Friday, January 29, 2016

Bizarro Oscars: 88th Academy Awards – Dream Ballot

Bizarro Oscar
I have seen 97 of the 305 films the Academy deems eligible for the big prize this year. It would have been 98, but I accidently watched Shyam Madiraju's Eden instead of Mia Hansen-Løve's Eden. I regret it too; I'm only one man! This is the second year of my Bizarro Oscars™ in which I choose what would be my dream ballot and winners within the Academy's limitations.

That is to say, these are neither traditional projections nor snub-talk but a mostly useless, Kanye-inspired take on awards which insists there are correct answers in the liberal arts and acknowledging merit should be more reverent than business or spectacle.

A few inevitable words about diversity: nothing on this list is deliberately affirmative action. The concept of participation awards is insulting. That these nominations are more diverse than the actual nominations speaks less about the opportunities of lead roles for minorities and more about the fact that, upon seeing 97 films, your worldview changes. That's the power that should be celebrated with film: its visual language galvanizes the human spirit.

How powerful is it to see representation in something like Tangerine that it makes a liberally didactic film like Boys Don't Cry seem tone-deaf by comparison? Hollywood (and the Academy at the elite end of the establishment) has an unquestionable problem with representation. How much of this is perpetuated by voters not watching more films? How much is inflated self-importance failing to recognize that great films change us and not the other way around?

Speaking of inflated self-importance, here are my humble nominations if the Oscars were my one-man show: the 88th Academy Awards as given by FlickdomDictum.




ACTOR –in a Leading Role


I've been on this Ruffalo bandwagon so long, here's where the rubber hits the road. While I don't feel entirely comfortable with Ruffalo in this category as Spotlight is more of an ensemble piece and he doesn't dominate screentime the way Fassbender or Sarsgaard does, I also can't deny that everything I liked about Spotlight's perfectly acceptable but mostly pedestrian nature had to do with Ruffalo's understated performance. Not bad for a film poised to take home Best Picture.

Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
Michael Fassbender – Macbeth
Peter Sarsgaard – Experimenter
Kurt Russell – Bone Tomahawk
Kevin Corrigan – Results




ACTRESS –in a Leading Role

As with last year’s Listen Up Philip, Elisabeth Moss is again ineligible for her role in Queen of Earth. Alex Ross Perry must not play this Oscar game. Honorable mention to Rooney Mara who is the true, unrecognized lead in Carol, a film in which the populace has largely misunderstood her projection onto the title role. I had a worse problem choosing between Chiara D'Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen in The Duke of Burgundy and couldn't.  Lots of great female roles this year.

Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
Rinko Kikuchi – Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Juliette Binoche – Clouds of Sils Maria
Kristin Wiig – Welcome To Me
Karidja Touré – Girlhood




ACTOR –in a Supporting Role

This category sees two Star Wars actors in non-Star Wars roles.  Tom Noonan gets a nod, but I'm not sure exactly what the role is.  Caveat on Paul Dano who isn't so much an actor in a supporting role as an actor as a supporting lead.  Love & Mercy isn't great, but Dano kind of is.  How much of this is by comparison to the film's odd casting of John Cusack remains to be seen. The real shame is that John C. Reilly is ineligible for his role in Entertainment.

Adam Driver – While We’re Young
Tom Noonan – Anomalisa
Oscar Isaac – Ex Machina
Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies
Paul Dano – Love & Mercy



ACTRESS –in a Supporting Role

Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth is close to category fraud as a supporting role, but she's so damn good it gets a pass.  2015 was a great run for Jennifer Jason Leigh, though the Academy picked the wrong role.  Girls Just Want To Have Fun, indeed.  Still, if anyone has the right to boycott because #OscarsSoWhite, it's Jada.

Jada Pinkett Smith – Magic Mike XXL
Kristen Stewart – Clouds of Sils Maria
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina
Marion Cotillard – Macbeth
Jennifer Jason Leigh - Anomalisa


ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

There is little beef to be had with the Academy's picks this year.  I realize I'm the oddball in where I diverge here.

Anomalisa
When Marnie Was There
Shaun the Sheep Movie
Boy & the World
The Good Dinosaur


CINEMATOGRAPHY

This is where things get weird for me.  Hao Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin was submitted as Taiwan's selection for Best Foreign Language film, but didn't even make the shortlist.  Not only is this egregious, it is then not considered as an eligible production in the other categories despite having a theatrical U.S. run.  Is this a clerical error the equivalent of Cash Money not filling out the right paperwork to get "Hotline Bling" considered for the Grammys, or did Hou's team simply not care?  That's pretty punk now matter how you cut it, but it's a shame as I would have nominated The Assassin in several categories. 

Macbeth
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Mad Max: Fury Road
Experimenter
‘71

COSTUME DESIGN

There was a strange stretch in December where I inadvertently watched Fresh Dressed, Saint Laurent, Iris and Yeezy Season 2 within 24 hours.  I realized how people must feel when they vote in these categories.  Again, The Assassin is ineligible and I probably would have given it this award.

Carol
Macbeth
Far From the Madding Crowd
Crimson Peak
Bone Tomahawk


DIRECTING

Despite this year's deluge of young, impressive talent, it's hard to root against George Miller here.  For a veteran who Hollywood relegated to directing Happy Feet movies, to have the vision to not only see this genre spectacle through, but capture critical imagination is no small feat.

Mad Max: Fury Road
Anomalisa
Macbeth
‘71
It Follows


DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Another awards show, another year of having no idea as to the process behind what is eligible for documentary awards at the Oscars.  Both What Happened, Miss Simone? and Winter on Fire are nominated for Documentary Feature yet are ineligible for other production awards.  I can't say I fully understand the acclaim for Amy, especially as this year saw the best music documentary since The Devil and Daniel Johnston.


Seymour: An Introduction
3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets
The Look of Silence
Call Me Lucky
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution


FILM EDITING

I'm not being deliberately contrarian here, but the disparity between my picks and the Academy's in this category speaks volumes.  Spotlight and The Big Short?  Certainly industry people know that editing is more than stitching together multiple storylines.

‘71
Mad Max: Fury Road
It Follows
Macbeth
Creed


FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

I don't particularly hold great fondness for Goodnight Mommy and I imagine it would have easily been bumped by Rams if I were able to have seen it. Then again, I still haven't seen Oscar favorite, Son of Saul, so what do I know?  I know I say it every year, but, this category is broken.

The Assassin
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Theeb
Mustang
Goodnight Mommy


MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

I mean, I probably pick Fury Road even if there was no Doof Warrior.

Mad Max: Fury Road
Carol 
Macbeth 


MUSIC –Original Score

If you would have told me at the beginning of 2015 that I would only pick The Hateful Eight as a nominee in one category, I would have assumed that's because the Oscars changed formats.  That the category is Original Score is even more depressing despite Ennio Morricone's fine work here.  I'm confused by the term "original," as the "song" category makes it very clear that variations on existing themes is a no-no.  That this score was salvaged from a previous work seems fishy in terms of eligibility.

