Wednesday, December 30, 2015

25 Favorite First Time Views of 2015

These are my 25 favorite older films that I saw for the first time in 2015. I organized them into thematic groups even though each film falls into multiple categories. However, this organization reflects how I experienced these films during my first viewings of them.

*top ten

Erotic and spiritual; unabashedly emotional

Je, tu, il, elle / I, You, He, She (Chantal Akerman, 1976)*
Hereafter (Clint Eastwood, 2010)*
Wagon Master (John Ford, 1950)*
Ching se / Green Snake (Tsui Hark, 1993)*
Starman (John Carpenter, 1984)*
Lifeforce (Tobe Hooper, 1985)
Dao / The Blade (Tsui Hark, 1995)
Behindert (Stephen Dwoskin, 1974)

The dialectic; mutations of the modern

No Quarto da Vanda / In Vand'a Room (Pedro Costa, 2000)*
Speed Racer (Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, 2008)
Mo' Better Blues (Spike Lee, 1990)*
My Best Friend's Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1997) 
Objective, Burma! (Raoul Walsh, 1945)
Viaggio in Italia / Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954)*

Repetition; rhythmic cinema

Kong bu fen zi / The Terrorizers (Edward Yang, 1986)*
As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (Jonas Mekas, 2000)*
Long men ke zhen / Dragon Gate Inn (King Hu, 1966)
They Died with Their Boots On (Raoul Walsh, 1941) 
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
For Your Eyes Only (John Glen, 1981)
After Earth (M. Night Shyamalan, 2013)

The essayistic; self-reflective; cerebral

Leben - BRD / How to Live in the German Federal Republic (Harun Farocki, 1990)
Hai shang chuan qi / I Wish I Knew (Zhangke Jia, 2010)
News from Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977)
The Robinson Trilogy (Patrick Keiller)
London (1994)
Robinson in Space (1997)
Robinson in Ruins (2010)

 4 honorable mentions

Apache Drums (Hugo Fregonese, 1951)
Esther Kahn (Arnaud Desplechin, 2000)
The Fighter (David O Russell, 2010)
Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)

Monday, December 28, 2015

STAR WARS: some thoughts on the franchise

This isn’t a review in a traditional sense, but an attempt to articulate one possible way of seeing the STAR WARS films. While I recognize that there are myriad ways to come to these films and make sense of them, I am here staking my claim. To avoid confusion I refer to the original film as STAR WARS (1977) and the overall franchise as simply STAR WARS.

The great tragedy of STAR WARS (1977) is that it only had a brief moment to be just another film. It is and forever shall be part of a universe of multimedia installments; a synergized empire of merchandise, nostalgia, and imaginations. To think of STAR WARS (1977) as only a film is a near impossible task. It is always already wrapped up in the polemics of cultural prophesy or political hysteria; it is either a reflection of the human narrative spirit or the harbinger of a blockbuster dystopia. So let us imagine STAR WARS as a relic that is little more than a shabby film from 1977, not very good but somehow enchanting. Let us attempt to meet it where it is without all the emotional guide-rails telling us what it's supposed to be.

Contextualizing anything is a series of choices: what to consider and what to ignore. Here I’d like to provide a single avenue for achieving this, one that has no interest in nostalgia, cultural phenomena, or the ideological battles of taste. What if STAR WARS where considered a part of a wave of films and not the unique strike of lighting that its legacy engenders? This isn’t very hard to do. The well-rehearsed narrative of its social context takes us through the dramatic reorganization of the Hollywood studio system in the 1960s, what some call a total collapse. New voids were filled with fresh talents, young alumni of the “film school generation” and counterculture mavericks that are better understood as a wave of technically proficient cinephiles. The United States and France (to name but two) saw waves of filmmakers who were joyfully, recklessly, mining cinema’s half-a-century of industrial production and STAR WARS (1977) was part of these movements.

Cinephilia has long been a celebration of idiosyncratic viewing methods and esoterica, and enables us to keep this heritage alive. But as far as pop culture and popular taste is concerned, the films of this era have been shot, stuffed, and displayed as abstract figures removed from their environs (what we call classics). Martin Scorsese made films in the punchy, visceral manner of Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks while Steven Spielberg motioned toward the mediated formalism of John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. Even Coppola’s untouchable GODFATHER films were constructed from the visual tropes of the silent film genres of immigrant stories and white slavery morality plays. In France—if you’ll excuse my ignoring the coveted Nouvelle vague for one essay—the silent cinema was reanimated with Pierre Etaix and Jacques Tati making modern mutations of Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin films while Jean-Pierre Melville and Georges Franju conjured the specter of the crime serial conventions of Louis Feuillade. Like all great periods of cinema it was a wave of innovation anchored by pastiche, homage, theft, and even a little pedantic derivation. But what beauties it gave us.

