Sunday, October 22, 2017

Shutter Island (revisited)

To this day I'm still not entirely sure what to make of Shutter Island. It was such a big deal to me when its release was delayed back in Fall, 2009 to winter 2010. Its delay was essentially to say this is not another Martin Scorsese awards contender, as every film he'd released since the 2000s had been.

Its obvious why the film's producers decided it might fare better in the more relaxed environs of post-Oscar movie malaise, but at the same time it's such a strange movie that there's not really any particular season where it could fit snugly.

After watching the first season of MINDHUNTER (which is pretty great, though part of my enthusiasm for it might just be that the final episode was absurdly good, hence softening the impact of various shortcomings that the previous middle episodes displayed), I thought a bit about Shutter Island and how it represents the absolute antithesis of what David Fincher was in part attempting to say in his new Netflix series. MINDHUNTER, without hesitation, correlates the criminally insane with pure evil and makes no attempt to change our perspective on such a notion. It got me thinking how Shutter Island is the polar opposite. Seen side-by-side, it's hard to imagine Scorsese directing any bit of MINDHUNTER, just as Fincher helming Shutter Island would probably not have worked.

  The title Shutter Island is perfect. The word ‘shutter’ in the sense of a hinged panel on the outside of a window for increased security and protection certainly is fitting in relation to the movie. After all, it describes a mental hospital housing “only the most dangerous patients,” and the fact that a hurricane is approaching when the film begins makes it all the more suitable. However, in his original review of the film, critic Richard Brody writes: The title is “Shutter Island”; the shutter is, after all, a part of the camera, and once you pass through, you don’t get out.”

Shutter Island asks that we “pass through” the camera and into its confines. We’re stuck there, simultaneously mesmerized by the world Scorsese creates and perturbed by what it asks us to do there. The movie is a psychological thriller with a major twist ending that rocks your understanding of what came before. Somewhat akin to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the film is completely enjoyable on its initial viewing simply as a mystery. But once you understand that mystery, rather than suddenly diminishing, the movie becomes something all together more rich and unsettling.

We learn that its protagonist, U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is actually named Andrew Laeddis, a patient at the mental hospital we assumed he had been investigating. Prior to being committed to the institution, he killed his wife, and because he is unable to admit to this terrible fact, he participates in an elaborate game organized by the hospital in which he pretends to be investigating a missing person case on the island. The revelation serves to shock us, while within the narrative it is meant to trigger within Andrew a full realization and acceptance of his guilt. As a twist, it does what the best ones accomplish: it turns the entire film you thought you had been watching on its head. But instead of becoming an empty vessel, the content prior to that revelation actually becomes richer once the secret behind the narrative is revealed.

Watching Shutter Island in light of the fact that we know the events are an elaborate contrivance necessarily diminishes much of its initial suspense. But in doing so it also becomes something you never thought such a disturbing, pulpy, ornate psycho-thriller could be, or, dare I say, have the right to be: a deeply affecting, terribly sad character piece, an operatic tragedy with some of the most emotional filmmaking of Scorsese’s career. When we pass through into the claustrophobic world of Shutter Island, we’re asked to commit to something far more unsettling than observing a hospital for the criminally insane. We’re asked to engage emotionally with a murderer.

One of the most talked about lines in the film is the final one, in which Andrew sits on the hospital steps with Dr. Sheehan (Mark Ruffalo), and seemingly reverts back to Teddy Daniels and says they need to get off the island. He then asks, “Which would be worse—to live as a monster or die as a good man?” He then stands up and allows other doctors, including head Psychologist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) to lead him off to be lobotomized (during the film’s revelation about Andrew’s identity, we’re informed Andrew must accept either his true identity and actions or a lobotomy).

