will make you feel for those people and understand the context and causes of their unrest. Good music, on the other hand, rides a melody or groove or just a feeling from start to finish, sometimes telling a story through lyrics but more than anything expressing joy or longing — in a word, energy — toward some thing, which even if afforded a name (for Bob Dylan, Johanna, for Mac DeMarco, Viceroy cigarettes) can always, for the listener, stand in for something or someone else.
This is my roundabout way of saying I saw Fifty Shades of Grey. The movie frontloads most of its heat, with bitten lips, steely eyes and rattled breaths overwhelming the first 20 odd minutes. It’s the kind of experience you’re implicitly paying for, and the kind of gaze-fueled desire that movies, whether they aspire to high art or schlock, do best. But when it’s time for the cuffs and cat o’ nine tails to come out, the film cools, stringing together flicks and shudders into montages only a notch hotter than the wind currently barreling over Cayuga Lake. Fifty Shades of Grey lacks music. 
Adapting an erotic bestseller for an audience wide enough to deliver a $94 million opening weekend presents few opportunities for music anyway. The sex scenes are the selling point, so they demand center stage, and not just the sex but the gear, too — leather and ropes and slings, arranged before walls of red deep within Christian’s antiseptic Seattle penthouse. The 13th time Christian pesters Anastasia to sign her submissive’s contract, I swear the leather evolved to become the most sentient creature in the room. With too many studio notes to film a love scene as elliptical as Don’t Look Now or Out of Sight’s, and with too much money to just make pornography, director Sam Taylor-Johnson settles on an aesthetic somewhere between bad camp and HGTV.
The almost yearlong lead-up to Fifty Shades roped in the collusion of a real artist, that of course, being Beyoncé. Accompanying last summer’s debut trailer, her remix of “Crazy in Love” swaps fast for slow, horns for strings and her pop-perfect voice for a feistier tenor scratched up through a filter similar to Julian Casablancas’. In duration and texture, Beyoncé’s new “Crazy in Love” is a better Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation than the feature film, conveying and sustaining a dangerous intimacy for as long as an entertainment medium can. For all the conservative pushback on the sexualization of popular music, sex is something music not only sells but understands, and Beyoncé deserves all the praise for long fashioning the eroticism of her voice and image into messages of empowerment and pride.
There is a lot of strong, lovely music making waves right now, Björk’s Vulnicura being one of the most notable. It aims to fill the heart just as it breaks it, with Björk’s infinitely malleable voice oscillating between defeat and hope as it is besieged by violins, synthesizers and drum machines. Björk is a capital-A Artist, the first popular musician to receive a full-scale career retrospective at the MoMA (due in March), and the indeterminacy of her music lends itself to unfiltered, bewildering expression, which makes her success all the more remarkable. Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear, released last week, takes a more deceptive approach to the love album, tempering fuzzy feelings with liberal irony and self-loathing. In “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” after telling his love she is “something else I can’t explain,” Father John Misty adds, “You take my last name,” in effect mocking his gendered obligation of ownership via marriage. The song sounds blissfully radiant, with a mariachi band blasting over the bridge, but Father John Misty can never seem to give himself a break. There’s a poetic density, and not to mention a stand-up’s hilarity, to his lyrics and his particular pairing of word to melody produces an album open to interpretation even as it serves many pleasures.
You can say movies are too burdened by images, and thus some kind of aesthetic obligation to the real world, to capture and critique one man or woman’s personal expression. And so, love and film is not the most natural pairing, even if it is regularly attempted and often enjoyable, if only in spite of its sincere intentions. The sexiest films need the help of music, whether literally on the soundtrack or spiritually through the movement of camera and assembly of images, to power through the awkwardness and achieve a transcendent effect. Classic Hollywood excelled at this better than the studios today, while the French, naturally, are masters to this day.
There is a moment in 35 Shots of Rum, a Claire Denis film from 2008, when the action comes to a full stop and the four main characters find themselves fortified in a bar on a nasty, rainy night. Their taxi broke down, and they missed their show, and not one of them knows what to do, until music starts to play: “Nightshift,” by The Commodores. It’s a slinky, funky song, bringing the characters, one by one, to their feet and to previously untapped life. The dance ends on a note of discomfort, as a young man carries his affection for a girl too far, but there is no disputing there was life on screen for that brief glimpse of time, a connection between clothed bodies more felt than seen.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How So?

