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Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner (1982) has gotten a sequel. Anyone who has seen Ridley Scott’s film is probably wondering why or even how a sequel could have been made. Oddly, Blade Runner 2049 (2017) does work as a sequel, surprisingly so in many respects, though what problems it runs into stem what seem to be the portions of the narrative designed to launch a franchise off of this film, presumably with a focus on the Ryan Gosling character K/Joe.

Joi & K

What works in the film is its pacing. Director Denis Villeneuve’s direction allows a lot of time for the characters to just exist in a space. This tactic not only serves to permit the audience time to invest in the humanity of a character (and thus play into one of the central themes of the film), but also gives the audience a chance to immerse themselves in the world of the film with all of its grandiose science fiction imagery. Regretfully, and I am unsure who is responsible for this, there is a good deal of replaying previous scenes and previously heard dialogue in voice over that creates a series of flashbacks which give the impression that the filmmakers do not trust or even believe in the intelligence of their audience. The character of Joi (Ana de Armas), Ryan Gosling’s hologram girlfriend, is also enlisted to articulate K/Joe’s character subtext in just as many scenes. Together, these two tactics successfully subvert Villeneuve’s pacing, betraying the aesthetic he is clearly trying to preserve from Scott’s Blade Runner for his sequel.

Joi, though often just a device for exposition, does feature centrally in the most provocative and, I think, successful sequence of Blade Runner 2049; the sex scene. This scene realizes, visually, more concepts and motifs inherent not only in the works of Philip K. Dick (whose novel inspired the first Blade Runner film), but science fiction in general than the entirety of the rest of the picture. Here, Joi has hired, though it is unclear how a hologram can do so, a hooker named Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) to be an avatar of sorts to enable Joi to approximate intercourse with Gosling’s K/Joe. Visually, the double exposure effect of Joi and Mariette competing to inhabit the same female form is astonishing. The fact that their forms are, in effect, interchangeable as sexual objects speaks volumes to the commodification of the female form in cinema and society. This is taken further within the overall conception of Blade Runner 2049 by the fact that neither K/Joe nor Mariette are human in the traditional biological sense. Thus the entire exchange between the three characters is an act of artificial approximation whose very impulse is at work today in online avatar communities and dating sites. One could also assume that Joi, given the evidence provided later in the film, is mass-produced while K/Joe and Mariette each represent a singular production, thus reflecting the precarious assumptions we as a society make about ourselves as individuals in terms of our uniqueness, importance, and our sense of entitlement.

hologram as mass production

The worst parts of Blade Runner 2049 are those which ignore, or should I say that they do not even pretend to address, the philosophical questions investigated by the scene described above. These scenes favor instead genre mechanics whose familiarity to the audience and whose use as signifiers do little else than to suggest that another Blade Runner film will be in the works shortly. Of course these are the scenes of the “replicant resistance”. Villeneuve’s blocking during the scene in which the “resistance” is introduced has been so overdone, is so old hat, that it bordered on the comical. Upon reflecting on this subplot, which seems like it was shoehorned in, I couldn’t help but feel that Paul Verhoeven’s classic Total Recall (1990) had somehow snuck into Blade Runner 2049 to create a terrifying Philip K. Dick narrative fusion.

The real question that Blade Runner 2049 asks despite its success as a sequel film, and it has nothing to do with science fiction, is: what is the necessity of the sequel? Could Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have written this film without mentioning blade runners at all? Does Ryan Gosling need Harrison Ford as a sidekick to attract an audience? The answer is simple: Blade Runner 2049 does not need to be a Blade Runner sequel for any other reason than to exist.

-Robert Curry

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Godard & Ishaghpour: A Review

“Looking at Histoire(s) du cinéma, the first chapter especially, I got the impression there had been three major events in the twentieth century: the Russian revolution, Nazism, and cinema, particularly Hollywood cinema, which is the power of cinema, the plague as you (Jean-Luc Godard) say.” – Youssef Ishaghpour to Godard, Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century

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Jean-Luc Godard may come in and out of fashion, but it seems indisputable that he, more than any other filmmaker, is the most important artist of the cinema in the twentieth century. One doesn’t need to particularly like or enjoy Godard’s work to appreciate its singular accomplishments. In fact, in the book I wish to address, Youssef Ishaghpour himself, despite the high regard in which he holds Godard, often challenges the filmmaker’s own ideas and readings concerning his films. Godard certainly has his fair share of detractors, certainly with concerns towards his latter period, but to summarily dismiss a work because it is difficult or unconventional is more an act of self-betrayal than a critique of a film or filmmaker.