Taxonomically speaking, STAR WARS is closer to Franju than to Spielberg. They both coveted the aesthetic pleasures of the film serial. It’s well known (and well worn) that the germ for STAR WARS (1977) was a failed attempt at making a FLASH GORDON film, but too often this is treated as mere lore; as the humble origins of the cultural phenomenon. Instead, STAR WARS (1977) as a cinephile homage to early cinema should be more celebrated as the idiosyncratic and personal vision that makes it of any interest at all. Like Franju’s JUDEX (1963) or NUITS ROUGES (1974), STAR WARS’ aesthetic and thematic pleasures derive from the simplicity of their source material. This isn’t to suggest they lack complexity, both the surrealist psychology of Franju and the intricate composite production design of Lucas are both fascinating for their layers of depth. There is a sheer pleasure of the fabricated image, of the persistence of an artificial vision that evokes and echoes psychological landscapes and a trickster's imaginative play. These are the things that made the silent cinema such wondrous experiences. Yet Lucas never fully embraced the visible seams of the fantasy’s construction, which is the very element—intentional or not—that makes STAR WARS (1977) and NUITS ROUGES bold visions from the era of vérité.

The over-production of the STAR WARS (1977) sequels is immediately apparent, weighted down with an expanding universe, but held together by a similar moxie. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) and RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) trade the nearly surreal serial wallpaper of STAR WARS (1977) for a greater emphasis on world building, an adolescent concept in the early 1980s that now has a hegemonic stranglehold on industrial cultural production. Both sequels still feel like serial installments and excel at transforming rickety production design into celebrations of trickery and fantasy. They're also bloated and the narrative excesses weight down the breezy momentum that feels partially embalmed within each sequel. They mark a movement away from the hokey cinephile passion of their predecessor, one that presents a type of openness that allows for more pathways into its aesthetic world than the sequels and their narrative preoccupations. EMPIRE and JEDI are at best intriguing messes.

Post-1980s STAR WARS is a strange contradiction of cultural constructions. One the one hand, a cottage industry has begun to calcify dedicated to erecting STAR WARS as a cultural phenomenon while obscuring the complex industrial processes that maintain its visual dominance of American culture (such as merchandise licensing). STAR WARS is not allowed to be a product of its time, but it must now be timeless, and all manner of pseudo-empirical data and horseshit Joseph Campbell scholarship emerges to maintain this newfound cultural position. But at the same time, Lucas’ constant tinkering with his own films incurs a gut rejection of aesthetic attempts to refuse the film’s origins. Lucas’ infamous Special Editions visually manifest all desires to make STAR WARS timeless, that is, to remove it entirely from the cultural, political, and technological contexts of 1977, 1980, and 1983. Lucas’ position as a mainstream narrative filmmaker creates unique repercussions for this incessant tinkering. Experimental filmmakers do this all the time: rework their films over the years to create something new or different. Consider the projection histories of Stan Brakhage or Ken Jacobs. But something about the shared nostalgia or "timelessness" adds an impenetrable dimension to how many come to view STAR WARS as something more than mere cinema. To be fair, I never liked the Special Editions for the very reason that the changes are not aesthetic or thematic, but merely narrative: it’s just more world building.

Perhaps here it is more useful to consider Lucas as a pioneer in the vein of Thomas Edison. It’s important to note that pioneer carries with it no moral evaluation or seal of quality. Pioneers enable new forms, but frequently produce lackluster products. Edison forged new technologies, new modes of human communication and expression, but he was also a businessman as rooted in his immediate legal supremacy as he was in any conception of “the future.” He also curated the ideas and inventions of a team of laborers that allowed him to achieve his vision. Without Edison, there would be no Edwin S. Porter or even D.W. Griffith, and vice versa. Lucas, the founder of multiple companies, technologies, and workflow practices, forged a new mode of filmmaking, a mode for the twenty-first century. His green-screen phantasmagorias became a standard practice for genre cinema and coincided with the movement of fan culture (or geek culture) from the margins to the center of popular tastes. He opened the door for a return to a golden age studio artifice in the era of photorealism and planned obsolescence. Also like Edison, Lucas’ own productions—content for his delivery systems—are not the paragon of the form. He’s not the avant gardist or auteur that scavenges new mediums and exploits their abilities and limitations for artistic effect. But that does not mean his prequel trilogy is nearly as bad as their hysterical detractors make them out to be.

