Saturday, August 30, 2008

More Faris

Just Friends is a surprisingly bitter movie. Not that it's attitude towards its characters is particularly contemptuous (the Mom, perhaps) but that it's spurred along by deep-seated resentment. As a result the film is a bit all-over the place: part Farrellyesque body comedy, part teen movie sentimentalism, part small town winter wonderland romp (cf. Groundhog Day, Trapped in Paradise, Home for the Holidays). Regarding the seething emotions that justify the entire story, it should come as no surprise that the director was the same guy who "covered" Les Liaisons dangereuses.

The story goes that Ryan Reynolds was a sensitive fat kid in high school, in love with his oblivious, slightly aloof best friend (Amy Smart). He leaves his Central Jersey hometown in shame, and ten year's later he's a slim, charming, vapid ladies' man with a high-paying job in show biz. He's meant to court a manic, untalented, hot young pop star (a slightly exaggerated Avril Lavigne/Ashlee Simpson type) so that she agrees to sign her next record with his company. En route to a romantic Parisian weekend at her insistence, the plain is forced to land in Trenton ... over Christmas ... and Reynolds will visit his hometown for the first time since he graduated from high school. You see where all this ends up going. You probably can figure out 95% of the plot and 75% of the gags simply from this description. (Hint: Chris Klein has a role, too, and he also went from being "not hot" in high school to "hot" in his late 20s.) How tacked-on are the emotional progressions of all the characters, though? Normally in movies like this, which press the sentimental romance button at appropriate times (as this one does), there's at least an attempt to finesse out some kind of an emotional arc. Not here. The only appropriate word to describe the "emotional core" of the bond described to us between Reynolds' protagonist and Smart's object of affection is clusterfuck.

* * *

So why did I really watch this movie? Anna Faris! She doesn't reach the same heights as she does in Smiley Face, but as in The Hot Chick she has a "scene-stealing" presence. (In fact, in The Hot Chick Faris herself plays the "best friend" with romantic inclinations toward her BFF.) Here she plays none other than the pop star Samantha. What makes the performance so rewarding is that she acts as though she were in a movie and she's constantly flummoxed by the fact that the plot is always moving away from her. Her little tics, her movements, her schizophrenic consciousness blurted out from moment to moment. I mean, Faris is making Samantha act this way, as part of the character who knows and acts as if she were in a movie or tv show. It's a level of meta that the rest of the film doesn't really approach.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Scratch Sheet

Right away in Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate, Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) swindles a valuable four-volume edition of Don Quixote from the collection of a stroke-silenced patriarch. He deals with the book collector's greedy heirs, who wouldn't know what he's talking about when he references the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili but are wowed by his estimation of their father's library's value. The tack Polanski takes here is that of the unbeliever changing money in the temple: literature and the occult have their prices, and their predators and prey. The truth of a thing? Beside the point.

A thought: Johnny Depp and Robert Downey, Jr. are Hollywood's two best fortysomething male stars. (Sean Penn gets mentioned for this sort of honor a lot, but he doesn't really "act" these days, does he? In the normally even-keel Clint Eastwood's most frenetic and frenzied film (that I've seen), Mystic River, Penn spews out his lines too much like tortured poetry. I couldn't take it.) If Depp is indeed to play the Riddler in the next Batman movie, I may actually have to see it—though it's bound to be even worse than the painfully mediocre Dark Knight.

Nolan's Batman films are not very interesting to me, though the embrace he's received from most onlookers suggests he's found his element, so maybe I should just shut my mouth. (The indie filmmakers who debuted in the 1990s have shown that their inexpensive calling cards deservedly land them what they've wanted to do deep down all along: make expensive, accessible pop art. Still, I'm inclined to think that veteran Sam Raimi is doing a better job than Nolan, Singer, et al.) The most interesting Batman scenes Nolan made were the first half-hour (ish) of Batman Begins, which I perversely enjoyed for its almost mistakenly open militaristic-fascistic inclinations. Of course then the film goes back into the safe, muddled waters of the spectacular mainstream, and its follow-up The Dark Knight hardly deviates from this lucrative comfort zone. ("Ambiguity" is the hoped-for interpretation plastered like a salve over the film's deliberately muddled status quo politics, methinks.)

(Speaking of Downey and of superhero films, I still have yet to see Iron Man...)

