Thursday, September 27, 2007

Bias

A thought inspired by The Wind that Shakes the Barley :

If you're making a political movie, about a cause or an issue you really believe in, and you think that your side is obviously the right one, then you should have the balls to give the other side just as good lines, just as appealing defenders, just as strong arguments. Otherwise you're stacking the deck and setting up straw men. And if your side really is right, why would you need to do that? (Maybe because you don't trust your audience?)

So, if you really believe, as Ken Loach and Paul Laverty seem to believe, that the split in the Republican movement was a tragedy as much because it dashed the hopes for a Communist Ireland as it was for turning brother against brother in a vicious Civil War, then you shouldn't need to stoop to portraying the pro-Treaty characters as power-grubbing hypocrites. The actual politics, loyalties, and issues seem messy enough that drawing clear sides, as the movie does, feels like a bit of a cheat.

The movie's nostalgia for Communism doesn't help, of course. I'm always a bit queasy watching movies like this or Pan's Labyrinth, which romanticize failed Communist movements, without seeming to acknowledge the fairly awful history of successful Communist movements.

Despite all this, I thought the movie was definitely worth watching. The subject is interesting, the performances are all nicely done, and it does a very good job of getting at some of the specifics of irregular warfare.

Slow Down

Real life events have taken a bite out of my blogging once again.

There won't be a hiatus this time, but over the next few weeks updates will be sporadic at best. And they're more likely to be along the lines of my last post than, you know, the kind of deeply-considered and thought-out material you've come to expect from this blog. And, because I'm in a bad mood, I'll probably be a lot less charitable than I normally do.

I'm also having trouble finding the time to reply adequately to comments: please, keep commenting. I'm reading them and will respond as soon as I get a chance.

Assumptions

My friend Lin Swimmer commented on my Keanu Reeves post:

Any post that begins with the unspoken assumption of Reeves being an actor of quality gets an immediate, wide-grinned thumbs up from me.

I was thinking of this this morning while reading a few posts on a messageboard that were based on the assumption that Dumb and Dumber is a really bad movie. In the context of the conversation there, Dumb and Dumber is used as an example of a stupid, crowd-pleasing bad movie compared to Requiem for a Dream as an example of a difficult, challenging good movie.

That's the kind of conversation I really have to hold myself back from joining in on. I mean, it's so obvious to me that Dumb and Dumber is one of great comedies of its era, that I wouldn't even know where to begin. Maybe by talking about how educated, cultured Americans have a long tradition of turning their noses down at homegrown arts and entertainment? So, Jim Carrey and the Farrelly Brothers - truly (North) American originals - get a thumbs down, but Darren Aronofsky's microwave version of European art cinema gets a thumbs up.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Apocalypse

I can't guarantee that you'll like it as much as I did, but, if you're reading this blog, I think you'll probably be very interested in reading Jeff Carlson's "survival" horror/post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel Plague Year .

Here's the first sentence, just in case you don't want to take my word for it:

They ate Jorgensen first.

Well, anyway, that certainly hooked me!

The first chapters are available online at Jeff's site, here.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Action Movies, Part 1


This is the first in a series of posts dealing with what I've been calling (to myself and to my friends) "The Golden Age of American Action Movies".

First: what's the purpose, here?

Well, one of my favorite "traditions" of American cultural criticism/analysis/history is the belated championing of an overlooked/under-appreciated pop-art form as an Important Contribution to American (or even World) Culture. Think: Jazz, the Newspaper comic strip, the Broadway Musical, the "Underground" comic book, soul music, etc. I want a piece of that action!

Plus - I think these movies are under-appreciated. Film buffs/critics often look down on them as "popcorn movies" or enjoy them sheepishly as "guilty pleasures". But at their best they're more than that, and, moreover, they're doing something that can only be done in movies: seamlessly combining big screen spectacle and genuine human scale drama.

Second: when, exactly, was the "Golden Age of the American Action Movie"?

Remember that I see blogging as part of an open, ongoing discussion and don't take this as the only answer to the question, but, for our purposes right here, right now, at the beginning of the conversation, I'm going to say that the Golden Age started around 1982, reached its apotheosis in the years around 1990, and petered out over the mid-to-late 1990s.