Either way, the point is moot as the real force Star Wars has awakened is John Williams who brings to the project a vitality long dormant in the master.  The bookends of Rey's theme were already playful, when I discovered THIS happened, I couldn't believe it!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Hateful Eight
Macbeth
Carol
The Good Dinosaur


MUSIC –Original Song

I can't NOT throw shade at this category and have long held to the adage "if we can't expect the Academy to pick the right films, how can we expect them to have any authority over another of the arts?"  Perusing the 79 songs vying for nomination, a sequel should be written to the much maligned Save The Cat! which instructs the LEGO®-musician equivalents of hack screenwriters how to write an Oscar-nominated song.  

That is to say, of all the talk about Oscar diversity, why is there no outcry over how plunking three-somber piano chords against a hired string section and hottest (if disinterested) set of pipes works every time.  I try hard not to be contrarian in these pieces, but I'm kinda contrarian here.  So I picked a dated Swedish pop star singing Swedish, a diegetic piece that sounds like FKA twigs, a song that since the Oscars are always 15 years behind the times– sounds like 1998-era Heather Nova, and that Weeknd song because I respect the guy for the most part and it's funny that Fifty Shades of Grey was nominated for an Oscar.  Give the trophy to the guy from Ash, I don't care.  This category is the pits.



Shaun the Sheep Movie; Tim Wheeler "Feels Like Summer"
Ingrid Bergman – In Her Own Words; Eva Dahlgren “Filmen om oss”
Altered Minds; Erin Sax "Happy"
Creed; Tessa Thompson "Grip"
Fifty Shades of Grey; The Weeknd "Earned It"


PRODUCTION DESIGN

A few notes about Carol: I've long admired Todd Haynes and the writing of Patricia Highsmith, the acting is top-notch and Haynes has always excelled at emulating period.  That said, Carol is nowhere near the top of my list of favorite films on the year.  It just happens to excel at a certain pedigree of categories that win film awards.

The same could be said of Far From the Madding Crowd, the difference being that one looks deliberately literary and is the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of filling out costume or hairstyle nominees.  

Like the work of a gaffer, this fine-tuning can go unnoticed.  These aren't fill-in-the-blank selections and I hope this is evident by the absence of films like The Danish Girl and Woman in Gold.   I do care about my nominees.

Macbeth
Far From the Madding Crowd
Mad Max: Fury Road
Carol
The Duke of Burgundy


SOUND EDITING

It really is bizarre that Stallone's bid at supporting actor is the only nomination Creed got.  I think that speaks a lot about what it does well and how it does it.  The breathtaking choreography of the two-round one-take is so kinetic it doesn't draw attention to itself with a self-reflexive smugness of Iñárritu falling into his own navel.  The cinematography and editing are unpretentious by design.  Its everyman affectations are no different than Rocky's were in 1976, only those formal and thematic decisions must look as passe as Rocky looks square to the cynical New Hollywood idolaters still crying about Taxi Driver.  Yet Stallone, the most archaic element of the film, gets the kudos.

But still, not even a sound nomination?

'71
Creed
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Mad Max: Fury Road


SOUND MIXING

It sucks that I only have Yann Demange's '71 winning technical awards because of the insinuation that the technical awards aren't poetic.  Not so here as the sound design is a proud example of form following function both narratively and thematically.

'71
Mad Max: Fury Road
Creed
Macbeth
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation


VISUAL EFFECTS

I'm the kind of guy who has Pan and Tomorrowland nominated instead of Jurassic World and Avengers: Age of Ultron. This is not, as you might think, because I lean toward less being more in terms of visual effects, it's more that I admire earnest garishness.  I'm the kind of guy that, eight years on, cheers the Indiana Jones fridge nuke. The Eiffel Tower scene in Tomorrowland is extraneous and clumsy.  That it is also salient and iconic is one of those ineffable miracles of cinema.

Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Ex Machina
Pan
Tomorrowland


WRITING –Adapted Screenplay

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, The Assassin is ineligible in this category, but the point is moot.  Most of the year's best films had no previous source material and my nominees in the adapted category largely resort to instances where source material is its own franchise.  Macbeth wins this, hands-down, turning what is wordy and stagy by nature into the visually arresting.

Macbeth
45 Years
Mad Max: Fury Road
Creed
Ned Rifle


WRITING –Original Screenplay

Calling Charlie Kaufman "original" sounds dismissive: as if relegating his cinematic universe to quirk distances our experience from his uncomfortable truths.  Like Wes Anderson post-Darjeeling Limited, I feel like Kaufman has to resort to Kickstarter because public perception is that he is a child daydreaming in a turgid corner.

Anomalisa speaks to the artificiality of the medium and, in doing so, traverses the uncanny valley.  The puppets have hauntingly lifelike expressions which are tempered by deliberately visible seams to accentuate the drum-tight tale of chronic disconnect.

Anomalisa
‘71
It Follows
The Clouds of Sils Maria
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter



BEST PICTURE

In which I give the world's most biarro-Oscar to an animated film.  A non-Pixar animated film.  A stop-motion puppet film.  Where its two principals have a one-night stand and everyone else looks like Tom Noonan.  It's weird.  Yet what is most bizarre is that it is the most human picture of the year.

Anomalisa
Macbeth
‘71
It Follows
45 Years
Ex Machina
Mad Max: Fury Road
Clouds of Sils Maria
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Bone Tomahawk

Click Here, Nimrods...

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Short-Sightedness of the #OscarsSoWhite Movement and White Invisibility


The media attention mounting around the #OscarsSoWhite movement reminds me of another recent, misguided liberal agenda in Los Angeles race relations: the treatment of Donald Sterling.  Though the statements of then-L.A. Clippers owner was unquestionably abhorrent and racist, much of the media reaction was best summarized by then-ESPN reporter, Jason Whitlock who called it “a ratings-pleasing mob hell-bent on revenge” built out of “our zeal to appear righteous or courageous or free of bigotry.”

The Oscars are an easy scapegoat here, but a boycott is the equivalent of turning off the Super Bowl because of the NFL’s concussion crisis despite being a season-ticket holder with your kid in pee-wee football.  The problems with racial representation in Hollywood are foundational and they will not be fixed by the Academy adding an okie-dokie sixth affirmative action nominee in the acting categories.

Not to subvert TheEconomist’s numbers against their initial point (which I agree with), but an analysis of their chart of proportional underrepresentation shows that the Oscars are pretty on-target with their nominations inside of roles offered by race.  The problem is not the Oscars, it’s the industry.



