Thursday, May 29, 2008

The first shot of Blind Date (Blake Edwards, 1987) is worth more than all of the frames of every Judd Apatow movie, ever.


First a quote:

Here's a highly speculative thesis, and one I'm not especially prepared to defend, though I've long suspected it has some truth. Starting in the late 1960s audiences became more self-conscious that they were going to the cinemah. They became more conscious viewers, more appreciative of distinctly cinematic flourishes. Even highly commercial films began to project their "style" -- flashy cutting, nice decor, self-conscious acting -- in a way that got viewers' attention, because viewers now were a little bit more demanding than the average viewer of "Red River" or "All That Heaven Allows." Superficially, this new situation might seem to encourage creative and "artistic" film directing. But the great masterpieces of classical Hollywood always worked on two levels: "Red River" was an "oater," a standard Western that fulfilled naive entertainment functions, as well as a film about the interrelationship of landscape to character. On the genre level Hawks or Sirk had to do certain things, whereas on a sub-rosa level (and in Hawks's case, perhaps without even being consciously aware of it) they could do something quite different. And since no one in the studios was really able to see or understand the "sub-rosa level" (if there were such people, then perhaps Harry Cohn could have written "The American Cinema" a decade before Sarris), there were no Harveys who know they understand "cinema" because they cut their teeth viewing a Truffaut movie telling Sirk to cut down on the weirdly-positioned flowers at the sides of the frame, and he had almost total freedom.

But as audiences became more demanding, their demands were not so much for the profundity of Sirk but for the self-conscious and simpler stylizations, of, say, "Far From Heaven," to choose a film that I quite liked. This, paradoxically, encouraged directorial stylists whose flourishes were more obvious, and in which the two levels are collapsed into one, one that because it needs to be able to appeal to mass tastes is almost by definition less profound. Hence we got more "style" but less real art. This is a shift that may have helped Tarantino, but it sure hurt Monte Hellman.

This is one of Fred Camper's posts to the A_film_by discussion group which links up with some of my own observations/speculations inspired by watching The River's Edge (Allan Dwan, 1957) and Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941).

Both of these movies are what I'd describe as Men's Adventure Movies. "Men's Adventure Movie" is also the phrase I used to describe parts of No Country for Old Men.

To what extent this is a real genre - using my definition of genre as dynamic conversations between audiences and artists - rather than a category that makes sense just to me is open for debate, although I'm not sure that I feel too strongly one way or the other and, more importantly, I'm not sure that it matters much. However, I think I should point out the main reason why I'd link these three movies under that heading: they present a male hero, accomplished at manly pursuits (hunting, tracking, wilderness survival), up against a dangerous antagonist, and trapped - by choice or chance - outside of the protective circle of civilization.

(Incidentally, this links into why I don't think the movie version of No Country for Old Men is really much of a Western. That is: it seems to take part in the Western Movie conversation on a fairly superficial level, while jumping right into the center of Men's Adventure Movie concerns).

Using Fred's language Man Hunt and The River's Edge are examples of movies that are working on "two levels", although I tend to think of them as "movies with a wealth of subterranean interest". That is: simply parsing what's on screen in these movies for story stuff - plot, character, literary themes - is going to leave out a lot of what is interesting about these movies - i.e., the way that their directors use design, staging, and composition to create a thematically and aesthetically coherent vision. To put it another way: it isn't exactly that "what they mean" is less important than "how they mean", but that the what's importance is subordinate to, because organized by, the how's.

Watching and thinking about these movies (and then coming across Fred's quote) has helped to me get a clearer understanding of the problems I had with No Country for Old Men.

In these terms:

The Josh Brolin sections of No Country for Old Men mimic this kind of Lang/Dwan "two-level"/"subterranean" movie, but his abrupt exit collapses everything into one level, at which point all of the built up underground meaning is thrown away in favor of an on-the-surface meaning derived from contemporary literary fiction. The problem isn't so much that it's too literary, though, but rather that's it's too literal: that it is on the surface and so comes across like a gambit on the part of the Coen Brothers.

(Comparing/contrasting with Psycho would be an interesting exercise: Hitchcock doesn't back away from playing games with the audience and these games are certainly sites of deeper formal/thematic/aesthetic meaning. What the Coen Brothers are doing is the sledgehammer approach and seems, to me at least, to come out of a certain strain of literary fiction (see Mao II, where the lack of narrative closure is meant to stand in, symbolically, for - broadly speaking - the unknowability of the world).

Anyway, I recommend checking out both Man Hunt and The River's Edge if you get a chance.


I'm always at least a little bit skeptical of critics who use a set of "essentialist" criteria to evaluate art. In popular/folk/semi-popular music, this is often tied into the idea of "authenticity". In movies, we get the people beating the media-specificity drum.

