Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

This is a review I sent to an online publication for consideration. I have yet to hear back and they have since posted what I believe to be their Piece on the subject, so I feel there is no harm in posting this (if, by chance, they post it, then I will take this down). The style is a bit different from what I post here as I attempted to conform to their house style.

This was written hours after a midnight screening and thus represents my immediate reactions. Upon further contemplation I realize I say much of the same things as other dissenters, such as the point that Ann Hathaway was almost a saving grace (although most complain she wasn't 'sexy enough'), the comparison to the crassness of Michael Bay, and that at least The Dark Knight had Heath Ledger.

It does not carefully consider the politics of the film (again: house style), which may be cause for another post down the line.



(Christopher Nolan / 2012)

In the latest Bat-film, The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan concentrates his love affair with 80s urban thrillers: the helicopter skylines, the poverty-porn formalism, the smothering ominous tones, and the schizoid nightmare fantasies of xenophobic militiamen. It’s a tad presumptuous to claim that Nolan is actively fooling his audience with his pseudo Dick Wolf naturalism, but his brutalist architectural approach to drama feeds a ready-made audience apparently starving for self-aggrandizing seriousness—for Grown-Up versions of boyhood favorites; in video game terms, what amounts to the Mortal Kombat-ification of American pop culture*.

Whereas The Dark Knight had a handful of worthwhile features—the weakest performance of Ledger’s career and a superbly executed opener (although it should’ve been aped shamelessly from Zulawski’s L’amour braque)—Rises has none of the isolated pleasures that floundered in the previous films. While it’s only ten more minutes than Dark Knight, it manages to feel hours longer, exacerbated by the high dosage of pomposity that transforms the excitement of silent serial tropes and Lewis Carroll allusions into tasteless political sludge.

Ann Hathaway offers a fleeting moment of respite, disregarding her desperate performance and throwaway character, by reminding us that the lineage of the Bat-films is worthy of excavation, echoing Fulliade, Lang, Franju, and Melville—even Tim Burton—who understood that their worlds were phantasms and fabrications. Nolan’s Bat-verse, which is as plastic as Burton’s, suffers from its inability to acknowledge this humble fact. The insular set pieces of Batman’s ancestors implied vast, expansive universes, a talent that Nolan desperately lacks: his cities are devoid of culture—everything is a neo-classical bank or an anonymous corporate building, populated by grimacing white people and newspaper tumbleweeds.

The Dark Knight Rises is high Kitsch and damn near hilariously so. What makes Nolan a standout is his longer than average shot length, which to the imdb-generation means he’s patient, ergo more mature. He’s also better at conjuring a dense topical fog than say, Michael Bay.  His procedural formality has become the bedrock of the contemporary prestige piece, but whereas a director like David Fincher interrogates the anxiety of mystery and blows open the cracks in tightly knit yarns, Nolan’s modus operandi is to make every detail, every word, every cutaway refer to an eventual deus ex machina, effectively obliterating all sense of wonder that makes classic thrillers soar. This deadening process allows Nolan to pull his great switcheroo at the end—someone you thought was good is actually pure evil—and to catch you up to speed Nolan provides rapid fire exposition that doesn’t build upon the previous two-and-half hours of film, but rather rewrites it on the fly.

Yet Nolan’s celebrated aesthetic has paved the way for the ceremonial induction of previously derided genres into the role of official art and in turn has made maverick works such as Nevaldine and Taylor’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance certifiably avant-garde by comparison. You better bet your ass that this will win Oscars. And if it doesn’t, then prepare yourself for an angry mob more dangerous than the criminalized pseudo-Occupy ‘revolutionaries’ of the film itself.