The prequels are unique visions that often share the same vulgar attraction to spectacle and banality that the Lumière brothers projected, or that Edison copyrighted. The notions of auteurism or even intent are worthless here: the images have qualities that render them mesmerizing as cinematic objects. They’re not great films, but nothing about STAR WARS was ever great, only at best mesmerizing. If you’ll forgive the slight oversimplification, the prequels get a bad rap because they’re victims of dichotomous comparisons: this is not that. That being an older mode of studio filmmaking that has become fetishized as somehow more authentic, an attitude that was mercilessly exploited for THE FORCE AWAKENS marketing. Among critics and fans they were hardly—if at all—considered as their own films, but faulted for their differences from a by now mythologized trilogy of films. By severing the shackles of nostalgia, willful childish ignorance, and the dictates of fandom, one is better positioned to approach the prequels as what they have always been: just films. While I hesitate to present some vulgar auteurist reclamation of the prequel trilogy, I do wish to defend their distinct pleasures.

If STAR WARS (1977) was Lucas’ attempt to recreate the FLASH GORDON serials, then the prequels were his ultimate victory in achieving verisimilitude. His use of new technology created distinct visual tableaux and cosmic vistas that balked at realism and embraced the cardboard flimsy of his inspirations. If anything, the prequels are too good at replicating the metabolism of the old serials: they’re dry, wooden, and frequently boring. THE PHANTOM MENACE is perhaps the slowest feeling of the lot and ATTACK OF THE CLONES is by far the most batshit in its consistently ugly imagery. REVENGE OF THE SITH is the late mastery of this new form. It’s easily the most consistent and beautiful of the prequels. It is Lucas’ magnum opus of emotionally wrought space opera, as silly and earnest as anything in the original films, and though punctuated by clunky moments of failure and incoherence, it has a visionary flavor that makes it a standalone experience. But credit where it’s due, this might be largely because Spielberg was given the reigns on several sequences, but let us not forget the reverse was true of JURASSIC PARK.

The pleasures of the prequels are largely due to the sense of vision that holds them together. Despite all the yucks at Lucas’ expense that paint him as a billionaire Magoo, he envisioned both a cinematic universe and the technology to bring it to life. The prequels are digital variations of the STAR WARS (1977) aesthetic, one of slapped together environments that are breezed through with building momentum. Taken as a trilogy, Lucas layers elements on top of the foundations of THE PHANTOM MENACE: textures, characters, and moral ambiguities. His is a cinema of transformation where classical narrative elements are situated in a constantly mutating political and visual landscape. He recklessly weaves an ever-expanding tapestry of intrigue, loss, and a strange cosmology of figures. This is what space opera is. For all of its faults and failures, it is the work of a single maverick working outside of homogenized production standards. But those who could only compare the mise en scene of the prequels to the originals dismissed them for their differences, interpreted as betrayals, and pleaded for a homogenized standard to take the reigns of their beloved toy commercials. Cinematic empiricists may balk at an auteurist cinephilia that favors termite art over some sense of perfection, but the shoddy and mangled vision of an impassioned individual will always be more stimulating, more human than filmmaking by committee.

It is this personal vision, however hackneyed and clunky, that gives the prequels their sense of gusto and exactly what THE FORCE AWAKENS lacks. The production of STAR WARS is no longer in the hands of a dedicated technical visionary. Disney's purchase of Marvel and STAR WARS have reorganized how films of this type are made. Both brands are overseen by a "story group" that maps out the trajectory of the narratives, plot points, and characters well into the future. Disney does not produce individual films, or even franchises in the traditional sense, but thousand year plans of work-shopped loss-mitigated synergized installments. Creative teams are plugged in as needed, but if you believe that J.J. Abrams created this film in a manner anywhere near that to the Lucas model you’re fooling yourself. THE FORCE AWAKENS was produced by committee, statistics, and marketing strategies and its myriad problems reflect this model. This could simply be a new form of studio production, a new workflow, a new structure for artists and auteurs to exploit. But the lifeless output of Disney’s tent pole films suggests otherwise.

The pleasures of STAR WARS derive from the clarity of its dime store vision where perspective and framing are key. You can almost see the duct tape and strings: perspective, both narrative and visual, is achieved from tight physical construction. Even when computer technology dramatically reoriented how narratives and ideas could be visualized Lucas remained grounded while experimenting with new forms. His figures stand in front of matte paintings and digital tableaux, movement is kept to a minimum. Cuts and montage still create perceptions of depth and spatiality, as in the opening space battle of REVENGE. ATTACK OF THE CLONES sees a few moments of visual experimentation where the “camera” is unhinged and the perspectives, textures, and ideas mutate around the unfixed lens. Most of these are the weakest moments in CLONES: the disgusting droid factory and the battle of Geonosis, whereas the “classical” moments, like everything on Kamino, are simply gorgeous and sleekly coherent. REVENGE sees a fuller embrace of this distinctly twenty-first century mode of cinematic production where mutation and change are the anchoring visual ideas of the film. While REVENGE is certainly a masterpiece for Lucas, it never reaches the levels of brilliance as the masters of this form: Paul W.S. Anderson, Bay, Verbinski, the Wachowski’s.