Maybe I should have said I'm only a little bit skeptical, though. I've gone back and forth about this since I started getting seriously into movies when I was in high school, but over the last year I've seen so much praise being heaped on films made by people who are barely filmmakers that I'm becoming less and less skeptical.

The Coen Brothers are certainly not "barely" filmmakers, but I'd like to use them to help tease out some ideas not so much about the decline of filmmaking qua filmmaking but the short shrift it continues to get in lots of discussions about movies as art.

Since re-seeing The Pink Panther last month, I've watched a number of Blake Edwards's other movies that I hadn't seen (Operation Petticoat, Breakfast at Tiffany's) or hadn't seen in a while (The Party, A Fine Mess, The Great Race, Blind Date). Although I loved The Party when I was in high school (I owned a tape that I watched over and over again), I never really thought of it as a particularly well-directed film: I was mainly into Sellers's performance. (I can only guess at how much this had to do with watching a pan-and-scan copy). As with The Pink Panther, seeing these movies in the light of Play Time - see my comments here for an explanation - was a revelation.

One thing I started to think about while watching these movies: if you turned these stories into novels, you would lose what is great about them as movies. And it strikes me that that really isn't the case with the movies made by the Coen Brothers. There are a lot of nice things in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? that a hypothetical "novel version" would have to leave out - the music, for example, or George Clooney's line delivery - but a lot of the "meat" would remain: the way the movie links folk culture, pop culture, and politics and the way it draws on archetypes from "classical" literature, tall tales, and folk songs could make its way unscathed into the O Brother book.

Now, while I can imagine a great short story on the same subject as The Party, I think that the things that are great about that movie (which mostly have to do with a Tati-like milking of the set for thematically apt gags) would simply not make the transition. In other words, the novel of Oh Brother would resemble the movie of Oh Brother more than the short story of The Party would resemble that movie.

I'm not sure that this means that The Party is a greater movie than Oh Brother, but I do think the likelihood that such a claim would provoke derision or (more realistically) that such a claim (or the reasons underlying such a claim) would be dismissed out of hand by a large portion of contempo film buffs/critics/etc. is worth thinking about. (I could be exaggerating this "likely derision", but it is based on my own experiences talking with other film buffs.)


For more insight on the title of this post, see here and here.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Speed Racer

There's simply no way that Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008) could be the kind of revelation that The Matrix was. That movie - which set its digitally-created fantasy world inspired by the aesthetics of anime and the physics of Hong Kong action movies against a "real world" inspired by James Cameron's blue-collar sci-fi actioners - consciously drew the line between old school and new school special effects, not just analog vs. digital, but covertly-digital vs. overtly-digital. During the summer of 1999, it was hard for me not to see The Matrix, with the way its use of digital fx became part of its unifying aesthetic and thematic vision, as pointing the way forward, while The Phantom Menace - which showed George Lucas embracing digital technology with as much, if not more, enthusiasm than the Wachowski Bros. - felt old-fashioned. It looked like Lucas was using the new technology to make a shinier version of the same kind of movie he had made twenty years earlier. If anything, for me (and I don't think I was alone), the CGI seemed to sap the charm out of Star Wars.

Ten years later, things don't look quite the same to me. While my appreciation for The Matrix has grown, most of the movies that followed in its footsteps - including its two sequels - learned only the most superficial lessons from it (its most impressive descendants, Sin City and 300, got as much of their oomph from the visuals from Frank Miller's original comic books as they did from their directors' deployment of digital filmmaking), while the stubbornly old-fashioned tack taken by George Lucas in Attack of the Clones and The Revenge of the Sith gives some retroactive grandeur to The Phantom Menace. I bring this all up because, walking out of Speed Racer, I couldn't help feeling that this was the Wachowski Bros.'s attempt to make a George Lucas movie: their version of The Phantom Menace. More specifically, I think this is their way of "correcting" The Phantom Menace, by making that movie's covertly-digital effects overtly-digital.

For example, the racing sequences in Speed Racer are elaborations on the pod racing from The Phantom Menace. Both draw from video games (especially the F-Zero series), but the Wachowskis not only play up that connection, they take a common element from video racing games - the "ghost car" and use it narratively and thematically.

Somewhat more esoterically, while there always seems to be a disconnect between the human actors and the CGI-covered green screen background in The Phantom Menace which gives off the effect of watching a "cut scene" from a Japanese computer RPG a la Final Fantasy, the Wachowki Bros. emphasize the disjunction between their human performers and the CGI world they inhabit.

