Tag Archives: Tilda Swinton

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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Christian Wolff & The German Cinema

The influence of Protestantism and the Aufklärung cannot, as so often is the case, be neglected in the analysis of German, Hungarian, Austrian, Dutch, Latvian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Swedish cinemas.  Philosophical concepts took root under the Prussian and German Empires of the 19th century, derived from Protestant theologians, that would have ramifications running through to the 21st century.  Despite inevitable changes in government over the course of two centuries, the popular ideas of the 18th century have become so rooted in the psychology of these masses that they have evolved.  Germany, whose history is perhaps the most well-known of these European nations, gives evidence that the ideas that first took root in the late 1700s continued to dictate practice and the motive for these practices through the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, to its contemporary federal parliamentary republic.  The “ideas” at work here are those of Christian Wolff and his predecessor Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz.

EFFI BRIEST

In these Germanic nations Pietism and the Aufklärung (or Enlightenment) captured the zeitgeist simultaneously and would continue in their development on a parallel course.  However, by the 19th century, philosopher Christian Wolff’s notions of “pure logic”, born out of this congruent development, had become widely accepted.  Wolff, building upon the earlier work of Leibnitz, proposed that the world at large operated as a machine, and that human beings, endowed with a soul, seek to understand themselves, their surroundings, and ultimately gain control of these things through that understanding.  That is to say that the more completely one understands a thing, the more complete one’s pleasure becomes, and vice versa.  This emphasis on “pleasure” stems from the influence of Pietism, whose symbiotic relationship with the Enlightenment is entirely unique to these regions of Europe.

By the early 1800s Wolff’s emphasis of knowledge (“understanding’), and the cold analytical means by which he believed that knowledge could be achieved, had become part of the bureaucratic machinery propelling not only the Prussian and German Empires, but also the Austrian-Hungarian Empires.  In the latter works of Theodor Fontane, particularly Effi Briest (published in 1894) and the characterization of Innstetten, one can find these principles of Wolff’s logic as elements of characters existing in autocratic positions of authority in which such elements of character are derided for the benefit of comic relief and social satirizing.

It is from this point that I wish to leap into a cinematic comparison between the character of Innstetten (Wolfgang Schenk) in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 cinematic adaptation of Fontane’s novel with that of Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) in Fritz Lang’s M-Eine Stadt Sucht Einen Mörder (1931).  Both characters, despite some unique neurosises, represent characterizations of the infamous “cold German logic”, a character trope popular with audiences internationally, born out of Wolff.  It speaks volumes that in 1931 elements of Wolff was still so much a part of the German political machine that it should surface in Wernicke’s Lohmann (just as it would again in 1933 in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse).  Fassbinder’s treatment of Innstetten, though not as campy as Lang’s treatment of Lohmann, also functions upon similar assumptions and takes into account the same truths.  However, Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974) has stylistic concerns with emotional realism worlds apart from Fontane’s emphasis on the psychological in his novel.  Despite this aesthetical difference, elements of the broader depiction of Wolff’s impact evident in Lohmann still manage to surface in Schenk’s Innstetten.

Logically such characterizations have found their most popular outlet in depictions of Nazi and Soviet officials.  These depictions exude Wolff’s principles to cartoonish proportions, distorting much of their relevancy to the psychology of these nations today.  There are still examples of characters in authoritative positions that conform to Wolff’s principles to be found, for sure, however they tend to be marginalized when compared to the Nazi/Soviet stereotype.  One such exception exists in Béla Tarr’s The Man From London (2007).  The character of Inspector Morrison (István Lénárt), despite being British, conforms to the mold of Fritz Lang’s Lohmann.  This reveals Tarr’s Hungarian background as well as to reenforce the notion of this archetype’s (which is surely what it has become) contemporary relevancy since Morrison is neither an overt figure of fun nor a parody.

Yet, what is perhaps most compelling, is the influence of Wolff upon the construction of montage and image composition.  Despite the fact that rapid montage and the “city film” are distinct products of the Soviet Cinema, both found a sort of purity in the hands of the Germans.  Consider first Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony Of A Metropolis (1927), a film whose montage is a rapid fire depiction of images even more succinct in their content than Vertov’s film.  This approach to dynamic compositions to capture quick and telling moments became a staple in the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl.  By the 1970s, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg had adopted the style of Ruttmann and Riefenstahl for his own post-modern spectacle Hitler: A Film From Germany (1977) to dispel the very web they spun with the same cinematic tactics.  Likewise, this same approach first found a foothold in narrative realism in Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s People On Sunday (1930) that would evolve into the pulpy film noirs of German Expatriates during the decline of the Hollywood studio system.

The Man From London

What unifies all of these films is their priority on narrative progression.  Where Jean-Luc Godard may use a cutaway to infer a political motif these films would advance toward one ultimate goal devoid of subtext.  Parallels between these German films and the films of Czech and Polish animators are perhaps the most obvious.  Though one may also propose that Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2001) represents the same basic technique but with a far less rate of montage.

The underlying factor that separates the Wolff influenced alignment of images, including the rate of montage, is that none of these films has any allegiance toward social realism.  On the contrary they are stylistically concerned with the fantastique, even when they assume to be non-fiction films.  In no other region is this style of film apparent than in these areas of Europe to whom the Enlightenment came late in the 18th century.  For these reasons there has been an evolution within the culture of Wolff’s philosophical teachings that have become inexplicably bound with national identity.

-Robert Curry

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