Tag Archives: American Film

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017), is the “hip” ticket this holiday season. Like Wonder Woman (2017) in the spring, Lady Bird suits the zeitgeist; though in many respects this clouds rather than illuminates a lot of the serious discussions I have heard about the film. Still, as far as debut films go, Lady Bird is effectively entertaining and will, no doubt, touch upon the specific cultural references and experiences of most millennials.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird’s two main achievements are its narrative and its defying of convention. Most films, directed by men or women, that deal with a woman’s “coming-of-age” center around two conventions that are subverted in Gerwig’s film. First, the notion that the primary objective of any teenage girl is to get a cool teenage boy to like her. Second, that the only way to attract a suitor is by “fitting-in” with the popular clique. Lady Bird does address certain maneuverings to be popular as much as it addresses the maneuverings of it’s title character to get a boy, but with a focus not on the end goal, but rather on the subtle ramifications of these endeavors. In fact, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) herself doesn’t calculate or even manipulate those around her all that consciously, and certainly does so with a blind eye as to how her actions affect the people closest to her. Gerwig’s prioritizing of these two processes within the narrative focus negates what often seems like obsessive and borderline violent behavior in the protagonists of other films centered on the experiences of teenage girls (consider the teen films of John Hughes and that ilk).

The focus on process also enables Gerwig to sustain the narrative thread concerning the titular character and her mother (Laurie Metcalf), along with several other characters and subplots. It could be said that Lady Bird, as much as it is a character study, is a film that actually allows the players to develop characters, yielding some effective and surprising performances to the point that it sometimes appears to be an ensemble film. The issue then is that Gerwig, though an actor herself, does not frame or cut Lady Bird based upon the strengths of these performances.

Gerwig’s camera placement favors a medium to wide two-shot, locking characters together in one frame. This would not seem as theatrical as it does if the blocking or the depth of focus were at all interested in the spaces inhabited by these characters. When Gerwig does use close-ups it is almost always after a conflict when the stakes are settled and we feel secure in the knowledge of where we should be investing our sympathies as spectators. Similarly, Gerwig’s approach to editing is to cut to the action of a scene or sequence. We the audience are never given the chance to stay in a scene after the narrative action has occurred and are never allowed to witness or share in the tension of the characters within a moment.

Lady Bird

These issues of technique culminate to the effect that Lady Bird forgoes much of its potential for dramatic urgency. Lady Bird is a “safe” film, a commercial film, that refuses to take any real substantial risks.

-Robert Curry

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What Does Robert De Niro Have To Say About The Vietnam War?

This film is much more radical than Greetings.  It deals with the obscenity of the white middle class.  And we are white middle class, Chuck and I and everybody we know.  So we’re making a movie about the white middle class.  And we’re using the blacks to reflect the white culture.  Because the blacks stand outside the system and they see what we are.

-Brian De Palma, 1970

Much of Taxi Driver arose from my feeling that movies are really a kind of dream-state, or like taking dope.

-Martin Scorsese, 1988

Perhaps by the 90s a sufficient time gap will have elapsed to allow filmmakers to approach the subject of Vietnam in a more detached, balanced, and analytical manner.

-Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1980s

still from Milestones (1975)

still from Milestones (1975)

for Dan Dickerson

The Vietnam War remains a difficult subject for the United States.  It is an ambiguous anomaly, devoid of any easy label or justification from the stand-point of a contemporary American perspective.  The most popular American films about the war, Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill (1987), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) avoid the political aspects of the conflict as well as the Vietnamese experience.  These films prefer the traditional heroism of the G.I. action-drama popularized by the first two World Wars.  This prefered model mandates that the reality of Vietnam, the way it truly did happen and what it meant, undergo a severe filtering process so that it may accommodate the binary model of black and white, good and bad.  To say the least this is an irresponsible approach to history, even if that history is particularly ugly and embarrassing.