The important paradox of Speed Racer is not that it's the multi-million dollar centerpiece of a (failed) marketing campaign whose message is anti-corporate and pro-small-time-independent, but rather that it is a multi-million dollar movie made by an army of technicians that, nonetheless, draws from and aspires to being a kind of "hand made" work along the lines of Tim and Eric's Awesome Show. What's surprising is the extent to which Speed Racer's status as a "personal movie" is written on its surface, like Tim Burton's Batman Returns and Mars Attacks, as opposed to a "covertly" personal blockbuster, like Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible or Mission to Mars. However, like Mission to Mars, Speed Racer seems to be fundamentally concerned with the contradictions of how (if?) such an industrial system can be used to convey a personal vision.

As a side note: I can certainly understand not liking Speed Racer, but the negative tone taken towards the movie by many film critics, which seemed driven by mean-spiritedness as much as anything else, was troubling. Compare the Metacritic page for Speed Racer with the one for Transformers. Transformers isn't a completely unlikable movie - the ersatz Joe Dante moments making up for the ersatz James Cameron action/suspense sequences - but, even by Michael Bay's standards it is sloppily made and has no ambitions beyond the marketplace. Speed Racer does: as with The Matrix, the Wachowski Bros. are trying for a unified aesthetic and thematic vision, which seems much more personal this time around. Or rather, personal in a different way: The Matrix looks like a collection of their tastes as movie buffs, whereas Speed Racer is their personal statement about being filmmakers. Is this what made Speed Racer more of a target? If so, that's pretty disheartening: essentially arguing for unambitious, paint-by-numbers escapism over any kind of large scale personal/popular filmmaking.

For what it's worth: from a moviegoer's perspective I'm not quite sure to what extent Speed Racer is a success. I certainly enjoyed it and though it was visually and thematically interesting. The acting, overall, is better than in the Matrix trilogy - especially the supporting/background performers. Still, it felt shallower - emotionally and thematically - than The Matrix (let alone Mission to Mars). Although, since this is a family film, a better point of comparison might be: it felt shallower than Brad Bird's Pixar movies. On the other hand, that's just a first impression and unlike 90% of the summer blockbusters I've seen over the last 10 years, Speed Racer is a movie I'm interested in returning to at some point.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Thoughts on: Batman, Super Heroes, Special Effects

I thought about writing up some kind of response to Sean Collins's short, anti-Batman Begins, pro-Tim Burton Batman comment from his recent Carnival of Souls post, but I realized I had already said most of what I have to say about that here. At one point I know that I had meant to mount a more detailed defense of Batman Begins against the specific criticisms Sean had raised in his original post on the movie, but I now figure I'll save any extended writing on that subject for when the sequel comes out.

I will add now that I think the Burton Batman suffers from the same problem as Byran Singer's Superman Returns: a script whose cleverness undermines something integral to the central character. In the case of Batman, making the Joker the killer of Bruce Wayne's parents creates nice narrative symmetry but it reduces Batman's crusade into a conventional revenge story and neatens everything up. The sense that Batman can never truly avenge his parents' death by fighting crime is completely lost because he actually gets to avenge his parents' death. Likewise, the big reveal in Superman Returns undermines any poignancy that the character has for being someone trapped between two worlds, two lives that are not reconcilable.


Seeing Sean describe the Burton Batman as his favorite super-hero movie got me thinking about my own favorites: Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man movies, the first three Superman movies (yes - even III), the three X-Men movies (yes - even The Last Stand), Ang Lee's The Hulk, Batman Returns, and Batman Begins. And Batman and Superman Returns, because, despite my problems with their scripts, they have something most of the other movies (except for The Hulk, where the script also has some "cleverness" problems) on this list lack: a sense of visual poetry and design that characterizes the best super hero comics. For the most part, super-hero movies have only achieved this sporadically (some of the moments in Superman II and III and the first two X-Men movies), instead focusing on a very literal use of special effects to convince us that a man can really fly.

One of the few poetic fx-driven moments in recent super hero flicks...

The two Fantastic Four movies offer the clearest example of what I'm trying to get at: I think they're both fairly enjoyable as lightweight summer spectacles, but the nature of their spectacle is completely within the domain of blockbuster action movie conventions and doesn't even try to achieve an ounce of the power, grandeur, and poetry of the Jack Kirby artwork from the original comics. The movies are as far from the comics as The Man of La Mancha is from Don Quixote.

Better movies suffer from this, too: as much as I like Spider-Man, there's something off-putting about the obvious transformation of Tobey Maguire in a Spider-Man costume to CGI Spider-Man every time he puts on his mask and starts to leap around. In some ways, the much lower-rent sub-Matrix effects in the first two X-Men movies have more integrity.

Considering the ubiquity of special effects and their central place in many comic book movies, I'm a little surprised that there hasn't been more of any effort to deal more systematically with the "poetics of sfx".