Concrete examples might help:

First Blood, from 1982, is one of the movies that ushers in the Golden Age.

Die Hard, from 1988, is the Golden Age action movie at its best.

It's a little bit harder to find an end point because of a number of stragglers, but movies like Con Air and Face/Off from 1997 both, for different reasons (which will hopefully become more clear as we go on), indicate the waning of the Golden Age. It is essentially over as a major film "movement" by 1999, when The Matrix heralds the arrival of a new school of action filmmaking .

The important context: the age of blockbusters, B-movies with big budgets, an audience of young men with money to spend, a growing international market.

(I'd just like to mention that I'm sure someone will read all this and be like: "Well, what you should really be paying attention to are the Drive-In action/exploitation pictures of the 1970s, blah, blah, blah." Well, yeah - I like those movies, too. Especially Rolling Thunder. But we're not talking about those movies here and they're already much-loved by film buffs.)

Third: what else, aside from when and where it was made, makes a given action movie a part of "the Golden Age of American Action Movies"? I.e., is there some style or idiom these movies all share?

Well, yes, in fact, I think so. Or, for the purposes of this conversation, let's at least propose a few.

A. Getting this out of the way first: they're action movies. That is, character and theme are revealed through scenes involving physical - usually martial - conflict and risk. Arguably, they should be primarily action-driven. So, like, Heat, despite having one of the key action sequences of the era, is an outlier or a liminal case - it's probably more of a crime melodrama than a genuine action movie. But, like I said, "arguably".

B. They share two major stylistic/formal elements: (1) a commitment to surface realism and (2) spatial integrity is the cohering idea behind their action sequences. Ugh - that's ugly and jargon-y. Let's see if I can unpack it a little:

What I mean by "surface realism": despite the craziness of the situation, despite the often superhuman feats, despite the frequent fudging of the laws of physics, Golden Age Action Movies present everything with a straight face. There's no stylization or attempt to put quotation marks around any of the action.

So, yes, these means I'm leaving out movies that directly show the influence of "Blood Poets" like Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone. Golden Age Action are no-nonsense spectacles. (Brian De Palma's The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible are both stylistic outliers: they're unimaginable apart from the context of Golden Age Action Movies, but they're really standing outside the tradition, commenting on what's going on inside it.)

What I mean by "spatial integrity is the cohering idea": well, this is a little trickier and I'd welcome any questions that will help to make this as clear as possible.

I've got this notion that one of the features of a good action movie is a unifying approach to the action sequences. Now, different action movies might take different approaches. For instance, The Bourne Supremacy takes what I would call the impressionistic route. The "cohering idea" behind its action sequences is to give the audience the impression of what being in a high impact, high speed fight/chase/etc. might be like. This is realized through: lots of quick cuts, hand-held camera work, purposefully chaotic fight choreography. Face/Off (along with a lot of other John Woo movies) takes an expressionistic approach. So, saying that the approach emphasizes "spatial integrity" is partly just reiterating the commitment to surface naturalism, but it is also showing their allegiance to the mainline of Hollywood narrative filmmaking exemplified by something like Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo. In other words, these movies aim for scenes that make sense spatially in terms of how everything is happening. Not that there isn't fudging and not that the integrity isn't really an illusion.

Ok - so, that's out of the way.

Next up: talking about some specific movies, starting with Speed. But, to get in the right frame of mind for what's to come, check out our T-2 "round-table" from earlier this year and Sean Collins's recent post on Shoot 'em Up.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Underrated Movies

When I think about "underrated" movies, I try not to think of movies that I like that other people don't, but, rather, movies that are liked and admired but aren't, IMO of course, given enough praise/credit/etc.

Like The Night of the Shooting Stars : this is a pretty well-respected movie among film buffs, but, well, I think it deserves a lot more. I mean, there are some movies that don't really work for me that I am willing to accept are masterpieces - Battleship Potemkin or 2001: A Space Odyssey. In return, all I ask is that everyone else accept The Night of the Shooting Stars as a masterpiece - even if it doesn't bowl you over.

