Supply & Demand In The American Cinema

            It’s widely known, just as it is widely reported, that the primary motivation of any financial endeavor is profit, and such is the case with Hollywood. Films of a certain cost are designed to recoup their expense not only from ticket sales, but also by franchising into other markets. Independence Day (1996) had toys, video games, and books, following a model popularized by George Lucas, who may have learned a thing or two from Disney’s Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955). But these tie-ins and franchises have become so prevalent in our culture today that they go by almost unnoticed, and the effects these marketing strategies, and Hollywood’s approach to the cinema as a whole, are rarely analyzed for their effects outside of the market place.

The fathers of the blockbuster on the set of Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom.

The fathers of the blockbuster on the set of Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom.

            If one compares the cinema to other forms of art such as painting, one finds that the cinema is severely lacking in regional dialects or aesthetics. There has been, since the advent of the blockbuster, a unifying series of styles that have come in and out of vogue, essentially restricting audiences’ filmic literacy to these accepted aesthetics. These aesthetics themselves have found prevalence, and have therefore become stylish trends because of their marketability, due to the management of film studios and distributors as corporations and not curators of art. When audiences reacted positively to Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998), a slew of films were made that resembled that film in some way. Similarly, Miramax’s acquisition of In My Left Foot (1989) resulted directly in the acquisition of In The Name Of The Father (1993). Both instances represent this trend in American cinema explicitly. This is not entirely new, but as the internet spreads positive criticism of once hard to find films like Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970), why are so many movie goers allowing Hollywood to dictate which films are imported to this country?

            The Criterion Collection released a box set earlier this year that was curated by Martin Scorsese and represented the first instance that many of the films contained within were available in this country. Each film represents a unique cinematic voice indigenous to a world beyond our borders. This is nationalist or regionalist cinema, one a smaller portion contained within the other. Such imported expressions are almost verboten in the American theatrical market because their ability to fill seats or spark a franchise is as uncertain as it is untested. These circumstances are a testament to the ignorance of the American moviegoer, and perhaps every moviegoer in the Western World.

A once obscure Czech film has found a mainstream following.

A once obscure Czech film has found a mainstream following.

            Regional cinema is all around us. Filmmakers toil unrecognized in every corner of the world, yet their work is lost to the general public because of an inability to meet a marketing quota. Online streaming and distribution offer an array of options, but the industry is still primarily focused on the festival circuit. Like all businesses Hollywood and American film distributors will only meet supply with demand. As an audience the American public must therefore demand that foreign regionalist films and even domestic regionalist films find wide spread theatrical distribution.

-Robert Curry

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Style For The Sake Of Style

It’s been years since Wes Anderson transcended the cult status of his earlier films. Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998) offered a highly stylized, if not completely unreal, suggestion of what was to come. Anderson’s first foray into the realm of high style, and a break from any tangible means of reconciliation with our own reality, occurred with the masterful choreographed and acted The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). The Royal Tenenbaums took as its structure the novel, and would plant the costumes, design, and Whit Stillman-esque dialogue of the film firmly behind the guise of the novel’s artifice. In Anderson’s follow up picture (co-written by Noah Baumbach), The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), the highly stylized nature of the film was again made an aesthetic necessity because of the nature of the film’s satire; a campy parody of the wildlife documentarians of the 1970s.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Anderson’s subsequent films pursue the kind of “trademark” style that was first suggested in Rushmore, but without the aesthetic justification of these earlier films. That is to say that highly artificial or stylized films aren’t necessarily without worth, just that their style must be motivated either aesthetically or out of narrative necessity. Anderson runs into trouble because he has constructed a singularly codified means of cinematic expression that relies heavily on the fact that the audiences who saw Rushmore or Bottle Rocket have indeed returned to see more of the same and that the number of these devotees has grown.

The fans of these films are not making matters any easier. Their devotion to Anderson and his “trademark” style have become a means of determining the worth of those with whom they interact. Their use of Anderson’s films as a sociological acid test inhibits the growth of the films themselves it would seem; requiring that Anderson continue to make more of the same. Sadly, it is only recently that critics have begun to cite this problem with Anderson’s films; he is indeed just making more of the same.

