Kickstarter Fatigue

July 15th, 2013

violeta-stills_0019

Nowadays, there’s a common misconception that it’s easier than ever to make a film, given the access to high quality DSLR cameras, Final cut pro, and sites like YouTube and Vimeo. And while this is true in some ways, the reality is that unless you’re doing everything yourself or asking talented professionals to work for free, it costs money to make something of quality.

I was lucky to produce my film VIOLETA because many of my friends generously donated their hard earned money. And I couldn’t be more grateful for it. However, in the two years since I’ve raised my budget, I’ve seen the number of Kickstarter projects on social media page multiply exponentially. I’m sure you’ve seen these projects too. Most of the ones I see are for movies, plays, or web series. And I started to feel what I’m calling “Kickstarter Fatigue” - which is a combination resentment, annoyance, pity, and in my case, a little bit of remorse, because having raised money myself, I know how assertive, how aggressive you must be when launching a fundraising campaign. You don’t just kick back and watch the money roll in, unless you’re Zach Braff, the dude from Veronica Mars, or James Franco (Everyone here donated to those projects right? Ok good!)

So I started wondering, “Why am I feeling this way?” It’s not very nice of me, nor am I being supportive of my fellow filmmakers. Especially because we, as writers and filmmakers, just want to make our projects.

The reality is that these days, it’s harder than ever been to make a film, especially a wide-released film within the studio system. Back in the day, perhaps even as early as 30 years ago, there used to be a number of B Movies, TV movies, and smaller films that young directors were handed over, in which they learned to hone their craft. That’s really not the case any more. Now, studios are spending more money than ever on making movies, but they’re making fewer movies each year. To make things worse, a lot of the big-name directors that once relied on the studio system are now finding a home with the independents, taking up valuable opportunities that normally went to younger, less experienced filmmakers.

And even if a director can get a film made, distributing it to theaters is more difficult than ever. (Just as an example: the weekend IRON MAN 3 opened, I happened to check the listings for the theater at the Americana in Glendale. IRON MAN 3 played 66 times in one day at one theater. It played in 52 theaters within a 5 mile radius from my apartment. I didn’t even know there were 55 theaters within 5 mile radius from my apartment.)

It’s troubling to me that many of the country’s new directors, especially the avant-garde and the transgressives voices who stand far apart from studio product, are being silenced, ignored, and denied the chance to grow and develop as filmmakers. There’s a whole system stacked against the indie filmmaker nowadays and the result is it has created waves of 21st century beggars turning to Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

Make no mistake, Kickstarter is a kind of begging. And this is problematic because unless you’re a completely selfish monomaniacal human being (and let’s be honest, many artists are) it’s very difficult to ask friends and family for money. It takes an emotional toll on the filmmaker and it’s completely distracting from the filmmaking process.

I’m raising this point because it’s been on my mind for a long time now, and it’s especially affecting me as I begin to look for money for my next film. I don’t have any solutions, and some might not even think this is a problem at all, but I do want to ask of you two things.

First, for filmmakers raising money: Be polite. Say please, and thank you, and become familiar with all the gentle and round-about ways people will say “no.” Also, it’s not about the amount. The person who donates $2 is just as important as the person who donates $500. If someone tells you that they literally can’t afford to give a $1, it’s likely true.

Second, and this is for everyone, be tolerant when you see the next Kickstarter project pop up on your Facebook feed or email. It takes a lot of courage to ask people for money. If you can contribute, that’s fantastic, but what’s more important, at least to me, is supporting them by going to their screenings, their plays, watching their films online, or reading their novels. And while not all of it is going to be good, actually a good deal of the films are going to be downright awful, you’re honoring the unspoken social contract that filmmakers have in releasing their film to the public. You’re contributing to this person’s development as an artist, and to the growth of a culture. And sometimes that’s enough to give us hope or to inspire us to make the next movie.

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Favorite Films of 2011

October 30th, 2012

favorite-10

I said I wasn’t going to do this.

A “Best of 2011″ list seems completely pointless right about now. It’s especially irritating that it has taken me the better part of 2012 to watch most of 2011’s films. One upside to releasing this list right now is that all these films are available on DVD or BluRay.

Contrary to what you may have heard, 2011 was in fact a damn fine year for film. Forget all the middle-brow, liberal prestige films you’ve seen on awards shows; the movies listed below are bold, provocative, and dare I say - artistic. With the exception of one film, most are not box office successes. Some have fallen through the cracks of the studio system and have resisted commodification. Others will likely lay in obscurity to be perhaps rediscovered in the future.

This year marks the first time that 3 women directors have made the list. There are 2 openly gay directors and a black (British) director. Not surprisingly, the majority are American or European (Spanish, English, Scottish, Hungarian, Danish, Swedish) and one is Australian. Sadly, there are no Asian or Latin American directors this year.

And without further ado, I give you my favorite films of 2011!

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mildred_pierce
#12
Mildred Pierce
directed by Todd Haynes

While technically an HBO miniseries (the reason I’m listing it #12), Todd Haynes refers to Mildred Pierce as a film. It’s a hybrid of cinema and television, at once epic and intimate and incredibly relevant to the troubles many people face in this economy since the film is set in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Todd Haynes’s style is well suited for this kind of American melodrama made popular by the films of Douglas Sirk. But unlike Sirk, Haynes chooses to look behind the curtain of falsehood and reveal the transgressions that lie beneath the polished veneer of Americana. In the case of Mildred Pierce, it’s greed and conformity and the aspiration to bourgeois ideals.

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sleeping_beauty
#11
Sleeping Beauty
directed by Julia Leigh

Films about female desire are rarely left to women filmmakers, but with Sleeping Beauty, Australian director Julia Leigh has changed that. She takes her inspiration from the likes of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut to craft a film about a young girl who gets paid to perform certain jobs naked for old, wealthy men. At once voyeuristic and exhibitionist, Sleeping Beauty is less about the objectification of women and more about the failed attempts to subvert the inherent paternalism of Western decadence. The poster says it all: a supple young girl straight out of a Renoir painting, implicating the audience with her gaze. The heroine may be sleeping, but this film is wide awake.

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coriolanus
#10
Coriolanus
directed by Ralph Fiennes

In a time when the media blurs the lines between news and entertainment, Ralph Fiennes’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus is incredibly relevant. This is Shakespeare meets Occupy Wall Street via YouTube. Shakespeare’s language never seems anachronistic in present day Rome, but instead ominously portends a bleak and war-torn city, which more closely resembles the decimated streets of Fallujah (as seen on CNN) than a Western European art capital. But the film never forgets its roots. Watching Fiennes in hand to hand combat with Gerard Butler is like watching two lions tear each other apart at the Colosseum. Bread and circus.