Chances are you have enjoyed cinema your entire life, but the fact is the you who started with Sesame Street or Shrek or It’s a Wonderful Life is not the you today. The plastic tray fastened to your high chair no longer collects drool as you watch figures move across a screen. No doubt there are times, in a theater and especially out, when the blankness of youth sounds quite appealing. But if you are reading this, then you have read and lived and thought enough to bring something — education, curiosity, self-awareness — to everything you see.
What do we do with this power? Many do little, while a bilious, often anonymous contingent make a vocation out of belittling it. Comments sections under reviews, especially those that take a less than adulatory tone toward the latest hundred-million-dollar entertainment, charge the critic with overanalyzing or worrying too much about what it “means.” “It’s just a movie,” a regular sight on these forums, is a rejoinder so immaculate in its self-pleasuring logic that it becomes deflatingly clear movie critic and commenter speak totally different languages.
While philistinism in, around and beyond the cinema runs rampant, it can too easily stand in as a straw man for an equally one-sided, and superiorly pretentious, college newspaper opinion column. (What’d I say about self-awareness?) What irks me more are the discrepancies between those of us who, by and large, espouse the same critical language. You and I may regard movies as art, judge one’s worth not (only) for its “mere spectacle” but for its ability to “get at” something deep and still disagree about a particular film. That division springs from the indeterminable calculus of personal preference, plus some more explicable aesthetic expectations.
Chief among these is the expectation that a movie needs to be about Something — and least of all Schmidt — to be good. About The State of Marriage, Russia, The American Dream. I find this a tired, limited, predetermined approach to art, and one highly susceptible to P.R. hype and groupthink. Films so readily demonstrative, if only through dialectic arguments and foregrounded symbolism, of one big idea fail to fill in the little details of human behavior that would complicate such a broad, and thus phony, thesis. And yet these films are so often celebrated for their thematic obviousness, especially when released in the same year or season as other like-minded works. The think piece model thrives on corralling disparate works under one zeitgeist-defining headline, and better when the films assert the same reductive stance, regardless of individual quirks or vitality.
Take A Most Violent Year, the new J.C. Chandor movie starring beautiful people Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. I do not expect you to have seen it, and I did not care for it so I am not here to recommend it. Isaac plays an ambitious oil entrepreneur who shuns his peers and immigrant heritage in order to, you know, be the best. As he gets there, his soul hardens to the climactic point where blood intermingles on-screen with oil in a risible metaphor for the violence of commerce. None of the scenes to that point, except for a grimy, spooky tunnel chase scene, inject the humdrum handsomeness with any personality, and the tunnel vision with which Chandor hones in on his star-spangled target makes for a redundant, lifeless film.
A Most Violent Year currently stands at a 90 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a blurb that praises its “thought-provoking heft.” The National Board of Review named it 2014’s Best Film, and I know plenty of smart critics who have praised it. I must have seen a different movie, or more likely I must hold different criteria with regards to quality. I expect a certain mystery and intricacy as a film follows its characters to the finish, and any sense that the filmmakers constructed their story in reverse, retrofitting a resounding conclusion with the steps it takes to get there, strikes me as antithetical to the mission of art, not to mention the strengths of cinema.
The only “abouts” worth fussing over in works of art have, in some way, to do with the nature of the medium itself. Ulysses is “about” consciousness, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is “about” perspective, Boyhood is “about” time. But each of these masterworks is “about” an infinite number of things as well, because a devotion to and mastery of artistic form leads to all-encompassing, endlessly reflective look at the world. Formal analysis is not an excuse to undermine the superficial pleasures of a film or flaunt a little thing only you noticed and no one else, but a method to truly evaluate greatness — to find words and reasons for what could otherwise be called magic. When a movie like A Most Violent Year, The Imitation Game or Birdman fails to say anything under close scrutiny — that is, say more than what already streamed from the mouths of its characters — it is because either the director had little grasp of the story’s complexity, did not know how to convey that complexity through cinema or both.
So much of the discourse surrounding film and television today latches on to the most obvious “abouts,” the kinds factory molded for think-piecing. High school English class, when we read The Great Gatsby and were told to identify its themes and figure out what the green light “meant,” still defines, and so limits, our expectations for moving pictures, and literature too. No one wants to stay in high school, yet our approach to film is surely stunted, not because it’s not intellectual or theoretical enough but because it likens drama, especially historical drama, to Spark Notes.
