review

Slacker and Storyless Films

Despite the laments of some film critics, I do believe that there is still plenty of innovation happening in the medium. Some mainstream directors (Iñarittu comes to mind) are combining new filmmaking technologies with exploratory attitudes to push the form to places that it’s never been able to go before, and there’s a wave of recent independent filmmakers who have continued to leverage the medium to address pressing social issues. In fact, it seems that more voices than ever are now able to tell their stories through film, which is certainly conducive to innovation. However, despite this optimism, I do feel like the medium has become stagnant in one particular way; that is, it seems that most directors nowadays possess a traditional, objective-oriented mindset when it comes to art.

When I refer to “objective-oriented” or “traditionally constructed” films, I’m not just talking about films with a chronological narrative structure; I’m referring to any film in which the vast majority of scenes contribute to some overarching narrative goal. For example, while a Tarantino film might not have a linear narrative structure, I would still consider that within the realm of “objective-oriented” films since every piece of the movie’s puzzle builds towards some narrative endpoint, even if those pieces are jumbled in a nontraditional way.

This has, of course, been the norm throughout film’s history. It makes sense that the majority of filmgoers want to consume a logically constructed piece of storytelling, as that’s the type of entertainment that is most easily understood and casually enjoyed. That’s not to undermine the value of such films; in fact, the majority of movies that critics include on “greatest of all times” lists (including mainstays like Citizen Kane and Vertigo) are put together with a particular storytelling goal in mind. Within the realm of traditionally constructed films, there’s still plenty of room for experimentation with film form and themes.

However, I think that restricting films to this kind of objective-oriented mindset limits the scope of what they can achieve. Having this tacit requirement that every film ought to have narrative consistency implies that film is inherently a narrative-focused form, but I don’t think that that’s actually the case. In fact, if filmmakers were more willing to push their movies out of the realm of narrative storytelling, I think the medium would feel much fresher than it currently does for a lot of critics and viewers.

The film that got me thinking about this in the first place is Richard Linklater’s Slacker; it’s a 98-minute film without any semblance of a plot. Instead, the film simply follows a character (almost always a beatnik-type college student or recent graduate) for a while as they go about their daily business before wandering over to another character and following them for a while. There’s no narrative mission that the film is working to achieve; it simply showcases a collection of small episodes from the daily lives of twenty or so characters. That sounds like it might get tiresome, but it doesn’t; the characters are varied and the snippets entertaining enough to always keep the film feeling fresh, and I found myself forgetting that there wasn’t actually a larger narrative. Moreso than any other film that I’ve watched recently, Slacker simply offered me a day in the life of a particular subculture and allowed me to lose myself in their daily business. Did it present me with nuanced commentary about any social or political issues? No. In fact, it didn’t present me with commentary about anything, as the film doesn’t seem to comment on the views of its characters at all. It did, however, show me something that film is capable of that I haven’t really seen before, and that itself is a valuable takeaway. I’m not downplaying the value of socially or politically oriented films; that type of art plays a crucial role in our cultural landscape. However, I think it’s important to keep film’s other capabilities in mind as well, so that we don’t develop a limited perspective on an incredibly flexible art form.

I’ve simply tried to argue that film is capable of doing more than just telling a story; for a more militant perspective about the dangers of popular culture, I’d recommend reading this article. It’s not quite on the same topic that I’ve just discussed (and it certainly takes a more radical stance), but it provides an interesting perspective on the purpose of art as a whole.

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.

 

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.

 

 

Wonder Woman and Growth vs. Proficiency

Is it better to prioritize growth or proficiency? Although this question is at the heart of education, I’ve been considering it in relation the the DC Cinematic Universe. Since its inception it’s been a C- student, completing the required tasks to get by (make loads of money at the box office) but never showing any real interest in the material (making a legitimately good movie). If we look at Wonder Woman in relation to the franchise’s previous efforts, it’s fantastic. It blows everything else out of the water by having a coherent plot and reasonably interesting characters. But I can’t help but feel like its praise stems largely from the horrible movies that came before it.

There’s certainly a lot of good stuff to be found in the film. It provides an interesting look at outdated gender roles and carries a meaningful social message without seeming hamhanded or pandering. In particular, watching Diana walk the streets of World War I era London and balk at its blatant inequality is entertaining and incredibly relevant. The relationship between Diana and Steve manages to avoid tired Hollywood romance clichés. Some of the action is well-orchestrated as well, surpassed only by one of the Batman fight scenes in Dawn of Justice. It’s a thoroughly entertaining, mostly well-done popcorn movie.