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shame
#9
Shame
directed by Steve McQueen

With regard to sex, my friend Nathan has said that guilt is sexy, but shame is a turn-off. Shame is less like a film and more like a recurring nightmare, an endless loop of obsession and misery, from which the only escape is not an orgasm but the fleeting moments after when that bitch desire is bitterly and temporarily sated. The sex is antiseptic, cruel, and grotesque. Director Steve McQueen turns Michael Fassbender’s sex appeal into a display of suffering. Carey Mulligan’s portrayal as the hot-mess sister sets off an inconsolable pathology in Fassbender’s character of Brandon; something like an inside-out aphrodisiac. Despite the scenes of full-frontal nudity for both characters, Shame is a film about an ocean of childhood wounds that lurk beneath the naked bodies.

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the skin I live in
#8
The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)
directed by Pedro Almodovar

While I consider The Skin I Live In a minor film in Pedro Almodovar’s oeuvre, it is easily his most gut-wrenching. This film is sickeningly perverse, and yet gorgeous to watch. Although the script stumbles as Almodovar explains moments best left unexplained, the narrative unfolds right through the viscera.  There’s a moment half-way through the film when I started to realize what was happening, but I couldn’t, or rather, refused to let myself believe it. And when my worse fears were realized, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. This is Antonio Banderas at his best in 25 years, when he’s shed all notion of realism and Hollywood homogenization; instead, he loses himself in the same territory of obsession that Jimmy Stewart explored in Vertigo. Pure cinema.

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drive
#7
Drive
directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Okay, remember this blog post here? I stand by everything I say. There’s just one problem: I can’t get Drive out of my head. It’s a hell of a film that I keep thinking about at random times. I’ve rewatched it and it holds up even better than I remember. Winding knows how to shoot film with maximum impact. While he borrows very much from Michael Mann’s Thief and Walter Hill’s The Driver, you can’t help but feel we’re exploring Winding’s own fetishes here - and there are a lot - like violence, cars, children, and music. Ryan Gosling is one of the few actors in Hollywood who isn’t afraid to give a real performance - here his Driver character is smooth and confident and unsettling. The use of  his voice is what enhances this performance, vaguely feminine, like Brando in The Wild One or James Dean in East of Eden. Again, I’m talking about other films, and that’s at what makes Drive so good and confusing - it’s basically a 70’s film with an 80’s aesthetic, a pure throwback to American cinema’s modern age, but postmodern by its very nature.

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we_need_to_talk_about_kevin
#6
We Need to Talk About Kevin
directed by Lynne Ramsay

I have a difficult time describing this film. Art-film horror? Family thriller? Psychological melodrama? This is the most cinematically jarring film I have seen this year, using the limits of form to create an emotional stimulation through cinematography, editing, art design, and music. Unfolding through a series of flashbacks, we learn the story of a disillusioned mother (played by the ever transfixing Tilda Swinton) and her doomed relationship with her sociopath son, Kevin. Director Lynne Ramsay poses a very provocative question in this film: What makes a good mother? And she doesn’t dare answer it, but rather, makes a case for and against every answer that comes to mind.

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turin_horse_ver2
#5
The Turin Horse (A tórinoi ló)
directed by Bel Tarr

In 1889, walking out his apartment in Turin, Italy, Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed the whipping of a horse. In despair, he threw his arms around the horse, and with tears in his eyes, begged the horseman to stop. After the incident, Nietzsche never spoke again. But what happened to the horse? Bela Tarr’s interpretation of the traumatic event led him to make an apocalyptic film unlike any other you’ve ever seen. Yes, this film brings to mind Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, but whereas the donkey in Balthazar embodies the salvation of humanity, the mare in The Turin Horse symbolizes its damnation. From the opening shot, in stark black and white, of a horse and carriage galloping across a wind storm, The Turin Horse makes no compromises for its audiences. Yes, this film is challenging, but it features one of the most simple but terrifying uses of darkness I’ve ever seen in film. This is a the final film of Bela Tarr, and he leaves us with a hypnotic masterpiece of allegorical beauty.

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meeks_cutoff
#4
Meek’s Cutoff
directed by Kelly Reichardt

I’m in complete awe of this ballsy, feminist Western film, or rather anti-Western. Three families, led by the rough and tumble pioneer Stephen Meek, make a grueling trip across the Oregon Trail… and get lost. Meek’s Cutoff slowly lulls the audience into its world with mesmerizing but claustrophobic cinematography of the American west. The film moves at a pace where you feel the film imposing itself upon you. Actually, it does so from the very first frame.  The film is shot in 1:33 format to more closely resemble the points of view of the women characters - literally - so that if feels like you’re looking out from behind their bonnets. Michelle Williams’s performance is subtle and heroic. Kelly Reichardt’s direction sheds new light on a tired genre dominated by men and horses.

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tinker_tailor_soldier_spy
#3
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
directed by Tomas Alfredson

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a testament to the power of narrative. The film may seem convoluted to the untrained eye, but director Tomas Alfredson allows the narrative to unfold cinematically, without worrying about something as meaningless or passé as plot. I’m going to let you in on a little secret about cinema - PLOT DOESN’T MATTER. The depiction of narrative through images is what elevates cinema to an art over simple storytelling. The world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the administrative underbelly of spy films, all paperwork and manila folders. And while this world may resemble more a cubist painting in its fragmented nature, when you step back and see the whole picture - the intrigue, the missions beyond the Iron Curtain, the betrayal, the circus - you’ll find a film driving its characters into a subdued catharsis, struggling to remain human in a dehumanizing environment. So stop trying to figure it all out and instead let this film have its way with you.

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melancholia
#2
Melancholia
directed by Lars Von Trier

The end of the world has never looked so beautiful and yet so elegiac. Indulgent and sadistic, Melancholia is a film with its inception as a loose adaptation of Jean Genet’s play, “The Maids” before it became twisted and disfigured by Lars von Trier’s life-long battle with depression. Both Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg turn in fearless performances - Dunst finally embracing the complexities of her sexuality, and Gainsbourg with her blank-slate of a face. This film serves as a foil to Malick’s The Tree of Life, as it strikes similar notes, but on a minor key. There are shades of Resnais, Tarkovski, and Bergman in Lars von Trier’s direction, as well as a jazz-like exploration of photography that is simultaneously nuanced and improvised.

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tree_of_life
#1
The Tree of Life
directed by Terrence Malick

The last time I had a cathartic or a (and I’m embarrassed to use this word) spiritual experience watching a film, was with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in a new 70mm print at the American Cinemateque last year. I understand the criticism and backlash against The Tree of Life: the audacity to portray a manifestation of God, the total and complete lack of irony, the almost-bad poetry. But when director Terrence Malick chooses to make a film about the “the birth of compassion” that spans millions of years, from the big bang of the universe to a small town in Texas in the 1950’s, he has no other film to use as reference. This film is pure nostalgia explored through the primordial. The Oedipal fate of the characters seems rooted not only in literature but in nature itself. Nature vs. Nurture is dissected through the American family unit, through fathers and mothers, through brothers and self, exploring the transcendental ideas of what it means to be a creature worthy of life. In the theater, I sat on the verge of tears for practically the whole film, in a rapturous state, much the way I did when reading Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. And when the credits rolled, I remained in darkness for about 10 more minutes, trying to keep myself together. Instead of asking the eternal question “Why am I here?”, I wanted to run into the street and shout to the heavens, “We’re here. We’re always here. Now, live!”

