Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Hidden Figures (Melfi, 2016)

My first theatrical experience of 2017 was an interesting one. I wasn't all that interested in seeing Theodore Melfi's adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly's nonfiction work of the same name. Hidden Figures sits at the nexus of my least favorite strands of contemporary filmmaking: Award Season prestige and the "based on a true story" historical drama. A higher ratio of crap is generated by these intersecting modes of movie-making because the bar is so low; so much dreck is tolerated in favor of inflated white liberal's sense of importance at seeing such films and because the "true story" label is used as a crutch to add a dramatic weight provided by the audience. Historical dramas of this sort tend to fetishize pre-consumed media moments. All one has to do is insert the requisite Spielbergian shot of wide-eyed wonder at having witnessed Crucial American History in the Making. Complex periods of time become reduced to pop songs and magazine covers.

I was wrong on a number of levels. Melfi's historical true story drama is a rare one that actually does some filmmaking. While its still mired in the novelty of period-nostalgia and the requisite comparison of performer to historical photograph, the film avoids the pitfalls of its genre. For one, the use of archival footage in the rocket launches is inspired, crafting a sequence the manipulates texture and time into a sequence that mostly emerges from the narrative, rather than disrupting it or making simplistic claims to history.

Melfi has a keen sense of space and orientation and tells most of this story visually. The framing of access and status is more often built into the style than constant verbal explanations of the racial and gendered politics of the space and time. This is most apparent when Taraji Henson's Katherine Johnson enters into a new work space with Kevin Costner's obligatory NASA-man performance situated inside of an elevated glass office. Melfi and company emphasize these orientations and the traversing of distances to establish the quotidian racist system (to borrow Sharon Patricia Holland's term from The Erotic Life of Racism), which has the effect of implicating every single figure within this system. Racism is a system imposed upon all and practiced by all, as Holland argues, as is not the isolated actions of some bad white people nor the sole historical burden of black bodies. This is a crucial problem of White Hollywood films on Civil Rights, which always allows its white audience to identify with at least one good white person who functions outside of this system.

It is entirely possible to see Costner in this role (I'm thinking of the moment when he hands Henson the white chalk stick like the passing of a baton), the open arms embrace of allowing black women into the American Imperial Project contextualized by the Cold War. The audience in attendance certainly did. They loudly applauded the moment when Costner knocked down the metal sign that read "Colored Women's Restroom". They did not applaud the agency of the black women, the brilliance of any single moment featuring Henson, Octavia Spencer, or Janelle Monae.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Ohayô (Ozu, 1959)

My first film viewing of 2017 was a long overdue rewatch of Yasujirô Ozu's Ohayô aka Good Morning. The fuzzy, compressed transfer of the Criterion Collection DVD takes me back to a very specific time and place when I "discovered" Ozu, Japanese cinema, and the very idea of auteurism, which shapes my tastes and attitudes today. It was in my first moments of film school, in August of 2004, when I had just moved from small town rural Michigan to Chicago to attend Columbia College's Film & Video program. Before any classes I sat in a lecture hall for the orientation process. Sitting crossed-legged at the front of the room was a figure straight out of a Christopher Guest film. He was, of course, talking about movies, and he said with the assurance of a stock-broker, "Citizen Kane is out, Ozu is in." Kane I'd seen, but the second was an unknown commodity. To this day I cannot tell if the instructor was sharing his own cinephilic sensibilities or if he was tapping into the zeitgeist of the moment. It was around this time that the old fogeys were rearranging their short list of twenty films from before 1980 that constitute the Greatest Films of All Time, and for the first time in decades, Citizen Kane was being inched out by a quieter, calmer film called Tokyo Story. In February of the following year (2005) Halliwell's  released The Top 1000 Movies of All Time and Tokyo Story was number 1, while Kane was number 6.

Sitting in this lecture hall with about twenty other incoming film freshman I felt woefully behind. They enthusiastically bandied about names with the instructor: Solondz,Tarkovsky, Fellini. One kid had a form-fitting t-shirt with 8 1/2 printed in giant typeset. My friend's referred to him as "Fellini guy", not because of his shirt, but because of his penchant for announcing "My father force-fed me Fellini". It was a strange new world and here I was with my Kubrick box set (which we all had, by the way) and some assorted Spielbergs. When I returned home for the Winter Break I handed to my mother, upon request, a list of movies that I wanted for Christmas. She was very insistent on having a list so as to avoid "wasting money on movies that you don't like." Among the haul of art house classics was a copy of Good Morning. It's still considered a "lesser" Ozu, a type of list-making cinephile distinction that I find to be absolutely worthless. It is a precious film, if only to show Ozu's mastery of the passage of time and the changing of cultural climates. All of themes are present, but with a sense of levity that his heavier, seasonal films often lack. It looks a feels like a Disney short cartoon, the kind where Goofy or Donald Duck go camping. It is a tonic of a film, where everyone's choices have consequences and the resolution signals a small, imperceptible sea change in society. I'm still awed by the profundity that Ozu achieves through simple repetition.

There is one other connection that I wish to make. Over the Christmas holiday I was given a report by my aunt-in-law regarding some distant cousins that I don't know all that well. She had Christmas dinner with her brother and his family, which included some very spoiled grandchildren who spent the majority of their time on their phones. Of the three, the youngest boy (an eighth-grader I'm told) was given an Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Headset as a present. He proceeded to pout and refused to speak because his sisters had a larger number of presents, regardless of the cost of his. I cannot help but view this scenario through the lens of Ozu: a seemingly major shift in technology rendered as an imperceptible change filtered through ideas of generational differences. Kids these days.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Year in Review: Favorite films of 2016

 Top 15

1. Sully (Clint Eastwood)
2. Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2015)
3. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
4. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice Extended Edition (Zack Snyder)
5. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi)
6. I Want a Best Friend (Andrew Infante)
7. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (Jonathan Demme)
8. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)
9. The Shallows (Jaume Collet-Serra)
10. Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson)

The Second Night (Eric Pauwels)

11. The Second Night (Eric Pauwels) 
12. The Mermaid (Stephen Chow)
13. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
14. Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
15. Cafe Society (Woody Allen)

I saw roughly 50 films this year. Here are some others that I loved and greatly admired:

Lemonade (Beyonce, Kahlil Joseph), A Train Arrives at the Station (Thom Andersen), The BFG (Steven Spielberg), My Beloved Body Guard (Sammo Hung), Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin), Allied (Robert Zemeckis), O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman), 31 (Rob Zombie), SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (Soi Cheang), 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (Michael Bay), Three (Johnnie To).