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Posts Tagged ‘American Cinema’

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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If anything, lists — which were already beginning to matter in the ’50s and ’60s (via Sarris’s The American Cinema, for example) — are even more important today because of the widening of many choices (as well as the narrowing of certain others, such as the choices made today by Turner Classic Movies and the various studio divisions who release box sets devoted to Old Hollywood versus the wealth of what used to be shown on network TV, albeit with commercial interruptions and other nuisances that may or may not be operative now).
— Jonathan Rosenbaum

As the title suggests, I didn’t get out to the theaters much this year, in large part because there seemed to be so few worthwhile movies playing in Hangzhou — especially when you compared what was shown in multiplexes with what you could get on video. To be sure, there were a couple exceptions, but even as much as I enjoyed The Grandmaster and Gravity, neither film was as interesting to me as my ten clandestine favorites listed below. (I haven’t seen the state-sanitized version of Django Unchained that opened here in the spring shortly after the integral version became available on DVD, and I’ve yet to catch up with Cloud Atlas in any form.) To make matters worse, on those rare occasions when I did venture outside of my apartment to see a movie, it was almost invariably a video projection rather than a 35mm print.

Two notable exceptions were Loin du Vietnam (1967) and Sans soleil (1983), which I saw at the Hong Kong Arts Center in May during their Chris Marker retrospective. But as wonderful as those films are, the single most euphoric moviegoing experience I had all year — and one that’s more representative of the times we live in — was seeing Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) the same week at the Hong Kong Film Archives, where it was projected digitally. Having previously seen the film several times on DVD, I already knew that there was a lot of humor in it, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie with a large, engaged audience that I realized just how funny it really is. None of the new films I saw this year were as pleasurable as that great movie, but there was still plenty to see if you were willing to compromise. Indeed, there are still a great many films that I haven’t had time to watch, though I don’t think this fact in any way diminishes the stature of my ten favorites, all of which I can recommend without reservation.

1 Modest Reception (Mani Haghighi) A pair of affluent Tehranis drive through a war zone handing out bags of cash to the impoverished locals, though it’s hard to say whether this is charity or a cruel joke. As the movie only gradually reveals who the characters really are and what they’re up to (they tell a different story to everyone they meet), we have to constantly reassess how we feel about them.

2 Before Midnight (Richard Linklater) Freud said that we go to the movies to watch our parents have sex but it’s even more fun when they get into an argument about how Mom is subtly being oppressed by Dad. In the 18 years since Before Sunrise (1995), Linklater has evolved from an amiable independent with a causal approach to story construction into a first-rate dramatist.

3 Beyond the Hill (Emin Alper) A kind of Turkish Western about a divided family coming together to fight a common enemy, this could almost be a film by John Ford or Anthony Mann except for the terse, elliptical storytelling that takes its time revealing information about the characters and leaves a slew of unanswered questions.

4 Tabu (Miguel Gomes) Taking its title from F.W. Murnau’s tale of the South Seas, this three-part narrative about the legacy of European colonialism is more than just a tribute to a great film. Each of its stories is fascinating in its own right, but taken together, they add up to something more than the sum of their parts.

5 Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas) The experience of watching this movie, which consists of a series of loosely related, non-sequential vignettes, is a bit like trying to assemble an Ikea furniture set without the instructions. Some people may find this frustrating, but personally I was excited by the challenge.

6 Betrayal (Kirill Sebrennikov) An ordinary man learns that his wife is having an affair and the shock seems to throw the entire universe out of whack. While most narrative films give one the comforting impression that everything happens for a reason, this enigmatic marital drama is disquieting precisely because its plot doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

7 La Cinquième saison (Peter Brosen and Jessica Woodworth) Unsettling and hilarious in roughly equal measure, this apocalyptic parable about the unraveling of a tightly knit farming community is so spare and economical that it’s an implicit rebuke of the flabbiness of most features.

8 The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) Anderson’s next film is to be an adaptation of Inherent Vice (2009), but after this monumental curiosity about a weirdo sailor getting wasted on darkroom chemicals and cavorting with an orgy-loving prophet, an official Thomas Pynchon adaptation seems rather superfluous.