Perhaps the best film about the Vietnam War ever made in America is Robert Kramer and John Douglas’ Milestones (1975).  Unlike the other films I mentioned, Milestones does not take the battlefield unto its purview.  In total contrast the film never ventures outside the United States themselves, focusing exclusively on the experience of the Vietnam War in America.  Over the course of an epic 195 minute running time Kramer and Douglas construct a series of interwoven narratives with over a dozen characters, touching on every subject on the national conscious in 1975.  That is to say by not focusing attention on the Vietnam War, Kramer and Douglas have been able to paint the most accurate portrait of the United States and life therein during that traumatic conflict.

To juxtapose the American experience of Milestones is Chris Marker’s monumental anthology film, made in collaboration with Alain Resnais, Claude Lelouch, William Klein, Joris Ivens, and Jean-Luc Godard, Far From Vietnam (1967).  Far more cinematic than Milestones, Far From Vietnam pits the left of the French avant-garde against the Imperialist Western powers, creating a film whose sympathies and varying perspectives are aligned with those of the Vietnamese themselves.  In a sociological and political context what is so iconic about Far From Vietnam is that the film dared show in detail what Peter Davis’ Hearts & Minds (1974) only dared to allude to; the celebratory nature of American violence against the Vietnamese people.  In the American cinema the closest element to such depictions we have come from Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz in the form of monologues during the third act of Francis Ford Coppola’s post-Vietnam spectacle Apocalypse Now (1979).  But Coppola’s film is far more concerned with the literary motifs of Joseph Conrad and the conventions of the “war film” genre to delve to the political depths of Far From Vietnam.

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1968

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1968

Now one may be beginning to wonder where Robert De Niro comes into all of this.  Well, it is not my intention to discuss The Deer Hunter any further than I already have.  It’s Gilgamesh classicism and deceptive visual realism have little to do with Vietnam as far as I am concerned other than as a tool by which one can begin to gauge how the generation that experienced the war first hand began to censor its history in the media.  No, my focus will not be on The Deer Hunter.  Instead, I prefer two early Brian De Palma films, Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970).

Be it an aesthetic choice or a necessity, De Palma, like Kramer and Douglas, focuses his two films on the American people during the Vietnam war.  Yet, where Kramer and Douglas have constructed a somber narrative film deeply rooted in the realist tradition of American independent film, De Palma has gone instead for the madcap satirical stylings of Jerry Lewis.  The same fundamental truths about America at this time can be discerned from either Milestones, Greetings or Hi, Mom!, De Palma simply exaggerates these truths to comedic effect, taking the stance that Vietnam,  and all of its ramifications included, is an absolutely absurd venture.  De Palma is also not so heavily rooted in the cinematic traditions Robert Kramer represents, who is strictly concerned with inciting political reaction in his audience, evidenced by his film Ice (1968), which, coincidently, came out the same year as Greetings.  What De Palma sees in his approach is the possibility to play with the physical medium of film, manipulating the form to achieve effects that will only accentuate the humor and meanings in his two films, an ideology Lewis had demonstrated in his films since the late fifties.

What links Greetings and Hi, Mom! is not exclusively De Palma’s filmic sensibilities of the time, but the character of Jon Rubin played by Robert De Niro.  In the first film, Greetings, Rubin and his friends are determined to do three things.  The first is seduce young women, a trope of the underground film comedy.  The second is to uncover who is responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, though they never get further than reading countless books on a variety of conspiracy theories.  The third objective is to dodge the draft.  For all of De Palma’s innovative POV shots and handheld camera work the film never escapes the innocence of its comedy.  The film’s approach to draft dodging is so light and comedic that it becomes indicative of the severity of the issue.  De Palma is simply unsure of how to parody the subject successfully so that his satire would truly mean anything, so the entire sequence becomes imbued with a suffocating paranoia.

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1970

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1970

Hi, Mom!, the sequel to Greetings, is a far more mature and darker piece of filmmaking.  Robert De Niro returns as De Palma’s protagonist Jon Rubin, though this time Rubin has recently returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam.  Thus Hi, Mom! is a dark comedy concerned with how a man reassimilates into a society from which he has been absent for two years.  Firstly, De Palma pits Rubin against the sexual revolution.  Never succesful with women in Greetings, it becomes doubly comedic in Hi, Mom! that Rubin choses to be a pornographer by profession.  Rubin’s scheme is to film on a cheap 16mm camera the sexual antics of the residents in the apartment building across from his squat.  So at once De Palma parodies the fetishism of James Stewart’s lens in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and alludes to Rubin’s role as a sniper in Vietnam, tampering with the POV shots of what Rubin sees through his camera to look like the view through a sniper rifle scope.  For De Palma the two signifiers are synonymous, indicating the degree of Rubin’s perversion.