The book in question here is the brilliant Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century (first published in 2000) by Jean-Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour. This publication is part of a series titled Talking Images, edited by Yann Perreau, which is primarily interested in investigating the usefulness and purpose of the cinema at the start of the twenty-first century. So it is fitting that the text of Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century, a lengthy conversation between Ishaghpour and Godard followed by an essay by Ishaghpour, should focus on Godard’s mammoth Histoire(s) du cinéma.

In Histoire(s) du cinéma Godard employs a variety of avant-garde video tactics (superimposition, text overlays, dubbing, looping, etc.) to create a visual complex that is the equivalent in cinema to what Alfred Döblin and James Joyce achieved in literature. At the center of this complex is Godard himself, and from this center spirals the cinema in a series of rhyming and juxtaposing rhythms whose images are linked by Godard’s own subjective interpretation of his memories of the twentieth century which are, in-turn, embodied on the audio track and in text overlays. This complex yields over its 8 parts and 266 minutes a series of patterns and intersections, both formal, calculated and accidental, that locate a broader sense of purpose to the very design of cinema as a social and political form of art.

From this jumbled description, of what I consider to be Godard’s greatest achievement, above, one can begin to understand how complicated Histoire(s) du cinéma truly is and why it continues to perplex, enrage and enthrall audiences. Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century is the most practical and useful guide one could hope for to dissect Histoire(s) du cinéma. The intimate, conversational quality of the “interview” section of the book gives Godard, by way of Ishaghpour’s insights and careful readings of the film, the opportunity not only to describe some of the specific meanings of certain images in Histoire(s) du cinéma, but to also address his own desired outcome of the project in terms of its spectatorship. This essentially serves to direct the reader’s focus to different elements of the film during different sections, though the conversation never becomes a matter of “mapping out” Godard’s complicated visual and audio complex.

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There is also a casual, somewhat anecdotal quality to Ishaghpour and Godard’s conversation that is likely to be of interest to the viewer who never bothered to look at Godard’s work post-Weekend (1968). For instance, Godard’s interest in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), Orson Welles and his aesthetic relationship to John Ford, Henri Langlois, Jules Michelet, Jean Mitry, Georges Sadoul, Gilles Deleuze and Truffaut are all discussed and will no doubt satisfy the appetites of many a film major.

But to separate one element of the interview from the other is to dispense with the overall purpose of the text as a whole which is to rediscover Godard the filmmaker and critic in his Histoire(s) du cinéma. Ishaghpour’s closing essay, Jean-Luc Godard Cineaste of Modern Life: The Poetic in the Historical, eloquently argues that, with Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard locates the cinema as a means of contesting History/Histoire(s). Ishaghpour very succinctly presents his idea within the wider context implied by Histoire(s) du cinéma, the state of contemporary art, by drawing on a variety of scholarship from Deleuze’s notion of the time-image to Sergei Eisenstein’s theories of montage.

I will say that some of the material in Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century can be a bit forbidding insofar as it references an equally wide variety of texts as it does films (some more obscure than others). If one prefers a less focused study of a single Godard film, or is interested in films from earlier in his career, I would recommend Forever Godard, edited by James Williams and Michael Temple. Forever Godard is a fascinating volume that anthologized a series of essays about the filmmaker on various parts of his career that is fully illustrated with stills from his films (which make this volume a beautiful object as much as a book).

-Robert Curry

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Discoveries

It is relatively easy today to discover a film. It is certainly far easier today than it was when I was growing up. Online streaming platforms such as FilmStruck and Hulu bring a wide variety of titles, some obscure and some not, to curious spectators and cinephiles with far more ease and accessibility than a video store or a library ever did. Yet, somehow, this great abundance and variety becomes prohibitive after a fashion; inundating the viewer with maybe too many options. There is also something to be said about collecting films. Owning a film on DVD or Blu-Ray, possessing an object, gives one a sense of material satisfaction. This satisfaction, when so many things are available in the ether of the internet, is part of the appeal of these formats. One could even say that it is this impulse toward the tangible that has sparked the revitalization of vinyl within the music industry. And similarly to how vinyl records often sound better, a film often looks better on DVD or Blu-Ray. In my own experience I often have found prints of obscure films on different streaming platforms, like Netflix, to be rather poor when I know for a fact that a better print is available.

