Tag Archives: television

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Winter 2017

Wrapped In Plastic

Twin Peaks (1990-91), the brainchild of creators Mark Frost and David Lynch, has, in the last decade, risen above cult status.  In part this is due to Lynch’s Oscar nominated Mulholland Drive (2001), and part to the various DVD releases of the show and its streaming on Netflix.  Only a few weeks ago plans to revive the show were announced via Twitter by Lynch himself.  Indeed, almost all of the success of the show, be it when the show originally aired or today, is attributed to David Lynch, and occasionally Mark Frost.  But in the interim, between Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and and the release of the Twin Peaks Gold Box, it was the fanzine Wrapped In Plastic (1993-2005) that nurtured interest, merchandising, and critical debate around the show and its creator’s other projects from Lost Highway (1997) to Storyville (1992).

back issues of Wrapped In Plastic

Phenomenon like the Twin Peaks resuscitation is rare in film and television.  Perhaps the greatest example of a fan motivated revival is the franchise Star Trek, whose initial six features were the result of a decade long campaign by fans to bring the original television series back.  It’s too early to tell whether Twin Peaks will spark the sort of fan base and coinciding franchise that Star Trek did, but it is undeniable that the responsibility for any “rediscovery” of Twin Peaks by the public is due to Wrapped In Plastic and its readers.

Wrapped In Plastic was not an iconoclast of its genre, nor was it that consistent in its writing.  It did, however, fill an unlikely niche by bringing Twin Peaks to its fans in print for 75 issues.  Typically the format was quite standard for a fanzine; a cover story, an essay or two, some brief reviews on projects by Twin Peaks’ cast and crew, and then the letters section.  Wrapped In Plastic also covered Chris Carter’s X-Files, linking it thematically and aesthetically to Twin Peaks a number of times.  By incorporating articles and occasional cover stories on X-Files the fanzine was able to broaden its fan-base.  It is essential to put into context the function of the fanzine at the turn of the 21st century when such periodicals were primarily found in the then obscure comic shop and therefore had to compete with fanzines for Star Trek, Star Wars, Charlie’s Angels, Vampirella, Battlestar Galactica, James Bond, etc.  The already insular nature of those frequenting such shops provided a tight sense of community to the Wrapped In Plastic reader, prompting events designed to mirror Star Trek and comic book conventions but aimed at Twin Peaks.

Wrapped In Plastic No. 60This end of the Twin Peaks culture, its true “cult”, has not yet broken onto the social media platforms of the show’s newest fans.  In fact it is hard to get a handle on its function and very nature outside of the back issues of Wrapped In Plastic.  This gets to the very heart of “cult followings” in the age of cyber-space.  Fanzines like Wrapped In Plastic have been replaced by blogs, much like this one.  But these blogs do not come with the built in distribution direct to a niche audience that a printed fanzine comes with.  Thus communities like those built up by Wrapped In Plastic are slow to transition to social media, often suffocated by legions of new fans posting and blogging about the same subject.  This also furthers the novelty sensibility of a conference or festival held by fans beyond the reaches of the internet.  Consider the anarchist free-for-all of Twin Peaks blogs on tumblr in contrast to Radiohead and Sonic Youth blogs which function with a clear cohesion and sense of community.

There is simply something intrinsically communal about picking up a fanzine, an immediate sense of belonging, reassuring one’s self that there are other people in the world with like-minded interests.  The power of print, in this fashion in particular, is largely responsible for the hardcore punk scene of the eighties that sparked bands such as The Minutemen, The Replacements, Beat Happening, and Sonic Youth.  Personally, it was this sense of belonging that I felt when I bought my first issue of Wrapped In Plastic from Steve’s Comic Relief with my allowance in 2002.  And, for me at least, that notion of Twin Peaks as a wider community of fans is absent from blogs.  So the benefits of Wrapped In Plastic have been two fold.  Firstly it provided a communal platform for fans and, secondly, breathed new life and interest into the landmark television show.