If I had an Oscar vote, it would still go to Charolotte Rampling in 45 Years despite her antiquated quote today suggesting the #OscarsSoWhite movement is reverse racism.  She said in a French interview, “Why classify people? We live in countries where now everyone is more or less accepted.” Right-wing bandwagoneers have followed with comparisons to its concerns of university acceptance and military promotion as if it were possible for a color- and gender-blind meritocracy to govern fields embedded in white male privilege.  I’m not here to argue the validity of white privilege, I’ll leave that to Richard Dyer:
"[W]e can't see that we have anything that accounts for our position of privilege and power. This is itself crucial to the security with which we occupy that position. As Peggy McIntosh argues, a white person is taught to believe that all that she or he does, good and ill, all that we achieve is to be accounted for in terms of our individuality. It is intolerable to realise that we may get a job or a nice house, or a helpful response at school or in hospitals because of our skin colour, not because of the unique, achieving individual we must believe ourselves to be.
"But this then is why it is important to come to see whiteness. For those in power in the West, as long as whiteness is felt to be the human condition, then it alone both defines normality and fully inhabits it."
A common meme spread by opponents to #OscarSoWhite suggests roughly 13% of Oscar nominations have gone to Black actors in the last 20 years, analogous to their U.S. demographic.  By this faulty logic, we could project a recently published list of the 100 MostValuable Stars in Hollywood by Vulture to be roughly 63% White.

Surprise!  The list is actually 90% White.  And here’s a few examples of when it isn’t: Idris Elba’s 2015 was characterized by a role as a Ghanan guerrilla commandant in Beast of No Nation and by significant resistance to the idea of a Black man playing James Bond.

Lupita Nyong’o, the sole Black woman on the list (coming in at #100, no less.  Token?), was relegated to voice a strange alien thing in Star Wars.

Additionally interesting, neither of these actors is American.  Opponents to #OscarsSoWhite often ask, tongue-in-cheek, where the Latino and Asian voices are in this condemnation.  My answer would include the question: what opportunity would we have to hear it?  Would the media cover their disenfranchised voices, or is their lack of Hollywood representation part of this problem as well?

Hollywood is not, and has little interest in being, a meritocracy as its lead roles aren’t distributed on an even playing field; productions are founded on old, White money.  The Oscars boycott is a misguided liberal-agenda not because it is incorrect but because it doesn’t go at the throat of structural racism.  The power of the representation of Whiteness in Hollywood film is precisely that we aren’t inclined to see it.  If movie roles aren’t written to be specifically ethnic, they are rarely filled with ethnic stars.  And when they are, they’re often stereotyped.

If Hollywood has had no incentive to change its racial representation it is because its audience isn’t challenging the structure of its racial representation.  #OscarsSoWhite would do well to question why— even in films about historical accounts— films choose to tell mostly White stories with mostly White heroes.  The impetus cannot be solely economical as largely diverse casts in Star Wars – The Force Awakens, Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron were not only three of the four highest grossing films worldwide in 2015, but three of the top seven grossing films of all-time.

Audiences aren’t opposed to diverse casts.  That White male actors dominate lists like Vulture’s speaks less to their own merits as to our expectancy to see lists like this filled with White actors.  Because Hollywood films are filled, disproportionately, with White male actors.  The snake eats its own tail.

It’s not that #OscarsSoWhite, it’s that #HollywoodSoWhite, and there is no great solution.  The answers, though few, are largely economic.  Go see the new Spike Lee joint when it hits your theater, then maybe this important, didactic voice won’t have to resort to Kickstarter.  Seek out the disenfranchised, film is its language.  The exhibition model makes it easier today with VOD.  If you’re going to pirate a movie, don’t let it be Dope, or Tangerine, or the upcoming sci-fi film by Claire Denis.  Maybe do something outlandish like wait to see Jurassic World via Redbox.

It’s a frightening thought that representation will likely change in sloth-moving politics before it changes in Hollywood, but Latino numbers seem to be imminent.  Hollywood representation, however, will not shift unless their bottom line is challenged or “ownership” at the studios changes.  If the #OscarSoWhite movement can make enough noise to move sponsors, maybe some eyes will open.  If it starts conversation about lack of representation in top Hollywood roles, even better.

This ship will neither right itself, nor be corrected with a kneejerk boycott; its problems are generations old.  And not to sound too utopianistically libertarian about it, but what we find unacceptable about race representation can be aided more by the films we patronize than by Twitter-fueled armchair activism.  I think the success of the Fast & Furious franchise echoes this in longwave format.

There is nothing scary about acknowledging White privilege.  The idea that, one day, the Jennifer Lawrences and Bradley Coopers of the industry will have their careers hampered by lesser talent needed to fill racial quotas is the worst kind of institution-blind scaremongering.  Of course #OscarsSoWhite.  HollywoodAlwaysBeenSoWhite.  The outrage toward a Black Rue or Hermione confirms the strangeness of ethnic heroes even in supporting roles.  The outrage toward a Black James Bond?  It falls on the “lesser” side of everyone being, as Rampling said, “more or less accepted.” 

That the Oscars found no room to nominate Jada Pinkett Smith or Michael B. Jordan this year is disappointing.  What is far more insulting is that Emma Stone played a Chinese-Hawaiian character in Aloha this year.  That Johnny Depp played Tonto in 2013.  That Hugo Weaving wore yellowface in Cloud Atlas.  If stereotypically ethnic roles are still cast to White actors to wide acceptance, what chance do minority actors have of being considered for lead roles when Whiteness is invisible in a colorblind society?

Click Here, Nimrods...

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The 50 Best Films of 2015

2015 is a strange year for film which a purgatory of many notable films plateau at "very good" but few forge the final summit of "exceptional." Early in the year, at the decade's halfway point, I combed through my list to come up with an in-progress top 100.  I've never written about nearly as many as 50 films in a year-end recap which speaks to the strength of this year's output through, proportionally, the year is underrepresented with only (currently) 13 entries.  Worse, only two in the top 30.  To put it another way, I had Clouds of Sils Maria on my 2014 list despite its 2015 U.S. release.  It was #13 on my 2014 list.  It would have been #4 on this one.

Perhaps part of the problem is unfair expectation as five of my top ten most anticipated movies of the year weren't released.  A few other auteur pieces not only missed their mark but became my least favorite of their directors' filmographies (Crimson Peak, The Hateful Eight).  Yet there's plenty of time for these titles to grow as some certainly have (Macbeth, 45 Years) even in a short spell.

2015 also marked my first opportunity to work on an independent film and this unexpectedly changed my view of the medium.  Experiencing the fruitful, collaborative process first hand paints the auteur theory as something of a sham: on an abbreviated seven-day shoot with Hollywood talent, I witnessed the bare-bones façade of the medium stripped of its magic yet also sat on a barstool providing passive fill onto Tom Sizemore and was overcome with emotion that actors can evoke like a switch.  In a way, the best I ever aspire to provide on this blog is passive fill.

I post this ever-growing list before it becomes irrelevant despite its deficiencies.  Notable absences awaiting to be screened include (in order of decreasing interest) In Jackson Heights, The Babysitter Murders, Of Men and War, Approaching the Elephant, RamsHorse Money, Heart of a Dog, Son of Saul, James White, The Forbidden Room, The Second Mother, Grandma, Hitchcock/Truffaut, and The Salt of the Earth.