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There is also the matter of availability. Warner Archives, for instance, has brought out and continues to bring out what seems like a limitless supply of classic Hollywood fare. Most of these films will probably never be popular enough to find a place in the foreseeable future on Netflix or Hulu. So the only way to access these titles is on DVD and Blu-Ray. Of course, this doesn’t even get into films that are available only in other regions. Eureka!, Second Run, BFI, Edition filmmuseum, all release prestigious and scholarly packages of renowned films unavailable in the United States, making their home video releases essential to serious students of film. Ironically, the shift in the home video market, epitomized by the strategies exemplified by Warner Archive, only came about because of the immense popularity of online streaming. That is to say that home video has become a niche market after a fashion.

These circumstances that have made so many films available for study for the first time has such inexhaustible possibilities that it can be overwhelming and often times happens only as a sort of accident. Back in July I finally saw the Norman Foster film Kiss The Blood Off My Hands (1948), a sort of quickie noir piece that was the first film produced by Burt Lancaster’s Norma Productions (available as a Universal Vault Series DVD release). The opening chase sequence in which Lancaster evades the police on an elaborate expressionist set-piece with all of his athletic prowess was surprising not just for its length, but what evidence it provided of Orson Welles’ influence on his one time protege Norman Foster (Foster was at one time a co-director on Welles’ famous “lost” project It’s All True, directing the “My Friend Bonito” section). One can’t necessarily credit Welles with introducing Foster to the silent German Expressionist films of the twenties, but one can credit Welles with having imbued in Foster a sensibility for the importance of the seen and unseen in a sequence. Kiss The Blood Off My Hands, like Welles’ The Stranger (1946), uses shadow and dramatic angles (high and low) to focus the spectator’s gaze on specific details in a rapid succession of shots. Foster’s employment of Welles’ visual strategy in a run-of-the-mill “quickie”, for my money, positions him in favor of Jess Franco as the “kitsch Welles”. This aesthetic relationship between Welles and Foster was one that, like so many others, I had dismissed after having seen some of Foster’s work for Walt Disney Studios in the fifties. However, after viewing Kiss The Blood Off My Hands I revisited Foster’s most famous film, Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955) and was able to locate shades of Orson Welles yet again, though this time employed toward a more theatrical aesthetic end.

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I also found a trend in later MGM musicals upon revisiting Charles Walter’s Texas Carnival (1951) as a companion film to Mervyn LeRoy’s Lovely To Look At (1952); both available from Warner Archive and both featuring Red Skelton. First it may be helpful to note that the Jerome Kern musical Lovely To Look At was made quickly to cash in on the success of George Sidney’s film of Show Boat the previous year, employing almost all of the same cast but with Jack Cummings producing in place of Arthur Freed (Jack Cummings also produced Texas Carnival and handled a number of MGM’s lower budget musical productions). Both of these films star Howard Keel and each film stages an effective dream sequence around Keel as the romantic leading man. The earlier film, Texas Carnival, locates this dream as a kind of sexual reverie or fantasy that Keel is having about his leading lady, Esther Williams. LeRoy’s camera stays predominantly behind keel, though it concludes with Keel in a profile shot. LeRoy’s motivations for this visual structure are twofold. Firstly, Keel is the lesser star in 1951, and secondly this placement of the camera invites the audience to share and to participate in Keel’s gaze as an apparition of Esther Williams (courtesy of superimposition) swims around his hotel suite. In Lovely To Look At, Keel is the bigger star and has thus graduated to becoming the subject of the underrated Kathryn Grayson’s dream stuff in this film. Here, Grayson finds Keel gradually appearing in four full length mirrors as he serenades her, his voice quadrupling on the soundtrack. The camera sits behind Grayson, and the four Keels, forming an implied triangular formation, frame her. Both sequences, comic in their eccentricity, heartbreaking in their sincerity, prove just how important the commodification of a star was for MGM. Neither scene is important to characterization nor to narrative. The one aim that they prove and satisfy is in selling a star. This tactic, from today’s viewpoint, epitomizes the nostalgia and innocence promised by “classic movies”, thus rendering such scenes more memorable than some of those films’ finer sequences such as Vincente Minnelli’s uncredited climax to Lovely To Look At.