Consider for a moment The Grand Budapest Hotel (2013). This film, like The Royal Tenenbaums, relies on a literary structure [albeit in the form of a memoir of a confession that deliberately references Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984)] and therefore in turn upon a voice-over narration that makes any meaningful character development redundant. What I mean is that the narration provides the viewer with the kinds of character details that another filmmaker would imbue into the scenes and performances, thus making anything short of simple caricature negligible.

Anderson goes further, codifying these caricatures by casting performers who he has worked with before in roles that are painfully similar to their roles in his previous films, relegating such actors as Bill Murray, Willem Defoe, Jason Schwartzman, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, etc., to be nothing more than basic signifiers. And what they signify is an archetype indigenous to Anderson’s prior films, thus making it a necessity to enjoy the film that one be as familiar with the director’s previous works as possible.

In terms of narrative convention, The Grand Budapest Hotel barrows heavily elements from such classic post-WWII European thrillers as Ten Little Indians (1965), and the numerous film adaptations of the works of Graham Greene. Anderson seems disinterested in analyzing the devices and conventions of this pseudo-sub genre, preferring to employ them to further codify his film with familiar narrative arcs.

This leaves only one redeemable quality of The Grand Budapest Hotel; style. But it is style for style’s sake. There is no significant expression or idea behind the film other than to push a familiar style to new limits. Which, if one ignores the inherent ramifications of such an errand, becomes an effort of very little merit and almost no possible effect.

-Robert Curry

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Dušan Makavejev’s The Coca-Cola Kid

Eric Roberts as The Coca-Cola Kid

Eric Roberts as The Coca-Cola Kid

            Dušan Makavejev has acquired a reputation, as a result of his most critically acknowledged film WR: Mysteries Of The Organism (1971), for being a political satirist of the highest order in the cinema. It’s strange that such a reputation is founded primarily on one film, since most of his earlier work is only now becoming available. Dušan Makavejev’s earlier films, which conform to the Yugoslavian Black Wave of the sixties, are equally scathing depictions of the Soviet political machine. Innocence Unprotected (1968), Dušan Makavejev’s experimental exercise in filmic reflexivity, epitomizes the concerns of both WR: Mysteries Of The Organism and his Canadian production Sweet Movie (1974), whilst simultaneously pointing toward the sociological concerns with regards to human sexuality that made his two most popular features so controversial at the time of their initial release.

            Working within the Black Wave movement, Dušan Makavejev established a correlation between human sexuality and political policy that always remained intrinsically Serbian and therefore anti-Soviet. Logically, his films moved away from such thematic material and began to approach other political entities with his unique brand of satirism once he left Yugoslavia. Sweet Movie was Dušan Makavejev’s first film to move away from the Black Wave, followed ten years thereafter by the Cinecom Pictures production The Coca-Cola Kid (1985), from a screenplay by Frank Moorhouse. An Australian production, The Coca-Cola Kid represents Dušan Makavejev’s most traditionally narrative film since Love Affair, or the Case Of The Missing Switchboard Operator (1968) as well as the director’s first outright criticism of American Imperialism.

            The Coca-Cola Kid follows an eccentric executive of Coca-Cola named Becker (Eric Roberts) as he attempts to bring a soft drink monopoly to Australia while pursuing a love affair with his secretary (Greta Scacchi) and being mistaken for a CIA operative. The film is littered with comically surreal images indigenous to Makavejev’s previous films such as a love scene amidst white feathers from an exploded pillow case between Scacchi and Roberts while they’re dressed in Santa Claus suits. Trademark moments like these are augmented by expositional scenes that stress the cultural barrier between Australia and the USA, as well as America’s role as an invasive force of capitalism.

Scacchi in the film's famous love scene

Scacchi in the film’s famous love scene

            Eric Roberts’ portrayal of Becker is so highly stylized that it intentionally metamorphoses into caricature rather quickly, permitting Makavejev to create an emotional distance between the audience and the character, so that Becker becomes representative of America as a whole. Albeit this summation of American culture and political policy as signified by Becker is subjectively European.