-Robert Curry

1 Comment

Filed under Autumn 2014

Parade’s End: An Alternative to Downton Abbey

I first stumbled across this gem of a mini series while browsing the HBO GO series section recently. I am a big fan of Downton Abbey, but at times the show was a little too conservative, and the love story between Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley became a bit tiresome after spanning three seasons. I still love it don’t get me wrong, but I wished there had been a riskier take in the writing of Downton Abbey as a period piece (a period I might add, very few filmmakers care to tap into nowadays). Nontheless, this is a series that no one should pass up. And with only five episodes to its name and no sequel in sight, its an easier show than most to catch up on. 

SPOILERS: Parade’s End follows Christopher Tietjens and his comfortable career as an analyst for his majesty’s government before the Great War has even begun. However, Tietjens grows weary of the dribble that his so called superiors spit out on a daily basis (not to mention his terror of a wife) and decides to join the war effort as an officer. Having a secret crush on a lower class woman, a Ms. Wannop doesn’t exactly help either. Christopher is able to successfully escape his supposed cheating spouse and makes a name for himself as an outstanding officer. Mrs. Tietjens makes multiple attempts to see him while he is training new recruits and fighting on the front, but only one attempt was not in vain (much to the chagrin of his commanding officer). Tietjens shortly finds that war does indeed change a man, and those friends Tietjens had before the war realize how battle has changed their former analyst friend. Mrs. Tietjens soon realizes she was not meant to be with Christopher, and begrudgingly parts ways with her chivalrous husband. Ms. Wannop is finally able to be with the man of her dreams, and Christopher Tietjens can finally live the life he had wanted.

If you aren’t convinced by the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch plays the lead in this tantalizing series (who is most recently famous for portraying Sherlock Holmes in the new modern BBC revival of the classic character and for playing a rather white version of Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness), consider this: Benedict Cumberbatch was also nominated for a 2013 Primetime Emmy for his portrayal of Christopher Tietjens. A nomination he had received previously for Sherlock. He has also been in the media recently for refusing to pose for the paparazzi, and instead holding pieces of paper up asking why the media is covering him walking off of the set of the third season of Sherlock and not the unrest in Egypt (full link here). If you weren’t aware of Mr. Cumberbatch before, become accustomed to him now. He’s not going anywhere but up.

-Caroline Boyd

Leave a comment

Filed under Summer 2013

Wenders’ Wings Of Desire & West Berlin

In 1987, after working in America for several years, Wim Wenders returned to West Germany, more specifically West Berlin, to make his film Wings Of Desire (1987).  Wings Of Desire is, however, more than a literal coming home for the director, but a return to earlier thematic interests and collaborations.  Wenders enlisted playwright and novelist Peter Handke to pen the internal monologues for Wings Of Desire, rekindling a collaboration that had begun in 1972 on the film The Goalie’s Anxiety At The Penalty Kick.  Thematically, Wings Of Desire also returns to the themes of Wenders’ classic period in Germany that began with Alice In The Cities (1974), and whose primary concern, allegorical or not, was the disenfranchisement of the German identity as a result of the Cold War.  In Wings Of Desire these themes are transposed from a reflective reality into an ethereal reality, Romantic in a distinctly German way.

Wings Of Desire

The ethereal reality of Wenders’ angels is executed to great effect with sequences shot in black and white that are juxtaposed to color sequences that represent the human reality in which the angels are never visually present.  The angels themselves, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), avoid any overt visual connection to a recognizable theological iconography.  Wender’s angels appear plainly dressed in drab clothes, slouching in brown trench coats, appearing more like bums than like the angels of Western mythology.  This humanizes the characters, making it acceptable to the audience that Damiel could be faulted and could inevitably fall in love with the acrobat Marion (Solveig Dommartin).