These discoveries may seem inconsequential or even mundane, but they prove that there is still so much to mine in the cinema. I chose these three films for their obscurity because it is in these films which are finally receiving a release, some for the first time ever to home video, that one can find the untold stories of film. The cinema will always be progressive, it will always move forward with hundreds upon hundreds of films completed each and every year, but it is our collective cinematic past, more than our present in this country, that is finally becoming available.

-Robert Curry

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Jerry Lewis

I really like Jerry Lewis movies. My friend Thomas always made fun of me for it. He’d say I was the “only American who loved those films”. The first Jerry Lewis film I ever saw was The Disorderly Orderly (1964), one of Lewis’ films that Frank Tashlin directed, on Turner Classic Movies when I was in sixth grade. Not long after that my friend Dan and I saw Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy (1982). From there we began digging up radio and commercial outtakes of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on the internet and nurturing a slightly unhealthy fixation on Jerry Lewis’ unreleased film The Day The Clown Cried (1972). So my exposure to Jerry Lewis was both sudden and immersive. It wasn’t hard to find Jerry Lewis’ influence on films that I already liked. Paul Flaherty’s underrated Clifford (1994) is unimaginable without Jerry Lewis having come first.

Cinderfella

For me Jerry Lewis’ genius comes from his understanding of genre aesthetics and his ability to manipulate and subvert those aesthetics as well as from his many character iterations in his films which pinpoint the neuroses of masculine patriarchal culture (his persona always seemed born out of opposition to that of Dean Martin, a fact made even more clear in The Nutty Professor). Lewis’ criticism of our society is precisely what endeared him to filmmakers as renowned as Jean-Luc Godard (who would pay homage to Lewis in Tout va Bien and Keep Your Right Up). Lewis’ ability to satirize while always remaining silly, fun, childlike and escapist has never been equaled in this country since his heyday in the early sixties.

My two personal favorite Jerry Lewis films are Cinderfella and The Bellboy, both released in 1960. Tashlin and Lewis’ Cinderfella is as much a pastiche of MGM musicals of the fifties as it is an examination of male adolescence gone wildly out of control. The sense of design and of color in the film is breathtaking. Neither Tashlin nor Lewis ever made a film that looked more like a cartoon. In addition to being in black and white The Bellboy is far more minimal in its overall visual structure and framing than Cinderfella. Unlike Cinderfella, The Bellboy’s primary aesthetic interest is in silent film clowning. For a first time director such as Lewis The Bellboy is remarkably mature in how it handles the balance between “silent” and “sound” comedy.

It is more likely, however, that people my age know Jerry Lewis better for his Telethons or through some other form of media. I know the first time I was exposed to Jerry Lewis I didn’t even know it. It was on a John Lennon bootleg I had. There are a few tracks from Lennon’s appearance on a Jerry Lewis Telethon with Yoko Ono in 1972. Jerry Lewis was one of those truly versatile performers, he may even have been the very last of his kind. So it shouldn’t really be that surprising that different generations of audiences know him for different works in different mediums.

The King Of Comedy

Ninety-one is not young, and it is safe to say that Jerry Lewis accomplished much more than most people ever do in their lives. Still, it is saddening to know he is gone. There is no one I can think of working in the cinema today that could be considered a continuance of Lewis’ work.

-Robert Curry

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Runnin’ Wild: A Book Review

Roughly a month ago it was my good fortune to inherit a collection of about 120 books on the subject of Hollywood during its heyday between 1915 and 1960. Many of these books were from the seventies and have long been out of print, so the information and details which they contain have brought me no end of delight (Brendan Gill’s Tallulah is particularly enjoyable). Though, I must admit, I have been rather slow in digesting them all I have already found one biography which I would like to single out.