I don't mean to sound unenthusiastic; 2015 was a very fertile year of challenging films   Much to my surprise, I even quite enjoyed Star Wars: The Force Awakens which is a good analogy for the year: it's surprising, what it does well it does quite well, but I'll do well to temper my enthusiasm.  Here's to a couple Malicks in 2016.


50. Right Here, Wrong Then (d. Hong Sang-soo)

The bittersweet lilt of Richard Linklater told through Jim Jarmusch's extended takes by way of Takeshi Miike's proliferation, the films of Hong Sang-soo are regularly, mockingly autobiographical and thematically repetitive.  His latest, Right Here, Wrong Then, takes this one step closer to parody by telling its same central narrative twice.  Like our personal failures-- ones which we would never accept from film characters but repeat in endless cycles-- its characters are hard-wired and victims of circumstance more than we'd like to admit.  Perhaps too much characterization is forced onto our director protagonist through passive dialogue, but I forgive it under the presumption that public figures must often struggle in rectifying their true selves against public opinion. It's human and I hear its music.


49. Taxi (d. Jafar Panahi)

It's impossible to not admire the ardor that drives Jafar Panahi's mission. Arrested and charged with -propaganda against the Iranian government and sentenced to a six-year jail term and twenty-year ban from filmmaking, media interviews and foreign travel, Panahi has emerged from jail (post-hunger strike) a relentless punk.  He now thumbs his nose at this hypocrisy by naming his illegal films This Is Not A Film and having them smuggled out of the country to international festivals inside of cakes.

His latest, Taxi, is a strange form of scripted unscripted documentary in which Panahi poses as a cab driver in Tehran.  His lack of bearings despite his assumed profession is but one of many humorous indictments of a system likely to imprison him, physically or mentally, for the rest of his life. A true boundary-pusher in terms of medium, genre and legality, Panahi sacrifices everything for the truth of his art.


48. Jauja (d. Lisandro Alonso)

As a big fan of Gus Van Sant's death trilogy, it comes as no surprise that I admire the niche of Jauja's expectation shirking and meditative cinematography.  What I was unprepared for was a sci-fi ending that floored me.


47. Pan (d. Joe Wright)

An interesting thesis could be written in twenty years comparing the critical and commercial success of big-budget, recycled children's stories directed at young women this decade (Maleficent, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland) to their counterparts, dismal failures directed at young men (John Carter, The Lone Ranger, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Jack the Giant Slayer).

Be it a failure in marketing or irrelevance to audiences, Joe Wright's Pan has earned its place alongside the latter.  A shame, too, as it has more panache, mythos and humanity than any of this year's superhero movies..


46. Ned Rifle (d. Hal Hartley)

I came for Parker Posey and Aubrey Plaza.  I stayed for the Vonnegut per viam Aristophanes.


45. Blackhat (d. Michael Mann)

Nobody does balletic viscera or crowded violence better than Michael Mann. That he is one of America's best visual storytellers and has fallen out of critical favor in electing for straightforward projects which parallel his effortless gift is laughable considering how the highly lauded and the didactic often go hand in hand.  He's an action director who would make Eisenstein weep.  It is no small feet that the chaos is always comprehensible.  More than that, beautiful.  Tell me this isn't the Odessa steps.



44. Girlhood (d. Céline Sciamma)

Sciamma remains a favorite here in terms of blog traffic and Girlhood continues her tradition of discovering superb young talent.  The dance scene to Rihanna's "Diamonds" is, perhaps, the most honest scene in cinema this year.


43. Appropriate Behaviour (d. Desiree Akhavan)

Akhavan's debut feature is a welcome entry in this decade's fertile genre of "women-in-their-late-twenties-who-don't-have-their-shit-together comedies".  What's refreshing is our protagonist's express naiveté in a genre often filled with too-cool-for-school culture bullies.  It's Lena Dunham without the "Girls" soundtrack and Eloise tattoo..


42. She's Funny That Way (d. Peter Bogdanovich)

Here’s what critics said that RottenTomatoes won’t tell you:
“[His] job on this film could hardly be called inspired.” – Toledo Blade 
“The film proceeds… to a [too] conventional ending.” – The Sydney Morning Herald 
“[T]oo pat and precocious, too confounded cute, and the humor has a dogged sameness.” – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 
These are not the criticisms of film scholar Peter Bogdanovich's latest panned film, but of Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown published in 1946: the Sullivan's Travels to She's Funny That Way's O Brother, Where Art Thou. Lubitsch's final film was neither a significant box office nor critical success and I fear Bogdanovich might join him in closing out his career to wide disinterest.

What RottenTomatoes will tell you is that Illegally Yours holds a 0% approval rating and, perhaps, its as critically en vogue to make a screwball comedy in the classical style in the politically distraught 2015 as it was to make a reverent Hollywood musical (At Long Last Love) in the cynical, subversive New Hollywood of the 1970s.  Lubitsch's 91% Tomatometer score for Cluny Brown exposes the anachronism that critics often revere the bygone.  Strange that when Bogdanovich has crafted straight-laced genre love letters to the bygone era, groupthink calls it uninspired, too conventional and pat.

The time for a reevaluation of Bogdanovich's output is now.  He is a national treasure born into the wrong generation who will be long gone before the critics send their flowers.


41. Slow West (d. John Maclean)

2015 marks the second year in a row that a Scottish indie-rock pioneer I greatly admire made a surprise directorial debut with a reverent genre film.  Perhaps 2016 will be the year Mogwai make their titular horror debut?


40. Tangerine (d. Sean Baker)

Every time I hear someone in Iñárritu's camp sell the spectacle of their cinematography in the name of art, I think of Tangerine which was also shot with largely natural light, but on an iPhone.  A humble case of content alongside form, free of pretension,


39. Results (d. Andrew Bujalski)

A "romantic comedy" from the guy that brought us Computer Chess, Results basks in the same awkwardness of the former's inability to arbitrate the mechanics of human sexuality and the soul of technology, here trying to span the gap between money and happiness like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.


38. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (d. Roy Andersson)

A "comedy" in the existential sense that to live this human life is a comedy, the final installment in Andersson's trilogy "about being a human being" opens with "three encounters with death."  An unnamed man dies of a heart attack while his wife noisily does the dishes in the adjacent room. It's done in Andersson's signature extended single-take with an immobile camera.  It is difficult to watch and is only funny in that we cope with the uncopable through humor.

My father, afraid of dying alone, has often repeated a statistic that 50% of first-time heart attacks are deadly.  He had a heart attack the day after I watched this movie.  I coped by visiting him in the cardiac unit and saying, "and you didn't think you were going to make it."  A slight variation on this joke, my dad tells the story that I walked in and said "you didn't make it."  I don't know which version is darker, but I think Andersson would get a kick out of it.


37. Spotlight (d. Tom McCarthy)

A perfectly adequate Oscar frontrunner which plays it safe without offending.  Here's hoping the Oscar voters double-down on their promise to recognize Mark Ruffalo rather than the early buzz which had Michael Keaton stealing his... er... spotlight.  His is the rare breathtaking, understated performance that slyly steals the show.