THE FORCE AWAKENS exists in a holding pattern between these older and newer modes of perspective. At times it fetishizes a classical mode of composition and at others it hurtles its displaced digital camera into the abyss. Its hesitancy to commit to either produces a prolonged murk of events, typical of an Abrams directorial effort. Abrams has never understood conflict or tension or character, only loud obstacle courses that characters (and viewers) must slog through. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III are the worst offenders of this trait, and while THE FORCE AWAKENS is easily Abrams' most palatable film, it suffers from this unchecked impetus. To speak in the simplistic jargon of a screenwriter's workshop: there is nothing at stake here. The film leaps from set piece to set piece, with no interest in connecting the sequences or building any emotional or thematic depth. Abrams has no sense of space or time, resulting in a hackneyed greatest hits approach to narrative filmmaking. And despite the rapid pace with which THE FORCE AWAKENS progresses, there is no investment in serial filmmaking, in the breezy movement through adventure serials. Instead, things appear at random, out of nowhere, functioning only as cheap macguffins or even sillier deus ex machina (the introduction of the Falcon) only to be mercilessly discarded when no longer needed.

Abrams has never figured out how to build anything with a cinematic toolset, he can only show you what something looks like. He is a multi-billion dollar metteur en scene, and a shitty one at that. As always, Abrams is in a rush to get to the fight scenes, which ironically, are the most visually and emotionally incoherent sequences of the STAR WARS franchise. They are little more than visual noise, not unlike the algorithmic horrors of THE HOBBIT trilogy. The ground battles were awkward, uncertain of the point of them other than showing battle. Abrams does not grasp the possibilities of a cinema of mutation like REVENGE OF THE SITH, RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION, THE LONE RANGER, or SPEED RACER, nor does he understand classical narrative story telling. He is a man without vision, perfect for filmmaking under this new Disney model.

The film is not without its pleasures: the opening fifteen minutes were a thrilling serial adventure opener and the thematic treatment of the original trilogy as a mythology bound to sacred objects provided some much needed depth. But this is a film without a sense of what it is. It's a film made out of fear and hesitation. While all STAR WARS films are predicated on homage and pastiche, THE FORCE AWAKENS leans on successful formulas out of fear of failure, which is odd since the film makes its profits off of merchandise long before it even opens. It might seem odd, even stupid, to criticize a STAR WARS film for lack of originality. STAR WARS (1977) cannibalized the imagery of FLASH GORDON and the narrative structures of THE SEARCHES and THE HIDDEN FORTRESS to provide entry points into its world; to follow specific figures as they enter into massive cosmic mobilizations. The prequels ditched Ford and Kurosawa in favor of the slow unraveling of serial installments and used the central players of conspiracy as the entry points into a crumbling world order. THE FORCE AWAKENS has no cinematic reference points other than STAR WARS itself, merchandising, and fan service. It recreates exact proxies of the previous films, but adds nothing to the mix, no new ideas, no personal vision, no perspective. All we're left with is the crass repackaging of one film as something else, like THE HANGOVER 2 or Mast Brothers chocolate.

I'll end on this note: it isn't that I dislike comic books or STAR WARS, far from it. The reason Disney super hero films and THE FORCE AWAKENS are mediocre at best has nothing to do with their source materials and everything to do with their inhuman modes of creative production. I continue to hope that a prophet will born into this system, one who knows these modes of production and can manipulate them to her own vision to create a truly visionary work of cinema, like Neo in the nu-studio matrix. But that day is not today.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Comics I Read: Superman x2

I've never been into Superman and lately I've suspected that this is due to a lack of exposure to Superman comics. Like Charlie Chaplin or Dracula, Superman belongs less to the medium that birthed him and more to a seemingly ageless popular pantheon. So when I say, I've never been into Superman, what I really mean is the idea of an invincible do-gooder who defeats megalomaniacs.

When I shared this with a friend he eagerly thrust two trade paperbacks into my hands and said, read these. I was happy to oblige, but not because I thought I was going to finally "get" Superman. Despite my disinterest in the Man of Steel, I tend to follow writers and artists and not particular characters. Thus, I was more interested in the creative teams than the titles themselves. The first, All Star Superman, is by a creative duo that I count among my all time favorites (Morrison and Quitely) and the second, Superman Birthright, is written by Mark Waid, a formidable presence in comics that I have never gotten around to reading, but have been eager to check out.

What follows are my personal impressions of each book. I wouldn't call this informed comic book criticism, but the opinions of a passionate reader (and keep in mind, a not Superman fan).