However, Rubin is unable to capture any worthy sexual acts.  So, having chose a particularly lonely woman across the way(Judy, played by Jennifer Salt) as a victim, he poses as a suitor selected by a computerized dating service to take her out and, hopefully, seduce her.  To capture his plan on film, he has set his camera to begin running via a timer so that, after he has wined and dined her, his intercourse with her will be captured on film.  Needless to say Rubin fails at this.  The only result of his scheme is that he has acquired a rather needy girlfriend.

Rubin, now living with his girlfriend Judy, is still an outsider in American society.  In an effort to belong he joins a group of Black Power activists as an actor cast as a cop, thus beginning the most controversial section of De Palma’s film.  The “Be Black Baby” segment is visually different from either the primary narrative of Jon Rubin or the attempts at pornography Rubin has photographed.  In this segment De Palm shot handheld on black and white 8mm blown up later to 35mm.  In this way he employs the visual aesthetic of late sixties “social action” documentaries to capture his satirical indictment of Black militarism and the white yuppies who claim to sympathize and understand the Black Power movement.  “Be Black Baby” follows a group of upper middle class white people who, eager to undergo the “black” experience, submit themselves to a piece of avant-garde living theater.  The white audience is physically beaten, painted black, and then beaten again by Jon Rubin.  Then, after all of this violence, each comments how wonderful it was to finally understand what it means to be “black”.  As offensive as it is funny, the “Be Black Baby” segment scandalized audiences during Hi, Mom!‘s original release.

After his turn with “Be Black Baby”, Rubin is still a man isolated in a society he no longer understands.  This is when De Palma begins to hint at Rubin’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Every attempt at normalcy Rubin has made thus far has either been perverted or simply perverse to begin with.  Thus, for De Palma, PTSD is the catalyst for Rubin’s comedic exploits.  Rubin, seen at this point in the film reading militant literature and being inundated by media slogans, both for the Left and the Right, reading “take action”, begins to snap.  And snap he does.  Filling the laundry room in his apartment building with plastic explosives, he demolishes the building, killing Judy and countless others.  Now, De Palma cuts to the POV of a television camera as a reporter interviews witnesses and survivors of the “act of terrorism”.  Rubin appears in his army uniform, faces the camera and says “hi, mom!”.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, 1976

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, 1976

Again, one must stress that De Palma has exaggerated the conditions of both veterans of the Vietnam war and the state of things in America for comedic effect.  However, these exaggerations are born out of a real truth, because if they were not, then Hi, Mom! would not have been funny or successful.  It also bares pointing out that the trajectory of Jon Rubin, particularly in Hi, Mom!, mirrors that of another Robert De Niro character, Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver (1976).  Rubin and Bickle are both veterans of Vietnam unable to find a place in their society after the war.  Each has a penchant for pornography and violence.  Where they differ is simple, in the execution of their narratives by the filmmakers who have authored them.  For Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader Travis Bickle’s story is one of loneliness and pain.  Rubin, though suffering the same symptoms, has more unorthodox ventures in his attempts at being proactive.  This unorthodoxy to Rubin’s narrative is what makes it comedic.  That both Taxi Driver and Hi, Mom! follow the same logic indicates a moral truth that America, during and immediately after the Vietnam war, was struggling to grapple with; how does one atone for what one has done?

The issue of atonement is not unique to the Vietnam war in the American experience.  Literature by the major players of every military conflict have reflected such sentiments as far back as the American Civil War and still further.  Even, at times, these sentiments have been articulated in satire similar to De Palma’s two films, consider Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple.  What is incredible about Greetings and Hi, Mom! is that, of all the films either Brian De Palma or Robert De Niro have made, neither have ever been as sociologically relevant again.