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Literary Obsessions & Hungarian Time

September 18th, 2012

satantango

My most maddening literary obsessions tend to form in the most haphazard of ways.  A friend will casually mention the name of an author in conversation, planting the seed of a name that will lodge itself some place between my memory and my subconscious, where it will lurk for several months, sometimes years, until one day, the world around me becomes so saturated with references to this author - in magazine profiles, book reviews, films adaptations, used copies of their books - that I have no choice but to submit to the muses of literature and read his novels. This is what happened with authors like Roberto Bolaño, Renaud Camus, and David Foster Wallace. And most recently this is how I became familiar with the work of Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

Krasznahorkai evaded me for months.  All I knew about him is that he is Eastern European.  I’d forget his name or completely mangle it beyond recognition (it is correctly pronounced: crash-nah-or-KA-yee).  I came across his first book, Satantango, repeatedly at my favorite used bookstore. The book seemed familiar, and yet I knew nothing about it, but still, I was intrigued by its cover: a sleek black canvas with no dust jacket and a tangle of straight white lines.  This book looked like it contained the secrets of evil.  One morning, out of nowhere, I awoke with the urgent feeling that I had to read this book immediately.  I went to the bookstore that morning, but the book was gone.

satantango-book-cover

“The author’s name is Laszlo,” I told the girl at the counter.  ”The book is black and it begins with an S.”  She blinked at me, making no attempt to even look it up.  I tried several bookstores around town, but there was no trace of it anywhere.  No one knew which author or novel I was referring to. It was as if the book had never existed.  Then several weeks later, while I was clearing out a year’s worth of New Yorker issues, I stumbled across an article on Krasznahorkai I had glanced over the year before.  I remembered the black and white photo of Krasznahorkai - wearing an oversized knit sweater and holding a cigarette with that masculine delicateness that so many European men possess.  His ironic smile penetrated the camera.  I felt like I was looking at a family photo of a long lost cousin.  This had to have been the article that “incepted” me.  Shortly thereafter, I did the unthinkable - I ordered the book from Amazon.

krasznahorkai

I shouldn’t tell you what Satantango is about because it doesn’t matter. I suppose that on the surface, the book is about a group of complacent, unhappy townspeople stranded on their land in the Hungarian countryside, waiting for time to pass.  One day, two strangers come to town and give the people hope for a new life.  That’s it. You might say Krasznahorkai writes about boredom, if you consider boredom to be that emotion that sets in once despair becomes so familiar it fits like an old shoe. The events that happen in between the pages, including an all night tango in the town bar, are so effectively banal that they can only be used to signify the horror and emptiness of human consciousness.

Reading Satantango is like standing at the edge of a cliff and being enshrouded in fog.  It’s not that the prose is hazy, on the contrary, the book is written with an acute clarity, but the style that Krasznahorkai uses is labyrinthian, his sentences guiding us deep beneath the narrative, the madness of reality blazing forth into newly formed spaces where time moves so slowly it feels like it’s just given up.  Krasznahorkai finds that when time stands still, he as the writer, and we as the readers, become omnipresent.

satantango-still

There’s an underlying current of comedy in all this melancholy and nihilism, as the characters venture to the limits of absurdism while they sign away their humanity.  Filmmaker Bela Tarr recognized this when he adapted the film to the screen in 1994.  And he directed nothing short of a masterpiece.  Satantango the film runs 7 1/2 hours long, shot in black and white over three years.  It actually takes as much time to watch the film as it does to read the novel.  Laszlo Krasznahorkai wrote the screenplay himself.  The film is the most faithful adaptation I have ever seen of any novel, not because the “plot” of the film remained virtually unchanged, but because Bela Tarr succeeded in doing something very few filmmakers, Hollywood or otherwise, would ever dare, much less, do well: he translated the literary style of the novel into a cinematic language.

satantango-poster

Bela Tarr shot Krasznahorkai’s sentences - sentences that at times spanned several pages in length - with a deliberate stillness that would be considered career suicide in Hollywood.  The average shot length in Satantango is over 2.5 minutes. Tarr wasn’t afraid to let the camera roll for minutes on end, forcing the actors to remain in character for long periods of time, and capturing moments of truth that exude from their very being.  Something interesting happens when the camera rolls for that amount of time, the eye becomes sensitive to any change in the frame, so that even the slightest dolly move or pan of the camera feels momentous.  With every cut, the audience becomes absorbed into the unconscious of the film, because each cut brings with it a complete change of perspective.

satantango-montage

Watching the film feels like swimming in quicksand - I say this as a compliment.  The current state of the film industry and our culture is one of constant stimulation.  Tweets, texts, commercials, even music is all reduced to suit the attention span of the ADHD generation (I recently went to a “club” where the DJ would play only the chorus of a song before becoming bored of it and switching to another song).  Satantango, the film and the book, demands our attention, that we not look away, but rather sit with the material and let it do its magic.  Most people will find the film boring, the book diverging.   Just give it a shot and let the words and images soak into you.  If it hooks you, you’ll find yourself living under the cloak of time.

I leave you with a “poem,” the words of Laszlo Krasznahorkai transcribed from an interview by Michael Silverblatt discussing the state of Hungarian melancholia.

I live, from my birth, under a cloud
and that’s why I’m always under a shadow
I move, sometimes, right
but the cloud follows me
Sometimes, I move left
and the cloud follows me
I’m living so in a shadow
And you know the things
are a little bit sad in a shadow
I dream, about light
but I’m living in a shadow

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Finding the Unconscious in Film

September 4th, 2012

judasWhen I was a child visiting Mexico, my grandfather used to take me to the church in his hometown and recount the stories that were depicted in the stained glass windows. The windows became bursting kaleidoscopes of color when the afternoon sunlight illuminated them. I was in awe that my grandfather managed to derive so much information from a still image - such as the names of the characters, their locations, and the events that transpired before and after. Of course, he had studied the Bible and knew all its stories by heart, but it’s clear the windows had a distinct narrative - much the same way, a photograph carries with it its own narrative.

But what exactly is it about a photograph or a window - or even a painting - that allows us to deduce the historical context of both subject and artist? John Steppling has said many times before that we are narrative and the space around us gives us a form in which to exist. Actually, I’ve always believed that a good portrait doesn’t just capture a moment in a person’s life, but rather all of their life in a single moment. A photograph, or a stained glass window, merely provides a form in which our narrative can unfold.

guevara

Let’s stick with John Steppling here for a moment.  In a recent post on his blog, he states that unlike theater…   “film has no ‘off stage’, so it must create the uncanny link to history, both collective and individual (and in the end they are probably the same). So I think film is more immediate in the sense that it always erases history somehow. The ruins of history, as [Walter] Benjamin saw it, as a basis for allegory, are missing in film. Film is closer to the photograph, probably.

