Tag Archives: art-house

Putting A Year To Rest

“Cinema also made the power of America abroad, its conquest of the world since the Second World War being due not only to military, technical and economic supremacy but also to the power of its cinema.” – Jean-Luc Godard, CINEMA: the archaeology of film and the memory of a century, 2000

“In other words, the validity and vibrancy of this important cinematic tradition depends upon a workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema; between generic tradition and formal innovation; between political intentions and social fantasies; between private investment and public funding; and between a real appreciation for the local and regional and a critical examination of the national as a new/old  category of cultural identity within an increasingly streamlined global media landscape.” – Sabine Hake, German National Cinema, 2002

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge

Introduction & Hacksaw Ridge

I have seen a number of blockbusters this Autumn.  Some were decent, some were terrible.  But each was indicative of the state of American cinema today in its own way.  Together these films provide a survey of the strategies and tactics employed by producers, directors, and studio executives in the effort to fill seats and entertain.

Of all of the films I have seen this Autumn, Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is by far the most indicative of America’s mass consciousness and how Hollywood chooses to address that mass conciousness.  Hacksaw Ridge is a return to form for director Mel Gibson.  Again he addresses the horrors of war, the morality of Christian duty and the circumstances that prompt Christian men to question their beliefs.  As always, Gibson does all of this at a fast pace, fast enough so that we the audience don’t have time to question nor ponder the significance of Gibson’s images.  Gibson’s film succeeds only in so far as it conveys his own Christian beliefs as well as serving up a violent spectacle so tantalizing to fans of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and video games that nothing else really does matter anymore.

That’s the issue at hand in American cinema today.  If a film conveys one articulate moral platitude and provides enough spectacle then nothing else really does matter.  This has been true of American mainstream cinema for sometime, though it has never seemed so blatant to me before.  The pretense of artfulness seems to have died in the wake of J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay.  Arguably the last really compelling mainstream commercial release with wide distribution in this country was Lee Daniels’ The Paper Boy (2012).  Since then, aside from some films released on the  “art-house circuit” (if one really can call it that), the best work available to American audiences is happening on television or online streaming platforms.  The cause of this jockeying in power and quality is inevitably born out of a competition between film, television and online streaming as well as a competition between the major entertainment conglomerates for successful branding or franchises (Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Marvel vs. DC, Harry Potter vs. Pixar, etc.).  Given this atmosphere  it isn’t any wonder why American media as a whole has stooped to pandering, placating and generally condescending to their audiences.

Blake Lively in The Shallows

Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe & Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows

In studying film history one tends to take it for granted that there can be innovation and controversy in B-Movies and exploitation films.  In the vein of exploitation films a number of remarkable filmmakers have cut their teeth.  One can often see evidence of this remarkability in the early exploitation films of such filmmakers as Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Robert Wise, and Abel Ferrara.  Regrettably, there is no evidence, as far as I can see, of any innovation or invention in either Don’t Breathe or The Shallows.

I saw both films at The Rave just off of UPenn’s campus with my friends Stephen and Virginia.  Virginia chose these films with our consent under the assumption that these films would somehow represent a contemporary manifestation of the kind of exploitative cinema that the three of us love (my expectations being set more specifically along the lines of Roger Corman’s productions in the eighties).

The experience of The Shallows certainly came closest to this.  As Virginia put it The Shallows was the first “serious shark movie” in a long time.  The Shallows was rather preposterous, a drawn out battle between Blake Lively and a CGI shark.  That was the film’s narrative; escape the shark.  The subtext of the film was that the love that Blake Lively’s character had for her deceased mother (a victim of cancer) could enable her to do anything.  This sentimental detail, designed to raise the stakes for the audience, really did nothing more than elicit a rather comical commentary from our fellow theater goers.

The true purpose of The Shallows though was to give the audience the opportunity to drink in Blake Lively’s body with our eyes for upwards of ninety minutes.  Don’t Breathe represents a similar impulse, though Alvarez seems to have run amok in creating images that sexually tantalize to the point that, due to the sheer volume and the inherent violence of these images, they become repulsive.

Don’t Breathe plays itself out as a sort of aesthetic marriage between Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs (1991) with a sprinkling of Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967) for good measure.  The narrative premise is wholly indebted to Craven’s film while the approach to sexual violence and retribution is that of Zarchi’s film.  However, unlike either film, though particularly I Spit On Your Grave, the phallic, and images representing the phallic, remain the brunt instrument of pain and sexual power.  The inverting of sexual dominance via castration that is the climax of I Spit On Your Grave is substituted in Don’t Breathe for a phallus in the control of a once female victim.  This is what was most troubling about Don’t Breathe.  The film lacked the audacity to empower the female protagonist on her own terms, thus subverting and disqualifying any claims to a feminist reading.

Tom Hanks & Aaron Eckhart in Sully

Cookie Cutter Perfection: Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant & Clint Eastwood’s Sully

The Accountant is a troubling film.  It’s first act reads as the kind of genre-centric character study epitomized by Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) while the second and third acts are dreadfully typical post-John Woo action spectacles.  The protagonist’s autism, initially treated with a sensitive humanism, metamorphoses into a kind of superpower or mutant ability with regards to how the script treats this condition.  In this respect the narrative design of the film implodes upon itself.  The latter half of the film eclipses the former, wiping away all of the nuance and subtlety.  In fact, the highlight of the film is right before this aesthetic shift in a short dialogue exchange between Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick concerning painted portraits of dogs playing poker.  