If Andrew has already regressed then Shutter Island would be an indubitable bummer. Gladly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Andrew’s final words, which were an addition to the script that is otherwise extremely faithful to its source material, suggest he’s controlling his fate. You don’t close your film with such a weighty line of dialogue for no reason.
The central takeaway is that Andrew’s regression is a performance. Dr. Cawley’s experiment worked and Andrew’s guilt is such that he cannot continue living if he accepts he murdered his wife.

Scorsese’s chief psychiatric advisor on the film, Professor James Gilligan, has even confirmed that this is the correct way to interpret the film’s conclusion: Andrew does indeed choose his fate. According to Gilligan in a 2010 piece from The Guardian, those cryptic last words mean: "I feel too guilty to go on living.” The decision finally indicates Andrew is in control of his mind, and while his end is tragic, it ultimately defines him as a man driven by grief and guilt. These deeply human emotions, coupled with Andrew’s final moment of autonomy over his fate, suggest a request that we feel for this man. One should never overlook the importance of a film’s ending, and here that is no exception. If Shutter Island goes to these lengths to paint Andrew in this light, it only seems to serve the notion that Andrew is a kind of hopelessly tragic hero. At the center of Shutter Island is not madness, but rather a deep melancholy.

Is it absurd to use this kind of language? I don’t think so. Consider this: Shutter Island is about a man so crippled by grief and denial that he participates in a massive fable and even takes on a new identity to stave off the realization of his guilt. It’s an absurd but profound proposal. I also have to think it’s the reason the movie doesn’t play well with a lot of viewers. Rather than picking up pace the film actually slows as it continues, and at 140 minutes it can really feel interminable as Teddy navigates the deepest environs of the island and engages in episodes of extended paranoid dialogues with other patients. As A.O Scott wrote in his original and quite negative review of the film in The New York Times, “Mr. Scorsese in effect forces you to study the threads on the rug he is preparing, with lugubrious deliberateness, to pull out from under you. As the final revelations approach, the stakes diminish precipitously, and the sense that the whole movie has been a strained and pointless contrivance starts to take hold.” But despite its genre trappings I see no reason not take this film quite seriously. In fact, it might be because of those trappings that it becomes such a powerful experience. Since it’s a genre exercise, everything seems larger, more heightened: it’s not just the ominous skies, the booming soundtrack, the dramatic weather, the gothic architecture, but also the emotion of the whole thing. If all Scott saw was “a pointless contrivance” then did he really see this movie?

From the opening scene we gather Teddy’s underlying trauma—stemming from his wife drowning their four children in the backyard pond—by his anxiety on a boat surrounded by water. “Pull yourself together Teddy, it’s just water,” he says in a tone fraught with peril as he approaches Shutter Island with his “partner,” Chuck. Shutter Island is filled with moments like these where the dramatic effect shifts when you’re cognizant of Teddy’s past and true self. The movie makes no demands that we sympathize with Teddy, but it does want us to at least understand him. It wants us to take seriously the idea of loss and how it can fully take over and dictate a life.

But again, it’s difficult to find this idea in the film because it is often lurking behind the utter hyperbolic style of it all. Scorsese devotes much of his energy here to simply convey an atmosphere of dread and paranoia, justified by the cold war anxiety, WWII PTSD, and 1950s societal repression that serves as the movie’s social backdrop. It’s very easy to overlook its nuances in favor of its deliciously bombastic sense of mood and style, present from the very first frame of a boat emerging through a thick fog as a booming cello signals this world is not safe.

And yet this style does not mask the film’s underlying investigation of loss. It invigorates it. It suggests that the only way to truly express the whirlwind of feelings surrounding a tragedy of the proportion Teddy has encountered is to express it through genre style. And that’s not to say Scorsese’s world is one giant metaphor for Teddy’s mind, though you’re free to interpret it that way if you choose. Instead, it seems tied to the idea of the stories we tell about ourselves. In life, the line between mediocrity and grandiosity can be an act of telling yourself what you want to hear. But what happens when you use this method in relation to a tragedy you’ve experienced? You must create a giant fiction, something so preposterous that it inevitably accentuates the emotional feeling behind it. When that fiction is exposed, all that’s left is the emotion, and suddenly the story you’ve told yourself seems ridiculous, maybe even embarrassing.