* This is an abbreviation of a cultural analysis that I tried to articulate to a friend. Here is a more detailed description of what was meant by this: in the early 1990s as video games became much more common place (during the Super NES v. Sega Genesis days) there were two competing and iconic fighting games: Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. The former focused on style and a fluidity of movement and the intuitive immersion of the player. It embraced a hyper-stylized form and had a signature feel that has continued throughout the franchise's evolution. According to most 'gamers' I know, this is the preferred game for its quality and its timelessness (if there is such a thing in video games). Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, emphasized a sense of 'realism' that was tied to the specific moment in technology (it dates terribly) and has no discernible style other than an attempt to be as real and edgy looking as the current moment allows. Typically these games are clunky, ridden with glitches, and focused on 'adult' content such as gore, exaggerated female sexuality, and a gritty darkness. It seems arguable that there is a general trend in American pop culture that yearns for a type of seriousness to be added to fantastical properties typically associated with low culture (comic books, video games, certain genre cinema) and that this seriousness is often a rather adolescent obsession with the obscene realities that are censored in children's fare, namely drugs, sex, cursing, and violence. The desire to reintroduce these elements back into certain fictions has caused an overload or overemphasis on these things. This is coupled with a brutal, nihilistic view of existence as dirty and dark and filled with crime. I believe this particular desire has flourished in an age where art and style are not taught well (or at all) and thus a disconnect with the functions of art and the audiences they are intended for have widened, creating a dominant audience (that transcends class distinctions) that is ever more resentful of self-conscious or obvious stylization and demands a more 'realistic' and methodical formalism that is somehow not understood as being a style, even though it is (in my mind this is not unlike the disconnect Chris Hedges describes between the popular hatred of 'politics' and government and a worship of a military culture that is somehow not thought of as a branch of said government). Consider the 'darker' reboot of Spider-Man alongside the reboots of James Bond and Batman, or this curio that is frequently presented to me as a legitimate trailer for a new, more serious, Mortal Kombat film (notice how every fantastical element has to be accounted for and explained through some 'twisted' Law & Order psychopathology. The idea always seems to be to fix what was ruined by 'hacks' like Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, or Paul W.S. Anderson. Consider Edward Norton's professed need to undo the perceived silliness of Ang Lee's Hulk.


Two excellent pieces on this subject: Michael Sicinski's at CinemaScope and a roundtable conversation at Mubi's Notebook.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Magic Mike + how to watch a movie #2


(Steven Soderbergh / 2012)

There is little I can add in praise of Magic Mike that hasn't been perfectly articulated by Ben Sachs at the Chicago Reader or Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at Mubi's Notebook. I loved the film and can easily imagine it among my favorite Soderbergh's (Schizopolis, Solaris, Che, And Everything is Going Fine). It's peculiar that most find it necessary to point out that Magic Mike is a minor film of a major director; is Soderbergh a major director who has only made minor films? What the fuck does any of that mean? It sounds right, though. His movies are never the Big Important ones like a Fincher or an Anderson (or Anderson).

A couple details: Magic Mike articulates class anxiety in a highly sophisticated manner, very similar to how Soderbergh dealt with violence in Che: you can't always see it or pin it down, but it's present in every moment. The wide angle shot-from-a-corner photography totally makes the film, as it places everything in a nexus of glossy, sexy, gonzo eye-candy and cold, alienating, depressing sex work where one never overwhelms the other.


Communicating both my desire to see Magic Mike and my subsequent admiration of the film in a world so totally influenced by advertising has been quite an experience. My non-cinephile peers, friends, coworkers, et al,  have been troubled by my endorsement of the film. Clearly, the way in which movie trailers are cut is shrewdly effective. By not only seeing, but wanting to see, Magic Mike, I was crossing over into spaces where I didn't belong. This was most evident when the theater workers repeatedly asked me if I was in the right theater, if I was positive I knew what, exactly, I was about to see.

