Films

Villeneuve’s Arrival and Balanced Innovation

(spoilers for Arrival)

Decrying the state of cinema has always been popular, but now it seems to be particularly in vogue. Recently, I’ve heard people argue that cinematic innovation is not just slow as a result of cultural trends, but because of artistic limitations as well. That is, after a century of development, everything that is worth doing in film has already been done. I’m not talking about technical innovations and gimmicks like Cinerama or 3D; I mean in the sphere of storytelling and film form. Looking back at the French New Wave era, or even the German Impressionist movement, I can definitely see why some critics aren’t pleased with the comparative innovative spirit of today’s cinema. But to claim that film has reached the apex of its development is, I think, shortsighted.

And I’m not just talking about the most obscure, avant-garde corners of the art form. In fact, I think some mainstream films are innovating more meaningfully than the least accesible experimental pieces. I recently watched Villeneuve’s Arrival, which sits firmly in the mainstream sphere, and I think it’s a perfect representation of balanced, meaningful innovation in film storytelling. It encapsulates exactly what a modern film ought to do in order to maintain a substantial audience while also exploring new artistic territory: take an old trope or technique and turn it on its head. It’s an old trick; taking old motifs or expected patterns and inverting them in some way has been popular among experimental musicians for a long time now, but only a select few filmmakers seem willing to do it.

In the case of Arrival, Villeneuve takes a tried and true tool of cinematic storytelling, the flashback, and uses it in a way that few filmmakers have attempted. Throughout the majority of the film, the protagonist (Louise) experiences what appear to be flashbacks to her life before the death of her daughter. Just as in any other film, these visions give the viewer context that frames her actions during the events of the film. However, at the film’s conclusion, it’s revealed that these supposed flashbacks are actually flashes forward: the alien language that Louise is studying enables people to experience time in a nonlinear fashion, and throughout the film she is actually seeing premonitions of events to come.

It’s a simple inversion. Villeneuve takes a standard cinematic tool and turns it on its head. There are no ridiculously long takes, no experimental color flashes, nor even any particularly obscure storytelling structures or techniques. These things are certainly valuable at time, but filmmakers looking to make movies that are both innovative and accessible should be thinking like Villeneuve: take an old trick and make it new.

The Implications of Cheapening Movie Tickets

I’ve always bought into the idea that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And yet Moviepass, which has generated gallons of drool at the maws of hundreds of thousands of moviegoers, has still not revealed its Achilles’ heel. Unlimited movies in theaters for ten dollars a month (which, where I live, is cheaper than a single movie ticket) certainly sounds too good to be true, but it really does work, and I’ve been milking it as much as possible. Maybe its failure is inevitable, but for now it remains an exception to the rule.

And it’s certainly gotten plenty of coverage for its seemingly supernatural ability to break the rules of economics. The service was plastered all over film forums and news sites when it announced its new pricing plan, and a quick Google search as of this article’s writing garners countless listicles and opinion pieces that are still being written about its astoundingly low cost. And although I sound like a corporate shill, I can’t stress that fact enough: the cost really is astoundingly low. Someone like me can easily drive the per-film price down to a dollar fifty. But I think these articles touting the service’s cost are focusing on the wrong thing. Yes, Moviepass is changing the way we pay for movies, but I also think it has the potential to fundamentally change the way we watch them.

Movie theaters have always been a place of collective reverence. There are people who disregard the tacit social codes that usually keep audience members from staring at their phones for the entirety of the film, but for the most part these rules are obeyed. Beyond the fear of irritating everyone else in the audience, however, I think the price of entry drives people to actually focus on the film. A movie ticket, popcorn, and a drink can easily cost upwards of twenty dollars — most people want to get their money’s worth out of the experience, so they give the film their full attention.

But if you look at what’s happened with services like Netflix, people are willing to put a film or TV show on in the background and dedicate their attention to it only partially. This is because it’s so remarkably cheap. Someone who watches two hours of Netflix a day (which is easily attainable for many users) pays about twenty cents per hour of entertainment. Someone paying the traditional movie-and-popcorn price in theaters pays ten dollars per hour, or fifty times what someone pays to watch The Office in the comfort of their own home. That is a huge disparity in cost, and it certainly shows in the level of attention the average viewer pays to a film when watching it in a theater compared to when they watch it on a streaming service. I’m guilty of this myself; it can be hard not to casually check my phone when I’m watching a film that costs next to nothing alone in my living room.