Again, I’m careful not to take Steppling’s words out of context, but these comments have certainly stuck with me in the last couple of months.  I’ve always felt that film functions on an unconscious level.  It is like a dream that constantly reinterprets personal and cultural histories in order to fulfill our unconscious wishes and desires.  I’ve mentioned before that film operates similarly to dreams in its attempt to preserve the narrative experience: a successful film keeps us engaged with those uncanny links to history much the way a dream tricks us to remain asleep.  We remember films the way we recall certain images in our dreams long after we’ve woken.  In fact, some of us still recall dreams we’ve had as far back as childhood and we hold them under the same scrutiny as the movies that shaped our perspectives in our formative years.  Pinocchio will forever remain a part of my consciousness, and even though I’m not five years old anymore, I still shudder at the scene when the runaway children turn into donkeys.

mama

I agree with Steppling that photography is closer to film than to theater in its links to the uncanny. After all, the cells of cinema, its building blocks, what makes a film film, are photographs or pictures. Moving pictures.  These pictures are representations of people in action, although they’re NOT actual people the way they are in theater, where living and breathing actors perform before a live audience.

There’s one crucial difference between film and photography: its narrative structure.  Film is actually closer to music in this regard.  Both film and music unfold in a temporal space, in a sequence of pre-selected units (photos or musical notes) that create something cohesive.  Essentially, the editing of images is what truly distinguishes film from the photograph.  Sergei Eisenstein understood this when he stipulated his theory of montage.  Editing is what gives film its power.  It’s what elevates film as a separate art.

vertigo-film-strip

That said, I believe that cinema does have an unconscious and its discovery lies within the understanding of the properties of editing.  John Steppling mentions that the off-stage in theater constitutes the unconscious and that good stage actors gesture towards the off-stage as a way to allude to it.  Similarly, the unconscious of film lies within the void created between shots, in the shadow of what was once there, in what the film alludes to despite not showing.  The more cuts made to a film, the farther it is removed from real time and the more distorted the narrative space becomes.  When it’s done well, this rhythm creates meaning.  But what happens in the moment between one shot to another?  These moments don’t just disappear, they exist in the negative space. These moments allow the audience to tap into unconscious instincts to construct emotions that dictate the narrative.  Seconds, days, hours, a whole lifetime (!) can pass between these moments, and yet we perceive them as merely temporal changes in perspective.  I think these moments should be regarded much the same way we regard the off-stage in theater.

If you watch most mainstream films or television show, you’ll find that the editing doesn’t call attention to itself.  Most of the time, the cutting actively hides the unconscious by maintaining the verisimilitude of the story.  In these types of movies and shows, the purpose of editing is to sell you something artificial that is trying to pass for reality.  It’s the filmic equivalent of margarine or saccharin.  The seams of the editing process are erased, forbidding you access into anything but the fake world onscreen.

However, in really good films, and some television shows, there are cuts that jolt us into venturing beneath the “plot,” provoking the audience to follow a different story created from the subtext and emotions that aren’t on screen.  And I’m not talking about cuts that border on kitsch (like cutting from a seduction scene to a train entering a tunnel), but rather a collision of seemingly unrelated images or sequences that infringe on the limits of space, time, or psychology.  When this is done well, we will find that it often leads to the uncanny.   The films of Stanley Kubrick are filled with these kinds of cuts.  2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange immediately come to mind, as well as Point Blank by John Boorman, Persona by Ingmar Bergman, and The Conformist by Bernardo Bertolucci - I can go on and on.

2001

2001spaceodyssey133

Here’s an experiment - take any of the films mentioned above and start watching them halfway through.  Anyone can pretty much figure out what’s going on at any time, not because the story is clear, but because it doesn’t matter, the film’s unconsciousness fills in the gaps.  It proves that reaching the uncanny is not about following each step of the story, but rather processing the fragments throughout that sustain the weight of the film.

nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche has said of dreams that “there persists a primordial part of humanity which cannot be reached by a direct path.”  This applies to art as well.  I’ve often thought of this declaration when I sat down with my editor to edit my last film.  In cinema, the primordial cannot be reached simply by telling the story.  A director must allow the film’s unconscious to materialize from the power of what isn’t there, because actually it is there.  It’s always there.  And if it’s interesting, it’s worth alluding to, or as Steppling would say, to gesture toward it.  But if it’s empty or uninteresting, it’s best to stitch that shit up, slap a pop song over it, maybe a laugh track, and hope that nobody notices if you cross the 180 degree line.

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My Mother Is a Fish

August 20th, 2012

as-i-lay-dying

Three weeks ago, after having recently read William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying, my mom called to tell me that her sister Chucha (my godmother) was in the hospital in Mexico suffering from liver failure - she was about to die.  My mom left for Mexico that evening, making the 38-hour bus ride from Phoenix to Morelia along the Pacific coast, hoping to arrive in time to see her sister alive. My aunt waited for my mother on her death bed.  She waited and waited and waited.   My mom finally arrived at the hospital in Morelia on Friday morning.  Several hours later, Chucha died.

In light of Chucha’s death, As I Lay Dying has taken on a personal and visceral significance for me. The novel conjured up the times in my childhood when we made that bus ride into Mexico while a close family member (1 great grandmother, 2 grandmothers, 1 grandfather, and 1 uncle) waited for us on their deathbed for the chance to say good-bye.  The trips must have been especially difficult for my mom, considering that when she was in her 20’s, my grandfather died in a bus accident traveling through the unpaved canyon roads of rural Michoacan.  I’ve come to associate those emergency bus rides not with the joy of traveling through the heart of my country, but rather with excruciating boredom and dread, because after that seemingly endless journey, it was death that waited for us on the other side of the border.

bus-in-mexico

As I Lay Dying is a haunting piece of Southern Gothic literature that touches on the primordial, and often grotesque, aspects of death and the subsequent voyage, not into the afterlife, but into the unknown reaches of this world, specifically, the capricious and brutal American South, that land of pure id, where the secrets and repressions of American history unveil themselves.  The South as a netherworld is the theme Faulkner chooses here. The book depicts the Bundren family’s journey as they take the rotting corpse of their matriarch, Addie, across Mississippi to bury her in her hometown.  One of the most powerful images in the book, the one that stays with me, is Addie Bundren laying on her deathbed, watching from her bedroom window as her son Cash builds her a coffin.  I can’t help but think of Chucha when I think of Addie Bundren.

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Despite its morbid qualities, the book is at times darkly comedic in the portrayal of the Bundren family.  You know you shouldn’t be laughing, and you feel guilty when you do.  Since the novel is narrated by fifteen different characters, each point of view portrays the family in a different light - from poignant to absurd, from tragic to comic.  Faulkner was a master of stream of consciousness, often making it up as he went.  My favorite of his books, Absalom, Absalom!, felt like a tornado of words swirling around you until you’re finally placed in the eye of the hurricane with the most spectacular view of the storm.  As I Lay Dying has a more straight-forward narrative, making it one of Faulkner’s more accessible novels.

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Although my ideas of the South are deeply influenced by its literature, especially the work of William Faulkner,  I’ve always felt the South shared a similar aesthetic to Mexico.  If you fold up a map of North America 45 degrees along the Mexican-American border you’ll see that the two lands correspond geographically to each other.  Mexico has always seemed to me like a broken reflection of the South, in its pride and its sadness (I tried to combine these two worlds in my short film Violeta, shot in a style I jokingly refer to as Mexican Gothic).  As I Lay Dying could easily take place in my parents’ hometown in Michoacan.