Back to The Ninth Gate—a good, basic, "termitish" movie. What's not to like? In the blockbuster age it is refreshing when a mainstream film (about rare book collections and the occult, no less) keeps its claims modest, makes no huge gestures by the end. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, suggests this is a fault. I don't think it is; I like these mainstream genre films that gently stir up huge questions but don't presume to provide summary philosophical answers. The film tickles you, but doesn't scratch the itch: you must look elsewhere, outside the film, to continue the thread. I watched this film years ago, and took another look at it (in about thirteen segments) on YouTube, where I've enjoyed watching several contemporary Hollywood movies over the last few weeks. (Call it a "new media research project" with a team of one.) There's a difference between the ambiguity of a film that is all over the place, over-reaching itself and its own sense of importance, and the ambiguity of a film that never presumes its own high value, that plays its hand close the chest.

Note on a Face

Anna Faris' work in Gregg Araki's pot comedy Smiley Face is a hilarious catalogue of contortions and facial non sequiturs. She lets her eyes get big and her face a little wild, the chin rounding down the gullet with a pouty lip. When you look at, say, Megan Fox in Transformers, no matter what the physical demands of the scene her flawless face remains in the mode of a Calvin Klein ad. Not Faris! With gusto she moves around awkwardly. (Anyone who gets as much a kick as I did out of her rolling "escape" from her car in the parking garage is a kindred spirit.) Is there any other young comedic actress whose tiny movements of facial muscles comprise such a large part of the attraction of the image? The hunch of her back, the tyrannosaurus arms: this unfortunate stoner in Smiley Face had me in stitches.

Will report back if I go through more of the work of La Faris and it proves noteworthy.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Final Image

"Often, at the end of a movie, filmmakers feel the need for some takes of the sky, a landscape, empty streets, and so on. There is no movement in those shots, and the directors could simply film still photographs. But the eye discovers this immediately, because even if there is no movement (in either the subject or the camera) the presence of movement always appears in any filmed image. This play of mobility and fixity is a dwelling-place of involuntary signs."

—Raúl Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema

The last image of a film that comes to mind most readily when thinking about this excerpt is that of João César Monteiro’s Vai-e-Vem, where our hero's eye (and heart?) stop.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Monday, August 18, 2008

Manny Farber, 1917-2008

This one hurts. When Raymond Durgnat died, for instance, I was still just discovering his work. But Farber's Negative Space was re-issued around the same time that my cinephilia really started to kick into high gear, and perhaps no single collection of film criticism & reviews has been more important to me. I have more to say on this, but it won't be ready tonight or even this week. A few words, though, from the man himself:

The virtues of action films expand as the pictures take on the outer appearance of junk jewelry. The underground's greatest mishaps have occurred in art-infected projects where there is unlimited cash, studio freedom, an expansive story, message, heart, and a lot of prestige to be gained. Their flattest, most sentimental works are incidentally the only ones that have attained the almond-paste-flavored eminence of the Museum of Modern Art's film library, i.e., GI Joe, Public Enemy. Both Hawks and Wellman, who made these overweighted mistakes, are like basketball's corner man: their best shooting is done from the deepest, worst angle. With material that is hopelessly worn out and childish (Only Angels Have Wings), the underground director becomes beautifully graphic and modestly human in his flexible detailing. When the material is like drab concrete, these directors become great on-the-spot inventors, using their curiously niggling, reaming style for adding background detail (Walsh); suave grace (Hawks); crawling, mechanized tension (Mann); veiled gravity (Wellman); svelte semicaricature (John Farrow); modern Gothic vehemence (Phil Karlson); and dark, modish vaudeville (Robert Aldrich).

—"Underground Films," 1957

It's easy to "dissolve boundaries" between the "false dichotomies" of "high and low." But Farber understood that truly dissolving boundaries doesn't mean consuming anything and everything with abandon (anyone can do that with ease, and The System prefers you to do it that way) but rather approaching art with a set of practices, time-tested, to make sense of certain configurations of the cultural terrain. Farber's main interest, of course, was neither in being a "cultural critic" nor in connecting his formal analyses to deep sociohistorical currents. Nevertheless his criticism is amenable to these projects I think.