-Robert Curry

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Three Reasons To Watch Frances Ha

It was while working on Greenberg (2010) that writer/director Noah Baumbach began his relationship with Greta Gerwig.  Subsequently, the pair penned the screenplay for Frances Ha (2012) together, with Gerwig starring and Baumbach directing.  What is remarkable about Frances Ha is that for the first time Baumbach is able to remove himself from the autobiographical material of his earlier work and engage in a kind of filmmaking that challenges his aesthetic and gives a strong female voice to his particular brand of cinema.

frances-ha-frances-ha-03-07-2013-10-g

Like director Whit Stillman, all of Noah Baumbach’s earlier films draw much of their narrative and their characters from his own life, particularly Kicking and Screaming (1995), Mr. Jealousy (1997), The Squid and The Whale (2005), Margot At The Wedding (2007), and Greenberg (2010).  As a result of Gerwig’s presence as a co-writer Baumbach is able to transform his experiences, distilling from them the essential and repackaging those experiences in a more fictitious narrative.  Gerwig must also be credited for giving a living organic voice to the film’s female protagonist, for up till now the women in Baumbach’s films have remained stoic and cold intellectuals who had disengaged from the people around them.

Thematically Frances Ha has more in common with Kicking And Screaming than it does any other Baumbach film (Josh Hamilton even makes a small appearance in the film) since its focus is on a character immediately after graduation.  But Baumbach’s latest meditation on post-graduate ennui is far more cinematically refined than it was when he first appeared with Kicking And Screaming.  The black and white digital cinematography of Frances Ha recalls the color palette of Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) and Jules et Jim (1962), while the shot composition of interiors deliberately references the chamber dramas of Eric Rohmer and Andre Techine.  This homage does not fall into the trap of indicating a debilitating obsession with French film on the director’s part, but demonstrates instead the filmmaker’s ability to apply a specific national technique to an entirely American phenomenon of youth.

Frances Ha also marks a return to a more “mundane tragedy”, making it’s narrative center a series of every day events that when magnified become either tragic or comic.  This aligns Frances Ha closely with the early films of Jim Jarmusch, particularly Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down By Law (1986).  Baumbach is less dependant on moments of sudden change and violence to propel his characters, opting instead to allow the characters themselves to manufacture their own momentum with neuroses, ambition, greed and sexuality.  Thus Frances Ha negates many of the standard narrative tropes of contemporary independent filmmaking and achieves a more classical cinematic experience.

-Robert Curry

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The Films Of Albert Brooks

When making a movie comedy it has been proven time and again to be relatively impossible for the film to be successfully self-aware.  In most cases, the filmmaker is forced to adopt tactics that take both the audience and the characters out of the fictional reality of the film narrative.  Consider the films of Woody Allen; he is a filmmaker who expresses, in his efforts toward self-awareness, the importance of his own intellectual credentials and his own filmic knowledge in thinly disguised references.  To achieve what can best be called intellectual filmmaking for the pretentious, Allen often stages himself as one of the characters in the film addressing the camera and in turn the audience.  There is a Romantic playfulness to the fact that Allen’s characters are aware of the fact that they inhabit the world of a film.  This of course is reinforced when those same characters in the same films enact variations of scenes by well-established film directors such as Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, Lewis, and Dreyer.  Another approach to addressing the farcical nature of film within the confines of film comedy itself can be found at its best in Louis C. K.’s Pootie Tang (2001).  Pootie Tang has a lot to offer as satire, but its framing of an entire feature film within a feature film serves as the most blatant kind of self awareness.  At the beginning of the film, Pootie Tang (Lance Crouther) appears on a talk show where he introduces a “clip” from his latest movie.  This “clip” is essentially the film itself, accompanied with a bookend of Pootie Tang, still on the talk show, after the clip has finished.  The duration of the clip itself within the reality of the Pootie Tang world indicates an indictment on the filmmaker’s part of egotistical excess and the inflation of America’s infatuation with celebrity.  Another product of the clip’s duration is that it enables the audience to forget that they are watching a film within a film, and Louis C. K. is able to suspend the audience’s disbelief twice in the course of one film.  But both Louis C. K. and Woody Allen are addressing reflexivity in their comedies by implementing a decidedly modern mode of filmmaking that negates traditional narrative form and character.