Clara Bow publicity photograph

There is no doubt David Stenn is a name well-known to enthusiasts of classic Hollywood films. His financing for restorations of the films of Clara Bow, including Mantrap (dir. Victor Fleming, 1926), coupled with his own project/film Girl 27 (2007) has made him indispensable. But Stenn remains best known for his meticulously researched and definitive biographies of Clara Bow and Jean Harlow.

Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild (first published in 1988) is one of those rare biographies that is overwhelming with information but whose literary style gives it a sense of urgency and modernity. Stenn’s meticulous research gives the reader a tremendous insight into the business affairs of B.P. Schulberg and Paramount, reprinting numerous cables, memos and letters between studio executives, personnel, artists, and Clara Bow herself. Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, like the best Hollywood biographies, succeeds in presenting a star in such detail and with such life that it invariably enhances one’s viewing experience of their films. It is also of note that Clara Bow’s acting style (discussed at great critical length by Stenn), like that of Louise Brooks’, was considerably modern for its period. However, Stenn’s real achievement with this book, and my primary reason for recommending it, is how it rewrites Hollywood history; dispelling long accepted rumors and assumptions.

Stenn goes to great lengths defending Clara Bow from the gossip that arose after 1932; mainly in the form of Kenneth Anger’s notorious Hollywood Babylon (1965) which alleges Clara Bow’s multiple “gang-bangs” with different sports teams. The widely held assumption that Clara Bow was, as a woman waiting for the trolley with me one day put it, a floozy is investigated at length and countered with evidence that paints a portrait of Clara Bow as something more akin to Protofeminist. Sources ranging from telegrams to eye-witness accounts verify that Clara Bow was not a dim-witted nymphomaniac but rather a slightly naive, generous, openly sexual person who always spoke her mind come hell or high water. This also helps illustrate the degree to which Hollywood sought to control their star and also how American culture in the twenties vilified promiscuity, female strength, and sexuality. Stenn’s biography concludes that Clara Bow, given all of the well researched evidence, is a woman who would not change herself to conform to society’s idea of who she should be.

There is also plenty of material in Stenn’s book that undermines the romanticized concept of the flapper of the roaring twenties. Stenn takes his time showing his reader that Elinor Glyn manufactured this romantic notion of the flapper or “It” girl (as Clara Bow was to become known) for the sake of her own financial gain. Stenn makes the case quite effectively that Glyn’s interest in female sexual liberation was self-serving, and Clara Bow’s association with Glyn only helped to typecast and stigmatize her. In this respect Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild serves many of the same motives as Louise Brooks’ remarkable memoir Lulu In Hollywood (1982). Both Stenn and Brooks are fascinated with the hypocrisy of the major studios whose pictures promote the flapper but whose policies and press attack those same ideologies when exhibited by their stars. This more inquisitive line of investigation plants figures such as Louise Brooks and Clara Bow squarely within the camp of early feminists (a trend in biographies of actresses which seems to have begun in the late 1960s).

Call Her Savage (1932)

Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild is also a terrific amount of fun. This fun comes from Stenn’s ability to not only endear Clara Bow to his reader, but also in inviting the reader into Clara’s personal life. Often Clara Bow’s life is tragic or harrowing, but it can also be a bit silly. Two of my favorite moments are when Clara Bow out hula dances an intoxicated John Wayne and the fact that one of Clara Bow’s favorite past-times in Hollywood was to roller skate up and down her driveway. After all, it is in the little details that one truly comes to know a person and Stenn keeps them in abundance.

Robert Curry

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Detroit

“Nervous breakdowns/Crowd the calendar of freedom/When reality is forced upon the nonbeliever’s ego plan/Criticizers/From the hanging cliffs of plenty/Laugh to see the fall of those/Who would remain in honest lands/Clairvoyants strive to see/The plans of those who need to know/What lies beyond the seeing tree of life” – Eugene McDaniels, Unspoken Dreams Of Light, from the album Outlaw, 1970

 DETROIT

When I saw Detroit last Tuesday, I believe that I was fortunate enough to have a wholly unique viewing experience. I assume that unlike most white male viewers I had a special “tour guide” in the form of a running commentary from two elderly Black women seated directly behind me. In many respects this commentary provided a good deal that the film did not. Though these two women restricted most of their commentary to the fashions of 1967, their personal reminisces that accompanied these asides were highly enlightening. The Black Culture of 1967 that was too elusive in Detroit became almost tangible to me thanks to my fellow spectators. Now I cannot imagine making it through the entire film without them.