I'm pretty sure I've blogged this before, but: here are his deliberately small-scale "best films" of 1951 (a year-end list I've always liked precisely for its colorful and tenacious resistance to received wisdom): Little Big Horn (Charles Marquis Warren), Fixed Bayonets (Fuller), His Kind of Woman (John Farrow), The Thing from Another World (Hawks/Nyby), The Prowler ("Joe Losey"), The People Against O'Hara (John Sturges), The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise), The Man Who Cheated Himself (Felix E. Feist), Appointment with Danger (Lewis Allen—in his piece, Farber or the editor incorrectly cites this as Background to Danger, which is a Raoul Walsh-helmed Bogart film from 1943), and the honorable mentions: The Tall Target, Against the Gun, No Highway in the Sky, Happiest Days of Your Life (a truly hilarious British boarding school film! -ZC), Rawhide, Excuse My Dust, The Enforcer, Force of Arms, The Wooden Horse, Night Into Morning, Payment on Demand, Cry Danger, and (Farber can't remember the title, but it's) A Hound for Trouble. I've only seen a handful (and not yet the Fuller). Anyone seen them all?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

New Yorkers: see it! You've a few more days! If this vital film generated in the media even a tenth of the impassioned discussion and rapt attention that The Dark Knight has received, I'd feel optimistic about a lot of things. John Gianvito has delivered a very simple, resonant film, pared down—but he has also done something quite fascinating with the direct sound, and produced a commentary on humans' place in the natural world that, in today's Hollywood releases, only Terrence Malick can even engage with on equal terms. (Danny Kasman here; of course Andy Rector and David James are big fans.)

(P.S. I'll be gone, mostly at least, from the Internets from Wednesday to Wednesday.)

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Food Politics

I think it's pretty apparent that agribusiness is a massive problem, that processes like pasteurization and homogeneization (which had localized benefits, sure) are proving detrimental in the long run, that starving nations exporting food is a problem, and so on. Global food politics, on the very largest and the very smallest scales, are fucked up.

But let's not talk about all that. Let's in fact assume, overall, that no deep changes need be made to our assumptions or our thinking. There's no reason we can't have baskets of fresh tomatoes every day of the year, we still need "realistic" and "economically feasible" competitive prices for our staples, let's not have relationships with or proximity to the animals we eat, let's continue to think of calories as nuisances, that refined sugar and processed foods are just fine, etc.

So instead let's talk about bobo organic consumers, the types who go to the $30/entree Slow Food-endorsed restaurants in their bohemian chic neighborhoods, the ones who won't let Junior eat sugar or red meat, the ones who love "ethnic cuisine" and are likely vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic, or in any case finicky. (They won't sit down and eat a Big Mac, fercryinoutloud.) They like yoga or pilates and vote Democrat or Green though they also probably have a lot of money if they can afford all that organic, locally-grown produce. So from here on out let's filter all discussion of food politics (and opposition to the many harms and shortcomings of food industries) through the opinions and experiences of this small privileged subset of food consumers. Let's telescope onto the entirety of food politics the concerns, the opinions—and also the foibles, the shortsightedness!—of this class of people.

Let's basically discuss generic opposition to the giant problems in the food we eat, how we grow it and process it and ship it, how we relate to it, in terms of these trendy foodie bobos.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Good Liberal and "the Left"

Howard Hampton recently in Film Comment (on May '68 and cinema), like Stephanie Zacharek in the NYTimes on Godard (and the new Brody biography), puts in a torrent of barbs and jabs against "the Left," which is, naturally, painted as self-absorbed, dreamily unrealistic, artistically bankrupt, and responsible for horrific occurrences in China and Cambodia. A reader wrote in to Film Comment responding critically to the conservative tenor of Hampton's piece. The author responded himself with some fine, fine advice about what was earth-shakingly wrong about "the Left," and what "it needs to do" if it's going to be a force for social change to which people might warm up. (More on that point shortly.) The tropes for this kind of rhetoric are readily apparent and are taken loosely from Susan Sontag's description of the CP-controlled Soviet sphere of influence ("fascism with a human face") as well as Bush-supporter Tom Wolfe's "radical chic" epithet. Few things seem to arouse the ire of liberal American intellectuals as much as radical leftism—perhaps "Islamofascism." If the US government and its corporate benefactors-beneficiaries dislike something, all they have to do is insist that it is a thinly veiled form of fascism. As a result, decent, well-educated Democrats will be sure to hurl contempt, disdain, and sarcasm at such forces with much more tenacity than they will at, say, actual fascists and contemporary descendents.