All Star Superman (DC Comics, 2006-2008)
w. Grant Morrison
a. Frank Quitely
c. Jamie Grant

The All Star line was designed to let writers take a crack at key characters without disrupting mainline continuity. As someone whose never been interested in continuity, or canon for that matter, this already appeals to me. Morrison's Superman is a greatest hits of sorts, telling a new adventure while streamlining several canonical elements of his mythos (Krypto, Lex Luthor, Bizarro World). These classic elements are tethered to a narrative of Superman dying due to an overexposure to the Sun that sets in motion his desire to ensure a safe planet post-Superman. Strangely, this plot is rarely front and center with several episodic events becoming the primary action (each issues is called an episode and feels very much like a classic serial). The real marvel of this style is how Morrison manages to craft intimate reflective moments within a coldly distant space opera. Even when emotional reflection is limited to one or two panels, they resonate deeply before opening back up to inter-dimensional and cosmic happenings. The loss of Pa Kent, the tenderness of the Super-Lois conclusion, the loneliness of Zibarro, and the death of the replacement Supermen are written and drawn with such emotional clarity that they become painful moments of human loneliness sprinkled through a pop-art kaleidoscope of unexplained weirdness and inhuman feats that gives All Star Superman its unique quality. It is this pang of loneliness and isolation that anchors the comic, which is far more interesting than any good versus evil morality play, which Morrison has playing in the background as the general make-up of this comic book world.

Both the writing and the visual composition produce multiple ellipses, truncating both action and exposition; this is all lean and no fat. This has the overall effect of producing a comic comprised of legendary moments within the Superman imaginary, but it also feels grounded in a peculiar immediacy by Quitely's art, which emphasizes both the particularity of individuals and the homogeneity of the human form. Quitely's style incorporates various elements of a classical style, Supe's jawline and the sexless-yet-erotic composure of bodies that are at once god-like, yet strangely idiosyncratic in a very human way. In more ways than one, Quitely's drawings feel like Joe Shuster by way of Egon Schiele. While I've spilled more ink on Morrison's writing, I can't imagine this comic having the impact that it does without Quitely's art, which sells both the emotional resonance and the epic scope, making this feel like an organically fresh take on a relic from the 1930s and not a forced "update" to bring said relic into a contemporary milieu.

The creators take full advantage of the breadth and scope of the Superman universe to craft a world that feels new yet familiar and wastes no time on world building, or for the reader to catch up or accept what is happening. One would benefit from a healthy familiarity with Superman, but you can also go in only having a vague idea of what Superman is, like I did. In this way, All Star Superman felt like a old school serial; a comic focused on being fun, eye catching, and always moving forward. The fact that Morrison and Quitely achieved this with such emotional depth is quite the accomplishment. If the purpose was to bring me to the Superman fold, then count this as a success: I'm in. But credit where it's due: I am predisposed to love Morrison and Quitely and it should be clarified that their style is what made this, not any intrinsic qualities of the characters, but their approach to them.


Superman Birthright: The Origin of the Man of Steel (DC Comics, 2003-2004)
w. Mark Waid
a. Leinil Francis Yu
i. Gerry Alanguilan
c. Dave McCaig

At least once a decade a major character gets a reboot or a retelling of their origin story, and in the age of corporate synergy, this is almost always tied to other media formats. This in itself in neither good nor bad, as Morrison and Quitely's incredible New X-Men run was tailored to dovetail with the X-Film franchise. But if I may lay all my cards on the table, I find origin stories to be the abomination of the comic book world. While it is possible for an origin story to be great (Batman: Year One), most of them are dreadfully uninspired. They are burdened from the weight of obligation, having to tick off a number of expected elements by rote, simply because the creative team has to, or worse they have to explain why things look the way they do. It is rare to read (or see) an origin story that cares first and foremost about telling a good story and exploring an interesting style or presenting a keen vision. Instead, they forefront information and incident and act as little more than placeholders for future installments.

Superman Birthright mostly confirms my feelings toward the origin story genre. While it has its moments of inspiration and is not without its pleasures, it is saddled with exposition and incident, most of it completely unnecessary. I do not wish to judge Waid's talents on this book alone, as I will assume he was required to hit certain marks both for the publisher's continuity and to overlap with the television series Smallville, as the book's introduction suggests. And to his credit, I didn't put this book down and read it in one go. But the writing is wholly generic and felt like a number of superhero comics that I've read and forgotten; nothing feels urgent or fresh, only perfunctory. This is a comic about plotting, about explaining why certain things look the way they do, about bringing every single detail into a coherent explanation.

The script is also dialogue heavy; dialogue that is flat and merely catches the reader up on things that stand in for characterization: "gee son, ever since that one time you did this you've been feeling this way...". Such characterization could have been achieved through more precise artwork and/or more fully realized character moments. But nothing here is a character moment, only explanation of a character's existence. The dialogue does all of the heavy lifting. This subsides when Lex Luthor returns as the villain of metropolis, mostly because a plot is in motion, but it dominates the rest of the book. Stuff happens because is has to, characters are present because they have to be and it's never evident why. The characters themselves are not distinct, unique, or interesting enough to save such flatness. We only know the characters are different because they're drawn that way.