That seems to be the ultimate justification for the elaborate style and fictions that muddle the truth behind the real Teddy Daniels. The truth hurts in Shutter Island, but you can’t live a good life live without it. The sorrow underlining the film is that Andrew is incapable of living with that truth. Either he hides from it and pretends to be Teddy Daniels, or he dies.

The sense of loss that permeates the movie is actually present from our opening tour of sorts of the as the smirking Deputy Warden McPherson (John Carroll Lynch) shows Teddy and Chuck the layout of Shutter Island. We get our handful of ominous imagery, like the thick barbed wire atop the prison walls, various prison guards holding their rifles austerely, and a patient putting a whispering finger to her lips for no apparent reason other than to signal that something’s not quite right. But the camera also focuses in on the entrance sign to a cemetery that reads: “Remember us, for we too have lived, loved, and laughed.” These words are not incidental, and Scorsese, who’s spent his career obsessing about what is and is not in the frame, would not include this if it wasn’t meant to be pondered. The film quietly asks that we don’t simply act horrified by the patients at this institution. After all, as Dr. Cawley says at one point, “insanity’s not a choice. You can’t just choose to get over it.” We do not have to show love or deep compassion for these individuals, but at the very least we should think of them as suffering human beings and not simply as crazed animals. That’s particularly true of Teddy. We’re supposed to see that behind this delusional man is a tragic character with a past who indeed lived, loved, and laughed.

Other choices Scorsese makes are also indicative of loss as the movie’s central through line. In particular there is a dream sequence that ranks among the most stunning and emotionally overwhelming pieces of filmmaking of the director’s career. Until this point Shutter Island’s mood is largely one of ominous danger. Suddenly we find ourselves in Teddy’s dream universe as he walks down a corridor towards his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams). She berates him for his drinking problem, which he attributes to the fact that he killed so many people during the war. Additional dream/flashbacks will show his involvement in the Dachau Liberation Reprisals and the horrific violence he was confronted with and participated in. But in this particular scene the focus is on the heartbreak that defines Teddy, and, as such, the film itself.

Using lush color to contrast the film’s typically stormy visual palate, the sequence is structured around two key ideas: The first is that Teddy’s dreams about his dead wife help to perpetuate his delusional narrative about the events in his past. First of all, we see ashes floating down around the room like dead flower petals, which is tied to Teddy’s story about how his wife died in an apartment fire. Teddy cannot come to terms with the fact that he killed his wife, and he seems equally traumatized by the fact that his children are dead—particularly his daughter Rachel. Rachel shows up in several of his nightmares, and even says at one point “You should have saved me, you should have saved all of us.” And yet in the dream, Dolores says:
“She’s still here.”
“Who? Rachel?” Teddy asks.
“She never left,” Dolores replies.

On a literal sense this relates to Rachel Solando, the “missing patient” Teddy is supposed to investigate. It implies that somewhere in his psyche he’s aware the disappearance is simply a game. But because his daughter is named Rachel as well, we gather Teddy is incapable of confronting the full extent of his tragic past. Here Scorsese wants us to feel devastated, not disturbed. Composer Max Richter’s sublime and elegant On the Nature of Daylight makes its first of three entrances in the movie, every somber note tinged with feelings of grief and pain. It’s the sonic equivalent of the aforementioned cemetery sign. Out of nowhere the film asks that we might take it dead-seriously. Teddy clings to his wife like he clings to his fake version of the past. She begs him to let her go and then turns to ash and crumbles around him. This is deeply challenging emotional territory, and the case could certainly be made that the pulpy genre style that makes up so much of this movie does not warrant the inclusion of such weighty themes. But to me the opposite is true. When you approach grief from a place you least expect to find it, and suddenly reveal it with such sleight of hand as Scorsese does here, you can’t help but admire it. This could have been another Cape Fear-style genre homage, and that would have been fine. But Scorsese ends up reaching considerably higher. He knows it might make us uncomfortable. He hopes it will move us beyond such a feeling.