There are so many things I love about this movie: both in terms of (a) "what it's about" and (b) "how it's about that". An example of (a): there are few other war movies that manage to so fully and generously humanize everyone involved in the conflict. Maybe the most moving, wrenching, horrible scene in the movie is for the death of a character that a less generous (and less audacious) movie would have us cheering for (yes, I'm looking at you Pan's Labyrinth). As for (b): I can't help but thinking of this movie as a "movie movie" - one that makes use of all the various styles and idioms of European narrative film throughout the century - expressionism, poetic realism, neo-realism, etc. What's amazing, though, is how seamless the whole picture is, despite this variety.

Another great movie that has fallen through the cracks: Where the Heart Is . My theory is that this is one of those movies that scares off its ideal audience because of its surface appearance. Specifically: it looks kind of like a late-80s, John Hughes-ish family comedy - wacky parents, wacky kids, wacky situation. And it has a synth-driven musical score! But underneath, it's more like a sophisticated European comedy. Oh, yeah, also - it's one of the few contemporary movies/books/plays/etc. that tries to be Shakespearean that, IMO, actually feels Shakespearean.

Now - I would like to point out that I also try not to confuse "underrated movie" with "cult movie". For example, I think The Red Circle is just fantastic, but it's a meandering, existential, not-very-thrilling crime thriller/heist movie. I'm not quite sure that it is even meant to appeal to a general audience. But The Night of the Shooting Stars and Where the Heart Is are both really "general interest" kinds of movies.

So, I'll add on one more for now: Philip Kaufman's version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers . I was just watching this again and was struck by how right all the little details seem (especially all the background weirdness). There are a lot of "small group against alien/zombie/etc. invasion movies" but the strength of this one is that it is so believable on a realistic level. I didn't find myself making excuses for it ("Oh, well - they have to do that because it's a movie"), in the way I find myself making excuses for some of the inconsistencies in, say , 28 Days Later.

It's a masterpiece of suspense and paranoia: the kind of sci-fi movie Jean Renoir might have made.

Art, Writing, Acting, Etc.

Via Tim Hodler at the Comics Comics blog, this Newsarama discussion about why comics critics don't talk about the art as much as (perhaps) they should.

My general take on the issue is that comics critics are writers and writers (a) tend to pay more attention to and (b) are more comfortable opining on "writerly" stuff - plotting, theme, character, etc.

The same thing happens with film critics and acting: most will say whether a performance is good or bad, but few go into any detail about what actors actually do.

Tim's take on the issue is that in comics the writing and art are too closely linked to actually separate:

In comics, the art is the writing, and vice versa. Panel layout, pacing and visual rhythm, color, the expressiveness of line: these are all inseparable from comics storytelling, in the same way that you can’t separate Nabokov’s prose style and character descriptions from his writing, or the mise en sc√®ne and editing from the “writing” of a movie.

So, I'd take this, add it to my point about film critics and actors, and tie it back into what I was saying about film performance back in this post on Payback. We like to be able to separate out a movie performance from the script and from the directing, but any kind of separation like that is really artificial. Now, there's nothing wrong with isolating one of these elements for the purposes of discussion, analysis, etc., but we shouldn't forget that when we're actually experiencing a movie these three things - along with lots of other things - design, cinematography, staging, etc. - are completely intertwined.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Keanu

This is a slightly edited e-mail back-and-forth with my friend Nick:
Me to Nick:
A few weeks ago when my wife was up in VT with her family, she called me and was like: "You think Keanu Reeves is a good actor, right?" And I was like: "Yes, of course, why." Then she was like: "I'm going to put you on speaker so you can explain why he's a good actor to my [younger] brother." But he had only seen THE MATRIX and the first Bill and Ted movie, and he didn't think Reeves was very good in THE MATRIX, so it was basically an impossible task.
Poor Keanu! So misunderstood.
Nick back to me:
Keanu is a good actor for three reasons:

1) He understands the relationship between his character and "stock spectacle/high concept", and thus is always an effective foil for whatever the director is throwing at him.

2) Connected to #1, Keanu, "The Hero" is always ready to inject a sense of humility/frustration/embarrassment into his action characters. He doesn't play "Superhuman" like 80s action stars, even when his character is pretty much "super human".