Despite all of these limitations the most frustrating aspect of Birthright is that Luthor makes absolutely no sense and when your comic is entirely focused on plotting it becomes more essential that character motivations are legible. Luthor makes several drastic transformations that are forced, both as a teen in Smallville and as a major figure of Metropolis. Waid went for a tragic fall to humanize Luthor, but it happens so quickly and without reason that it merely distracts from the larger narrative. Luthor goes from a lonely genius to a cynical murderous tyrant. The assumption seems to be that we just accept it because Luthor has to be Superman's nemesis. However, the plot device of Superman learning of his origins from Luthor was a nice touch and shows that the writing is clearly more interested in these updates than in character. Ham-fisted transformations are not exclusive to Luthor as the book opens with Clark Kent's stint in a cartoonish, borderline offensive rendition of Ghana where Clark learns the true meaning of something or whatever and decides to be Superman.

The art in this book is great, poppy stuff, but it doesn't feel tied to the writing. One could replace it with any other art style and it wouldn't impact the book at all, which is a problem: it has no emotional or intellectual resonance. Leinil Francis Yu's style is incredible on its own though. He juxtaposes a late 90s preoccupation in cartoon exaggeration with strong movements towards manga stylizations. This is most evident in the Kryptonian styles seen above. Yu's art tends to work best in the busy moments, when too much is happening at once. He frequently finds the perfect harmony of detailed clutter (always kinetic) with large swaths of negative space. He's brilliant at evoking action in a single frame, especially in facial reactions, but frequently throughout sequences of movement become incomprehensible or required further study to parse out the spatial orientations. Contained to a single frame, his work is masterful, but when spread over pages it quickly gets muddled.

Monday, October 12, 2015

2010 Project Top 10 and Reflections

project index (here).

Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)
La belle endormie (Catherine Breillat)
O Estranho Caso de Angélica (Manoel de Oliveira)
The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone)
Film socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard)
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
Haishan Chuanqi (Jia Zhangke)
Hereafter (Clint Eastwood)
The Nine Muses (John Akomfrah)
Resident Evil: Afterlife (Paul W.S. Anderson)

This was supposed to be a reflection, but all I got is this confessional.

My first intention was to reflect on the cinema of 2010; to sketch out some observations and maybe even determine if it was a good year. I lost interest in that pretty quickly. Think piece ruminations on a year tend to be facile. A year is a year is a year. 2010 saw the release of at least thirty incredible films by my count. As far as observing patterns go, 2010 felt like a cinematic reset button. A dreamlike quality runs through my selections, making the year itself feel like a rekindling of flickering silent images and the playfulness of discarded studio fabrication. Artifice in the name poetry and a big fuck you to gritty realism. My kind of stuff.

My second intention was to remark on the process of this project, which started as a humble means of catching up on the major films of the new decade. I saw some great stuff. But all I've got to say about this project is that not only is a year in film an arbitrary parameter that breaks down almost constantly, there are always too many films to be seen. I wanted to cross boundaries and transcend film culture's fixation on the feature-length narrative, but all I managed to do was reify it. I didn't watch nearly enough experimental films or porn, and what I did watch didn't move me in the same way as the ten features above did. Here's an observation: maybe 2010 was a bad year for porn.

My biggest realization is that my criticism of most critic's top tens is misguided and stupid. I've always sneered at what I saw as the conservative homogeneity in so many year-end lists. Surely there is more diversity out there than the same rotation of fifteen over-represented films. There have always been those alternative critics that I idolize, the counter-cultural voices that are more dedicated to making idiosyncratic and personal lists rather than the consensus-driven concerns with what will stand the test of time. But what I found was that I should go easy on those hard working folks. There are simply too many films. I really don't know why I got so upset about all that. I've only ever been to one film festival twice and I can't imagine trying to see most films let alone having to report back on them all. Besides, a conservative and homogeneous top ten can still be deeply personal. I learned that when I realized how good The Social Network actually was. I was more afraid of being associated with the idea of a Fincher devotee than being honest with myself.

Anyway, here's what I really want to talk about and this might be navel-gazing but I like the challenge of making it more general beyond myself.

I find the formation of a top ten list to be excruciating and violent. However, every time I try and remove myself from the practice I fall right back into it. I'm trying to stop using the star ratings on Letterboxd, but even that's proving difficult. I am absolutely a product of the algorithm, the aggregate, the discipline of logging and ranking and listing. But at the same time I've become a victim of an obsessive revisionism. I can never seem to land on an order for ten films, which is why my list is alphabetical.