36. World of Tomorrow (d. Don Hertzfeldt)

Full disclosure:  I've never liked Don Hertzfeldt.  I've found his films largely misanthropic and his bleak worldview self-aggrandizing.  That his crude, simplistic animation style lacks joy and beauty is consistent to his philosophy but not what I find meritorious within the medium.  It's largely a personal ethic; I believe there to be right and wrong answers in the liberal arts and, if you're going to laugh yourself into a tizzy watching a stick figure bleed to death out of his own ass, by all means, don't let me stop you.  But your drawing should at least look like you give a damn.

My single biggest surprise of this year was finding Hertzfeldt's foray into science fiction both moving and ingenuous.  Its themes were popular in 2015: engineered consciousness (Ex Machina, Tomorrowland, Jurassic World), the inability to communicate what makes us human (Anomolisa, Kumiko) and the bitter acquiescence to the untrumpable passing of time (While We're Young, 45  Years, When Marnie Was Here).  I was resistant to this film, but it got its hooks in me.


35. Magic Mike XXL (d. Gregory Jacobs)


34. Two Step (d. Alex R. Johnson)

One of the most pleasant surprises of the year, what Alex R. Johnson's directorial debut lacks in writing it more than makes up for in exploitation cognition.  Like It Follows, atmosphere is palpable.  Not one but two jump scares shook me; no small feat to a guy who watched 200 horror movies in the month of October.


33. (T)ERROR (d. Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe)

Todd Haynes recently praised the filmmaking of Alfred Hitchcock (re: their adaptions of Patricia Highsmith) saying he had the uncanny visual gift to make the viewer feel dread and culpability in the plight of his films' protagonists.  The increased avenues of distribution and the economy of digital filmmaking in the past decade has allowed this disquiet to seep into documentary with increased regularity.  Last year's Citizenfour put us in the hotel room with Edward Snowden as he became the world's most wanted man.  Now, (T)ERROR rats out FBI intelligence as they are communicating with informants.

We shouldn't be there and the film knows this.  Part message and social justice film (while remaining relatively morally unbiased, no small feat), (T)ERROR is most effective as a thriller with an unease you can cut with a knife.


32. Welcome To Me (d. Shira Piven)

A cousin to John Cassavetes' A Child Is Waiting, if it were produced by Tim and Eric rather than Stanley Kramer.  Kristen Wiig would be nominated for an Academy Award in a just world.


31. Chi-Raq (d. Spike Lee)

I've lamented the decline in critical acceptance to many directors in this piece (Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Mann), but none are as unjust as the film industry's treatment of Spike Lee.  Perhaps the most alarming reason being that he still has it.  It's an odd world in which the projects Spike wants to make (like Red Hook Summer) play in only 41 theaters at their widest release, while his outstanding documentary work on subjects such as THE BIGGEST STAR IN THE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC (Bad 25) get no distribution.

I hate Chi-Raq's comparisons to Do The Right Thing.  Not only because they are lazy, but because they presuppose Spike Lee has had every opportunity but for some reason or other been off his mark practically since Michael Jackson's Bad.

Chi-Raq is vital not in spite of, but through its polarization.  Sometimes you learn art is true by the work it does in you rather than what you bring to the table.  This was a lesson hard learned when I saw Bamboozled in 1999.  And when I finally saw Get On The Bus a few years back.  And when-- though, this time, already a member of the choir-- HBO aired When The Levees Broke.

Spike Lee isn't the kind of didactic voice which condescends, he's the kind of voice that acts as a termite in the system's framework.  There will always be haters: Chicago rapper King Louie released "Fuck Spike Lee" on December 4 in response to Lee's call to disarm.  Nineteen days later, King Louie was shot in the face and the cycle continues.  Lee keeps gnawing.

Lee is never a voice which claims to have all the answers.  That the film industry has relegated him to roles which largely curtail his asking questions is the crime.


30. Call Me Lucky (d. Bobcat Goldthwait)

My dad has a crutch of an adage he leans on when the modern world seems overwhelming: "life was simpler in the '50s."  Bobcat Goldthwait's documentary about the life of Barry Crimmins shakes that theory's foundation and leaves its viewer in a darkness without bearings.

That we learn the title to be unironic sinks us even deeper.


29. Tomorrowland (d. Brad Bird)

I'm afraid Disney is going to get cold feet and pull development on "boy" adventure narratives (at least ones not named Star Wars) after the perceived disappointment of John Carter, The Lone Ranger and now Tomorrowland and stick to self-cannibalization with a decided "female" slant.

Funny as Tomorrowland and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are both formulaic "boy" adventures with which they've had the insight to give strong female protagonists agency.  Still, as with Joe Wright's Pan, audiences just don't seem to care.

Don't get me wrong, Tomorrowland is far from airtight; it takes on a lot of water.  That Bird champions its sense of wonder and doesn't shy away from, but humanizes, situations which seem traditionally uncomfortable is all the more admirable.

Terrence Malick said, "When people express what is more important to them, it often comes out in cliches.  That doesn't make them laughable; it's something tender about them.  As though in struggling to reach what's more personal about them they could only come up with what's most public." Tomorrowland is an at times unholy mess but it, at its heart, sweeping, tender and graceful.  It's sad it lost its chance to be more public..


28. The Midnight Swim (d. Sarah Adina Smith)

A brilliant companion to Studio Ghibli's When Marnie Was Here, this found-footage horror film (which is neither, really, found-footage nor horror), uses a nearly all-female cast to examine how we are a continuation of our parents ghosts, how willingly we accept image as truth, and pulls no punches staring into the black.


27. The Assassin (d. Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

Like the best poetry, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's long-awaited return speaks not only in non-literal terms, but perhaps unliteral ones.  That is to say, I could regurgitate the synopsis I later read on Wikipedia, but it has nothing to do with how I experienced the movie.  If difference suspends meaning through an endless gauntlet of signifiers, perhaps a side of The Assassin, like the peace of God, gladly surpasses all understanding.


26. Creed (d. Ryan Coogler)

I hope in 2001 someone placed a prop bet in Vegas and paid off his mortgage on the inclination that 2015 would see the seventh Fast & the Furious movie, the seventh Star Wars movie and the seventh Rocky movie and that they would all be good.  The odds couldn't have been much better than that of winning the $1.3 billion Powerball.


25. Entertainment (d. Rick Alverson)

If Seymour: An Introduction and Steve Jobs are opposite sides of the same coin regarding how we measure out our life in coffeespoons, Rick Alverson's Entertainment paints us the improbability of the coin landing on its side.


24. Timbuktu (d. Abderrahmane Sissako)

Political empathy is never enough for me to endorse a movie no matter how strongly I might applaud its intentions.  This is a problem I have with much of the didactic, overly-serious foreign fare the Academy nominates every year and why I entered Timbuktu with a jaundiced eye.