Actually, the Bundren family reminded me of certain members of my family - uncles and cousins just as dirt poor and spitefully stubborn.  My mom used to tell me the story of her eldest brother Juan venturing into the countryside to retrieve their father’s dead body at the site of the bus accident a hundred miles away.  She never did tell us how he brought the body back to the town, but given the reckless pride of that family, I wouldn’t be surprised if my uncle Juan rode in on a horse with the corpse of his father tied to the saddle.  I’ve always imagined it that way.

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That said, you can understand why I’m in awe of the film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a little known and underrated movie, directed by Tommy Lee Jones, about a Texan man who takes his best friend’s body back to Mexico to be buried.  They make the trip on horseback, venturing into the unknown, through the canyons and deserts, the body strapped to a mule, decomposing along the way, the stubborn and faithful Texan stopping at nothing until he keeps his promise and fulfills the dead Mexican’s wish.  Looking back at it now, the film seems like a loose interpretation of As I Lay Dying.  Better yet, it feels like something Cormac McCarthy could have written.

absolute-mexicoI’ve always felt that Cormac McCarthy is the literary heir to William Faulkner.  While Faulkner set his novels in the fictional microcosm of Yoknapatawpha County, McCarthy uses Mexico as America’s doppleganger, its portrait of Dorian Gray, constantly looming over the conscience of the United States, like a shadow of death.  Both Faulkner and McCarthy expose the underbelly of the American dream by reminding us that its foundations were built upon slavery, murder, genocide, and war.  If you haven’t read Blood Meridian put it at the top of your list.  It requires a whole separate post unto itself but I’ll just say it’s one of my favorite novels written in the last thirty years.

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As I Lay Dying is currently being adapted into a film directed by James Franco - yes that James Franco.  I have mixed feelings about this as I think Faulkner’s work is pretty much impossible to film, but if there’s one novel which might translate well, it’s this one.  I don’t trust Franco as a director just yet - I don’t know if I ever will - but somehow this falls right in line with Franco’s sophomoric attempts at “serious” filmmaking.  I get the feeling he’s frustrated at being part of the Hollywood glamour machine and he lashes out by making incredibly self-indulgent projects.  However, The Broken Tower, Franco’s cinematic homage to American poet Hart Crane, feels like it comes from a place of deep reverence.  Franco attempts to convey Crane’s difficult and often misunderstood poetry in fragments less linear and more architectural.  If anything, The Broken Tower erred on the side of authenticity - but it still feels like it’s more about Franco than it is about Crane.  Let’s hope that’s not the case with As I Lay Dying.

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I haven’t spoken to my mom since Chucha died.  We don’t really talk on the phone when she’s in Mexico.  Now that my parents are considering retiring in their hometown, I’ll be going down there more frequently.  My last few trips into Mexico have been on direct flights from Los Angeles to Morelia, but I’m thinking of taking the bus the next time I go down.  I hear the buses are now equipped with air conditioning and televisions and bathrooms - which sounds nice and comfortable, but not what I remember from my childhood.  Which makes me think - maybe it’s those childhood bus rides I long for, when despite the constant presence of death, I felt like I could live forever, listening to my walkman, and staring at the window at the country that was rightfully mine but treated me like a foreigner.

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The Dark Knight Rises as Fascist Propaganda

July 27th, 2012

WARNING: The post below contains SPOILERS.

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It’s impossible to talk about The Dark Knight Rises without mentioning the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. While I’m deeply saddened by the violence and media circus immediately following the attack, I’m not at all surprised it happened.  Of course, this happens in this movie, it makes perfect sense. The ties between failed vigilantes like George Zimmerman and mass market consumption of a glorified and fascist - yes, I said fascist - vigilante film are becoming clearer and clearer every day. So is it really that surprising?

Movies aren’t made in a vacuum.  I believe that a film is imprinted with the zeitgeist of the culture from which it arises, bearing the consciousness - exposed or suppressed -  of its time with its use of language and images. In really good films, the irrepressible ghosts of the past carry their weight on screen, grounding the film in a historical context that incites a collective memory within us. Something primordial.  To quote William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I’m not accusing Christopher Nolan of intentionally making a fascist piece of capitalist authoritarian propaganda, but in an attempt to make the film culturally relevant, he misappropriated certain images from the current political and economic climate of the United States.  Then, processed by the Hollywood machine - an industry that measures the success of films solely on the amount of money they make - these images became distorted representations of a reality used to advance the ideologies of the ruling class.  This is a part of what makes the film fascist.

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When The Dark Knight Rises is green-lit for production with a budget north of $250 million, the studio heads are (safely) betting that the film will offer significant returns on their investment.  The film is then imposed onto the cultural consciousness - a bloated spectacle bombarding a nation of movie-goers with constant advertising; a monster feeding off the hype it itself created, coercing its audience to watch it, because after all, since it’s playing on over 5,000 screens around the world, there’s no way to escape it.  We must ask ourselves why we’ve come to accept, and even welcome, this grotesque display of consumer savagery several times a year.  The answer is very complicated and likely a symptom of a larger problem at hand.  But onto the film…

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Looking at the poster above conjures up memories of the police shutting down Occupy Wall Street and other protests across the country last year.  Except, in the poster, there’s a sense of danger, chaos, and violence.  On the left side, you have Batman and special unit police officers/soldiers.  On the right you have an army of rogues in hoodies, beanies, and middle eastern head wraps, black and asian faces (the dark “other”) twisted in anger, provoking the police, and raising their machine guns in the air, hungry for war.  Look at the close-up and it starts to make sense.  I’ll take this moment to remind you that the Occupy Movement has been one based on peaceful protests, where police usually have been the aggressors, beating women or pepper-spraying peaceful student protestors.

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But you’re not going to get that by looking at the poster.  The poster reminds me when Time Magazine took a photo of a peaceful Occupy protestor and used it for last year’s cover of the PERSON OF THE YEAR issue.  The photo was manipulated, the 99% so prominent on the white handkerchief, now erased of its power.  I wonder if the editors of Time realize that Occupy stands against everything that their magazine represents and therefore appropriating the iconography of the Occupy Movement to sell their magazines is completely stupid, although somehow expected.

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In case you had any doubt that the bad guys in The Dark Knight Rises are vilified facsimiles of the Occupy Movement, Nolan makes it clear for you.  There’s a scene in the film where Bane (Tom Hardy), the leader of the gang breaks into the Gotham City Stock Exchange to commit some kind of financial terrorism.  Bane’s goal is to lead the city to freedom by ripping it from the hands of the 1% and handing it back to the people.  That doesn’t sound so bad, actually, except that Bane’s plan involves trapping the police in the sewers, sinking the city into complete chaos, and then destroying it with a nuclear bomb (yes, I said a nuclear bomb).  As the city descends into mayhem, a court is set up to sentence the 1%, without trial, to either death or exile, while prisons are emptied of convicts, and the 99% infiltrate the homes of the rich and consume their possessions.  This is Nolan’s idea of the 1%’s worst nightmares come true, and although ridiculous and obvious, the film imposes it on the audience, conditioning us to believe that when the wealthy lose power, chaos reigns and innocent people die.  Now, the audience cheers for the police to be free and restore order to the city - but in order to do so it must establish a police state.

