Monday, December 21, 2009

Recently Seen


The International is one of those vaguely inter-multi-transnational Hollywood affairs that trafficks in crossed borders, easy access, and cheaply suggested local color disguised as cosmopolitanism. Like Babel (which I still haven't brought myself to watch all of), Syriana, Michael Clayton, or The Interpreter, it's this weird mush that purports to be a bit smarter about The System than other Hollywood films. (I don't want to knock those films by grouping them together: the ones with Clooney have merit, perhaps Clayton particularly. More than just particularly if your name is Sallitt.) But virtually every character in this film, The International, is an absolute idiot. What is offensive about feature films that expose a vast system of corruption, violence, and intrigue is that they so frequently throw in successful mid-career positions characters who somehow have made a fine go of it, professionally, without ever having learned the facts of life about how their institutions work ... all the while retaining their commitment to 'truth,' 'justice,' etc. And the films try to reap a great deal of their pleasure from the extended frustrations of this Crazy Woild where such ideals matter not. (Again, Michael Clayton is something apart here, and if I recall, Syriana does boast that fun scene where the lawyer throws a tantrum and explains that "corruption is why we win!") One of the merits of The International is outlined by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: "The International is made by people who believe they know how the world works. The end credits sequence, the most essential in recent memory (and this is at a time when the end credits have taken on the role of "exit music"), confirms this: we see the events of the film unfold as they would in newspapers -- just the sort of stuff that would get a paragraph or two in the business pages of a major daily."


Taken, which I first saw a while back, has been playing a lot lately on HBO/Encore (part of the cable package that comes with our apartment, an appreciated component of the rent when Curb Your Enthusiasm comes on). Literally, it seems that one out of every 2-3 times I channel surf, Taken is playing. It was a big hit for not much money, and an English-language "Europudding" movie. Have you seen it? It's gloriously bad, but rewarding inasmuch as it's a well-oiled machine of a revenge narrative. (And I cherish good payback narratives.) The key is to make Liam Neeson an absolute dolt ... except when it comes to his job, in which case he's both a genius and blessed with good fortune and loads of free time. He tries to rescue his sweetly innocent spoiled brat of a daughter before the window closes (correct down to the last minute) before she's "lost" forever. First it's indicated that her being lost is literal, that authorities won't be able to track her down, and she'll be in a limbo of Europe's floating world of white slavery. (Extreme, but...) As the plot moves on, however, everything becomes a race against time to prevent her defloration at the hands of a slimy, shady underworld kingpin. Where The International strives to be "smart" (smart like the readers of USA Today), Taken is satisfied with being merely functional.


One frequent difference between prestige films and genre films today is that the former put the force of their aesthetic weight behind the establishing shots, the sweeping vistas, the longer takes, the décor. The latter work with the cut because they rarely have a budget, or an imagination behind the camera, to do something really interesting with sets, props, and people. Consider the Guggenheim shootout in The International, which is not about form or even feeling, but about the imagined presence of a gunfight in this place (just like Istanbul, Milan, and so on). While Taken, too, acts as a bit of a tourist brochure, its "good parts"—the parts I nudge my fiancée to look up for when she's around and I'm channel surfing—are about swift cutting, the kinetic visceral satisfaction imparted by a swift motion, a thud on the soundtrack, the utility of a series of quickly timed cuts.


James Cameron isn't the King of the World so much as the King of the Bad Middlebrow Sublime. And I, occasional acolyte of Ado Kyrou, do try to look for the sublimity in "bad" films. Cameron indeed has the makings of a respectable genre artist at work in the industry: just imagine if the man behind The Terminator had been in the studios in 1951. Unfortunately he exists in the blockbuster age, which gathers him into the spotlight and then celebrates him for a lot of the things that are both quintessentially "him" (as powerful author-figure) and monumentally stupid. (He's not permitted, or at least not encouraged, to be a termite.) Aesthetically, Cameron hits his highest points, and they're only minor, when he's working on a modest scale or he doesn't take his something too seriously. Avatar takes itself very seriously, but it's also such a brazenly shameless Frankenstein monster of 10 or 20 other movies (Starship Troopers, FernGully, Cameron's own Aliens, various Miyazakis, Dances with Wolves, et cetera) that I kind of enjoyed it anyway. It's a bit of an inversion from Romero's masterpiece Knightriders ('81), which is a ludicrous concept played so seriously that a certain beauty of the images and purity of (il)logic emerge. Avatar is so ridiculous, but so emphatically, colorfully so (and well-composed as 3D; as an exercise in space I preferred to it Coraline), that the completely pointless action-adventure hippie "theme" doesn't necessarily impinge on the purely kinetic Epcot aspect of the spectacle.

I'm tempted to locate a copy of Vachel Lindsay which, scandalously, I don't own, to continue here ...


Ryland Walker Knight said...

Just watched _Taken_ this evening on HBO during dinner. What a dumb goof. So easy to watch, and yet so "terrible"! Somehow, as I get older, I grow less and less fond of Liam Neeson as an actor. But that worked for this movie, I think, in that I got a kick out of seeing him thunder through the picture, wrecking every scene/space he barreled through. Also, I like how it's "Paris" not Paris. Oddly, it gets me more intrigued in the dude's new bit of silly starring Travolta.

Uncle Gustav said...

"The key is to make Liam Neeson an absolute dolt ... except when it comes to his job, in which case he's both a genius and blessed with good fortune and loads of free time."

...and black shoe polish. Varying shades of black shoe polish. To color his hair. Combined with his radical weight loss (anorexia?), the man's a physical train wreck. Were it not for the voice, I never would have recognized him.

The Legendary Black Marquis said...

I'm new to your blog, and I like it a lot. Just wanted to say that what you said about Taken:

He tries to rescue his sweetly innocent spoiled brat of a daughter before the window closes (correct down to the last minute)

...really made me laugh. It is true: At some point, a vague prediction that 'for most girls, the trail becomes cold after 36 hours' becomes a real ticking clock. Good stuff!

Christopher Carullo said...

I'm glad someone else noticed FernGully in Avatar.


I definitely think you are on to something about the prestige film. Since the '30s (if not earlier) they have thrived on finding a way to over-signify the authenticity of their mise-en-scene, either through $$$ or location shooting. Perhaps it's as simple as demonstrating the actors are truly in the space, as opposed to just inserting B-roll of the location.

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