Equally as generic, Sully represents the latest in a long line of films by Eastwood centering on a man fighting the system, though this time that man is played by Tom Hanks.  Hanks himself is no stranger to the “underdog” hero narrative as evidenced by last year’s Bridge Of Spies and The Terminal in 2004.  But Sully lacks the arbitrary whimsy and racism of Hanks’ collaborations with Steven Spielberg.  In the place of that whimsy Eastwood substitutes character.  The issue is that the script never really allows for the title character to exhibit more than one facet of himself, opting to play the same note over and over again.  The film can’t even bring itself to flirt with America’s post-9/11 paranoia or trauma concerning urban plane crashes, nor does it allow for the bureaucratic corruption to expand beyond three short sequences.

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

 Derrickson’s Doctor Strange & Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

I mentioned earlier how instrumental the successful franchise is to contemporary Hollywood marketing.  As a motivating factor as well as an aesthetic trend setter the franchise cannot be underestimated.  Consider the revival of the Star Trek, Star Wars, Transformers, and Power Rangers franchises.  Hollywood is franchise happy.

One such revived franchise is the Harry Potter franchise.  I have never read Rowling’s novels nor have I seen all of the original films.  However, I have been told that should not stop me from comprehending Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them.

Immediately I was struck by a number of things in this film that are indicative of the Harry Potter franchise’s bankruptcy.  Firstly, another in a long line of nightmarishly awful performances by the acting atrocity Eddie Redmayne.  Secondly, the overwhelming number of jokes made at the expense of an overweight character.  Then finally the appropriation of the Marilyn Monroe type and of the early twentieth century period.  These first two issues speak for themselves.  The last two, at least in my perspective, represent an effort to establish familiar and marketable signifiers as well as lazy screenwriting on Rowling’s part.  New York of the twenties, as well as the twenties in general, have great currency with millennial audiences as they continue to fetishize the flapper era and its look.  The Monroe element is more elusive.  Typically an archetypally Monroe character is a sort of Janus.  The character will, to serve narrative needs, go from ditsy blonde sex object to an assertive and intelligent woman of the modern world.  This device has its root in the dispelling of the stereotype that Monroe was somewhere short of intelligence in the wake of her death and the thousands of ensuing biographies.  Popular films from the mid-sixties onward make use of this contradiction in a number of ways.  Rowling’s just doesn’t happen to be very interesting.

The construction of Rowling’s plot is a little less troubling in that it is generally so formulaic.  The hero is lost in a strange environment where he makes friends who can help him accomplish his task, save the world, and improve their own moral character.  The base approach to this structure and its literally magical charms allow Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them to fill the void left by Don Bluth so many years ago in the children’s film market (Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is a remake of An American Tale right?).

Unlike the world of Harry Potter, the world of Doctor Strange is one that I know and love.  Rintrah is by far one of my favorite supporting characters in all of comic books.  I have two copies of the Amy Grant issue in my collection, as well as original trading cards of Kylian and Irish Wolfhound.  Not to mention my admiration for Steve Englehart’s groundbreaking run.  That said, I could rip Derrickson’s film apart from a fanboy perspective in a prolonged diatribe.  But I won’t.  I will stick to the film itself, dealing exclusively with it on its own terms.

Marvel/Disney has set out to create a universe in film that mirrors that in the comics; and it has.  The studio has produced about a dozen films that cross-reference and relate to one another at an alarming rate.  And it is into this universe that they have, with this film, introduced Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange strives to inject hip and cool into the world of this often overlooked comic book character in the guise of visual effects lifted from Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the casting of Tilda Swinton.  Oddly, the film retains some of the jingoism of the comic.  The film’s structure itself is typical of the “origin story”.  The film is so remarkably mundane and familiar that there isn’t much to say other than that it looked better than Captain America: Civil War.

La La Land

Out Of The Theater And Back At Home

I opened this piece with two quotes.  One by Jean-Luc Godard and one by Sabine Hake.  I find both of their points to be valid and certainly true to an extent.  But are their ideas, their notions of what the cinema is and should be, applicable to the mainstream of Hollywood productions?  I don’t think so.  In the films I have discussed here there has been no evidence of a “workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema” nor has the American cinema exhibited “power” as Godard puts it.  But I have seen such elements, components, and evidence in American films.  Though these films tend to be small, underground films playing regional film festivals.  Or, as is the case with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, an rare exception that proves the rule.  

-Robert Curry

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Katzelmacher

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most infamous play, Garbage, The City, & Death (1975), is a kind of revisionist cabaret assault on the audience.  By that point, Fassbinder had extended his creative aspirations beyond the tutelage of Jean-Marie Straub and towards the mainstream, and had mastered the reflexive political filmmaking sensibilities of Jean-Luc Godard, with a healthy dose of Brecht’s self awareness and artifice tinting his theatrical works.  Despite the mature themes and prowess with which Fassbinder instilled Garbage, The City, & Death, what remains one of his greatest works on both the stage and in the cinema is Katzelmacher (1969).