Shutter Island takes a wild, twisty approach to reach the conclusion that there’s no way to ever fully recover from a tragedy. You can forge a new identity, try to fall in love again, or go insane. But the truth will always find its way back and will haunt you forever. Andrew is incapable of living with this reality because on top of the grief that dictates his actions is a sense of guilt that sucks his personhood dry. The end credits music of Shutter Island starts with the booming cello used in the film’s beginning. But as that wears off, Scorsese and his long-time musical collaborator pull off the dazzling mash-up of Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight and Dinah Washington’s 1960 song This Bitter Earth. The two melodies mesh perfectly together, and create the somber, melancholy mood Scorsese chooses to impart on the viewer as they leave his movie.

I still have some difficulty fully embracing the way the film works. It’s easy to acknowledge Andrew as an unfortunate soul who was not meant for this earth while also keeping a safe distance from his crippled mind. It’s the kind of thing that can be frightening to get too close to, and that we hope is just the stuff of nightmares. But the truth is that it isn’t. We ought to confront Andrew Laeddis as a man. In a way that sounds like a perfectly obvious, mature perspective. In the world of Shutter Island, it’s the biggest surprise of all.


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

This is from the summer, but Vishnevetsky's writing on George Romero over at the AV Club is perfect, and just in time for Halloween:

Romero’s true genius shone in the way he wrested the conventions of horror away from the drawing-room-and-fireplace set and into the hands of the working and middle classes. He put horror behind the roll-up garage door and in the shopping mall, and made the Rust Belt town and the suburban nowhere as important to the genre as the romantic Carpathian mountainscape and crumbling castle had been to the gothic tradition. Though his zombie films, as well as movies like The Crazies and Martin, Romero tore down the wispy, billowing curtains and put up plastic blinds; blew out the candles and replaced them with dangling bare bulbs; swapped the cobwebbed grand staircase with the creaky basement stairs, the iron portcullis with the plywood door, the horse-drawn carriage with the Amtrak. Everybody owes him some kind of debt.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Paterson (2016)

A very distinct memory when studying poetry in college was during a comprehensive exam during my final semester. The exam was designed to test my knowledge of poetic form and technique, and I recall fretting endlessly that I would forget the difference between trochees, enjambment and caesuras. It seemed crucial then, and a tad trifling now. I don't remember much of the exam, or even how well I did on it, but I do recall the professor, Dr. Gregory, administering the exam and telling us: "Good luck, and don't forget to enjoy the poems."

Two years later I sometimes wonder what use it was studying any of that at all. To seriously scrutinize and analyze poetic form and structure as I was wont and made to do then seems almost petty now as I figure out how to pay for this month's car bill, but what always lingers is that reminder to enjoy the poetry.

Such thoughts flooded through my mind as I watched Jim Jarmusch's latest film Paterson again recently, then again, my viewing habit mimicking the repetitive structure of the movie itself: Paterson (Adam Driver) wakes on Monday morning beside his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and through the day experiences moments of banality, sublimity, perhaps even banal sublimity, as he drives a bus and jots down poetry during fleeting windows of freedom. Tuesday morning: repeat. As Jarmusch takes us through an entire week of this man's life, and in stressing the cyclical pattern of a typical work week he manages to accentuate the minute details that suddenly take on heightened significance against the back-drop of such a repetitive structure.

There's two young boys talking about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter on the bus and Jarmusch observes their innocent faces, their shoes, a woman drinking coffee next to them, and a subtle smile on Paterson's as he eavesdrops. Suddenly a tiny world is created within the context of a routine daily bus trip. There's a rapper practicing a new song in the laundromat at night, and Paterson stops to listen because Jarmusch is in no hurry to get this character anywhere in particular. We simply exist with him and the average everydayness of his life.

