Posts Tagged ‘American Cinema’

Given that the central nugget of Paul Schrader’s biographical legend—the one fact endlessly cited in reviews of his films as if it explained everything about the man and his work, for better or for worse—is that he had a strict Calvinist upbringing and did not see his first film until he was seventeen, it is all the more dispiriting that, as a writer-director, he seems incapable of functioning independently of his influences. Indeed, to judge by “First Reformed” (2017)—which recycles massive, undigested chunks of Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de compagne (1951) (a solitary priest keeps a diary while dying of stomach cancer and drinking copiously), Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963) (with global warming substituted for nuclear war and Victoria Hill for Ingrid Thulin), and Schrader’s own script for Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), itself largely derived from The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) and Dostoevsky by way of Bresson—one might guess that he learned everything he knows about spiritual angst from watching European art movies. As in the Bergman film, Schrader’s protagonist, Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), is the minister of a small church where one of the few remaining parishioners is a young man with a pregnant wife who is driven to despair by the spectre of an impending apocalypse and takes his own life; the twist is that here the young man is an environmental activist, and his death pushes Rev. Toller to become more outspoken about the moral outrage of man-made climate change and eventually to plot a terrorist act. This at least is an innovation on Winter Light, where the possibility of any type of political action is simply not on the table. But while the theme of environmental collapse and a clumsily executed levitation fantasy both suggest the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky, Schrader has not updated the Russian master’s reactionary sexual politics: The only roles for women he seems capable of imagining are as opportunities for carnal sin (Hill) or as madonnas promising renewal for the hero (Amanda Seyfried as the dead man’s widow). Also mildly innovative, if not particularly purposeful, is the film’s locked down camera style which largely eschews reframings, yielding compositions that are conspicuously decentred when they are not emphatically symmetrical. And despite its familiarity, the plot does manage to generate a certain degree of suspense, though ultimately Schrader winds up blowing it with an unsatisfying final scene—cribbed from Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976), which Schrader wrote—that, in true Hollywood fashion, posits heterosexual romance as a solution to all the world’s problems.


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The theme of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is the threat to the homogeneous national identity posed by miscegenation on the one hand and loyalty to the Confederacy on the other—that is to say, by both the unchecked mixing of the races and the overzealous enforcement of a distinct racial hierarchy—though the film’s attitude towards both of these threats is anything but simplistic. Significantly, its two central characters both occupy a marginal position in relation to the dominant culture: Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is a former Confederate soldier who, rather than surrender to the Yankees, has become a bandit, while the adopted son of Ethan’s brother, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), is one-eighth Cherokee. At the end of the film, however, it is Martin who is fully integrated into the white nuclear family through his marriage to Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), but only after he murders his Comanche doppelgänger Scar (Henry Brandon)—who incidentally has blue eyes, indicating that he too is of mixed heritage. That Ethan then proceeds to scalp Scar (an event Martin does not witness) confirms that he is too savage to be rehabilitated, yet it is Ethan who ultimately “rescues” Debbie (Natalie Wood), spontaneously abandoning his plan of executing her for crossing the colour line—suggesting that the white settler society could not survive without men like Ethan, who are nevertheless incapable of living within it. And though the plot follows a familiar pattern of development, moving from unity to disturbance to the restoration of unity, in the final sequence, the tension between order (represented by the white, middle-class nuclear family) and chaos (racial hatred and racial mixing) has not been resolved but merely papered over. As the Jorgensens lead Debbie into her new home (her biological family having been massacred by Comanches at the beginning of the film), she looks up at them with a confused, somewhat frightened expression on her face, raising the question of whether she can ever be fully reintegrated into the settler society—and indeed, whether it would not have been better to leave her with the Comanches, with whom she lived from the ages of nine to fifteen (a possibility none of the characters ever consider and that most likely would not have occurred to the film’s original audience). In short, despite its obviously problematic representation of indigenous peoples, The Searchers remains one of the few genuinely Brechtian Hollywood films as it implies that white supremacy is neither natural nor inevitable but has to be upheld and could very easily disintegrate.