Yet it isn’t perfect. In any sense of the word. There is some incredibly corny dialogue. Most notably, the interactions between Diana and the film’s primary antagonist were not easy to listen to. Some of the directorial decisions were questionable as well, like the film’s painfully trite final shot. The beginning was a bit exposition-heavy and had a few minor pacing issues.

Despite these flaws, the film is solid. It hasn’t revolutionized the superhero genre like Nolan’s trilogy, but it’s a strong entry in an incredibly weak franchise. Should this be enough to earn universal acclaim, or are we looking at the film from a pessimistic worldview tained by Zack Snyder’s directorial dictatorship? Perhaps it’s impossible to separate film from franchise at this time, and only time will tell if Wonder Woman is worthy of the praise it’s received. Either way, it’s good to see that the DC Cinematic Universe is capable of producing a watchable movie.

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.

The Challenges of Film Familiarity

This is a theory that I’ve been thinking about for a long time now, and I’ve decided that I ought to flesh it out thoroughly with a full article.

While some skills of literary analysis are transferable to film analysis, there are a few key differences that make it an entirely different beast. These differences can make it difficult for even the most skilled readers to dissect film effectively. I’ll refer to these challenges under the umbrella of “film familiarity”.

Film familiarity can be divided into two primary components. The first one involves the fundamental tools that the medium uses to deliver an impact, which are visual and auditory stimuli. These stimuli also happen to be the variety of sensory information that most people are bombarded with most on a day to day basis. It may seem as if our familiarity with this sort of sensory information would make film analysis easier, but it actually generates one of the greatest challenges of understanding the form. Consider the written word; most literate people read in some capacity every single day, but they’re not exposed to nearly the same volume of text as they are to images and sounds. Furthermore, the text they’re exposed to in the form of cereal boxes and advertisements is a far cry from the text of literature. As a result, when someone sits down to read a poem, it’s an active and involved process. Because they’re not exposed to poetic language in their everyday life, there’s a degree of conscious effort that takes place to internalize it and interpret it. Each line is taken in, processed, and critically analyzed on at least a somewhat conscious level. The images and sounds of film, however, are far more familiar to the everyday person than the style of a poem. It feels more natural. When they watch a film they receive its emotional impacts, but they don’t need to consciously process the information they’re presented with in order to do so. Breaking down the film into its constituent parts feels unnecessary and unnatural, creating a barrier to understanding the technical elements of the medium.

The second part of film familiarity stems from the way the medium handles the passage of time. Now, written works have a limited degree of control over how much time the reader will spend on it. Tolkien, for instance, can make the journeys of his hobbits seem tortuous by tirelessly describing every last rock, tree, mountain, and bend in the road. But despite this, readers will spend varying amounts of time on each section. They’ll reread sentences that they don’t understand, savor the bits they enjoy most, and get through the boring sections as quickly as possible. The time controls of written works extend only as far as encouragement. A filmmaker, on the other hand, has total control over the duration of her work. She can select the exact total runtime and the precise duration of each scene. Barring bathroom breaks and intermittent pauses, and if a film is viewed as the creator intended, each viewer will be provided with the exact same runtime. Now, this is ignoring the frequent pauses that a film student or critic would employ in order to dissect certain scenes, but right now we’re referring only to the normal and intended delivery of a work. Undeniably, written works do not have the strict built-in duration that films have. This has a few important effects for the filmgoer. The most straightforward one is that the average viewer simply won’t have enough time to carefully dissect the piece. Since the film will go on and on despite the viewer’s thought processes, most people will not be able to carefully consider the intricacies of every shot and scene. The second, less straightforward effect is the subconscious encouragement towards passivity that a carefully controlled time structure generates. The controlled pace of a film means that a role that the audience would serve in the case of a written work is taken from them and relegated to the creators. Riding on the back of a motorcycle requires less attention than actually operating one. In the same way, the less work that an audience has to perform, the less attention they’ll need to pay to it. As a result, conscious effort must be taken to give a film the same attention as a novel or poem.

The funny thing about the medium is that if film familiarity is the primary stumbling block on the path to understanding the form, then one must actually become less comfortable with it in order to dissect it. They must consciously eliminate their rapport with the medium in order to be able to examine its technical elements. On the other hand, there must be some instinctual connection with the piece in order to be able to receive its intended emotional impact. Striking this balance between instinctual film familiarity and disinterested analysis is one of the greatest challenges that a student of film faces.

 

(This article is continued in a later post. Click here.)