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Enter Batman, played by Christian Bale, who seemed to become aware throughout the film that he is being used for something different than he originally signed on for.  This is where it gets kind of interesting.  Unlike the prior two films where Batman operated outside of the law to protect the city from terror and crime, in The Dark Knight Rises, he’s working with the authorities to establish an army of police to control the city.  But we only really get to this point when Batman/Bruce Wayne learns to be afraid.  According to the film, fear will make you strong.  It will make you survive.  It’s good to fear, especially anarchist immigrant rogues with masks on their faces.  All the desires we place on Batman and his vigilante crusade are transferred into a fabricated fear of all that threatens the established systems.   And for those who didn’t quite get it, Nolan posits that the fabric of what it means to be American, our traditions and our pastimes, will also be destroyed.  In other words… bye bye football.  (For a fascinating analysis on the politics of football, see THIS POST on John Steppling’s blog.)

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At the end of the film, it’s Batman, of course, who takes the bomb over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and sacrifices himself to save the city from nuclear holocaust.  Except that he didn’t sacrifice himself.  For some reason, Bruce Wayne doesn’t die.  Instead, he ends up with Catwoman in a cafe in Florence, sipping an espresso.  Everything is okay, you see: Batman will live another day.  In fact, since the reboot of the franchise was announced before The Dark Knight Rises was even shot, you can bet Batman will live through another trilogy that will likely cost almost $1 billion to produce and market.

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This deus ex machina ending sheds light on one of the opening scenes of the film.  Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) offers a public eulogy of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to the citizens of Gotham City.  Gordon stands between two large photographs of Dent, Gotham’s “white knight,” paying lip service and praising the courage of the fallen politician.  Immediately, something feels off.  This feels like Nolan’s disguised eulogy for Heath Ledger, despite Nolan’s plans NOT to reference the Joker in this film as a perverse way of “respecting” Ledger’s legacy.   Although unintentional, denying the existence of the Joker in the film’s narrative exposes a fracture in its fictional world.  The film has carte blanche to rid itself from any ties and responsibilities to reality.  It prefers to remain unaccountable and therefore exempt from criticism.  After all, it’s just a movie, geez, no need to take everything so seriously…

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This is the reason why the massacre in Aurora feels so relevant.  It holds our culture accountable via the film.  Reading the witness accounts of the shooting, I found it disturbing the way the victims thought that it was all part of the show at first - the smoke, the shots fired, the screaming.  Is this a slow waking from a dream or blatant suspension of disbelief?  Ironically, the media has dubbed the gunman James Holmes “the Joker” - it’s as if we’re wishing the Batman movies onto ourselves.  We have captured the maniac killer and justice will be served.  Instead of addressing the real issues, like how this young man was able to acquire a semiautomatic rifle and a 12-guage shotgun, we’ll instead cheer/pray at his conviction, and maybe go out and buy a gun in order to “feel safer” (quick note: gun sales have surged across the country since last week’s incident).

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There’s no questioning Nolan’s talent as a movie director.  I think he makes solid films, usually technically masterful, with mainstream appeal because they make people feel “smart.”  And people like to feel smart, especially stupid people.  However, I usually find his films unnecessarily convoluted (Inception) or emotionally distant (Insomnia, The Prestige).   And I while I admire Nolan’s refusal to stop shooting on film in favor of digital, I can’t help but feel this attitude has some self-righteous implications.  His best film is still 2000’s Memento, a crafty neo-noir piece of filmmaking that unfolds through the process of remembering.  The film had a $5 million budget and all the ambition of a young director eager to tell a story.  In comparison, The Dark Knight Rises is an inferior film, rushing through its twisted plot with smug, self-flattering digs at the rich and overly sentimental conventions (Marion Cotillard’s ridiculous death scene) that are more bad melodrama than universal pathos.

However, it’s important to look at The Dark Knight Rises through a critical level.  I’m not calling for Nolan’s head for making a fascist film - it’s almost impossible for this film NOT to be fascist - but I hope he realizes that works of art and entertainment are powerful enough to affect, move, persuade, and change the national consciousness. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t directly responsible for the shootings in Aurora.  We are.  And we must remain accountable as a culture if we’re going to want to prevent it from happening again.

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Wes Anderson & The Preciousness of Puberty

July 13th, 2012

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Something traumatic must have happened to Wes Anderson as a little boy.  This bit of conjecture came to me as I left the theater after watching Moonrise Kingdom.  Looking back at Anderson’s filmography, certain themes become clear: adults stuck in phases of childhood (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited), overachieving, genius school boys (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), and grown men living out childhood fantasies (The Life Aquatic). Any inkling of sexuality is shrouded in a rosy, nostalgic mist.  Anderson’s ideas of romance, at least in his films, never dare to become carnal, restricted instead to French kissing experiments, sleepovers in libraries, or having crushes on your teacher.  The sexual development of his adult characters are stunted, their lives peaking before they even hit puberty.  And suddenly, after seven feature films, you start to wonder what it is about these themes of repression that fascinates Anderson.

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Even when dark desires rear their head, like when Richie Tenenbaum falls in love with his (adopted) sister Margot, they’re treated like the whims of a lovesick juvenile and never given the weight they demand. I admit I was captivated by this incestuous crush in The Royal Tenenbaums - I can still see Gwyneth Paltrow stepping off the bus in slow motion as Nico’s “These Days” plays on the soundtrack.  Actually, watching The Royal Tenenbaums opening night at the Sunset Laemmle 5 remains one of the most rewarding movie-going experiences I’ve had.  The film influenced a lot of my work in film school, at least in matters of symmetry and proscenium-type shots, and I even named it one of the 50 best films of the last decade.  But lately, I’ve been afraid to revisit the film, afraid that it won’t hold up to the way I remember it.  I’m embarrassed that it will come across as… precious.

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On the other hand, Rushmore, my favorite of Anderson’s films, holds up quite well.  It remains Anderson’s strongest work, although I can’t explain why.  Maybe it’s because Max Fischer (played by Jason Schwartzman) resented his working class father as he infiltrated the world of private school. Maybe it’s because Bill Murray’s understated performance re-launched his career as a “dramatic” actor, paving the way for his near cult-like status.  Maybe it’s because Anderson didn’t shy away from Freudian issues of fathers as rivals and Oedipal desire, but instead tackled them with a cool and hip detachment.  I don’t know.  Even cinematically, Rushmore is rawer and more alive than all the other films, not yet corrupted by all the contamination that comes with a substantial Hollywood budget and big name actors.