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My report on the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Offscreen. Thanks as always to the editor, Donato Totaro, for agreeing to run it. Since writing this article, I was able to catch up with Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which — in spite of its stylistically awkward conclusion — rivals Western as the best and most moving narrative film in this year’s festival. On the other hand, I don’t consider Darren Aronofsky’s mother! a success as its allegorical story isn’t grounded in enough realistic detail (few real poets can support themselves on their work alone, much less afford a house like the one in the movie), and I didn’t really enjoy watching it, but it’s such an audacious and at times exciting failure that you should probably see it anyway, if you haven’t already.

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My report on the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Offscreen. Thanks once again to the editor, Donato Totaro, for agreeing to run it.

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In October, I submitted a festival report on the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (mostly about the Wavelengths section) to the online journal Offscreen, and the editor, Donato Totaro, was kind enough to accept it. The new issue just went up and you can read my article there.

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This blog entry contains spoilers.

Shortly before seeing Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (2013), I finally got around to reading Robert McKee’s screenwriting manual, Story (1998), which recommends that a two hour movie have at least four major turning points: an inciting incident that gets the ball rolling and another big reversal at the end of each act. By my reckoning, however, Reichardt’s film just has three major turning points, and while McKee advises writers to get to the inciting incident as quickly as possible with thirty minutes being the upper limit, here the first big reversal doesn’t occur until an hour and seven minutes into the movie when its protagonist, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) — a radical environmentalist who takes part in the bombing of a hydroelectric dam — learns that a camper was killed in the explosion.

I take this to be the inciting incident because, in McKee’s words, it upsets the balance of the protagonist’s life and raises what he terms the “major dramatic question”: We want to know if Josh will be punished for the camper’s death or if he’ll somehow get away with it. After the bombing, he tells his accomplice, Dena (Dakota Fannng), “We just gotta get home, show up for work tomorrow morning… Just get back to normal, okay?” And at this point in the film, there’s nothing to stop them from doing just that, but after the discovery of the camper’s body, Josh receives a phone call from a third conspirator, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), who tells him that Dena isn’t handling it well. Worried that she might go to the police, Josh initially tries talking to her, but when word of his involvement reaches the communal farm where he lives, forcing him to move out (the second big turning point), he escalates to threats before finally strangling her.

Of course, Reichardt and her cowriter, Jonathan Raymond, could’ve gotten to the inciting incident much sooner, but in this case, the film would’ve been less exciting if they had. As soon as it becomes apparent that Josh and his cohorts are planning to blow up the dam, we instinctively know that something must go wrong (or so right as to make the bombing superfluous), so rather than getting it over with as quickly as possible, the movie draws out the suspense by throwing up obstacles which delay the characters from carrying out their plan. Specifically, in order to make a big enough bomb, they need to procure five hundred pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, but when someone buys that much manure, it tends to raise eyebrows. So when the boys send Dena to make the purchase, the suspense arises from our apprehension that the clerk (James Le Gros) — who refuses to sell her that much fertilizer without a social security card — is going to call the cops on her.

Another thing that keeps the movie interesting is the way it doles out information about the characters in small doses so that we have to keep revising our ideas about them. In the conspicuously terse opening sequence, as Josh and Dena walk back from the dam to Josh’s truck, their dialogue is too low for us to make out what they’re saying so it only becomes apparent in retrospect what they’re really up to. At this point, it looks they might be on a date, but one quickly discards this hypothesis as we never see them kiss, hold hands, or even smile at one another. (Later on, it’s even hinted that there’s something going on between Dena and Harmon or maybe I’m just imagining it.) In fact, it’s never explained how Josh and Dena know each other, nor do we ever find out how they got involved in the plot to blow up the dam, yet it never feels like the film is being overly coy. Reichardt knows exactly how much the viewer needs to know and when, and leaves out everything that’s inessential.

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Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012) tells the story of three skanky bitches who rob a diner in order to pay for a trip to Florida with their goody-goody friend. There, all four girls are arraigned on drug charges, but a fun lovin’ criminal gallantly volunteers to bail them out of jail. Subsequently, he and the three bad girls commit several more robberies, bringing them into conflict with the local crime boss. Korine has never shown much distinction as a storyteller, but while the film’s plot isn’t entirely convincing (I never believed in the friendship between the goody-goody and the bad girls, who lack any distinguishing character traits), its style is so exciting that it hardly matters. As in Alain Resnais’ La Guerre est finie (1966), the film frequently cuts away to a string of flashbacks or flash forwards in the middle of a scene, though here such inserts can’t be accounted for as the characters’ subjective memories or speculative fantasies. Rather, the editing highlights the narration’s omniscience by flaunting its ability to recall past events and even foretell future developments.