As a culture we seem to despair over the weekly routine and then are baffled that so much time has flown by without actually pausing to consider what has actually happened in that time. Instead we require as many distractions from the cyclical nature of life as possible: smart phones, binge watching, social media, sports, etc... You will not find any of that in the movie Paterson, which presents such a unique look at American life that its seems of a different era (Driver's character even seems like he would be more comfortable in an earlier time based on his disinterest in modern technology--he doesn't even own a cell phone). In presenting a character who accepts the boring routine of life, Jarmusch shows how such a routine can take on a beauty and elegance of its own.

Inside the film's central structure around each day of the week exist all sorts of mini-structures that bring a sort of cadence to Paterson's life. We don't quite know what sort of frustrations or anxieties lie within him (a bedside table photo of him in a military uniform has led some to suggest the film is a portrait of PTSD, a claim I neither deny nor really wish to expatiate, as such a notion seems antithetical to the film's agenda-defying ordinariness), but we gather that what for some would be tired repetition for him becomes a comforting rhythm. Waking at the same time each morning, eating the same cereal for breakfast, working a job that literally repeats itself, and attending the same bar each night for exactly one glass of beer. How boring, one might say, but the film counters that with the notion that to find pleasure and solace and acceptance in such things is the secret to life.

Rather than simply accepting life as mundane, Paterson turns the quotidian into something interesting and worthwhile. He sees an Ohio Blue-Tip matchbox on his kitchen table, and starts a poem about it: 'We have plenty of matches in our house, we keep them on hand always. They are excellently packaged, sturdy little boxes, with words lettered in the shape of a megaphone, as if to say out loud to the world: here is the most beautiful match in the world.' In Paterson's eyes, the beautiful and the mundane are of a piece. We are surrounded by minutiae, and what we make of it is the difference between anxiety that the world is not very satisfying to a sense of peace that we can conjure beauty and wonder over something as seemingly random and plain as a matchbox.

The film is complicated by the fact that Paterson seems content quietly perfecting his poetic craft while his wife insists that he tries to publish his work: "you know that I know that your poetry is really, really good. All of your poems are still in that one notebook, your secret notebook," she chides. "My secret notebook," he responds, suggesting he is perfectly content keeping his art to himself. And don't be fooled: Paterson is not a film about the ramifications of artistic ambition a la Damien Chazelle, but rather its focus is on the creative process itself. It hardly matters where Paterson wants to go or where he'll end up. Instead, Jarmusch cares about how we come about creating in the first place. Watch how in one scene Paterson wakes up and seems particularly in love with his wife as they lay snuggling in bed. That morning, as he waits to begin his bus route, his poem about the matchbox takes on a sudden air of sublime romantic euphoria:

'All this I will give you. That is what you gave me. I become the cigarette, and you the match, or, I the match and you the cigarette, blazing with kisses that smolder toward heaven.'

Those last lines indicate love as a fierce source of inspiration, and while they may not be the best poetry that this character produces (though the matchbox poem as a whole is quite stunning), there's something deeply affecting about seeing Paterson's feelings articulated in his notebook.

Since Jarmusch essentially adopts the same attitude as his protagonist, the sense of rhythm with which Paterson lives his life becomes the film's own tempo. The pace of Paterson never changes, thus it has no stride it needs to hit. It simply exists and watches without judgement the life of a man who himself simply exists and watches without judgement. As viewers we feel obliged to do the same, thus trying to read too much into this character, who he is, what's really going on inside him, seems somewhat fruitless. This is a movie to coast along with, to sink into, to exist along side of. Jarmusch's attitude seems akin to my professor's: don't forget to enjoy this.