9 Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu) Based on actual events documented in two nonfiction books and shot in a dispassionate long take style, this absorbing convent drama purports to be an impartial account, thereby obscuring how artfully Mungiu has shaped the facts of the case into a coherent narrative.

10 Here, Then (Mao Mao) More than most films, this inscrutable Chinese art movie contrasting the lives of disenfranchised hick teenagers and bored yuppies feels like the work of a director consciously testing the limits of how much information he can withhold from viewers without alienating them completely.

Some other movies I can recommend — nearly all of which I’ve written about on this blog already — are Behind the Candelabra, 5 Broken Cameras, La Folie Almayer, Holy Motors, Keep the Lights On, Mud, Neighboring Sounds, No, Paradise: Love, Searching for Sugar Man, Silver Linings Playbook, Starlet, To the Wonder, Voice of My Father, and Wreck-It Ralph.

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In a review of the new film Sunlight, Jr. (2013), which I haven’t seen, Mike D’Angelo makes a sharp contrast between Hollywood movies, which entertain by allowing viewers to “vicariously experience glamour, adventure, and excitement,” and American independent films that “often seek to depict life as it’s actually lived” — which is “not so entertaining.” D’Angelo implies that these two modes of moviemaking are so dissimilar in their aims and methods as to be irreconcilable, but one thing that’s striking about Jeff Nichols’ Mud (2012), a recent indie film, is how much it resembles Jean Renoir’s first Hollywood movie, Swamp Water (1941), which transposed the poetic realist sensibility of his ’30s films to an American milieu. Both movies are set in authentically unglamorous Southern backwaters, but while their stories are grounded in realism, the characterizations in these films have the starkness of fairy tales.

Like Renoir’s film, Mud begins with a chance meeting between the young protagonist — here, a fourteen year old boy, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) — and a wanted man living in the wild. However, unlike the Walter Brennan character in Swamp Water, Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has a plan to fix up a disused boat and sail away with his childhood sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), if he’s not caught by the family of the man he killed, who are aggressively pursuing him. One can easily imagine this story being told from the perspective of the family, but the movie aligns our sympathies with Mud in part by characterizing him as a hopeless romantic and a gentleman. When Ellis asks him why he killed that guy, Mud says that he did it for Juniper, even though she had left him for said guy who then beat her up. By way of contrast, the dead man’s brother, Carver (Paul Sparks), is first seen assaulting Juniper in her motel room, and when Ellis — who’s as recklessly gallant as his hero — tries to intervene, Carver gives him a black eye. The movie ends, as I suppose it must, with a violent shootout that’s all the more exciting because one believes so deeply in these characters, who seem both real and mythical.

Trapped in the Closet

On the other hand, although it somewhat resembles a backstage musical, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (2013) is arguably even further removed from D’Angelo’s definition of entertainment. The story is based on a 1988 memoir by Scott Thorson (co-written with Alex Thorleifson), who was Liberace’s secret gay lover in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But while Thorson (played in the film by Matt Damon) was on the late pianist’s payroll for the entirety of this time (officially, he was Liberace’s personal secretary), the movie characterizes him not as a gold-digger but as a sweet, naïve kid who sincerely loves this much older man, finding in him the father he never had. Rather, it’s Liberace (Michael Douglas) who treats Thorson as though he were his pet. As a portrait of an unsophisticated young man unwittingly being used, the film is so convincing that it might’ve been hard to watch — despite the fluid storytelling — if it weren’t also hilarious in a creepy sort of way.