Yet, for all their human qualities, the world of the angels at the top of West Berlin’s high rises and monuments is a world of fantasy directly lifted from the films of Jean Cocteau.  Wenders employs a number of analogue visual effects, often using trick photography, to imbue the singular world of the angels with Cocteau’s unique brand of playful whimsy that effortlessly brings these scenes to life with awe and wonder.  But these visual effects also allow Wenders to cut around West Berlin in feverish montage, where, for entire sequences, the camera will explore various sections of the city before revealing an angel to the audience.  Wenders’ concern with location as a third type of character is derivative, not just in concept but also in presentation, of Walter Ruttmann’s epic experimental film Berlin Symphony Of A Great City (1927).  In fact, the type of black and white film stock Wenders selected to shoot with combines both the aesthetics of Cocteau and Ruttmann so that he could be simultaneously referential to both as he constructed his dreamy narrative.

Wings Of Desire does more by design then capture the physical goings on of West Berlin, but functions as an anthropological document of the culture that was popular at the time, and the traditions that continued to shape the German perspective of that imported popular culture (a defining theme that occurs throughout the New German films of the seventies).  Marion herself best represents this conflict between authentically German culture and imported popular culture.  Marion works as an acrobat at a seasonal circus, whose format and presentation is unique to Germany, and has remained a tradition for over four hundred years.  But Marion also engages in an active nightlife, frequenting dance clubs where Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Crime & The City Solution perform.  These groups are, in effect, imports from Great Britain and Australia touring West Germany.  Though this contrast is its most visually dramatic in these sequences with Marion, the scenes in which Damiel and Cassiel listen in on the thoughts of Homer (Curt Bois) are the most extreme in presenting this concept, though only ever in dialogue.  As his name suggests, Homer is a poet storyteller, whose accounts of West Berlin life and the myriad of transformations it has undergone since the close of WWII and it’s formation act as a sub plot unto itself.  Handke’s monologue for Homer provides all the context, the explanation as to why things are the way they are, not politically, but in terms of the Berliner’s attitude to his/her daily life.  Yet, Handke has managed to keep Homer’s view of contemporary West Berlin strictly within the parameters of an intellectual in his eighties, thus negating all accusations that Homer’s only function is as a filmic device, a speaking reference point if you will, but manages to transcend necessity and become a legitimate supporting character.

Wings Of Desire does not only explore the cultural diffusion of West German culture through its fictional characters, but also through the use of a real life celebrity, Peter Falk, who plays a version of himself and represents the most easily accessible signifier in the film.  Like the characters that surround Peter Falk, the audience will most likely associate the actor with his role as Columbo, an American television program.  Columbo began airing in the late sixties, and thus provides a time frame during which American culture came to dominate West German culture, eventually fusing with it by the late eighties.  And like Homer, Falk also serves a narrative purpose, himself being an angel come to earth, mentoring Damiel when he makes the same transition to be with Marion.  But Falk’s internal monologue is unique in the film, representing the only non-German perspective in the film, working as a counterpoint to not just Homer, but all of the characters in a relationship akin to that of argument and counter argument.  Falk, in essence, is the “ugly American” the film needs to stay afloat in terms of its analysis of life in West Berlin.

Ganz & Falk

This relationship returns the film to the distinction between traditional German culture and imported American culture.  There is a facet to this relationship that the film is unable to explore, that the traditional German culture is at odds with a culture born into West Germany out of economic necessity.  American products helped transform West Germany into an economic superpower in the sixties, yet their cultural influence remains, and has colored German society ever since.  Wings Of Desire, being a narrative film, is not equipped to investigate these circumstances adequately, so Wenders simply relegates this relationship the peripherals of the film, only ever suggesting the debilitating effects of such a relationship.  For Wenders, the priority is to depict the romance that blossoms between Damiel and Marion.

As in Cocteau’s Orpheus (1949), and perhaps in homage to it, Damiel must plunge himself into an unknown world to be with the woman he loves, Marion.  This, and the sum of all of Wings Of Desire’s parts function as an encapsulation of the European film tradition, though from a distinctly German perspective.  As in all of Wenders films, the history of cinema is at the heart of the film, and serves as the single motivator behind the technical construction of the film.  Allegorically speaking, Wenders is Damiel, plunging himself into a strange world to be with what he loves, the cinema.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Winter 2013

Star Trek: The Kind Of Blockbuster We Need

If you know me personally, then you know I idolize Captain James Tiberius Kirk.  I’m not embarrassed.  Anyhow, last weekend I saw my brother.  Like any time we get together Star Trek comes up.  We both love Star Trek.  So, I’d just like to thank him for always making time to talk Star Trek with me, cause without those conversations, you would not be able to read the following article.