Granted, theaters still have social pressures to keep audience members away from external distractions, but I think the cheapening of tickets thanks to services like Moviepass will wear away at the power that these tacit social mores hold. Part of the reason I get annoyed at audience members who talk or text during a film is that I payed a hefty sum for an experience that they’re detracting from. If that sum is reduced, isn’t it possible that people will feel less zealous about maximizing their own experience, enabling the desire to avoid offending others to override the desire to get their money’s worth?

In the 40s, sixty percent of Americans went to the movies at least once per week. Moviepass could have the potential to bring film back to this level of cultural prominence, which is a wonderful thing. The problem is that the world of 2017 is filled with far more distractions than the world of the 1940s. While the accessibility of the theater experience may skyrocket, the experience itself is at risk of being heavily diluted. Right now, it’s impossible to tell if this tradeoff will be worth it.

A Response to Kyle Smith’s Review of mother!

The review that I’ll be responding to comes from the publication that called Get Out a “get-whitey movie”, so nobody should expect much from it. Nonetheless, I think Kyle Smith’s review of mother!, Darren Aronofksy’s latest film, is worth looking at, as it is one of the most flawed film critiques that I’ve read in quite some time. Spoilers for mother! follow.

“Ordinarily when a filmmaker goes trampling all over your senses with an eye toward maximizing disgust…”

Right off the bat, Smith provides us with a profoundly naive idea of what constitutes “maximum disgust” in cinema. There are only two, perhaps three sequences throughout the entire film that managed to turn my stomach, and each of them lasted only a few moments. Although I wouldn’t call myself squeamish I’m certainly not the most hardy filmgoer, so to call mother! a film that seeks to “[maximize] disgust” is to take its most visceral sequences and pretend that they make up the entire film, which is just plain wrong. Yes, there are times when the film can be tough to watch, but those moments are thematically significant and don’t linger long enough to become distasteful. Gratuitous films like Hostel seek to achieve maximum shock factor with constant brutal imagery; mother! uses it sparingly for emotional potency, just like a million other R-rated films made for serious audiences.

“It may be the most vile and contemptible motion picture ever released by one of the major Hollywood studios”

In 1975, Paramount released a movie called Mandingo. It’s pretty much a two hour racist fantasy about wealthy plantation owners in the antebellum south sexually abusing their slaves. Mother! doesn’t even come remotely close to being the most disgusting movie released by Paramount, let alone by any of the major studios. I’d even call The Jazz Singer, one of the art form’s most historically significant films, far more offensive than Aronofsky’s latest. Our reviewer certainly doesn’t shy away from bold statements, but anyone with five minutes and access to Wikipedia could easily find counterexamples to his claims.

“Mother…  stars the filmmaker’s girlfriend, Jennifer Lawrence, as a timid, frail housewife who wishes she could have a baby with her husband (Javier Bardem), an acclaimed writer. She is painstakingly restoring their house, a glorious country manse, which was previously destroyed in a fire, while her man grapples with writer’s block.”

Smith’s characterization of Lawrence’s character as “timid and frail” is not just untrue: he disproves it himself in the following sentence by telling his readers that she is “painstakingly restoring” her beautiful house. I’ve never heard of a “frail” person single-handedly restoring an entire mansion.

“In Mother, the Bible parallels emerge as sophomoric and sloppy — was the Virgin Mary actually present at the murder of Abel? I don’t think she was. But then again Aronofsky wrote, or spat out, the script in only five days.”

Mother! contains biblical parallels, yes, but the purpose of the movie is not to painstakingly adapt every last detail of stories from scripture. The point of literary and historical allusions is to comment upon an event or idea, not to just transport an old story into a different setting. That would make for an incredibly boring and derivative piece of art. Who cares if the film doesn’t reflect the murder of Abel with perfect accuracy? Aronofsky is telling a psychologically intense story with religious undertones, not teaching a theology class.

“Mother is the kind of film that makes you want to walk out, demand your money back, then file for a restraining order that would forbid the director from coming within 500 miles of any filmmaking equipment again. The following groups of people should take care to avoid Mother at all cost [sic]: pregnant women, those with nervous constitutions or heart conditions, and anyone who happens to be burdened with good taste.”