Cinema has the power to just look at people be, and in Boyhood, The Immigrant, American Sniper and Inherent Vice they can be compelling, contradictory figures at odds with the subject matter and expected politics of the film. Roger Ebert, the most mainstream film critic we’ve ever had, summed it up when he said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” And what he surely implied is that the “how” is the fun part.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Blackhat Review

Blackhat
Directed by Michael Mann
Released in 2015


The problem with Rotten Tomatoes and the good-bad polarization it has wrought on the wide release of films is that movies like Blackhat slip through the cracks. Movies like Blackhat: narratively suspect, baldly miscast, frequently silly and profoundly cinematic. Screened before solemn awards fare, Blackhat’s trailer only magnified those first three qualities at the expense of the fourth, which can only beam from the film proper. You need to actually watch the movie, go figure, with its rhythm and texture and flawed yet mindful visual schema. Blackhat is indeed needlessly lunkheaded at times, but then again so are most Michael Mann films and that does not stop any one of them from being essential viewing.
Director of Manhunter, Heat and Miami Vice, Mann shares the mantle with David Fincher as the Hollywood filmmaker exploring the aesthetic boundaries and philosophical implications of digital cinematography. He has long been able to capture human movement in thrilling, strangely emotional ways, as anyone who has seen the ending of The Last of the Mohicans or The Insider can incoherently testify. Since 2001’s Ali, Mann has shot with obviously digital handheld cameras, producing images replete with noise and motion smearing. It is a style offensive to those who look to James Cameron as the future, which might be one small reason among many as to why Blackhat turned in less than $4 million last weekend, certifying it the year’s first, and possibly worst, bomb.
Or perhaps no one could buy Chris Hemsworth, mighty Thor, as the genius hacker protagonist, introduced reading Baudrillard’s The System of Objects in his prison cell and doing handstand push-ups a minute later. I offer no defense for the realism of Hemsworth’s character, Nick Hathaway, nor can I even claim he is a cogently awesome creation. His dinner table oratory about the surveillance state coexists with shots of him coding on his laptop, blue shirt hanging open, ripped chest exposed. Nothing wrong with that, not at all, but with the love interest, Chen Lien (Tang Wei), falling for him the moment she sees him and her brother, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), also Hathaway’s best friend and a Chinese cyber warfare expert in his own right, convincing the U.S. and Chinese governments that Hathaway is their Foucault-reading savior, the film takes his appeal for granted without including the suffering or neuroses or bed head to clarify that he is actually human.
Which is not to say that Mann fails to do anything with Hemsworth’s presence. Upon his release from prison, arranged so that he may track down a cyber terrorist who is using code he co-authored years before, Hathaway stares down his freedom, quite literally, in Mann’s trademark cool-guy-with-sunglasses-looking-off-into-the-distance move, but it’s not phony in the least. Immediately succeeding his contemplative pause is a long shot with Hathaway wedged at the top left corner, a sea of grey tarmac below him. Instead of endless sky, Mann gives us concrete ground, foreshadowing the tactile trials to come and dwarfing his hero not against nature but the man-made structures surrounding him. It’s an impressive moment, not redeeming of Hathaway’s haphazard characterization but mapping him onto this hostile world.
The globetrotting that follows incorporates its Chinese players to an organic degree atypical of American blockbusters, with a substantial amount of subtitled dialogue that other films with East Asian box office ambitions should seek to emulate, even if they won’t. At one juncture where Chen Dawai suggests their next move, the camera pans from him to Hathaway to FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis, deadly) as they nod in agreement, a swift paean to and marriage of both globalization and bodies coming to decisions in intimate space.
For all its talk of digital warfare and unseen systems, Blackhat is a devastatingly physical film, where high-energy chase scenes and shoot-outs come to startling, silent ends. When a key character expires from an unexpected volley of bullets, Mann juxtaposes their frozen face with a distant skyscraper reflected in a now-lifeless eye, driving home, in a just a couple seconds, the totality of human life lost, the indifference of the modern cityscape and the possibility of salvation.
Mann packs a million little metaphors like this into Blackhat’s brisk two-hour, 10-minute runtime, spinning action poetry out of admittedly silly material. The opening, in particular, is a roller coaster: We start in space, gazing at an Earth carved by its electronic networks, and get gradually closer and closer, soon riding along an Ethernet cable and finally zooming down an information superhighway of 1s and 0s.