The Hollywood blockbuster has become a staple in the American experience.  At Christmas or during the summer, studios unleash action-packed franchise films to audiences craving escape.  Of all the Hollywood franchises and blockbusters, the original six Star Trek features are among the most iconic and the most unconventional.  Helmed by Harve Bennett, Nicholas Meyer, Jack B. Sowards, Leonard Nimoy, Gene Roddenberry and William Shatner, the Star Trek franchise was able to revive itself after a long hiatus and launch numerous spinoffs.

But it is the conventions of a Star Trek film that make them a different kind of blockbuster.  Films like Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, the Rambo films, and Aliens all have a distinct affiliation towards big special effects, an abundance of action, and a lot of cheap thrills.  While on the other hand, your average adventure with Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) has a lot of special effects, a little action, and some suspense.  The reason Star Trek is still successful as a blockbuster despite these differences is the characters.  During the three years Star Trek ran on television, it established its characters with audiences nation wide.  In fact, it was the audience demand for more Star Trek that brought about the six subsequent films.  That said, each Star Trek film has had the luxury of telling the story of the characters James T. Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) rather than manufacturing a fast paced narrative in which character comes as a second priority.

Every Star Trek film has at its base a revelation.  In Star Trek: The Motion Picture Kirk comes to realize his higher rank and older age have distanced him from the man he once was at the helm of the original series.  In the second film, The Wrath Of Khan, Kirk must not only atone for Khan’s fate, but for that of his broken marriage and abandoned son.  Each film works like this, foregrounding the personal conflicts of Kirk against what would be the narrative of a blockbuster.  But even putting it like that does little justice to the weighty messages the narratives of these films bolster.  The Undiscovered Country deals, in a strictly narrative sense, with the Cold War, and with racial tensions.  This kind of plotting makes the Star Trek films not only extremely relevant to their time of release, but again during the second or third viewing.  I am joining the chorus when I say that the endurance of Star Trek is primarily due to the timelessness of its stories, on TV or in the cinemas.

Another decidedly different factor between Star Trek and most conventional blockbusters is the age of its cast.  By the time they had completed their final film in 1992, all the cast was into their fifties.  Yet, despite the age of the films stars, only the first film sports younger cast members in an attempt to engage a new target audience.  And these two characters don’t even appear in the next five films.  What audiences wanted and expected was the now middle-aged crew of the original series.  The Star Trek films don’t shy away from addressing the crew’s age either.  Every film contains a reference or an allegory concerning mortality.  It’s a question posed to Kirk in almost every film whether he is too old to be commanding the Enterprise.

By their very nature one would not suspect Star Trek of being blockbuster gold.  The films number six and span over a decade, proving without a doubt their financial certainty.  Looking now at the blockbusters that have been released in the passed decade, one doesn’t see any blockbusters of this nature.  Even Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy lacks the clear and believable characters that Star Trek boasts.  George Lucas’ second-wave of Star Wars films are anything but natural and relevant.  So audiences are left with a void where Star Trek used to be.  Star Trek can’t come back, not in this incarnation anyway.  So a new franchise has to fill the shoes of Star Trek, providing provocative and character driven blockbusters to audiences every summer.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Summer 2012

A Few Thoughts On Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce

Todd Haynes has tried his hand at a variety of styles and narrative approaches.  From Poison to I’m Not There his cinematic style has proven to be as versatile and as challenging as any filmmaker could hope to be.  Last year he tackled the melodrama head-on in a six-hour miniseries for HBO, Mildred Pierce.  Barrowing heavily from the cinema of Douglas Sirk, as he did with Far From Heaven (2002), Haynes reinvigorates the genre by implementing the old and tried conventions that were the hallmark of American cinema in the fifties in a medium that is decidedly modern, the HBO miniseries.