The fact that the cultural context for Detroit came not from the film itself but from my fellow spectators indicates the primary failure of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s film. A film which sets as its objective the “education” of an audience should be more inclusive, prioritizing the context of its protagonists so that, from the vantage point of 2017, we may understand and even recognize the dramatic stakes proposed by the film. A recent publication in the Huffington Post, ‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible And Dangerous Movie This Year  by Jeanne Theoharis, Mary Phillips, and Say Burgin, points to some of the major omissions of historical events as well as the political ramifications of said inclusions and omissions.

This half-hearted approach to Black Culture in a film made by white filmmakers condemning racism squarely places Detroit within the tradition of Richard Brooks’ or Stanley Kramer’s civil rights oriented films of the fifties and sixties. Kramer’s use of caricature, narrative cliché, and preachy dialogue seems out-of-place in a film of 2017; it may even be dangerous. When Stanley Kramer was making his films Oscar Micheaux had already completed more than two dozen films that had never been released widely to white audiences (J. Hoberman’s excellent essay on Micheaux is collected in his book Vulgar Modernism). Black filmmakers before 1970 were almost exclusively left to exhibit their films on a regional level (New York based filmmakers screened their work there, Memphis filmmakers screened their films there, etc). The segregation of American cinema in the fifties and sixties and even before is what makes Kramer’s films such important political documents. In other words, Kramer’s voice was one of the few audiences all over the U.S. heard at the cinemas on the subject of civil rights. Today Black filmmakers have found a more general mainstream acceptance, so issues of racism in this country do not have to wait for a “white savior” like Stanley Kramer to stick up for them. It is almost impossible to imagine what a filmmaker like Oscar Micheaux would have been capable of if he had had the opportunities of Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels, Barry Jenkins or Steve McQueen.

The films that have endured by white and black filmmakers alike about America’s racial conflict are the ones that have not sought to explicitly propagate one agenda over another. Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1994), John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson (2006), and Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy (2012) and The Butler (2015) all take an equally compassionate view of their characters regardless of race; prioritizing character over politics and thus finding something closer to the truth with regards as to how race affects human beings on an acutely personal level.

Detroit does not offer viewers human beings, only character types and sketches, distilling the life out of its characters both Black and White. This has the unusual effect of placing Detroit more in line, in terms of genre, with the home invasion thriller than with the historical drama. Detroit, like any good exploitation film, favors the spectacle of violence, revelling like a sadist in scenes of torture and depravity. The only “message” this tactic can offer viewers and the only understanding of the event in our history Detroit seems ready to share is that racism is violent and bad. This juvenile interpretation of these historical events both demeans its survivors as well as leaves viewers ill-equipped to address this kind of racial violence after seeing the film.

Detroit

For myself personally, the truly frightening aspect of racism is that it can be found anywhere. People and co-workers one may assume one knows could in fact harbor some of the most revolting kinds of racism. Costa-Gravas’ film Betrayed (1988) takes this as its thesis, constructing around this idea a uniquely disconcerting thriller. However, this kind of terror can only be made manifest on the screen if the film attempts to construct actual characters.

Bigelow and Boal have most certainly accomplished the antithesis of their goal. Detroit does not work as a film about the Detroit race riots of 1967. Detroit is an exploitation film, dressed up with a major budget and sold as a quasi “historical revelation”. Its great accomplishment will be to offend, and in so doing prove just how out of touch White Hollywood still is with the problems of Black America today and yesterday.