The film’s climax realizes this special effects sequence in human form, as Hathaway closes in on the bad guys by cutting through streams of worshippers observing a Hindu festival in Jakarta. The representational politics are anomalously regrettable (so the faceless Indonesians might as well be code?), but the sequence affirms Mann’s commitment to telling his story, almost purely, through movement, as only expressive, hyperreal digital photography can. It’s not like he has much choice, the script being what it is, but Mann’s authorship makes Blackhat the first work of cinematic art of 2015, as inventive as it is flawed.
3 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Beyond Outrage

It goes without saying that the Sony hack — in all likelihood North Korea’s response to the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy The Interview — and the Charlie Hebdo massacre vary in the severity of their crimes. But in both cases, strong and articulate progressive voices have countered all the calls to defend “freedom of expression” and #JeSuisCharlie’s by criticizing the content of the debateably satirical works themselves. Adrian Hong wrote a popular piece for The Atlantic titled, “North Korea: Not Funny,” while many on the left, in publications like Vox, Slate and Jacobin, criticized the content and motives of Charlie Hebdo. For The Hooded Utilitarian, Jacob Canfield said Charlie Hebdo’s “cartoons often represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia.” These are well-meaning, well-informed lines of argument that raise issues we should be considering in 2015.
While in theory I should consign these critiques, I do not, because theory has no claim on comedy. While watching The Interview, I laughed a good many times, even as the critic in me groaned this has got to be Franco’s worst performance to date. While decoding the seemingly offensive cartoons via the blog Understanding Charlie Hebdo, which provides translation and context, I did not laugh, necessarily, but I understood how the caricaturists effectively put air quotes around their most egregious creations, often lampooning the perspective of their country’s serious and seriously racist National Front party. The politically engaged French citizen, knowing the context, could find these cartoons humorous, because their inherent shock value can catalyze in said person a needed second or two of reflection during his or her average, busy day.
Because if there is one thing art does that political criticisms of it too often forget, it provokes a response from the viewer — an emotional, physical, automatic response that imbues that art, no matter its quality, with an individual significance. So I may laugh at The Interview, a stupid film, and not be considered callous to the suffering of North Koreans or — worse of all! — a bad critic. It is a superficial, irresponsible movie with many many flaws, but it succeeded, for me, as passable entertainment. To judge The Interview as a failure because it does not convince its viewers to “do something to help change this odious regime and bring about human rights for North Koreans,” as Hong does, is to freight it with an Oscar-baiting importance that would induce fatal cases of eye-rolling in its target audience.
But I am grateful Hong wrote that Atlantic piece. While I may disagree with the parameters he chose for critiquing a particular film, he brings a far more significant issue — the plight of innocent North Koreans — to the attention of many. For every thousand Facebook shares fueled by schadenfreude, there has got to be one person who read Hong’s story and felt a pang of profound moral outrage, worth exploring more and taking action against. That positive outcome is something only the popularity, and stupidity, of The Interview made possible. Whether Franco and Rogen respected or trashed their film’s sensitive subject matter, the media will be there, assuming its post-Twitter role as a spontaneous and widely visible corrective to the sins of popular culture.
For better or worse, this chatter only crescendos when the object of passion is a challenging, thrilling piece of bona fide art. It is for this reason that no one is talking about The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game, with their spectacularly unearned denouements,and why we cannot stop arguing over Selma and American Sniper. Pitted by opportunists as ideological enemies, the latter two films both complicate their heroic narratives through changes of perspective (in Selma, Coretta Scott King rightly accuses her husband of something he does not fess up to) and uncomfortable pauses (as a V.A. psychiatrist questions the historically efficient sniper Chris Kyle, the camera lingers on the soldier’s face as he conclusively denies any feeling of regret). Neither film is totally devoid of sentimentality, but both provoke thought through emotion, ensuring that any moral misgivings will fester and leech.
I know there are some fine, smart people out there who will disagree with my praise for Selma and American Sniper especially, and that they could pursue more productive routes of attack than “Selma gets LBJ wrong!” or “That Chris Kyle was a liar.” That is how these things go, as they should. But it does us little good to go on about what A gets wrong about X or Y, because a great film’s politics should be difficult to reduce to binaries and viral polemic. Find a recruitment poster if you’re looking for a call to action, and go outside if you’re looking for facts. Emotion remains the only barometer of truth, so long as that emotion stubbornly resists translation.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.