In his response to Allen Keating-Moore's letter, Hampton lays down the law:

"Let's be clear: a revolution is not a beatific movie in which pretty actors shoot blanks; it's not a garden party of philosophy seminar or some poetic-romantic affirmation of Idealistic Youth. We're talking about an armed insurrection aimed at overthrowing the state, a ruthless struggle where terror, death, and coercion are the order of the day."

Yes, indeed, let us be clear. If we are not clear, it would seem that Hampton is of the camp who feels that terror, death, and coercion are not the order of the day under the state and the system we currently have.

No violence.

No terror.

No ruthlessness.

No coercion.

The heartrending, irrational justifications of the Good Liberal go like this: because there is relatively little violence, terror, or direct and perceived coercion in the life of a middle-class American, there must be relatively little violence, terror, and coercion in the entire order that enables this life. And (this is a quite obvious assumption of Hampton's) because hordes of middle-class Americans are not signing up for "the Left," it is unthinkable that the popular masses in any part of the globe could ever align themselves with "it," could ever express themselves through "it," could ever feel like "it" was something pluralistic and non-dogmatic that they might "want to join." For some people, "the Left" is not a club that must make itself attractive to prospective members. The fact that pockets of privileged Westerners have, in modern times, been naïve in their support of some leftist movements (or what they [mis]understood to be genuinely popular insurrectionary struggles against oppressors) is no reason to disparage "the Left" in its entirety or to whitewash the crimes of an order which is destroying our planet and immiserating most of our species.

"If the Left today really wants to get serious about being a force for change instead of a calcified form of political Scientology, it's going to have to outgrow its reflexive nostalgia for murderous absolutism, its superheroic fantasies of revolution-by-artistic-proxy, its smug propensity for not only making but valorizing the same mistakes, and do a better job of imagining a pluralistic, non-dogmatic society that ordinary people might conceivably want to join--one good place to start looking could be Alain Tanner's 1976 film Jonah—Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000."

Tanner's film is an impressive one, no doubt. Full of good cheer, good times, a progressivism amidst loved ones and comrades. But the question remains—just which "Left" are we talking about? That's a rhetorical question of course, because the mainstream liberal intelligentsia only seems to allow this one monolithic image. Oh indeed: Which left?

The smug tree-huggers?

Those who are "nostalgic" for murderous absolutism?

Those who doubt the benevolence of the market economy?

Those dandies who mistake art for action?

The dogmatic anti-pluralists?

Shouldn't we be thankful for the upholders of liberty—the liberty to live under capitalism?

The Good Liberal is conditioned not to conceive of a "revolution" outside of certain boundaries, certain regulations. The Good Liberal is conditioned to think of "the radical Left" as embodying all the same coercive and authoritarian structures that most self-identified leftists in history have fought against. The Good Liberal worries about poverty and social justice, but nevertheless aligns himself with the state and corporate forces which do everything in their power to disrupt, fragment, and fashion popular social movements—many of which designate themselves as being on the Left, some of which designate themselves as (yes) communist, socialist, or anarchist—against their own domination, exploitation, and hegemonic conscription.

I would wager that Hampton, like Zacharek, like many (probably) liberal people, dislike George W. Bush, believe his administration and the Republican Congress and the Supreme Court have made a real mess of things. I would wager that Hampton would have no beef if, asked right now, his feelings on the Chipko women, the slaves who fought back, the Chartists and union-organizers of the 19th century, even the Communards. But in their times and places they have been the demonized pipe dreamers, the utopian rabble-rousers and trouble-makers. So I would offer a firm congenial reminder to those who would, could be the allies of "the Left." In forming and maintaining an image of "the Left," of communist revolution, of popular struggle, the Good Liberal must ask himself whose interests he serves by perpetuating this image he criticizes.

If this question is not asked, history will ensure that the Good Liberals of today end up as merely the Goncourts of globalization.

(NB1: I've referred to the Good Liberal with masculine pronouns near the end of my post consciously and with reason.)

(NB2: On the same page of FC where Hampton's letter-response is printed, there is an ad for the Criterion re-release of Pasolini's Salò. Let us remember that it is not simply a "shocking masterpiece" but a deeply political film.)