3) He's willing to try new things with varying degrees of success. He does great deadpan in I LOVE YOU TO DEATH.

I think, overall, he's a less gimmicky actor than Brad Pitt, but Pitt has somehow managed to gain a lot of goodwill by taking "bro" roles, like in OCEANS WHATEVER, MR AND MRS SMITH and, to some extent, FIGHT CLUB. I think Pitt's a more self-conscious actor, but that sometimes he can make that work (TRUE ROMANCE, parts of FIGHT CLUB).

Keanu, if not for his hunky frame, could probably have had a lot of success in the territory Joseph Gordon Levitt now occupies. He possesses a sort of dreamy stoicism that a lot of people equate to stupidity. I think it has more to do with being on a different frequency.
Me again:
I think he gets criticism because a lot of his biggest parts aren't very showy: Neo, for example, is meant to be a pretty reserved character. People equate "reserved" with "doing nothing". They miss out all the little things he does as an actor (your point #2). Like: the scene in THE MATRIX where he decides he needs to back into the Matrix after Morpheus - even though he doesn't really believe he's "the one" - is pretty fucking moving, but Reeves keeps everything really small. (Would you really want to see Robert Downey Jr. as Neo???) I can't think of any role where he "oversells" anything.

But I think he's also good when he's a little more "showy": like in THE GIFT or BILL AND TED or MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO. He has a pretty decent range for an actor of his time and place. People seem to forget these performances (or never saw them in the first place) when they're dissing him.

I think Pitt is pretty good when he's just being funny and charming, but, for the most part, he doesn't bring too much to the table. I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing - it works for the OCEANS movies and I thought some of the stuff he did in SMITH was pretty clever - but he's at his best when he gets out of the way, whereas Keanu (IMO) makes a positive, creative contribution to the roles he takes on.

Compare, for example, Pitt's stoner in TRUE ROMANCE, which is a pretty funny little comic turn, but basically a doodle (you can't imagine him extending it to feature length), with Keanu in A SCANNER DARKLY, where he really evokes the whole "walking wounded"-ness of far-gone stoners.

Good point about JGL, too. Reeves in RIVER'S EDGE is a lot like JGL is in his roles right now.
So, yeah - these are the kinds of conversations I actually have with people...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Movie Chat: Offside

A couple of years ago I was a fairly active participant (for a few months at least) on an invitation-only movie buff message board. At one point I mentioned how much I liked Late August, Early September and someone replied with a comment along the lines of: "Oh, French movies are so passe: these days I'm really into Iranian cinema."

Now, there are quite a few insulting misconceptions packed into that statement. Like: we should treat movies from different countries in a "flavor of the month"-style.

I have to admit, though, those comments helped keep me away from Iranian cinema. I know, I know: that's completely unfair. But my guess is that it's also pretty normal: it's easier to stop judging a book by its cover than it is to stop judging it by its readers.

Anyway, all of this is just to say that when I watched Offside this weekend it was only the third Iranian film I've ever seen so I am not qualified, by any means, to talk about it in terms of Iranian film in general. That won't stop me from saying that, compared to Close-Up , the movie seemed to suffer from having an amateur cast. Or rather, suffered from having such an inconsistent amateur cast: some of the performers did quite nicely, others struggled, the overall effect was a bit of mess. Close-Up, IMO, gets away with that because it folds the whole amateur cast thing into its entire thematic/conceptual purpose. Offside, though, seems like a much more conventional movie: a social problem movie that is both (a) very smart about the problem and (b) genuinely funny about the problem. Regardless, I feel like I'm committing some awful act of post-colonial oppression by saying that it really could have used a bit more polish.

Trying again...

It sure has been a while, but I'm going to get back into blogging again.


One of my problems has always been getting caught up in "big" blog posts. Like: for the past few weeks, I've been working on an essay about "the Golden Age of American Action Movies" (i.e., 1980s-1997 or so). I think it has the makings of being a very good post, but it's grown into a kind of a monster.

I'm going to try something different to get back into the swing of things: short, choppy, wise-ass posts.