It's also hard to watch Paterson and not feel the entire form and history of poetry seeped within the film's DNA. It's not just about a poet and the poetic process; its very structure feels like stanzas dividing a poem, its patterns-within-patterns like perfectly calculated internal rhymes. On top of that, the film is rife with references to other poets, from Petrarch to William Carlos Williams. And if the film is ultimately about finding peace within life's cyclical nature and its inherent repetition, then you might think Paterson keeping a postcard of Dante Alighieri in his lunchbox would be loaded with significance. A comment on the famous Inferno sequence in The Divine Comedy and its correlation to Paterson's own inner torment and suffering could be a possibility. But that ultimately reads too much into Paterson's secrets and his past that we are not made privy to. I feel the last thing we are meant to do in watching this movie is attempt to unlock its central character's soul.

As such, it might be more useful to consider a poem the film does not reference, but that I think actually could be crucial in understanding what Paterson is really attempting to do: T.S. Eliot's haunting and wondrous 'Preludes.' A four-part stream of consciousness meditation on everyday life in the city (an attack on modernity? Maybe, but such an intense and academic reading of it takes away the poem's more soulful qualities), the poem ultimately suggests that mundane routines can take on their own strange beauty and ceremonious qualities. What is evening but "The burnt-out ends of smoky days" where "A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps." But Eliot then abandons his stanza with the single line: "And then the lighting of the lamps." In its simplicity and singularity this image of the routine of illuminating the night takes on its own significance. We have the choice to turn a chore into a ritual. The literal "lighting of the lamp" symbolically suggests a way to bring light to the darkness of our lives. 

The morning comes to consciousness 
Of faint stale smells of beer 
From the sawdust-trampled street 
With all its muddy feet that press 
To early coffee-stands. 

Eliot's picture of the morning routine after the lamps have long been extinguished seems all too familiar. The image is either dreary and monotonous or oddly comforting. You can take it as you will. You watch Jarmusch's film, and Paterson's wife commenting that he still smells faintly of beer in the morning, and you hear him pour the coffee, and an identical sensation occurs. I think this film shares a deep kinship with Eliot's poem.

The poem ends:

 I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing: that too, describes Paterson, in the way he responds when asked how he is doing: "Can't complain" or "The Usual" or "I'm okay." Adam Driver's long, somewhat droopy face, his mouth that always seemed bent in a sort of sad-like curve, looks like it was sculpted specifically for this role. Is he happy? Who knows. You sense, though, that this is a character who does not measure his life by happy feelings, but rather by something more like a subdued contentment. He seems to be suffering in some way, but that is okay. Aren't we all? Instead, he is infinitely gentle and the world opens up to him because he experiences it peacefully. Perhaps we could all benefit from seeing the world a bit more like Paterson does.

Paterson, above all, is a film to luxuriate in. We ought to wallow in its languid movements and style. We should be comforted by its assurance that the world, as uncaring and senseless as it often came seem, can also be on our side. All you have to do is allow it to be. In a tragic surprise at the end of the film, Paterson's bulldog Marvin chews up his entire notebook of poems. Oh cruel world! the movie seems to scream at us, until Paterson goes on a walk and meets a touring Japanese poet who provides him with a brand new notebook.

 I take deep solace watching the movie and the way its characters contemplate the world around them. Its subject is poetry, but the movie ultimately is about our relationship to the physical spaces we inhabit and what we do in them and how we ought to think about them. If we can get outside of our daily worries, our domestic anxieties, and our cosmic uncertainties, we will find a world filled with places and people that are either utterly pointless or overwhelming in how much they matter. It's up to you, Jarmusch whispers to us through Paterson's gentle observations. He doesn't need to coax us in the right direction: the simple action of his his movie does all the work: Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Movie Posters

When I recently saw Carl Franklin's One False Move, I didn't immediately think of Blue Ruin. However, the former's poster looked strikingly familiar. Upon further research, I found that Franklin's outstanding neo-noir directorial debut was one of Saulnier's major influences. His poster for Blue Ruin is a borderline rip-off, but the film itself is so singular it totally doesn't matter. Now let's hope his career doesn't fizzle after a couple dynamite features the way Franklin's did.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Green Room (2016)