What struck me is that there was never once a consideration of my sexuality, it was just assumed I was a heterosexual male who had wandered into a commodified space for sexually frustrated women to momentarily live out their fantasies or I must have been an oppressed boyfriend humoring my Fifty Shades of Grey-reading girlfriend, wishing I was reveling in the misogyny of Seth MacFarlane's "humor" or having more joyless sex while both of us fantasize about somebody else. You know, the accepted normalized reality of compulsive heterosexuality.

This speaks to the power of genre and the philosophy of lifestyles and demographics. There is a profound faith that what a film advertises is all a film can be, and while this is nothing new, it is conflated with the notion that plot, as a pretension, determines the quality or value of a film. The subjects or ideas that are explored or the style which articulates those concepts is furthest from the cultural dialogue. The devaluation of Magic Mike as something unworthy of seeing seems to stem from a devaluation of women and a culture marketed to them. Consider The Dark Knight Rises: how many people are already convinced beyond any doubt that this is going to be a great movie, probably the best of the year? How can one possibly know that? It is the packaging that informs us how to receive a film. A self-serious, topical, and pompous action film is worthy of one's attention because the advertisements and the style tell us so. If it's made for women, regardless of subject or the entire body of work of the director, the film is most likely shit. And probably gay.

Interestingly enough there is already some disappointment that the film does not deliver the goods, or rather, enough of them.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

how to watch a movie

A conversation with a good friend about Moonrise Kingdom revealed that there are, in fact, people in this world who do not live and breath the cinema.

One of my co-workers, who is the type that sees movies in the multiplex on a weekly basis (I've seen four films in theaters this year, and three were Eisensteins), asked if I'd seen Moonrise Kingdom (forgetting that I had suggested he see it). Apparently he went on the sole basis that Bruce Willis and Edward Norton were in it.

Likewise, my friend told me of his experience at a low rent theater where customers routinely demanded a list of movie plot descriptions (a laminated affair) from the ticket window and would select their evening's entertainment based on which one sounded interesting. One such customer explained to my friend that this is how he sees all of his movies, by chance and with no prior expectations.

A part of me wishes I could stroll into a theater with no knowledge of any of the films and roll the dice. It's strange to be reminded that cinephilia is a insular world, and that the ones outside its boundaries get on just fine.

Walking and Talking


(Nicole Holofcener / 1996)

Walking and Talking plays like a tight dress rehearsal for Holofcener's later, greater works (Friends with Money, Please Give) which deal more candidly with the uncomfortable and embarrassing realities of class distinction, which is almost entirely absent here. Yet the film is still a sobering navigation of unwanted self-realizations. Here we get a typical falling apart / reconciliation that makes for a solid, smart romantic dramedy (the cliche-sounding genre that Holofcener excels in), which is filled with bizarre, one-off moments and unsettling erotic interludes that complicate her worlds (making them distinct from the anonymous indie films that share her aesthetic). Also Keener and Holofcener are a vastly underrated actor-director pairing.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Screen Machine

The inaugural issue of Screen Machine, the Melbourne based film magazine, has been published online. You can find it here.

I have a piece on The Turin Horse here.

Hope you enjoy.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Irma Vep


(Olivier Assayas / 1996)

I wish there was a way a wipe my memory and see this film without any idea of what cinephilia is, but such silly thoughts presuppose that things can exist outside the cultural soup that gives birth to such esoteric marvels as Irma Vep.

But there is something more than just allusions to cinema and hypnotic Feuillade reenactments. In fact, the world of cinephilia is a screen, like the world of bourgeois art and decor in Summer Hours or the post modern pop-politics in Carlos, that Assayas is burrowing into in order to provide the necessary scaffold to launch his investigation. Here, it is the subjectivity of male heterosexual desire that drives much (though not all) of the film. Consider the two directors who tackle the Les vampires remake, each with his own incomprehensible desire for a certain type of woman, a certain dress, a certain sequence of movements. Everything else is just the envelope with which to present their ideal object. Some believe this to be an ultimate philosophy of film, which I could totally get behind if so many of those espousing this gospel weren't so depressingly hetero-male.