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I was so incredibly disappointed with The Life Aquatic that it took the better part of a year to admit to myself that the film had personally failed me.  It’s basically a limp-wristed Moby Dick re-imagining as conceived by a man-child in a corduroy suit.  Less cinema and more diorama.  Not even Bill Murray could save this one.  And then there’s the Indian road film, The Darjeeling Limited, so grotesquely precious that I’ve repressed all memories of it.  I vaguely remember a train and a white tiger and maybe a scene with Bill Murray running?

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But long before The Darjeeling Limited was released, Wes Anderson had been crowned Hollywood’s indie darling, its little prince, so much that even Natalie Portman agreed to show her ass in an interrupted love scene in Hotel Chevalier, a short-film prologue to The Darjeeling Limited (which for some reason is set in Paris).  Then came Fantastic Mr. Fox, adapted from the Roald Dahl children’s book, but by then I had already given up on Wes Anderson contributing any more valuable work to American cinema.  However, I was surprised that the film was actually funny and entertaining and beautiful to watch.  It was at once film and cartoon, a work of craftsmanship and puppetry and stop-motion photography.  Not exactly a monumental film, Fantastic Mr. Fox made me realize that Anderson’s aesthetic is best suited for making animated movies… for kids.

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Moonrise Kingdom is the continuation of that children’s book aesthetic, but this time mashed up with the style of a 60’s French film.  The content remains at the prepubescent level, like a precocious child who never learned to masturbate.  The film is filled with children wanting to escape - not into adulthood - but to a dreamland where they can remain children forever.  Adults are portrayed as infantilized (see Edward Norton’s khaki shorts, Bruce Willis’s police cap), sexless bureaucrats (Tilda Swinton as Social Services), or just miserable parents.  Yes, Moonrise Kingdom is precious, uber-precrious, despite the Fraçoise Hardy and Hank Williams soundtrack, but unlike other Wes Anderson missteps, this film feels like it was made for teenagers.  And that somehow makes it more interesting, more authentic.

As our culture continues to spiral into an obsessive negation of adulthood and medicated apathy, Moonrise Kingdom falls perfectly in line with the drum step.  We live in a time when it’s in Hollywood’s best financial interest to create a nation of fan-boys.  The highest grossing films this year have been comic book adaptations (The Avengers, The Amazing Spiderman, and The Dark Knight Rises), a Dr. Seuss adaptation (The Lorax), updated fairy tales (Snow White and the Huntsman), and the third - but perhaps not final - installments of animated sequels (Ice Age 3, Madagascar 3).  Even in television you see a pandemic of young adults refusing to grow up with shows like Two Broke Girls, New Girl, and Girls (a show that brazenly did us the favor of not even disguising its infantilized aspirations by calling itself what it is).  Young people are now having sex later in life, the internet harboring a safe substitute for this primordial need.  It’s no wonder that Wes Anderson’s films are popular with men in their twenties and thirties - he has a whole audience that has been created for him by the Hollywood machine.  His “art films for man-boys” satisfy that incessant need to never grow up

Anderson’s aesthetic vision is fully realized in his films.  His films are easily identifiable, they’re a brand.  You know you’re watching a Wes Anderson - the desaturated colors, the slow motion shots, the symmetry, the children.  He is a talented director, and I admire that he’s managed to create a career for himself as it becomes increasingly difficult for young filmmakers to direct their own films.  However, I’m still waiting for him to make a film for the big boys.  Perhaps I should just stick to the other Anderson, in this case Paul Thomas.  After venturing briefly into Wes Anderson territory with Punch Drunk Love, he directed There Will be Blood and will release The Master later this year.

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Drive - A Freudian Breakdown

July 11th, 2012

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In the last year, I’ve been studying theater in John Steppling’s theater collective Gunfighter Nation.  Anyone who has any interest in writing film or theater should become familiar with Steppling’s blog.  It was while reading this post, which lays out why Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive doesn’t ultimately work, that I started thinking about the film on a critical level, more than it probably deserved.  Steppling’s ideas on narrative theory are very complex, especially laid out in this intellectual back and forth with Guy Zimmerman.  I’m not going to pretend that I can even keep up with them, especially with regards to Lacan and Adorno, but I do have some modest thoughts on film that I think are worth raising, especially with regard to Drive.

Steppling states that theater is a form of thinking:  ”The actor is performing as a form of thinking… Film is not the same in that respect. Whoever is speaking in film is actually who is speaking.”  First, I’m careful not to take Steppling’s words out of context, but I do want to use this statement as a jumping off point to say that if theater is a form of thinking, then film is a form of dreaming.  I’ll go into this idea in more detail in a future post, but for now, I’ll break it down only through a few Freudian ideas below which I’m still processing.

Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel described the rituals of watching a film in a theater similar to those of preparing for sleep – a darkened room, where you lie back, and watch the images unfold.  Now, some might say that theater is like this too, and in some respects it is, but the moving images on screen, the change of perspective, and the editing of the shots is really what makes cinema more dreamlike - as opposed to live actors on a stage.

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Which brings me to Drive.  I wanted to like Drive.  And for the most part, I did.  Well… kind of.  The film captures something visceral, an element of the primordial that affects its audience.  It also contributes to the current state of “cool culture” (Although a sad state of affairs when our American notions of “white cool” fall on the shoulders of a former Mouseketeer).  But the film falls apart for me three quarters of the way through, despite Refn’s command of cinematic language and style.  Drive left me unsatisfied, even frustrated and resentful that it had failed me on a subconscious level.  Worst of all, I didn’t know why, which was even more frustrating – like feeling an itch on your body but not knowing where to scratch.

Steppling mentions that Drive had no where to go, that it just “petered off” (quotations mine).  That got me thinking about sex drive within dreams, especially those that don’t offer relief, which led me to the Freudian notion of dreams as wish fulfillments.  In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud refers to dreams as the guardians of sleep, meaning that the dream will trick us into feeling an urge in order to keep us from waking (we dream of drinking water to alleviate our somatic thirst).  I can’t help but think of how similar this is to watching a film.  If something proves to be false or inauthentic in a movie, something that breaks the verisimilitude of the intended narrative, we are quickly taken out of the film.  The spell - the dream - is broken.  That said, I believe Drive tricked us with its images and narrative to keep us engaged in the film, but unlike even the most anxiety-ridden nightmares which fulfill our darkest desires, Drive fails to satisfy the primordial wishes that we need from a film.

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But why?  Let’s stick with Freudian analysis here, which some may find “reductive” but which I feel is incredibly valuable in breaking down film in a cultural and historical context.  If we bring this back to Oedipal psyche and desire, you can see how many father figures were killed in this film - the whole last part of the film dealt with the killing of father figures - but for now, let’s examine the film from the perspective of the little boy, Benicio.  Benicio develops an incredible affinity for Ryan Gosling’s Driver, so much that I think he projects himself onto him, and identifies with him. Remember the scene where they watch cartoons? It’s Benicio teaching Driver who the good guys are and the bad guys are: the sharks are bad because all sharks are bad - a reference to Albert Brooks’ character who wears a sharkskin suit.  Benicio and Driver are equals not because Driver treats Benicio like an adult but because Driver is very much like a child.  Driver is the cool kid Benicio wants to be – he wears that garish silver jacket, he drives for the movies, his voice has that reticent pre-pubescent quality, but most especially Driver is blond, boyish and white (this is very very important).  It’s through Benicio transferring himself onto Driver that the film can fulfill Benicio’s Oedipal desires with his mother Irene, played by Carey Mulligan.