Real Life

Perhaps it is a matter of taste when it comes to comedy, but I tend to think that less is more in the American films made post the Hollywood studio system.  The flamboyant and bombastic tone of Woody Allen films has little to offer beyond their initial superficial engagement for reasons self-evident.  To contrast Annie Hall (1977) or Pootie Tang in terms of successful reflexivity in comedy, it becomes only logical to turn to the early films of Albert Brooks.

Strangely, Brooks’ most biting and filmicly referential comedy is also his film that is the most like the aforementioned pictures, Real Life (1979).  In Real Life Brooks plays himself as a smarmy and pretentious film director who has undertaken a year long documentary on the life of a single suburban family with not only pomp and circumstance, but a myriad of scientific teams and technological innovations.  In one fail swoop Brooks manages to lampoon reality television, film directors, American suburbia, studio executives, and any other party having even the least bit to do with the film industry.  Brooks even makes reference to a number of other significant films, such as Gone With The Wind (1939), without having to take his characters out of their own reality with either visual recreations of other films or with monologues delivered to the audience.  In effect, though Real Life is about a man making a film, the characters in Real Life are never aware of the film we the audience are viewing, only that film which exists in their world.  Another courageous decision on the part of Albert Brooks is to play a character of him named Albert Brooks.  Brooks intends to accept reality as a hyper fiction rather than hyper fiction as reality the way Woody Allen does when he appears in his own films.

Albert Brooks’ second feature, Modern Romance (1982), again deals with a man, Robert Cole, (played by Albert Brooks) who works in the film industry, though this time he is a foley artist rather than a director.  Cole is obsessed with his on again off again girlfriend Mary (Monica Johnson), and it is this rollercoaster courtship that composes most of the narrative in Modern Romance.  But Brooks is equally interested in the work and the situations created by that work that a foley artist often finds themselves in.  James L. Brooks (who directed Albert Brooks in Broadcast News) has a cameo as the director for whom Robert Cole is working.  The film within Modern Romance is a low rent Star Wars knock off starring George Kennedy.  Cole consistently complains that this is the only kind of work he has been getting, essentially giving voice to Albert Brooks’ own condemnation of the popular blockbuster film.  Other comical asides that creep naturally into the narrative of the film include the regular ingestion of speed by the sound editors, a fact few outside of the industry are privy of.

As in Real Life, the reflexivity or self-awareness in Modern Romance is motivated by the circumstance of the film’s narrative rather than by the film’s director.  Brooks takes an even more subtle approach to his study of how Americans see movies and the people who make them in his third feature Lost In America (1985).  Unlike its two predecessors, Lost In America does not focus on a protagonist whose professional occupation involves the film industry.  This time out Brooks plays David, an advertising executive who, when passed up for promotion, quits his job, invests everything he owns in a motor home and drives across the country with his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) just like in Easy Rider (1969).  For the unhappy yuppie couple of Lost In America it is that Romantic notion that Easy Rider imbued to their generation that prompts their journey.  David makes numerous references to being “just like Easy Rider” throughout Lost In America, though less and less often as the couple loses everything they own and ends up living in a trailer park, only to “sell out” to survive.  Lost In America is the most bitter of Albert Brooks’ first three films, concerning itself exclusively with the impossibility of the dreams and expectations propagated by the cinema and their effects upon a susceptible audience.

Modern Romance

Examining these three films it’s almost deliberate that the protagonist of each film takes the audience one step further away from film production and one step closer to the audience itself.  The primary strength Brooks’ films derive by making their self-awareness circumstantial is that that reflexivity can be incorporated and in some cases inform the sociological aspects of the films’ satire.  What’s strange is that although Albert Brooks provides the perfect blueprint for such a popular form of comedy filmmaking his films are among some of the most overlooked and under appreciated.

-Robert Curry

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