I guess because I see so many people produce these lists all the time that it must come easy, but that is a big assumption to make. I'd like to lean back on a polemic, like Mark Peranson in every editor's note of Cinema Scope, but the fact is I cannot complete the simplest task of listing ten favorite films in the order that I admire them. Part of this problem stems from issues that I'm dealing with for the first time: I've begun seeing a mental health specialist who thinks my inability to complete projects and not judge my own thoughts is an undiagnosed case of ADD that has caused depression. But we're not there yet and the reason I mention this in a film blog is because I desire to sort out my thoughts and positions on the method and theory of list making, of ranking, of the evaluation of films.

Anyway, the reason I lay this all out there is that the main thing I've taken from this 2010 Year in Film Project is a realization that rankings and lists are not my style. I desire to transform my feelings on the matter into a more focused method, maybe even a polemic. I'm hesitant to openly reject them, as we all must dance with them sooner or later (plus they are actually very handy when you find a person whose tastes matter to you). Also, we all get tired of that guy constantly swearing off facebook or smartphones or anything even vaguely contemporary. We get it, you're different. But with this project I'm finding that the alternative is difficult and time consuming: if we don't use stars or rankings then we have to write out our thoughts and feelings for everything. I want to do this, but that's a lot of work and I'm not convinced it's always worth it. I'm not really sure what is at stake here except maybe a political rejection of the enlightenment obsession with data and classification in favor of a more poetic? spiritual? humanistic? approach to cinema. We'll see how that works out.

anyway, here's ten more favorites from 2010:

Ang Ninanais (John Torres)
Coming Attractions (Peter Tscherkassky)
The Fighter (David O Russell)
The Owls (Cheryl Dunye)
Predators (Nimród Antal)
The Social Network (David Fincher)
Somewhere (Sophia Coppola)
Step Up 3D (Jon M Chu)
Unstoppable (Tony Scott)
The Ward (John Carpenter)

Saturday, August 1, 2015

2010 film diary part VIII

This is it. Almost. While there are still dozens of films that I've selected to view, I'm ready to cap off this project and move on to something new. This will be the last installment of capsule reviews for films that I hadn't seen prior to beginning this project. Up next will be a single entry of "strategic re-watches" for favorites that I want to revisit. These re-watches are: The Strange Case of Angelica, Attenberg, Film Socialism, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Uncle Boonmee, Unstoppable, The Sleeping Beauty, The Social Network, Certified Copy, The Owls, The Ward, and The Ghost Writer. We'll see how many I get through.

Then I'll present my top 10 or 20 and some reflections on the year in film as well as my thoughts on this project. It's been fun.

project index (link)

in order of preference.

El sicario: Room 164 (Gianfranco Rosi)

The spoken narrative of the rise and fall of a narco-terrorist hitman hits all of the beats of a Scorsese crime epic, but Rosi's documentary is deceptively simple. A camera set up in a generic hotel room on the U.S.-Mexican border records a former sicario (hitman) dressed all in black with a veil over his face as he details his life as a cartel hitman and his eventual fugitive life and Christian salvation. The story itself is harrowing, but it's Rosi's technique that makes this film a startling masterpiece of documentary cinema. The pared-down intimacy adds a level of intensity to the sicario's reenactments of kidnappings and murder (that took place in the very same hotel room) that typically get lost in the grandiose schemes of an Oppenheimer film (Rosi is more in line with Lanzmann or Panh). The use of sicario's large notebook and sharpie pen pull double duty providing both a series of visuals that complicates the drab hotel room interiors and faceless subject, but also highlight the banality of evil that is being depicted. The sicario lays out diagrams of torture, rape, and the structure of cartels in a way the exposes the organized similarity of narco-terrorism to any other state apparatus of violence. What Rosi captures here is not the sensationalism or moralizing demagoguery of most Mexican drug war films, but emphasizes the mundane, organized, and human elements that comprise the system, which is far more effective and horrifying than Hollywood or Netflix-doc histrionics. In a particular moment of inspired editing the dramatic reenactment of a kidnapping and torture occur after the sicario establishes the corporate structure of the cartel, allowing the film to play with alienating distance and uncomfortable intimacy.

Step Up 3D (Jon M. Chu)

I had grand designs to watch all of the Step Up films so that I might consider this installment in relation to the others, but the summer got the best of me. Step Up 3D struck me as being of a kind with The Fast and the Furious films for a number of reasons. They're both lean genre pictures that revolve around an elite form of competition (dancing or racing) that is used philosophically by the film to represent human character as well as for the visceral, kinetic, and sensual elements of movement. Both feature a 'family of friends' comprised of eclectic groups of trans-national, multi-ethnic, and varied gender types. But back to Step Up 3D specifically: the film really sings during its many frenetic dance sequences. It helps that each one isn't just a dance battle, but a visualization of improvisation and adaption. The straight non-dance moments are non-offensive but pretty worthless due to the total lack of grace or interest put into filming them. There is a charm, however, that reminds me of classic studio dance films that feature milquetoast exposition moments (Strike Up the Band and Holiday Inn come to mind), but Step Up 3D is lacking the flair to pull off the less dynamic bits that tie that dance sequences together.