On the surface Green Room is a brilliantly construed potboiler: a touring punk rock band called the Ain't Rights arrive at a grungy dive outside of Portland to play one last show before heading home back east. From the get-go things aren't quite right, from the venue miss-spelling their name as The Aren't Rights on the sign outside, to the band rashly choosing to open their set with a cover of Nazi Punks Fuck Off in front of their neo-nazi skinhead audience. They see it as a joke, but they're obviously naive when it comes to the sensitive and violent natures of the white supremacists who inhabit these eerie American regions where civility and equality are foreign terms. The rough start quickly turns to a nightmare when the band witnesses the aftermath of brutal murder in the venue's green room and suddenly find themselves shut in there as the management tries to figure out how to deal with the sudden dilemma. 

When people talk about the movie, it's usually the pulpy elements they refer to, the nauseating violence, the white knuckle thrills, and how memorable Patrick Stewart is as the cunning villain holding this punk rock band captive in the green room of his music venue that covertly functions as a drug den.

That's certainly how I reacted and spoke of it after I saw the film when it was released in Dallas last May. But I was a different person in May, and our country was a different country, and as things have changed, and the future awaits at best as a grey cloud and at worst as a cold and windy storm, the function of film as antidotal is in full force.

Perhaps that is why when I began to consider Green Room again a few weeks ago, I cared less for the film's visceral thrills and more for the care with which it was made and that strange, mysterious soul I hadn't noticed before. Context is crucial. I’m different than I was, we’re different than we were, and that creates new avenues of experience. In times like these we wonder, fear, hope, and watch movies, this time through a different lens, and hope to see something that resonates with our needs. We value the good movies of 2016 maybe a little more than we would in a different year. 

Of course Green Room was objectively the same film a second time through, but with the world seeming suddenly far different than it did when I saw it seven months ago, I found new and unexpected things to value in it. And unexpected is the key word here, for I'm a punk rock neophyte and have no real affiliation with its culture. Put that within the trappings of a pulpy genre thrill fest and I'm fully on board for something wild and entertaining. The last thing I'd expect though is to be moved as I was by this movie. And coming when it did, at the twilight of the strangeness that was 2016, I needed it.

The elements that make Green Room a strangely emotional film are not hidden. Rocks need not be turned over to find them. Instead the film puts them in plain sight and allows the viewer to perceive them if they're willing to take in the film as a whole. However, most people I've talked to, and most reviews I've read as well, did not ingest the film's emotional core. This is hardly a problem, as Saulnier does not make it easy to pick out the nuances in his story simply because its central action is so nerve-wracking. It can be difficult to find poignancy in a story when you're having a breakdown (the latter, I’d say, being the chief function of a good thriller).

So let's see just what remains of Green Room when you strip away its brilliant tension, violence, and genre thrills. The first key to understanding how Saulnier's emotional landscape is constructed is through what at this point can be called a motif in his body of work: In his little-seen Murder Party (2007), his breakthrough Blue Ruin (2014), and now in Green Room, Saulnier has demonstrated a penchant for discarding the use of archetypes in genre stories. If you look at most of the great genre films, the archetype is crucial to the narrative, which is why you often hear about genres being interchangeable. In John Carpenter's classic Assault on Precinct 13 (which seems to be a major reference point for Green Room), a cop and a criminal must team up in order to defend a police station under siege by a malevolent street gang. There's a parallel between the cop-criminal tandem and the archetypical outlaw and sheriff in the Old West, which is why it's easy to imagine Carpenter's film as a Classical Hollywood Western. With Saulnier, this sort of mindset isn't possible.