Strangely, it is Roberts’ outrageous performance that makes this film Makavejev’s most accessible film to a mainstream audience unfamiliar with his prior works. Though The Coca-Cola Kid has never achieved the cult status or infamy of either Sweet Movie or WR: Mysteries Of The Organism.

-Robert Curry

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The Nature Of Terrence Malick’s Films

Not too long ago I watched Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life (2011). This prompted a visitation of his film before that, The New World (2005). Though one would not suspect a traditionally narrative film to possess the same spiritual quality as a wholly philosophical film (The Tree Of Life), there was an undeniable sense of the abstract and celestial to the images of The New World.

Tree Of Life

Typically, most audiences and critics cite Andrei Tarkovsky as the master of emoting the diverse realm of the human spirit with the images in his narrative films, but I find that the same is equally true and just as prevalent in Malick’s filmography. Even The Tree Of Life resembles Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975), and not just in its unconventional structure, or in its fusion of a tangible reality with the fantastic. What’s most important to the spiritual potency in the films of Malick and Tarkovsky is the perfect hybrid of sound and image.

In most films, this marriage of technology is directed to articulating an aspect of the narrative. Walter Murch’s work on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) is a prime example of this intent. Every sound on the audio track gives the image a sense of space in our own shared reality, lending the film’s narrative credibility. If Gene Hackman’s character lifts a toilet seat, the sound will be exaggerated, though only slightly, to suggest the weight, material, and all of the other details associated with the object and the room that it inhabits.

Contrary to this traditional approach is Terrence Malick. Malick takes what Tarkovsky has done before and pushes it further into the abstract, which in this case is the world of the human consciousness. Malick’s Days Of Heaven (1979) has the most obvious example of this tactic at work. When Linda Manz’s character enters Middle America atop of a rail car we see first her face, then what she is seeing. What she sees is a sea of grain at magic hour, a golden ocean of grass expanding as far as the eye or the camera can see. In conjunction with these images are a mix of subtle diegetic sounds, non-diegetic music, and a voice over sitting on top of the mix. This image of nature and the suggestion of a tangible world provided by the diegetic sound suggest a familiar reality. But this reality becomes an unreal and expressionistic manifestation of the interior of the character’s mind. Though this may seem like the old parlor trick of any seasoned filmmaker, Malick’s films find a new spiritual depth in such moments largely because of his genius for choosing images of nature that are powerful, other worldly and yet familiar.

It’s this familiarity that sets Malick’s work apart from that of Tarkovsky. When Tarkovsky’s films began to probe more philosophical and spiritual issues more explicitly with Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), such powerful images were manufactured in part by the genre of the films, science fiction. The Mirror along with Tarkovsky’s later films come closer to what Malick is able to achieve, though Tarkovsky never really abandoned the more conventional approach to wedding sound with image in his films.

Malick has never really changed his approach to sound, but he has found more dynamic images for his moments of spiritual contemplation. The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World are both films dominated by the most grandiose of trees whose dominion over the frame is over whelming, though their natural beauty is never undeniable to the audience. Such elements of the natural world, when presented in this manner, become representations of complicated emotions experienced by characters within the films, though they are never verbally articulated in the film. They never really have to be.

The Thin Red Line

Once I had revisited a few of Malick’s films I took a walk. I was surprised that these moments were so potent in their representation of emotional truth that I found myself truly moved when I happened to stop and gaze at a particularly gigantic elm. This is a rare accomplishment in the cinema. Often films manage to squeeze an emotional reaction or even rarer, revelation, if the film is done well. But to experience a new means to approaching one’s understanding of what one sees and it’s ramifications as a signifier is something to be cherished.

-Robert Curry

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Boxing Helena: Pseudo Feminism

Sands and Fenn

Sands and Fenn

Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s debut feature Boxing Helena (1993) has never been a popular film. It has found some longevity among the fans of her father’s films, but has for all purposes drifted into obscurity in the wake of poor reviews that followed it’s winning of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1993. For the most part, the critics who publicly lashed Boxing Helena in 1993 did have a few valid points.