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Whiteness is a very important point here because Benicio is obviously not white.  He’s probably Mexican or Latino.  He stands in sharp contrast to Carey Mulligan’s white, girlish Irene.  The role of Irene was written for a Mexican woman in her mid-30′s.  Mulligan read the script and convinced Refn to cast her instead and thereby completely wiping out a vital element which could have grounded the film firmly in a social-historical context.  (Steppling likens this casting choice to how No Country for Old Men cast a Spaniard in the role of the white psychopathic killer) This speaks more of the current state of the Hollywood film industry than it does of the fact that Refn is European, but still, it’s alarming that he made some serious changes to the script at the behest of a pretty (although very good) British actress.  Mulligan’s performance in the film is one of a subtle grace, but she is a stand-in for the real mother, the Mexican mother, and therefor inauthentic.  This bit of opportunistic casting completely flips the cultural context of the film and never allows it to set itself right again.

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Back to Drive and dreaming.  The dream tricks us in order to guard the sleep (i.e. the film tricks us in order to stay with it) but really Mulligan is NOT the mother of Benicio.  She’s a substitute.  And because she is white and girlish (and Benicio is not), Benicio transfers himself onto Driver, who is white and boyish.  Here, the film achieves this twisted sense of Benicio dreaming of his own Oedipal desires, of objectifying the white people within his own dream.  For the first half of the film, there is order – we are invested in Drive, despite its deception.  However, deep down, we feel something isn’t quite right.

When Standard, Benicio’s father, is released from jail, the father returns from the dead and disrupts the Oedipal wish fulfillment.  According to Frued, death is a place from which people never return.  (However, it’s evident in the production design that death is ever-present in Benicio’s space.  There’s a photograph of what looks like a dead soldier from WWI in Mulligan’s apartment.  The photo is prominent and always in the center of the frame.)  Of course, Standard is severely threatened by Driver, so he invites him over to dinner and tells Driver and Benicio how it was illegal for Standard to date/impregnate Irene, as she was only 17, still a child.  This violation of a child/mother by an adult/father, told to other children incites the film’s natural “drive” to kill the father. And of course, even though Benicio is unable to kill Standard himself, the film succeeds in doing so, by making Driver - Benicio’s transferred self - complicit.  The killing of Standard is inevitable, and naturally, like Oedipus, Driver is responsible.

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At this point, I’m starting to realize I’m dreaming, I’m being taken out of the film. But the film, being the guardian of sleep, lures me with the desire of fulfilling my wish – to marry/fuck my mother.  Irene is the only real woman in the film, the other females are statuesque strippers who don’t move, and an infantilized Christina Hendricks (in light pinks and baby blues, nothing sexual about her) who gets her head blown off.  However, the dream cannot sustain the false images it has presented. These replicas (Driver as a false Benicio and Irene as his false mother) are coming apart at the seams - the film knows it too, and tries to stop it with most enticing dream of all… the wish fulfillment.  And so the scene begins - you know the scene, when Driver kisses Irene in the elevator.  It is easily the most cinematic and beautiful sequence of the film. It unfolds in slow motion, the music swells, the cinematography changes, and that magical feeling of watching a great film fills our consciousness.  But it is here that it becomes clear that Irene/Mulligan is not the mother, and she never will be able to fulfill the wish.  And so, like a petulant child, the film reacts in violence as Driver stomps on the trachea of the handsome intruder.

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It’s after that scene that things come apart for me.  The jig is up.  That’s also the last time we see Irene and Benicio – the elevator closes over Irene as it dumps her in the basement/garage. We’re waking up to an unfulfilled wish and all there is left is to pretend to sleep, to dream, and to keep on killing other false fathers with the intention of finding other mothers.

What is interesting here is how the killing by Driver is done under a mask.  Several “others” are represented in Drive - Latino, Jewish, and Armenian, Cook – the bald guy in the track suit at Echo Park (I have an Armenian friend who insists that Armenians aren’t caucasian, despite the Caucasus being in Armenia).  When Driver goes to the set trailer to steal a mask, you see masks for Christina Hendricks and for Cook – both actors needing prosthetic masks for their death scenes.  Driver chooses the Armenian mask to disguise himself while he murders Pearlman.  I can’t help but think that the killing by the white man, at least under Refn’s Eurocentric direction, must be done under masks – both literal, as in the film, and figurative - “codes of honor”, self-protection, securing the safety of the white woman.  Also, when Driver kills Brooks, it’s done in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant, a ghettoized space in the valley.

drive-mask

I left the theater frustrated.  I knew I had just watched the work a good director, but I couldn’t explain why all I took from it was a great cinematic style.  But even the style is deceptive – Drive is a contemporary movie, shot like 70′s film, with an 80′s flair.  Still, it’s a film that has stimulated something in the consciousness of many audiences, and this should not  be ignored.  The film is just as loved by young women as it with young men, probably because of Ryan Gosling’s current popularity and recent ascent to sex symbol - something I don’t quite understand.   I’d be very curious to see how Drive had been different if it didn’t repress it’s cultural context and had cast a Latina in the role of Irene.  I guess, we’ll never know.

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John Cassavetes

May 2nd, 2011

Cassavetes Retrospective (trailer) from Cinefamily on Vimeo.

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

January 26th, 2010

unbearable-lightness-of-being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
by Milan Kundera

The cover of this book had charmed me for several years before I finally decided to read it.  The artwork pits the playfulness of a Magritte painting against a distant memory, evoking something between magical realism and an ethereal nostalgia.  Yes, I had romanticized this book, judged it by its cover, and even though I had no idea what it was about, I wanted to love it.  But I didn’t.

The novel is set in 1968 Prague, during the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia, and it follows the exploits of Tomas - a womanizing doctor; Teresa - the woman he loves; Sabina - one of his mistresses; and Franz - her loyal lover.  Milan Kundera begins the novel with a self-reflexive, philosophical discourse on human existence, continually weaving the narrative with elements of rhetoric and history.  The result is strangely compelling.  Despite the simple language of the book, I was captivated by the struggle for political, sexual and artistic freedoms that the characters faced. The scenes depicting Tomas’s love affairs were arresting, and the musings of his jealous wife, poignant.

Many times Kundera would reach a literary transcendence with his prose, his images bordering on poetic, but just as quickly he’d rid his words of their power by referring to these moments as ”beautiful” and “heartbreaking” - the narrative dream broken, deflated like a balloon, its arrogant master smiling in self-approval.  Nevertheless, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is beautiful and heartbreaking, just not for the reasons that Kundera tells you it is.  If anything, Kundera teaches that behind any ideology or belief is a misrepresented reality, struggling to reveal itself past its deceptive facade - kind of like the cover of this book.

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