-Robert Curry

 

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A Spectacle Of War

“Of course, you know this means war!” – Groucho Marx, A Night At The Opera, 1935

Dunkirk

I don’t particularly love war films as a genre. I find most of them to be either overly sentimental, propagandist, violently exploitative, or just racist. For me the first really good and also fascinating war film is  Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919). The other war films (I’m finding this genre label a bit too loose and not very helpful) that have expressed anything of merit have all appeared to have taken something from Gance, even if it is just a shared impulse. The “good” war films, in my opinion, all cherish human life with a capacity that a blockbuster production is incapable of while also posing questions regarding the necessity of violence and the nature of violence as spectacle. The more popular route has always been more propagandist and celebratory of the machismo of war while simultaneously pushing the political agenda of a current regime. That’s precisely why masterpieces such as Chris Marker’s omnibus film Far From Vietnam (1967), Miklós Jancsó’s The Red And The White (1967) and Elem Klimov’s Come & See (1984) remain elusive to most American audiences during a time when they are, perhaps, needed the most. But playing in cinemas today are two films who navigate these concerns with war in different ways that make them as illuminating with regards to their subject while also functioning as a sort of litmus test for the ideologies of this moment in time. The films are War For The Planet Of The Apes and Dunkirk.

Matt Reeves’ War For The Planet Of The Apes (2017) represents a pastiche that apes (pun intended) from such distinguished and diverse films as John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) to cite only the most obvious examples. The culmination of these narrative elements having been reappropriated and strewn together in a patchwork is not necessarily that interesting in so far as imbuing a new degree of emotional response to familiar stimuli, but rather in War For The Planet Of The Apes’ capacity to examine the principles of these narrative tropes that have allowed them to work in different iterations over many decades by simply rearranging and aligning them within a linear narrative construct. Ironically, the detachment required by such an investigation derives from the computer generated apes themselves (they represent a different though just as plastic and campy manifestation as the costumes worn by actors during the original franchise from the late sixties into the seventies).

War For The Planet Of The Apes exists in a kind of limbo in American mainstream cinema. This represents an alternative reading of War For The Planet Of The Apes. Reeves has still delivered an overwhelming spectacle of violence, so it isn’t very likely that many viewers will be watching the film for its subtle genre deconstruction. Due to its blockbuster status, critical discourse around War For The Planet Of The Apes will be miniscule while audiences will not likely feel encouraged to enter into an analytical dialogue with the film. War For The Planet Of The Apes, as campy as it is, successfully straddles the line which is so sacred in American cinema; the one between art and entertainment (intellectual vs. spectacle). The problem here is that there shouldn’t be any segregation.

War For The Planet Of The Apes

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is Christopher Nolan. His films have consistently pandered to artistic recognition while never truly accomplishing anything worthwhile or remotely interesting as far as I can see. Dunkirk could have potentially demonstrated the various sensations of duration born out of a variety of duress in its hodge-podge semi-linear structure. However, Nolan consistently assumes that his audience suffers from some kind of mental incapacity and chose to label these three experiences of duration, thus negating the final reveal that would have lent Dunkirk emotional power. Nolan’s approach to form via these labels (The Mole, The Sea, and The Air) also functions to deny the film any interesting exchange between the images within the three different timelines as he cuts back and forth between them.

Thus Dunkirk is the antithesis of War For The Planet Of The Apes in that it aspires to art and provides only spectacle. The spectacle itself is not even that rewarding for that matter. As I sat in the theater watching Dunkirk I kept thinking of Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk, like A Bridge Too Far, trades on its roster of celebrities and plethora of special effects to pull at the heart-strings of its audience. This strategy, while good in theory, doesn’t allow for ample character development, thus making it difficult for the audience to have anything more than a passing superficial reaction to the film. The only time Dunkirk comes close to achieving any real characterization is during Mark Rylance’s scenes. Rylance brings a subtlety and a sense of experience to his role as Mr. Dawson that renders his character with more depth and ambiguity than could be mustered by the rest of the film’s cast.

What Dunkirk and War For The Planet Of The Apes have in common is what they prove, each in their own way. These two films indicate that a majority of the movie going public see war and accept war purely as a spectacle, as a means for escape. This probably has as much to do with how these films are sold and marketed as with the way which wars are treated by journalists and the media in this country. Arguably, as the images of Vietnam on the 5 o’clock news fade from our national consciousness, so does our ability as a nation to treat war on film as anything other than “pulp”. I doubt that it is any coincidence that a majority of the most worthwhile films about war I have seen were made during the Vietnam conflict and in its immediate aftermath.

-Robert Curry

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