For instance, it has widely been agreed upon that the film is too dependent on the shocking nature of Dr. Cavanaugh’s (Julian Sands) amputation of Helena’s (Sherilyn Fenn) limbs as a means to control and manipulate her; making her his own Venus Di Milo. The sexual nature of this violence and of the relationship between these two characters is, in how the film is paced, made gratuitous, laboring a point that was more than evident at the beginning of the scene.

What merits a reevaluation of Boxing Helena is its approach to feminism. Lynch doesn’t follow the rule of feminist film by constructing a visual codification around a female signifier who is designed to engage the demographic of feminists. In fact, Lynch does just the opposite. She creates her scenes from the perspective of the sexually obsessive Cavanaugh, lighting and choreographing Helena’s love scenes with her boyfriend (Bill Paxton) in a manner instantly recognizable as the soft-core aesthetic of Zalman King. These subjective POV love scenes are the epitome of the male gaze, heightened to the point that the image becomes ridiculous and utterly absurd. Cavanaugh’s view of the world, as illustrated by Lynch’s camera, enables the feminist demographic to see and recognize this worldview as a perverse approximation of our own.

Note the Zalman King influence.

Note the Zalman King influence.

The motif of Cavanaugh’s voyeurism is persistent in demonstrating how the masculine demographic perceives the female form as a vehicle for sexual gratification. In turn, Boxing Helena is more concerned with how masculine audiences view women in film than with the superficial cautionary tale of sadistic chauvinism acted upon; an interpretation that remains prevalent today.

Admittedly, Lynch’s inversion of the feminist film aesthetic is just a subtext in Boxing Helena. I myself had to view the film twice before detecting what Lynch’s primary concerns were. What detracted from the film in the minds of critics in 1993 is exactly what makes any sub textual reading so difficult; the gratuitous nature of Lynch’s depictions of violence and sexuality.

-Robert Curry

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American Dreams

Zimbo Films presents the first installment in a series of deeply personal and biographical videos.

 

 

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A Few Words Concerning David Gordon Green’s Joe

Nicolas Cage as Joe

Nicolas Cage as Joe

At its best the cinema of David Gordon Green is powered by a strong sense of space, location, and a natural alignment with regionalism. Like Terrence Malick, Green’s best films prize the environment surrounding his characters just as much as the characters themselves. George Washington (2000) and All The Real Girls (2003) are both so heavily imbued with regional atmosphere that the location becomes a central character to the film’s narrative. Though Green transitioned into mainstream comedy in 2008 and gave up this aesthetic temporarily, he revived it with Prince Avalanche (2013) to great effect. Green’s even more recent film Joe (2013) attempts the same aesthetic, though this time in the guise of a genre film written by Gary Hawkins.

Until Joe, Green’s personal projects were written or co-written by him, and it was only during his foray into mainstream comedy beginning with Pineapple Express (2008) that he began directing other writer’s screenplays. These films were not reliant upon Green’s aesthetic of naturalism and bore little resemblance to his signature style. Though Joe may not be typically commercial, Hawkins script is heavily weighted with genre conventions. Green attempts to take Hawkins script and let it open up, directing the film to concentrate more heavily on character than story. Where another filmmaker would have kept the film going at a nice clip, Green slows the film down with long shots of characters in a space as reflective as it is realistic before the scene really starts or ends. This approach is in turn aided by Green’s employment of local non-actors in supporting roles. Casting like this has long been a part of Green’s style, reinforcing the notion that the film and all of its characters are unique to the region of the narrative.

The fusion of commercial and personal aesthetics prevalent in Joe remains only a portion of the spectacle. The even more superficial signifier of an evolution in Green’s filmmaking comes in the form of Nicolas Cage. A one time darling of the off-beat comedy and art house film, Cage returns to the stomping ground of his youth from a long spell in schlocky would-be blockbusters. In many respects, Joe is a sort of comeback film for Nicolas Cage, who hasn’t been able to demonstrate his tremendous talents since his collaboration with Werner Herzog on Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2008). As the title character in Green’s film, Cage explores the more nuanced side of his craft, giving the audience one of his most realistic and haunting performances of his career.

-Robert Curry

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