First, I would like to point out how far HBO has allowed the television miniseries to come since its conception.  HBO encourages established and decidedly cinematic filmmakers to create what are essentially epic films that need not be inhibited by running time.  The funny thing is, such an approach has been the standard in Europe since the early seventies.  Why it took so long to catch on in the U.S. I do not know.

Working with this medium of epic story telling, Haynes and his co-writer Jon Raymond have crafted a script that remains truly faithful to James M. Cain’s novel.  Utilizing the scope of the miniseries, they have crafted a film that progresses at a slow pace, allowing performance to exist at the forefront of the film.  At times the pace of the film seems to tread along lazily, moving slowly from one catastrophe to another.

At the center of the film is Kate Winslet in the title role.  She doesn’t play Mildred for sympathy, preferring instead an organically objective approach that shows cases both the good and the bad in her character.  Evan Rachel Wood plays her daughter Veda, a spoiled and sociopathic upstart who serves as the catalyst for nearly every evil that befalls Mildred.  Guy Pearce plays Mildred’s second husband Monty, a charming opportunist and chauvinist.  In the narrative, it is Veda and Monty who present the obstacles and betrayals which prevent Mildred from enjoying that which she has achieved (when her first husband leaves her, she starts a chain of restaurants).

Cain’s novel has all the trappings of classic Hollywood melodrama, and Haynes doesn’t shy away from incorporating old Hollywood styles into the film to reflect that.   Haynes doesn’t cut his shots the way that is common today.  The shots in Mildred Pierce linger, or so it would seem if Haynes weren’t intentionally trying to re-create the pace of film editing in the fifties.  Another throwback convention is the use of rear projection in car scenes.  Constantly Haynes is keeping his audience aware of the heritage of this kind of movie making.

And like Douglas Sirk, Haynes often frames his characters reflected in mirrors or seen through a window or some sort of glass.  As Sirk once did, Haynes does, carefully picking his shots in which he wishes to distort the audience’s view of the character.  Haynes also permits his actors to play their parts a little too “big” at times, but as I said before, Haynes rarely cuts away from the performances so that they are always at the forefront of the film.  The mood of these “big” moments, given their duration and the exaggerated posturing of the actors, at times feels less like Sirk and more like Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who happened to study under Sirk).  Perhaps that is because, unlike Sirk, Fassbinder’s work was often made for television and allowed for scenes to play that long.  Or maybe it’s the phenomenon of the performance driven cinema that defined the cinema of the seventies?  Regardless, Haynes utilizes these tools to astonishing effect.

But Haynes does more than just imitate style and convention.  Mildred Pierce is a decidedly Todd Haynes film.  His obsession with sexual subversion is ever present and factors heavily into the lives of the film’s characters.  Even before Mildred discovers Eva’s affair with Monty, sex is used to manipulate and undermine different characters.  Monty is essentially Mildred’s gigolo after all.  The level of grief and shame Haynes gets from Winslet when she confronts Veda about faking her pregnancy to black mail a film director is disturbing.  Winslet’s face twists and bursts with tears.  In the hands of another director, moments such as these would not be played quite so over the top.  It makes sense though, through the big reaction, the gravitas of the situation, as the audience more easily understands a moral dilemma.  In a scene where Mildred catches Veda in bed with Monty, there is a long 18second shot of Veda naked, combing her hair after sex.  Haynes then cuts back to Mildred as her face slowly reveals her emotional reaction.  The audience doesn’t need to see the sex act.  The perverse nature of the sex is clear enough in this juxtaposition of these shots that it would have been less effective to show it.

It’s rare to find a balance of convention and innovation in any film let alone a film that runs over three hundred and sixty minutes long.  But that’s what makes this Todd Haynes’ most provocative film.  He’s a director who doesn’t do many films with a linear narrative, yet has managed to complete this film rather successfully.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Summer 2012