So a film should strive to avoid being challenging for anyone? Should Apocalypse Now not exist because veterans with PTSD could find it challenging to watch? Should Citizen Kane never have been made because the tragic arc of its protagonist might resonate too strongly for people with certain backgrounds? We should certainly work to ensure that viewers are aware of what difficult content they’ll be exposed to in a film, but it’s absurd to propose that challenging art just shouldn’t be made.

“Critics will no doubt enjoy calling the film, particularly its second half, ‘subversive,’ ‘brave,’ ‘transgressive,’ etc., as though any satirical impulse were less risky than mocking Christian dogma.”

Perhaps commenting upon, or inverting, or criticizing, but mocking? Family Guy and Saturday Night Live mock things; this psychological thriller does not.

I’ve yet to read a review from this publication that isn’t marred by inaccuracies and an absurd critical lens, but I suppose that’s all I should expect from it.

 

White Dog: a Bold Stance on Prejudice

There’s something about underappreciated works of art that makes me appreciate them more. Maybe it’s some sort of hipster instinct that allows me to derive satisfaction from that which not many other people have derived satisfaction from, or perhaps it’s a sort of voyeurism, peering into the innards of a bloated artistic medium to extract something of value, something that a studio hardly wanted to reveal to the public. Either way, there are certain films that nobody has seen that everybody has to see, certain films that say something profound that nobody wants to hear. White Dog has some terribly important, terribly horrifying things to say about race relations, things that were relevant when the film was released in 1982 but are somehow even more relevant today.

I’m about to spoil it, so go see it. It’s only ninety minutes. Some of the acting is questionable and there are some truly awful B-movie, Hard Ticket To Hawaii style zoom-into-a-character’s-face-as-something-important-happens moments, but watch it anyway. It’s about a German Shepherd, a “white dog” trained to attack black people on sight. A woman finds him, takes him in, and then begs an animal trainer to get rid of his ingrained racist instincts. The trainer himself is black. After many people are wounded and at least one is killed by the dog, the trainer actually manages to get the dog to stop attacking black people. The dog, however, is not fully cured, as he attacks a white man during his final test, nearly killing him. The object of his hate was merely switched. The dog is shot and killed during the attack.

It’s harrowing. It ends abruptly. The dog dies and the credits roll. We aren’t given time for grieving his irreparability, for lamenting the fact that he came close to being saved. He’s just killed, suddenly, and our hopes for his rehabilitation are dashed in an instant. A few characters articulate that it isn’t the dog’s fault; of course it isn’t, he’s a dog, and dogs can’t be racist by nature. It was the fault of the original owner, but that doesn’t change the fact that the animal’s hateful nature is permanently imbued. The dog may have switched targets at the film’s conclusion, but the aggression isn’t going anywhere.

There are plenty of interesting messages about prejudice seeded throughout the film. The white woman who brings the dog into her home, who tries to change his nature: perhaps a claim that even those who are well-intentioned and have no prejudices themselves can inadvertently offer a safe haven to those who do. The black trainer who tirelessly works to retrain the dog: a man who desperately wishes for the hateful to change, who wants to remove some hate from the world without resorting to violence. All of these interim messages, however, are overshadowed by the final sequence. As the final gunshot rings and a heavy silence lingers above the characters, the film’s statement is clear; try as we might, hate cannot be conditioned out. Prejudices ingrained in youth become a part of one’s consciousness, they become the consciousness itself.

Is this true? I certainly hope not. But it’s a bold stance on one of the most important social questions that we face today, and it’s a viewpoint that everyone ought to understand in order to be in tune with the modern world’s ever-increasing tensions.

On Kevin Smith’s Potential

Every film has a goal. To explore the capabilities of a framing device. To decry the bourgeois camera style of early directors. To demonstrate what can be achieved on a shoestring budget. Some goals aren’t quite so lofty. Many films exist to simply divert, to entertain, to provide a convenient way for general audiences to fork over thirteen dollars. And that’s totally okay! The existence of blockbusters isn’t dependent upon the failure of art house cinema, and vice versa, so there’s no reason to adhere to a formulaic critical philosophy in order to ensure the survival of one’s preferred strand of film.

But some critics seem to be out of touch with this idea. Why criticize a Transformers movie for its “special effects incontinence” (this is from an actual review) when the whole franchise is intended to exist as little more than a drawn-out CGI battle? Identify what the film is attempting and then evaluate how well it achieves it. It’s simple.

And now I’m going to utterly violate this rule in order to criticize Kevin Smith.

