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.

 

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.

 

 

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 Horror of Everything We Don’t See in Robert Eggers’ The Witch

(This article discusses graphic violence in the context of horror movies. The scene discussed is so horrifying, in fact, that I debated as to whether I should even write a piece on it, as I hope to avoid sounding insensitive and tasteless. However, I believe that the concepts this sequence raises are absolutely crucial for understanding the horror genre, and to ignore them would be to leave a gaping gap in one’s understanding of cinema.)

Film analysis involves the careful dissection of everything that happens within the frame (the mise en scène), how those frames are linked together, and the sound that accompanies them. This, of course, makes sense, and it seems rather silly to point it out; obviously analyzing a film involves picking apart the components that constitute it. But I think this conception of cinema leaves out a crucial component; yes, it’s important to note all that a movie is, but what about everything it isn’t? The choices an auteur makes about what to leave out of a frame or a sequence are often just as crucial as the decisions they make about what to actually put in it, and it can sometimes be challenging to see this.

Here’s a perfect case study: The Witch by Robert Eggers. There’s a lot to love about this film, and reams have been written about it (see, for instance, Briana Rodriguez’s review in Back Stage that discusses the psychological relationship between director and actor), but there’s one particular sequence I’d like to hone in on. The film kicks off with a colonial New England family leaving their town after a heated religious disagreement, venturing into the wilderness to start their own independent farm. Shortly after the move, the mother of the family gives birth to Samuel, her fifth child. Just a few minutes into the film, one of its most horrifying sequences takes place. Thomasin, the eldest child in the family, is out in a field playing with Samuel. When she diverts her attention for a split second, he disappears. The family searches for him in the woods, but he’s nowhere to be found. They’re unsure of what happened to him, but it’s revealed to the audience that he was abducted by a witch, a middle-aged woman who lives in a decrepit hut just a short walk from the family’s farm. A minute-long sequence shows his fate: be warned, this sequence is incredibly graphic. I’ll link it here for anyone that wants to give it another look, but I’d highly suggest that you watch the film in its entirety before reading this piece. The scene may just seem tasteless without the film’s context. (The portion in question begins around 1:18 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIfjcHn9JYw)

It’s a brutally tough sequence to watch. Yet the interesting thing about it is that we don’t actually see the violence taking place. We see the moment immediately preceding the brutality, and then we see the product of it. The process, replaced by a few moments of a black screen, isn’t actually shown on screen. This may seem like it would lighten the impact of the violence, but in many ways it actually bolsters it. Although we don’t directly see what is happening to the child, there’s certainly no ambiguity about what’s going on in the scene. We’re left to fill in the blanks, forced to conjure up scenes of the horrifying act that’s taking place in the sequence. Perhaps our own imaginations are capable of generating images more terrifying than anything Eggers could throw at us, and that potent ability is what he’s leveraging for the sake of horror. Sure, at risk of being seen as a tasteless and gratuitous filmmaker he could have actually shown the murder on screen, but that may not have even been as effective as his practice of restraint. All the fake blood, special effects, and CGI in the world couldn’t match what the audience’s mind is capable of dreaming up, and by giving them some space to roam he leads them to a terrifying impact that traditional imagery couldn’t match.

Perhaps, then, this scene may inform how we think of the medium as a whole. Perhaps film isn’t just a set of juxtaposed images and sounds that deliver an emotional and intellectual impact, but the scaffolding that allows for the creation of an effect within the audience’s mind. Thus, film is the framework for viewers to generate their own thoughts and feelings built upon the content on screen. It’s not a neatly packaged dose of stimulation, but rather an unfinished picture with blanks left for the audience to fill. This seems to align in some ways to the “reader-response” school of literary criticism, but I think the basic concept may apply to any artistic medium. In a lot of ways, the input from a film’s viewer is just as important as the film itself; the horror of what we don’t see in The Witch provides a great example of this give-and-take.

The Harkness Method and High School Film Classes

The typical high school level film class will, of course, be incorporated into the English department. While this is certainly the most suitable place for such a course, there are some points of drastic divergence as to how the class must be taught compared to the average English class.

The interesting thing about an introductory film course is that in some ways, it resembles a foreign language class more closely than a literature-based English class. In language courses, oftentimes the first two or three years are dedicated to learning the syntax, vocabulary, and structure of a language before having any actual discussions. In the typical high school level English class, knowledge of these concepts is assumed. Now, it would be silly to claim that a beginning film student must spend the first three years of their studies just learning the tropes and visual vocabulary of cinema, but nonetheless a strong foundation must be established before any high-level discourse is held to examine the technical elements of the medium.

So how does Harkness fit into this? My only experience with the method is with 9th grade English students so I can’t discuss all contexts in which it may be useful, but I can say that it isn’t a tool that I’ll be implementing at the outset of my course. The first few weeks will be spent building up a strong visual vocabulary, and the weeks following those will probably center around heavily guided discussion. I want to ensure that we build a strong understanding of the building blocks of cinema, and I fear that leaving students to their own devices will reinforce bad habits of film analysis. Perhaps later on, when I’m sure that students understand the purpose of cinematic analysis and the good habits that go along with it, I’ll give them more room to discuss in a more free flowing manner.

Yet I fear that by restricting free discussion early on I may set a negative tone for the discipline of film studies in general. While a great degree of film analysis involves the systematic deconstruction, there’s also an element of emotional connection to the medium that has to take place in order to analyze it in an original manner. Leaning too far towards the didactic teaching style would, I think, remove too much of this emotional connection. As I discussed in my last post, removing this instinctual link to some degree is crucial, but to do so completely is to destroy one’s ability to empathize with the thrust behind a piece. Perhaps my dilemma concerning Harkness demonstrates this pressure point, and my decisions about how to implement it effectively will turn out to be consequential for my semester-long plan for molding the analytical abilities of my students. If I can strike a productive balance between Harkness-style discussion and traditional classroom techniques, then I can also strike a balance between disconnected analysis and instinctual empathy. That, ultimately, is the reason to teach a film class in the first place.