Such cynicism vanished instantly and reminded me that the best films inform us about ourselves.  A scene early in the movie comes to mind when armed townspeople argue over what I presumed was militant, revolutionary behavior until we learn they're debating the merits of Zinedine Zidane vs. Lionel Messi.  Is it a cheap screenwriting tactic that borders on manipulative? Yes.  But what is cinema if not careful manipulation that we give ourselves over to in nips.

The power of Timbuktu is in its forcing me to see the ugliness inside myself when I thought I was an ally.  Graceful, essential viewing.


23. The Duke of Burgundy (d. Peter Strickland)

Bechdel test?  Try Bechdel doctoral thesis.


22. Louis C.K.: Live at the Comedy Store (d. Louis C.K.)

In classic Louie form, C.K. almost downplayed this film upon its (self-)release by saying, "This special kind of goes back to when I used to just make noises and be funny for no particular reason."  I'm telling you, though, he does this Ray Bolger impression and I laughed for about three straight weeks.


21. The Look of Silence (d. Joshua Oppenheimer)

Even more subversive than The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer develops a harrowing scheme to troll surviving individuals culpable in the 1965 Indonesian "communist" killings under the pretense of an eye exam (an intensely powerful metaphor for how we see-- and refuse to see-- ourselves, and the dynamism of the recorded image, two more popular theme in 2015).



20. 3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets (d. Marc Silver)

HBO's honest go at Janelle Monáe and Wondaland Records' "Hell You Talmbout."




19. Boy & the World (d. Alê Abreu)

An idea as to the precision with which the essentially dialog-less Boy & the World taps into the psyche of a child, the clarity and sincerity of its worldview and the baggage with which we construct our lives as an adult: the titular boy, Cuca is crushed at the beginning of the film as his father leaves home.  I spent much of the film's duration assuming the boy's parents had divorced until the father returns having found work.

The realization of my error only impressed the palpability of my fear.  I am going to be a father in about five weeks.  I can't wait to watch this with my daughter.



18. Experimenter (d. Michael Almereyda)

Superior to, and overshadowed by, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Almereyda's biopic fits more nicely on a double bill with Ex Machina: if the latter draws empathy to the humanity of the scientist's creation, the former suggests, conversely, that it's humanity which isn't too different from the machine.  The sticky part being that the truth of the discovery isn't as cold as it sounds.  Peter Sarsgaard for Best Actor President.



17. No Home Movie (d. Chantal Akerman)

So, David Bowie died this week.  He meant a lot of things to a lot of people and his final album, released only days before his death, can almost exclusively be viewed as a rear-projection of a man grasping for immortality.  It's an interesting, fairly unexplored concept of intentionally using your craft to speak from death's doorstep.

Chantal Akerman took her own life three months ago and her films meant a lot to me.  Her final film, No Home Movie, documents interviews with her mother shortly before her death.in 2014 (whose own mother died at Auschwitz).  The film's title, I presume, suggests a denial of timelessness associated with the medium.  Akerman once said of the film medium:
"When people are enjoying a film they say ‘I didn’t see the time go by’… but I think that when time flies and you don’t see time passing by you are robbed of an hour and a half or two hours of your life. Because all you have in life is time… With my films you’re aware of every second passing through your body."
It's easy to project domestic anxiety onto Jeanne Dielman as a feminist statement, it's more difficult, in No Home Movie, to watch time win. Akerman said of her final film, "I think if I knew I was going to do this, I wouldn't have dared to do it."  It's more difficult to not project this same statement onto her final act.  Like Blackstar, I will only ever be able to associate this film with her death.  I only hope she found peace as the seconds counted down.




16. The Mill at Calder's End (d. Kevin McTurk)

The best Guillermo del Toro film of the year which saw an actual Guillermo del Toro film, Kevin McTurk's breathtaking, atmospheric puppet film is a reverent, affecting gothic horror that would make Jan Švankmajer weep.

That's the thing about atmosphere; it doesn't matter how many screenplays I've studied or how well I know the horror tropes, when I'm rapt by a special film, its conventions still shock me.  These 14 horrifying minutes are no exception.  Available at Vimeo.











15. Seymour: An Introduction (d. Ethan Hawke)

My grandfather was no Philistine, but one time my friend prank called him to ask his thoughts on art.  His response?  "I don't know any Art."

Watching Seymour Bernstein casually philosophize like a sensei makes me feel like I don't know any art either, but it doesn't change the fact that we need it.  It is the purest cinematic example of the transformative power of art in the worldview of the artist since Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time.




14. Bone Tomahawk (d. S. Craig Zahler)

Anyone reading this blog surely understands why I would feel that this movie sells itself.



13. While We're Young (d. Noah Baumbach)

I go back and forth on Noah Baumbach.  On one hand (and I may be one of the only people in the world to utter these words), I sympathize with Armond White's opinion that his narratives are characterized by white first-world problems verging on solipsism.  At the other end of the pendulum, former deity Wes Anderson has fallen into the irrecoverable wormhole of his own navel and Baumbach's films grow more mature in that void.

I'm not certain we're intended to condone the behavior of any character in While We're Young (or his also-good Mistress America) any more than we were supposed to condone Charles Grodin's character in The Heartbreak Kid.  That doesn't mean we don't relate to their appalling behavior.

A friend posted a Buzzfeed quiz on Facebook earlier this year calculating which "Girls" character you were.  Perhaps what Baumbach understand is every answer is abhorrent and every answer is true.



12. Bitter Lake (d. Adam Curtis)

No journalism is objective journalism just as no documentary is voiceless. Journalism-- like documentary filmmaking-- is a series of choices.  Framing and mise-en-scène are formal decisions which can (even unintentionally) capture something in a negative light. The very nature of editing is nothing but framing an argument. Even the decision as to which story is covered by a news program is a loaded decision. Adam Curtis's advocacy journalism is-- while not uncontroversial-- the most honorable type of journalism because it admits that the concept of objective journalism is a sham.

Daniel J. Leab says of “See It Now” in the era of McCarthyism, “[Edward R. Murrow] did not believe in objectivity for its own sake. He saw no value in balancing Hitler evenly against Churchill.”  This is a personal opinion as well as a moral decision, and I believe an adherence to personal ethic to be an important part of journalism. What I commend Curits (and Murrow) for is laying out his journalism as an argument and challenging viewers to consider facts and think for themselves.

This differs from much of the consumable 24/7 news networks we see today (who would have thought Anchorman 2 would actually be poignant in this arena?).  Bitter Lake demands its viewer critically engage with the workings of the powers at large, while, in my experience, the reporting on FoxNews or MSNBC make a business of preaching to the choir. 

Curtis's self-awareness recognizes that hypothesis requires subjective interpretation, but he makes his viewers think where news networks make their viewers say “that’s what I thought!” There’s a difference between arousing passion and coming away with knowledge.  Bitter Lake is more than just facts, but so is the process of learning.



11. When Marnie Was There (d. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)

I was worried for about half of Studio Ghibli's latest (last?) feature that it wasn't going to work.  It recycles the studio's tropes, both good (prepubescent female protagonist deals with real-world loss and struggles with self-actualization) and bad (the dream world leans Victorian in ethic and aesthetic despite its rural Japanese setting).