As my description suggests, one of the film’s themes is not being able to see what’s right in front of you, whether it’s Liberace’s fans who didn’t know that he was gay (at one point, while standing on stage in a huge, purple fur coat, he asks the audience, “Can you see me now?”), or Thorson who was blind to the true nature of their relationship. The flip side of this is the characters’ acute awareness of being looked at, which provides the basis for some of the movie’s funniest moments. The first time Thorson spends the night at Liberace’s house, they share a bed without having sex, and in the morning, he wakes up to find Liberace staring at him as if waiting impatiently for him to get up. This scene is all the more creepy because Liberace isn’t wearing any makeup and the cold lighting accentuates his wrinkles, making him look almost like a vampire. Even funnier — and creepier — is a scene where Liberace asks a plastic surgeon (Rob Lowe) to make Thorson look more like himself without consulting him first. After subsequently getting a facelift, Thorson is told that he won’t be able to close his eyes completely, and when getting into bed, he finds Liberace (who’s also had some work done) sleeping with his eyes wide open. This is one of those films where you cringe as much as you laugh.

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This blog entry contains spoilers.

Whereas most sequels demonstrate the law of diminishing returns by attempting to duplicate the original (Speed 2: Cruise Control [1997] is only the first example that comes to mind), Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013) tacitly acknowledges that the first two movies in the series belong to a different era as advances in technology have changed the way that people conduct their romantic relationships. In contrast with Before Sunrise (1995), where Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) parted in Vienna without exchanging phone numbers or addresses, and even Before Sunset (2004) where cell phones figured in the plot only incidentally, here they have dinner with a couple in their early twenties — roughly the same age that Céline and Jesse were in the first film — who mainly communicate with each other over Skype. But perhaps the biggest difference between this movie and its predecessors is that it’s more concentrated dramatically.

As in the two previous films, the characters talk a lot, but this time the dialogue is pressed into the service of more conventional aims — not only providing exposition and advancing the narrative, but also foreshadowing what’s going to happen later in the story. The movie opens at an airport in Greece with Jesse saying goodbye to his teenage son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), who lives in Chicago with Jesse’s estranged wife. Driving back from the airport with Céline and their two daughters, Jesse laments not being able to see Hank more often — an apparently innocent remark which Céline takes as a subtle hint that Jesse wants her to be a more submissive partner to the point of giving up a job opportunity with the French government so that he can be closer to Hank. This dialogue, as well as a dinner table scene in which they and some friends talk generally about men being more self-centered than women, set the stage for what happens later in the film when Céline and Jesse go to a fancy hotel to have a romantic evening alone, and Céline unloads all of her feelings of resentment which have been festering throughout the movie — in particular, her resentment that Jesse has time to write and go on book tours while she takes care of the kids. Where the earlier films were agreeably meandering, this one is as lean and concise as a well crafted short story.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the line, Hollywood screenwriters got it into their heads that every protagonist needs to have some traumatic event in their past to make them more sympathetic. As late as Alien (1979), one can still find an action heroine who simply wants to kill the big scary monster without having to deal with any personal traumas in the process, and I’m sure there are other examples, but on the whole, it’s gotten so bad in recent years that the once fresh-faced Leonardo DiCapprio is perpetually being cast as a menacingly stubbled gloomy Gus haunted by the memory of a crazy dead wife or mysophobic mother, and it looks as though Batman’s never gonna dance again (tortured feet have got no rhythm). In keeping with this trend, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (also 2013) marries a thrilling external plot line with an internal plot of staggering banality.

As the film opens, a team of American astronauts are repairing a telescope in space when they’re blindsided by bits of debris from an exploded Russian satellite that kill all but two crew members, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Their immediate goal for the first part of the movie is to reach an abandoned space station using Matt’s jet pack, and on the way there, Ryan reveals that she withdrew from personal relationships and buried herself in work following the death of her daughter. Accordingly, the film likens being in space to returning to the womb: Ryan and Matt are joined by an umbilical-like chord that he ultimately severs in order to save her life, and after reaching the station, Ryan curls up into the fetal position. From this conceit, it follows that before Ryan can return to earth, she’ll not only have not clear a number of external obstacles but also put the past behind her, which she’s only able to do after finding religion. Just when things look completely hopeless, Ryan prays for the first time in her life, and subsequently Matt’s ghost appears to her in a dream, providing technical support as well as giving her the will to live by taking the sting out of her daughter’s death. (She knows that Matt’s looking after her in heaven.) As a pure action movie, it’s really neat, but the more the film tries to be deep and meaningful, the dumber it gets.

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