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A Sensually Complex World

To hell with it. Don’t worry about the audience. Don’t worry about the people. Your job is to look. Your Vocation is to look, not to entertain. Entertaining comes second. You should consider yourself somebody who can be entertaining by virtue of the sincerity and the rigorousness of his ability to look. – Hal Hartley, 1994

Farber & Patterson

Lately I have been immersed in Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writings Of Manny Farber (edited by Robert Polito). Manny Farber has long been established as one of the great American film critics and it is easy to see why from this collection. For myself, I find that he has so much to say that is still relevant today, particularly as it concerns the American cinema. One piece especially, The New Breed Of Filmmakers, very succinctly pinpoints the aesthetic trends that have become the backbone of Hollywood cinema and how these trends have limited or even bankrupted the artistry of Hollywood films. What I found most compelling in this single essay was Farber’s and his co-author Patricia Patterson’s ability to articulate a device that can single-handedly render the most mechanical narrative so much more fascinating.

Farber is describing his favorite scene in John Frankenheimer’s The French Connection II (1975) when he writes “the car scene is played-photographed off-center, creating space that’s not dependent on virtuosity but lets in a sensually complex world”. Meaning that this scene diverts, just for a moment, from the thrust of the narrative, acknowledging a “state” of character and location that reaches out and connects to a wider “world”, or set of sensory experiences, beyond the claustrophobia of the narrative complex.

Immediately Robert Altman comes to mind. Having just revisited his film Short Cuts (1993), Altman’s “audio collage” technique and his “sloppy” montage technique were fresh in my memory, as was the effectiveness of his aesthetic for getting to moments that let “in a sensually complex world”. However, most filmmakers, especially American filmmakers, don’t prioritize this kind of narrative grounding. Farber is correct in his assertion that scenes which do “connect” are the exception rather than the rule.

Gene Hackman

The reason that scenes like these have merits is primarily because the suspension of disbelief is allowed to take in a broader scope of world experience and reflection. When such a moment occurs in a film like The French Connection II it is entirely unexpected and even a little subversive. When one goes to see a blockbuster, one does not expect reality to really find a foothold in one’s sensory experience. In fact American audiences most likely associate this set of aesthetic experiences more heavily with foreign films (particularly those of Jacques Rivette, Werner Herzog, Chantal Akerman, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Andrzej Wajda and Jia Zhangke)  and underground films (those of Andy Warhol, James Benning and Shirley Clarke).

There also seems to have been a greater degree of such “moments” in the American films of the seventies. If memory serves, I can recall such instances very clearly in the films of Monte Hellman, Bob Rafelson, Elaine May, John Cassavetes, Jerry Schatzberg, and Barbara Loden; whereas in more contemporary films I find that such moments are much more scarce. In large part this is probably due to the “auteurist craze”, the power of the director, and the desire to disguise fundamentally formulaic films as art that was so prevalent in the seventies. Today, the producer is king again in Hollywood.

The roots of this aesthetic principle of “connectivity” could be easily attributed to the neo-realist films of De Sica, Visconti, and Rossellini with their emphasis of showing characters at work (as Giles Deleuze argues in Cinema 2: The Time Image). But I find that older films, going at least as far back as Griffith, demonstrate the same aesthetic desire and impetus, even if through the employment of a synthesis of character and location as an alternate means of expanding the audience’s experience of a film’s narrative world. Consider for a moment Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942). This Frantastique Val Lewton production has an added sense of urgency, despite its immense stylization, due to the “lived-in” quality of its art and set designs. This represents an even more primitive cue towards the same effect. This visual quality suggests that the narrative knows a greater, more inclusive expanse than we the audience ever get to see, and therefore is able to ground the “Fantastique” into a more accessible and complex vision of reality. Béla Tarr and Hal Hartley represent a more contemporary manifestation of this synthesis. Their highly stylized films investigate and question the “world” of a film through their compositions which almost always privilege location over character within the frame.

Ned Rifle

Be it a “moment” or a “cue” or even a “synthesis”, these components that align our spectatorship toward a larger view of filmic reality will, even inadvertently, imbue a narrative with a more visceral sense of reality. This procedure has, however, proven to be more remote and impossible in the, what Peter Biskind would no doubt term, post-Jaws age of American Cinema. The flexibility of green screen and it’s obvious artifice negates the tangibility of the sets in a film like Cat People or the sense of location in a Rivette or Akerman film. And it is this reliance upon green screen, with its inherent use of exact choreography and promise of spectacle, in the mainstream of American cinema which has dictated the closing in and entrenching of the narrative.

As suggested above there are still traces of these tactics in the American cinema. It is just that one must either frequent alternate means of film exhibition (film festivals, vimeo channels) or restrict oneself to a select number of American filmmakers.

-Robert Curry

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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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