But it’s for a good reason! It’s difficult to separate a film from the director who created it. Any time I see a movie by someone I’m familiar with, it’s inevitable that I’m going to trace common threads between what I’m watching and what I’ve seen before. For evaluative purposes I have an obligation to distance myself from the rest of their filmography, but knowledge of what someone has done before gives a critic a glimpse into what they’re capable of.

Kevin Smith is capable of a lot. We know that because we’ve seen him live up to his potential. Clerks is an oft-cited example of well-executed low-budget cinema, and Chasing Amy shows that he’s capable of taking a nuanced stance on ideas like love and sexuality. The man has talent, moreso for writing than for experimenting with film form, but we’ve nonetheless seen that he’s capable of creating art with substance.

So why on Earth isn’t he using it? I’m not going to criticize the content of Yoga Hosers and Tusk, because he never wanted them to be good in the first place. I am, however, comfortable saying that Kevin Smith’s willingness to make mindless entertainment is worthy of criticism. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with mindless entertainment, but because Smith shouldn’t be the one creating it. In the same way that driving a Ferrari strictly in areas with a speed limit below 35 is a waste of potential, Smith’s recent filmography is disappointing purely because of what the man could achieve if he only tried.

It doesn’t look like Smith will be changing his tack any time soon. He’s currently developing a film called Moose Jaws, a sequel to Yoga Hosers. It’s a quasi-parody of Spielberg’s Jaws, but with a moose rather than a shark. I’m not expecting too much out of that.

I just hope that Smith realizes, preferably sometime soon, that making something that will be remembered as more than just entertainment is worth the effort. Good movies, movies that do more than hold our attention for ninety minutes and make us chuckle, can have a profound impact on our culture. Silly films about walruses and living sausages are fine, but leave them to less capable directors. You have more important things to do.

Ikiru and Inertia

Sort of on the cusp between middle-aged and elderly. Certainly not old enough to be in a nursing home, but certainly too old to get off the bench in a recreational basketball league. Out of place at both a rock concert and a bingo hall. That I-like-my-coffee-black sort of age, but likely too young to have one of those medicine trays with seven compartments, each labelled for a specific day of the week. A city councilman, or a planner, or a chairman, or some other variety of bureaucrat. Public Works department, yet he doesn’t seem to have completed any sort of Work for the Public in quite a long time. Stack of paper. Stamp. Place in bin. Brush aside needy citizens, who do they think I am, some kind of public servant or something?

Stomach cancer. Incurable. Six months, maybe? He realizes how he’s never realized how unfulfilling his life is. He tries indulging himself. Gambling, drinking, parties, etc. Doesn’t cut it. So he decides to do his job, see if he can make his community a better place. Turns a cesspool of sewage into a public park. The people love him. He dies.

Ikiru is, I think, among Kurosawa’s finest, samurai or otherwise. It’s certainly among his most personal. And yet some of its implications are a bit unnerving. Do we never fully realize our capacity for good, nor recognize the happiness it brings about, until we’re nearing the end of the time allotted to us? Why does it take so long? Perhaps it’s a desperate scramble to do something of substance, to justify our birth and the eighty-odd years we spend spending and eating and indulging and crying and laughing. Kind of like this review. I spent the first half rambling and now I’m realizing that I need to say something, that this needs to have a purpose, because otherwise why did I even bother to sit down and write this? We fear that our story will end without a theme, without having said something, and maybe it isn’t until the end approaches that we even recognize this fear.

Or maybe it’s more ego-driven. Perhaps our desire to be seen, to be noticed in some way lies dormant throughout life and only overcomes our inertia when it’s almost too late. Maybe his swan song is nothing more than a way to perpetuate himself, to make some sort of legacy that will outlast him. Is this why anybody does anything at all? Certainly frightening, but Ikiru leaves it open as a possibility.

Go watch it if you haven’t already. Above all else, I think it works best as a warning against the joyless drifting that we fall into all too often.

 

 

The Challenges of Film Familiarity Pt. II

(This is a continuation of an article I posted on March 26th, 2017. If you haven’t read that post, click here to get caught up.)