It sounds like a backhanded compliment because some of the plotting wraps up too nicely (and would have worked without it), but Ghibli on cruise control is still more affecting than any output under the Pixar banner (since Disney got their fingers in development, marketing and distribution) not named Toy Story.  Consider the scene where Marnie, a new kid in a new town, calls an annoying, over-friendly companion a "fat pig."  The film understands that much of the battle of adolescence is internal and that an important lesson on the way to adulthood is confronting what makes us monstrous in the face of real pain.  Inside Out is fine (for a version of "Herman's Head" with no central conflict), but feels pap and canny by comparison.



10. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (d. David Zellner)

The famous definition of insanity misattributed to Einstein goes something like this: the expectation of different results from doing the same thing over and over again.

An addendum to this adage, I spent half a workday learning, would be trying to explain Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter to a coworker who has never seen Fargo.  It's a meta exercise in myth and how images become our reality.



9. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (d. Christopher McQuarrie)

If someone told me, in 1996, that the Mission: Impossible franchise would extend beyond twenty years, that I would like each film more than its previous installment, and the fifth film-- helmed by a director with a scant résumé-- would be better than the previous four in a world overtaken by franchise, I would have believed it as far as I would have believed Tom Cruise would become a singular, polarizing, daunting innovator.  That that film is better than the attempts by New Hollywood's Brian De Palma, the visionary John Woo, Star Wars-inheritor J.J. Abrams, and Pixar golden child Brad Bird is enough to find the auteur theory dismissable.



8. Ex Machina (d. Alex Garland)

I feel that the majority of online film criticism appreciates genre bending over genre refining.  What shocked me while leaving Ex Machina is its ending was predictable at the midpoint and its young director didn't give us the Kansas City shuffle.  The film trusts its young talent to walk the straight and narrow (Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac are formidable while Domhnall Gleeson's doe-eyed milquetoast protagonist makes for sparse characterization-- it was the same problem I had with Kodi Smit-McPhee in the otherwise fine Slow West, though it works better in a movie which forces identification onto a robot), and the balance it strikes between its budget-required minimalism and its believable, unique world is remarkable.



7. Spring (d. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead)

A companion piece to 45 Years, Spring is a tender tale of discovering monstrous betrayal in the ones we're fearlessly-- even senselessly-- devoted to and how we choose to make it work in spite of reason.



6. Mad Max: Fury Road (d. George Miller)

2015 is a strange year.  George Miller-- a man relegated by the film industry to making animated penguin movies-- gets $150m to reboot a gonzo exploitation flick with a feminist slant.  Star Wars does the same thing and gets largely lambasted for its unoriginality while Fury Road is universally acclaimed as film of the year.  Strange times, indeed.



5. 45 Years (d. Andrew Haigh)

Edifying everything I loved about Bergman in my formative years, just give Charlotte Rampling the Oscar right now and I don't even want a discussion. More than any movie this year, its barbs stick in my craw like Stephin Merritt's "The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be."



4. It Follows (d. David Robert Mitchell)

The problem I have with Quentin Tarantino's criticism of David Robert Mitchell's gorgeous It Follows is that it presumes subscription to a defined horror logic.  It denies the film its rich, surreal qualities and forces it into an unfair box of simple "monster film" when, like a skewed When Marnie Was Here, it is more a horror movie of time, of experience and of working one's way through adolescence.

Even more interesting is Tarantino naming Tenebre as containing his favorite movie death scene while giallo doesn't get so much as a footnote among his genre-heavy list of "Coolest Movies of All Time."  Scholar Gary Neednam said "by its very nature the giallo challenges our assumptions about how non-Hollywood films should be classified, going beyond the sort of Anglo-American taxonomic imaginary that 'fixes' genre both in film criticism and the film industry in order to designate something specific."

Perhaps the subversive, genre-bending auteur is more of a traditionalist than he lets on.  Judging from his tedious genre work on The Hateful Eight, he could take a lesson in grace and humility offered in this giallo-inspired marvel.



3. '71 (d. Yann Demange)

Pacifist Bertrand Russell famously said, "patriots always talk of dying for their country and never of killing for their country."  I think much of this is tied to the lack of ambiguity afforded the soldier's worldview. Yann Demange's debut feature, a harrowing historical war film played to the tune of dystopian sci-fi, abhors the monotony of the war machine but paints its horrors afresh.  Nothing in the picture is black-and-white, not politics, not nationalistic or religious sympathies, but, despite soldier ethic being diametrically facile, the film most empathizes with the soldier in a murky world.  It's difficult, it's timely, and it sadly got swept away from the year-end discussions.



2. Macbeth (d. Justin Kurzel)

I have poor stereotype threat test performance when it comes to Shakespeare.  Throw in a few audience members audibly laughing at an ironic twist in the tragedy and I sink further into my seat even if I'm certain it's pretense.  

Fortunately, Justin Kurzel brings something to the film medium the Shakespearean stage never could.  The formal representation of landscape is not an expression of character psychology as much as it holds its characters hostage as pawns in nature's immovable will.  That is to say, what I missed in dialogue (at least until an English subtitle aids my next viewing) was mitigated by cinematography.  Lady Macbeth challenging the dominant cultural ideologies of gender politics is extra-textually aided by both the script's decision to link lineage (and the impetus of their pain) to femininity in the opening shot and a mise-en-scène of feminized imagery in a paradise lost.

It explores sex drive across gender lines as men's only nature is violence and penetration upon a cyclical, dank, tactile earth of feminized creation. The sun is regularly shrouded in cloud and fog while cinematography denies us horizon for bearings.  It echoes Nicholas Winding Refn in its conjuring of Tarkovsky which is to say it instructs through image.

Visually and psychologically, versions by Welles and Polanski seem almost jejune by comparison. 


1. Anomalisa (d. Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman)

I don't mean to throw shade at Pixar, but the emotional expanse excavated in three of Inside Out's competitors for Animated Feature Film (Boy & the World, When Marnie Was Here and the film of the year, Anomalisa) put its high-concept to shame.  It's full of Charlie Kaufman's favorite specters: notably, expressing what is most true through visible, self-aware façade as if realism is a disingenuous construct.  Puppets in charge of their own destiny but never free, it echoes Camus of whom essayist Tony Judt said "looked into the mirror of his own moral discomfort, disliked what he saw, and stepped aside."

Anomalisa features literal mirror-gazing, but there's a dread in the inescapability of freedom, of our failures to communicate what makes us most human and, for some, the malaise of Cincinnati.  The film avoids convention in every aspect, but never feels quirky for the sake of spectacle.  It's exactly the movie Kaufman wanted to make by, arguably, our most talented and honest sophist.  It's a shame he needed Kickstarter to do it but, like a puppet in charge of his own destiny, thank God we live in a world where studio inopportunity is not the end of the line.