Katzelmacher is as simple in its execution as Garbage, The City, & Death is complex, designed to replicate the Bavarian “folk plays” of Marieluise Fleisser (to whom Fassbinder dedicated the piece).  Katzelmacher originated as a play at the end of Fassbinder’s hey-day with the AniTheater, and the dissolution of his association with Jean-Marie Straub.  Fassbinder’s film adaptation of Katzelmacher occurred just four months after completing his film Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), during a period in his career when the full potential of the cinema was still beyond his grasp, and his films were still stylistically fused with the AntiTheater.  Within a year, Fassbinder would begin his experimental period, imitating heavily the films of Godard; but in 1969, his approach to film was still very much indebted to the works of Straub.  Given Fassbinder’s budgetary restrictions and artistic limitations of the time, Katzelmacher represents Fassbinder’s most successful and fascinating exercise in low budget filmmaking.

On the stage, Katzelmacher can best be described as minimalist in terms of its set and lighting designs.  The play itself is set in a singular location in which all of the action (the action itself consisting of mostly dialogue) takes place.  From this fixed setting, the residents of an apartment building in a Bavarian suburb pass judgment and exhibit hostility toward a Greek immigrant worker.  The characters taunt and transgress against the Greek, while some, in a twist of ironic hypocrisy, are simultaneously endeavoring to seduce or exploit the Greek.

Fassbinder’s presentation of prejudice and exploitation articulates a contemporary fear of foreigners; that immigrant workers were taking all the jobs, that they would delude the German culture.  The particular theme of Katzelmacher pertaining to the corruption of German culture (manifest in all its brutality when the Greek is severely beaten) is played up to great effect to recall the circumstances through which the Third Reich rose to power some thirty-five years earlier.  Fassbinder’s career is marked by a thematic trend of drawing comparisons between the German cultures he experienced and that which allowed the Nazis to come into power.  In almost every case, when Fassbinder employs this tactic, it is cautionary, tinged with a sense of historical awareness.  Not surprisingly, such a mode of thematic operations was not easily received by the general German public, let alone when presented in such an “in your face” approach as that employed in the production of Katzelmacher.  Keep in mind that the actors articulating Fassbinder’s harsh diatribes were positioned against a brick wall set facing out across the stage to the audience.

To transition Katzelmacher successfully from the stage to the screen, Fassbinder wrote entirely new scenes that had only been referred to in the original stage version.  These scenes take place mostly within the apartment building itself, in the rooms inhabited by the film’s characters.  These scenes allow the film audience to engage the characters in a more intimate setting, providing a greater insight into their behavior and moral contradictions.  Film can do this in a way the theater cannot, where devices such as the close-up, and the POV shot articulate visually the sub textual experience of a character.  Fassbinder’s grasp of these methods is not entirely developed in Katzelmacher, but one could argue that it is for the better.  Katzelmacher’s exhibition of filmic principles is as limited as those in Love Is Colder Than Death, but benefits from these limitations because it was not an attempt at a genre picture as its predecessor had been.  In this case, when Katzelmacher utilizes film tactics, it is to punctuate issues and circumstances, making the overall piece far more aggressive than its counterpart while never losing the subtlety that would force the audience to withdraw from the cinematic experience.

The long takes that define the visual dialect of Katzelmacher (with the exception of two tracking shots that book-end the film) provide the groundwork for Fassbinder’s film.  Long takes, or shots, in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder develop in leaps and bounds over the course of the next decade, from the pans and tilts employed in Whity (1970) to the long and terrifically elaborate tracking shot that commences the epilogue of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).  Though Jean-Marie Straub’s minimalism suits the early films of Fassbinder, Katzelmacher in particular, it becomes more than evident that by the time Fassbinder directs Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1969) he is prepared to shift his cinematic interests into the Sirkian melodrama.

What is most surprising in Katzelmacher is Fassbinder’s sense of dramatic rhythm as it pertains to the editing of the film. Almost every scene exists as a single shot, of which there are eighty or so, each with duration of about one minute.  Though the film is stagnant, the lengthy shots of the film maneuver across the screen to a definite beat.  This not only signifies a rapidly building tension between the native residents and the Greek, but an understanding of the needs of a mainstream audience.  Jean-Marie Straub’s work in film at the time are heavily encumbered with long shots, sometimes lasting over three minutes, that prevent Straub’s films from finding an economically viable mainstream demographic.  Fassbinder manages to balance his “art-house” credentials with commercial possibilities, a creative move that caused a number of his oldest supporters to turn from him.

Forty-three years later, now that Fassbinder has passed and his position in the cinema is unshakable, it is becoming more and more difficult to access his early films within the context in which they were produced.  The lengthy shots and self-aware performances of his players are not easily digested by most audiences and present an almost insurmountable problem to American audiences.  In America, access to Fassbinder’s AntiTheater work (scripts, notes, etc) is almost non-existent outside of the occasional Fassbinder biography.

-Robert Curry

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