I posted the above on reddit.com/r/truefilm to start a dialogue about the theory’s implications for the delivery of film education. I got a few interesting responses, but the most notable one extended the theory to encompass all forms of visual media and consider its social implications. Here’s an excerpt from his response:

(As is completely understandable in a casual forum, /u/mosestrod made some grammatical errors in his response. I preserved them for the sake of accuracy.)
The moving image is so familiar to us insofar as it is our everyday, it does – as you suggest – produce both passivity and conformity with the what is. Film mimics reality better than any other art form. But this pretence is also its risk, and we’re always threatened by the loss of that capacity to critically confront the artwork, to break its spell. Few even recognize the hold but finish as if having been mesmerized. You’ll often hear people talk about getting lost or absorbed in film, which is necessary, but so too is that moment in film that break the trans-fixation…
…We can perhaps probe even further the moving image; the infamous Baudrillard argued the image-world had produced a simulation of reality that had substituted itself for reality. That the hold of the TV was like the gods of old, and consumers sat fixated on the truths it delivered ready-made into their minds; moving only to make the regular libations and offerings of coin. What does it mean to switch fluidly from a film channel to one on baking to an advert and so on? How does art as a separate sphere survive this? What does it mean to carry around a screen, a smart phone, so you can be always plugged into the network 24/7? So many of our experiences come to us via. the moving image; I’ve been to so many countries, and worlds, I’ve seen shock and awe live, danced in prisons and inside volcanoes. But have I ever actually lived it, experienced it? All those moments are no longer lost in time, in rain, but captured, colonized, stored in ventilated server warehouses in Arizona, replayed and doled out. I can exchange my independence for access to this image-world and the wonders it delivers to me like all the rest. The avant-garde once made it their task to breach the separation of art and life, well our industrialized society did it for them, but at the expense of both.”
(/u/mosestrod)

This comment spurred me to consider two important implications of film familiarity. The first relates to how film familiarity can warp our perception of what is real and what is entertainment, breaking down the barriers between experience and media. In the modern world we’re exposed to an unprecedented volume of visual stimulus, from commercials to cell phone screens to pieces of art. If we accept the idea that film is a medium that closely resembles our perceptions of the real world, then how are we to determine what belongs to our world and what belongs to the world of the image? With this challenge in mind, overcoming film familiarity becomes a much more meaningful task. Before I had thought of it simply as a way to facilitate the analysis of the form, but if we concern ourselves with the social implications that /u/mosestrod raises, then it serves a different purpose entirely. It becomes a method of demarcating what is real and what belongs to film. It constrains our perception of reality and determines what we internalize as art and what we accept as experience. Thus, our ability to overcome the rapport that accompanies our innate film familiarity determines the extent to which we can identify reality for ourselves rather than have it preselected for us by the visual media that we consume.

So what are the implications of this extension of film familiarity for the delivery of film education? For one, it certainly ups the gravitas of the endeavor. We’re no longer just teaching people to appreciate and understand an art form, but rather we’re teaching them to filter the information they’re exposed to in order to separate reality from fiction. There are also some important practical implications of this shift in pedagogical duty. For instance, I think for the purposes of a beginning level film class it will be crucial to develop visual literacy for a wide range of image-based media, not just the feature film. Of course, actual films should be the focus of the course, but including other forms of visual stimulus will ensure that students establish a strong base for overcoming film familiarity in all spheres. Perhaps the deconstruction of advertisements and visual social content will help facilitate this.

/u/mosestrod’s post also got me thinking about another implication of film familiarity: film’s status as an exploitative medium. Motion pictures rely on their ability to place viewers into a sort of “spellbound” state of mind in order to achieve their emotional effects. But film’s entire ability to place us in this state relies entirely on the existence of a subconscious familiarity with the medium in the first place. In a way, it’s targeting a weakness of our mental capacities in order to shift our perception of reality for a limited time. Is this the case for all forms of art? Are they simply targeted doses of stimulus that leverage our instinctual quirks for the purpose of entertainment? Perhaps I’m getting off task with this, but it could be interesting to consider what mental weaknesses, if any, are targeted by other forms of media.
This concept of film as a medium that takes advantage of an instinctual weakness also has some interesting pedagogical implications. Primarily, it harkens back to the issue of balancing an emotional connection to the piece with intellectual disinterestedness. If film really does leverage emotional quirks, those quirks must be kept active in some capacity to experience the film as it was meant to be experienced. In order to break down how a film works we must be able to remove our latent film familiarity, but in order to see its intended effect we must allow some of that film familiarity to remain. Perhaps encouraging multiple viewings would strike this balance: the first one to watch the film as intended, the subsequent ones to understand its technical elements. This may be impractical for a classroom scenario, but striking the proper balance between these two observational modes will be crucial to developing a deep understanding of the form.