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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Landscape as Counter-Cultural Ideology in Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Valhalla Rising


Before there is character in Werner Herzog’s 1972 art-house film Aguirre, The Wrath of God or Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 metatextual adventure film Valhalla Rising—despite being eponymously-titled character studies—there is landscape. While this may not appear divergent to cinematic history’s tradition of the establishing shot, the diegetic worlds which precede man in these films act as authorial narrative commentary.

David Bordwell speaks of the subjective nature of the art-house film’s use of landscape saying, “surroundings may be construed as the projections of a character's mind. Simi­larly, the syuzhet may use psychology to justify the manipu­lation of time,” but Herzog and Refn invert these conventions: rather than using character psychology to expressively “shape spatial representation,” the weightiness of the formal representation of landscape in these films paints its characters as pawns to nature’s indifferent and immovable will (Narration in 209). 

Landscape, then, becomes a character through its formal representation. The vulgarity of nature is juxtaposed against the violence of civilized man (in the name of religion) as a philosophical, authoritarian response to the marriage of colonialization and mythology. True to art-house convention, each film ties historical colonialization to a social critique of its respective history of cultures prevailing over other cultures. Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Refn’s Valhalla Rising juxtapose unforgiving landscape against religious colonization as a social indictment against cultural violence and the Western inability for communal mythology.

Though handled as a metaphoric and mythological figure within Herzog’s film, Lope de Aguirre cannot be divided from his historic significance as Spanish evangelical conquistador: the product of an ideology which justified its abuse of the New World in the name of God.

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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Mookie and the Right Thing

Spike Lee may "privilege morality over politics" as Douglas Kellner argues in "Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics in the Films of Spike Lee," but morality is far from black and white in Do The Right Thing. Neither morality, politics or racism is given an easy solution because, Lee would argue, there isn't one. Radio Raheem, in adopting the "love/hate" speech from The Night of the Hunter portrays a worldview that isn't exactly cut and dry (let's not forget Rev. Powell is one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time). He ends his speech saying, "if I love you, I love you. But if I hate you..." and never finishes the thought. Do the Right Thing may be a postmodern morality play, but Mookie is an everyman character: he doesn't know how to respond in this exchange with Radio Raheem saying only, "well, there you have it: love and hate," baffled by Radio Raheem's rant.



Radio Raheem seems to be purporting the MLK philosophy that love can conquer societal hate, and this thought it what Mookie has a difficult time reconciling after Radio Raheem's death. Mookie throws the trash can through the window of Sal's Famous, and I don't believe it has anything to do with protecting Sal's family. Mookie screams "HATE!" as he hurls that can and, with the act, completes the ellipses of Radio Raheem's statement. Kellner seems to criticize Lee for failing to spell how how "a system of exploitation oppresses Black," as if racism were that clear-cut. 
Mookie throws that trash can because of this system, but also because of how this system affects the individual. In the moment, Sal's Famous represented another white establishment entering the Black community for economic gain despite harboring racist attitudes toward the very community it exploits. No, Sal was not directly responsible for the death of Radio Raheem, but these actions all occurred through a thread of hate. Sal hating the Black community he served is only a step (through the narrative) of the police officers' disregard for Black lives. Mookie's destruction of property changes the conversation, trying to get the community to "wake up" (like the moral of School Daze) to the system of hate in their community. 

As we have seen recently in Ferguson and Baltimore, America still gets very hung up on the destruction of private property and neglectful of human lives. Mookie did the right thing, not in the act itself, but in forcing the conversation to be one about the larger community issues and systematic racism rather than eye-for-an-eye violence. It is not surprising to me that many people still don't understand why Mookie did what he did when we can turn on the news and, instead of hearing outrage over the death of Freddie Gray, presidential candidates instead Tweet "Blatant and rampant property destruction in Baltimore as the police stand by and watch. Should be a lesson on how NOT to handle riots. SAD!"

And it is sad in Do the Right Thing, too. Mookie and Sal's morning after is not a time of rejoicing, but they come to a sort of ambiguous understanding: Sal tries to play the martyr, bemoaning the store he built with his "bare hands." Mookie's response to what that means is, "it means you owe me $250." That is to say, private enterprise doesn't trump social responsibility. Sal has a debt to the Black community he serves.
Mookie wasn't deliberately directing attention away from Sal and his sons in order to protect them. When the conflict arises, Mookie is standing alongside Sal and his sons while the community looks at them with disdain. This is where Mookie trades sides in disassociation. This is partially self-preservation, but more important, it is Mookie's decision to take a very political stance.

Mookie seems like the kind of character who would let Sal hear about it if he was acting heroically in order to save Sal's family. When the two discuss the night's events the next morning, Sal accuses Mookie of ruining the place and Mookie says nothing like "you should be thanking me for saving your ass out there" and, furthermore, Sal doesn't interpret Mookie as doing anything other than escalating the situation. He blames Mookie for the window whose response is "motherfuck the window. Radio Raheem is dead." These few words say everything about Mookie's intentions. Mookie may not have participated in any violence directed at Sal and his sons (I don't think most of the characters in the film would have, I don't think many of the protestors in Baltimore today would have), but it's difficult to read his actions in the scene as deliberately deflecting attention away from Sal. 

Furthermore, it isn't clear Spike Lee is concerned with dichotomous morality in the situation. Love/hate are presented like Martin/Malcolm: neither has all the answers. Mookie's actions suggest that the philosophies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X are only ethereal until you're forced into a real-world situation. Their photos burning together inside Sal's Famous isn't so much to say that their philosophies are antiquated, but that we need to act rather than merely pontificate. The film challenges us to do, not buy a photo or subscribe to a given ideology. Our goal should be a common one and there isn't a prescribed road to attain it. By "doing a thing" in the name of fighting against a disenfranchising system and by opening social eyes to lives mattering more than property, Mookie did do the right thing. He acted.

Mookie didn't do the best "relative" or "situational" thing.  Yes, Do the Right Thing is a postmodern work and, undoubtedly, a nihilist fog surrounds the community in terms of dealing with systematic racism, but Lee lack of clear-cut answers doesn't suggest he thinks morality is relative. The title of the film is a call to action and not one to be taken ironically. Sal's Famous was a symbol, but also a real place. Radio Raheem was not a symbol, he was a human life. Doing the right thing is not a matter of ineffable philosophy (no matter the good intentions behind King or Malcolm X), it's a matter of taking action in the real world against injustice.

The film may not be overtly political (in the binary sense), but it's important to note that it ends with Mister Senor Love Daddy saying the city's Mayor will get to the bottom of the dispute because "the city of New York will not let property be destroyed by anyone." Radio Raheem is not in the news or the purview of the city. Black lives do not matter here. That's why the Love Daddy follows the news by encouraging people to register to vote. The system is broken, it disenfranchises Black, and, despite Kellner's essay, that is a very political message. It would not be nearly as powerful if Lee gave a trite explanation as to how to solve the nation's racist ills. Spike Lee doesn't provide political answers to solving the race problem because its solution is beyond the realm of politics and he doesn't see the end of racism occurring in his lifetime. I tend to agree on both accounts.

Click Here, Nimrods...