Like Resnais’ film, the movie teaches the viewer how to watch it. Following a pseudo-documentary prologue introducing the theme of the film (spring break, bitches!) and a fairly linear passage depicting a normal school day for the four leads, the movie’s third sequence begins with the bad girls barging into the goody-goody’s dorm room one morning to demand that she cough up some cash for their trip. The girls then dance together in an adjacent hallway while chanting the lyrics to Nelly’s “Hot in Here” before going into the bathroom to count their money, which turns out to be not nearly enough to pay for their trip. It’s at this point that the goody-goody launches into a monologue on the monotony of their lives which continues off camera while the film cuts away to the following series of shots: (1) All four girls dancing in the hallway earlier; (2) two of the bad girls sitting in a cafeteria; (3) the bad girls smoking in an alley; and (4) three of the girls standing in front of a fountain with their backs to the camera. As the movie subsequently returns to the scene in the bathroom, and as shot 1 refers back to an event we’ve already seen, the viewer has no trouble understanding these shots as interpolated flashbacks.

Having taught us the basic steps, Korine proceeds to introduce complicated variations in the next sequence, challenging us to keep up with him. For starters, it’s not immediately apparent that a new segment has begun as the previous sequence ends with another flurry of cutaways without a return to the scene in the bathroom. Instead, the movie cuts directly to two of the bad girls visiting the apartment of the third to ask if they can borrow her car and learning that it’s in the shop. The film then returns to the shot of the girls smoking in an alley that we saw in the previous sequence. However, when one of the girls asks her friend if she knows where their professor keeps his car, we infer from the context that this conversation occurs some time after the scene in the apartment, forcing us to revise our timeline of events. That is, what we saw earlier wasn’t a flashback but a flash forward, and therefore definitely wasn’t one of the characters’ subjective memories. This is followed by two more shots of the girls in the apartment, after which the movie never returns to this scene. The next part of the sequence alternates between the girls smoking in the alley and shots of them taking drugs in a laundry room, which are in turn juxtaposed with nighttime driving shots. In lieu of a clear present tense situation framing the cutaways, the sequence advances in a staggered pattern of A-B-A-B-C-B.

To an extent, the movie’s editing is reminiscent of Soviet historical materialist films, though the differences are more instructive than the similarities. The cutaways make the narration in this movie unusually overt for an American indie film, though still not to the same degree as movies like Strike (1924) and Arsenal (1929) where non-diegetic inserts and ironic titles provide a running commentary on the action. Furthermore, as David Bordwell writes in Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), in movies of this stripe, “The narration is not simply relaying some autonomously existing profilmic event”; rather, “the narration overtly includes the profilmic event, has constituted it for specific effects” (p. 238). By way of contrast, Korine makes his camera the proverbial fly on the wall, in part by avoiding strongly frontal compositions that are obviously staged for the camera. And in contrast with the constructive editing one finds in historical materialist films which is obvious as such (especially since Soviet directors would often shoot close-ups against a neutral backdrop), this movie makes greater use of invisible analytical editing. Accordingly, the hand of the director is most apparent in the selection and ordering of scenes rather than their construction.

As these differences suggest, the editing in Spring Breakers serves a different function than in Soviet historical materialist films, which were explicitly didactic in their aims. Instead of underscoring ideological points, here the style develops independently of the plot, presenting the viewer with a veritable compendium of different kinds of nonlinear editing. (It would be difficult to tell when one sequence ends and another begins if the movie didn’t employ non-diegetic gunshots as chapter breaks.) When the editing is more linear, the style is less noticeable, while at other times it becomes salient in its own right, displacing the narrative. When the film cuts from the fun lovin’ criminal serenading the bad girls on his piano to the same characters committing a robbery, we can’t be sure if this cut represents an ellipsis or a flashback. The robbery doesn’t follow as a consequence of the recital or vice-versa, and at no point in the earlier scene do the characters discuss the robbery, either as something they’re planning to do or something they’ve already done, making it impossible to nail down the natural chronology of events in the story. In Korine’s redneck Marienbad, it really is spring break forever.

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