The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)

What It Follows is to 1980s slasher films, The Myth of the American Sleepover is to 1980s teen dramas or, this is David Robert Mitchell's version of a John Hughes film. And in this way it suffers from all the same issues that plague It Follows: forced delivery that feels like dime store Robert Bresson, graceless blocking, and almost no sense of cinematic movement or rhythm. Mitchell takes a meditative, almost dreamlike approach to the conventions of teen dramas: it's the final night of summer and a handful of high schoolers confront all sorts of issues (never been kissed, new in town, missed opportunities, you know the drill). Some are successful, some aren't, all is cathartic. There is an aching somnambulance at work here that makes for a fair amount of worthwhile passages, but overall it's too awkwardly forced as though Mitchell thinks by slowing everything down to a crawl and removing all affectation he will inch closer to some form of Truth or authenticity. The narrative conventions are familiar and work better within the melodramatic, cliche, and contrived expressions of popular comedies (mostly because there is a greater chance of invention there) and are here left looking like some film student's desperate attempt at adult seriousness. It feels as though Mitchell's fear of loosing authorial control is smothering any possibility of cinematic discovery. Furthermore, the film is screaming for some kind of lyrical cohesion that it's predecessors have, think Dazed and Confused or The Breakfast Club and how each narrative is intricately interwoven with the rest. This is a choppy series of episodic moments that on their own are occasionally beautiful, but together are quite dull.

L.A. Zombie aka L.A. Zombie Hardcore (Bruce LaBruce)

My first LaBruce film was a bit of a disappointment, really. I'll start with what works. The concept is brilliant: a gay zombie wanders L.A. and fucks dead men back to life. It even has some worthwhile ideas floating around in its filmmaking. 2010 was certainly a great year for a rebirth of digital filmmaking as a unique mode for filmmakers to blend unapologetic artifice with long take actualities and L.A. Zombie certainly fits into that mode. But the film sinks into a bland stupor after about 20 minutes. This is partly due to the mishmash of styles not really coming together: part art-horror, part hardcore porn, part trash cinema, the film seems to emphasize the least interesting attributes of each resulting in a procedural slog that manages to make a hardcore sex dull and tedious. The problem is that most of this movie is comprised of basic shots of people walking around with ominous music playing. Then the sex scenes come in and each one plays out with the exact same pacing and mood: the titular zombies lays out the dead body, pulls down his pants, sticks his zombie cock in their wound, then the typical cycle of oral, anal, money shot (with zero variation). Other than a handful of great shots and a stellar idea, this is pretty forgettable. But it makes me even more interested to see the work of LaBruce, so in that sense it was successful.

Curling (Denis Côté)

Typically I write my thoughts on a film anywhere from a few hours to a few days after viewing it so as to keep it fresh and immediate, but I waited so long to write about Curling that I've mostly forgotten anything insightful I had to say about it. This is partly my fault as I was too distracted by a relaxing summer and partly because the film was mostly forgettable. The main thing I recall is that it was cold and distant and reveled in long takes of people staring. My patience with this particular type of arthouse film is wearing thin. It's ideas were vapid and the filmmaking almost non-apparent (why show us everything in tedious opacity only to have some off screen character fill us in with exposition later?). I will say for a film about an oppressive patriarch and cynical world view it didn't make the cardinal mistake of depicting every one as a disgusting piece of shit. The peripheral characters are enjoying their lives even if the main father isn't. There is hope in this film, too bad there wasn't any for it.

Hanyo aka The Housemaid (Sang-soo Im)

There is an art to being without subtlety; to successfully make films that are on the nose requires some kind of wherewithal that transforms obviousness into a cinematic asset. Verhoeven achieves this through subversive subtext and W.S. Anderson gets away with it by making films about movement, choreography, and montage. The Housemaid is what happens when a filmmaker has nothing to do but visualize the obvious. The film plays in the register of the melodramatic absurd, where comically stereotyped rich people drink expensive wine while listening to opera and plotting the murder of the poor pregnant maid.  It functions like a soap opera, but with nothing going on under the surface and a pedantic visual style that simply serves the narrative. Yet the film opened strong, with an intriguing sequence of a random woman committing suicide amid a bustling urban street populated by food venders and clubbers. The mystery of a tragic individual death amid a somewhat unmoved society of busy voyeurs signifies a far more engaging experience than what Sang-soo delivers on. And the multiple endings are among the dumbest things I've seen onscreen this year.