His method is to replace the archetype with normal everyday people who are completely out of their element in a genre movie. That's why Blue Ruin was so strange and invigorating, because Macon Blair played an awkward character in a juicy revenge plot who had no idea how to make revenge look cool. And that's why the punk rock band in Green Room, consisting of bassist Pat (the late, great Anton Yelchin), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), singer Tiger (Callum Turner), and drummer Reece (Joe Cole), aid the movie in its audacity and energy: they're stuck in a room surrounded by violent thugs and have no idea how to go about dealing with that problem. After all, they're musicians, not bad-ass macho movie heroes.

As I re-watched the movie, I knew how it would play out, I knew where the violence would pop up and knew that its grisly nature would make me cringe. I also knew that in the wake of an election that has thrown this country into a strange disarray that the best kind of antidotal cinema is that which reminds of the possibility of a sublime narrative, image, or idea.

But for the most part, Green Room is an awesomely harsh, ugly film, exquisitely crafted yet so cold to the touch it's numbing. But that's precisely why the beauty Saulnier manages to bring to the movie matters so much. It's when something so grim manages to find amidst the rubble a kind of grace and elegance that you don't just take notice, but truly value it. On its own terms, such beauty has less power, but when surrounded by things that terrify us--like getting trapped in a tiny room by neo-nazis, like getting your hand nearly severed by a machete, like getting mauled by a vicious mutt--that it becomes magnificent.

For Saulnier, this begins with the expunging of archetypes replaced by real people. The Ain't Rights is a tight-knit pack, bound by camaraderie and a sense they're participating in an act of preserving the purity of music. Whatever that means. In a film this swift, you can only speculate about it.

At the film’s start when they crash with a radio host named Tadpole, Tiger examines his music collection and says "This dude's legit. He's true." Regardless of their actual talent, the band takes the idea of music and how it ought to be played and experienced dead seriously. When Tadpole interviews them towards the film's beginning, he comments that the Ain't Rights are "Hard to find. Why no social media presence?" he asks. Pat, who represents you might say the heart and soul of the group, responds, "No one wants to starve, but when you take it all virtual, you lose--the texture. You gotta be there. Music is...for effect, it's time and aggression, and it's shared live, and then, it's over." Tadpole then asks the Desert Island Question, the one artist you'd take if you were stranded on an island, and as the rest of the band spews various names, Saulnier keeps his camera focused on Pat, who looks utterly perplexed and stressed by the question. Like his own music-making, he takes these sorts of things dead seriously. You can imagine the other band members drifting away into other avenues of life down the line, but Pat strikes us as a lifer, the one who will always stick around because he loves the music too much. Similar, I should add, to how the film is structured, with each member of the band eventually being struck down until it's just Pat who remains. We don't just want to see him survive because, hey, that's how the logic of good-versus-evil genre films work, because he’s "the good guy," but because he's partaking in the kind of life that's really worth something. He cares. As such, we care.

Green Room does not indulge much in the psychology of its characters. Nor does it offer much exposition about them, who they are, where they come from. Frankly it doesn't have much time to. But it does provide snippets, brief moments that elevate the film if you notice them. When I first saw the film maybe I did notice these things, but I must have forgotten about them immediately once the carnage began. This time around it was these brief moments and small details that stuck with me: the snippets of character explication, the pockets of empathy, and the love Saulnier seemed to have for the Ain't Rights. I realized that Green Room is not the year's most unsettling movie because of its violence, but because Saulnier displays a sensitivity towards the individuals who become victims of the violence. And it's not just the band he cares about.

There's Daniel, a skinhead traitor who tries and fails to help the band escape, just as he tried and failed to escape with a girl whose stabbing by a jealous boyfriend instigated the entire mess at the center of the film. There's Gabe (Blue Ruin's Macon Blair), a bouncer who's so concerned about doing his job that he loses track of the fact that all the violence that takes place is in conflict with his personal values. Note the sadness in his eyes when he realizes he’s gone too far and too much blood has been shed. And of course there's the wonderful Imogen Poots as Amber, a friend of the murdered girlfriend turned ally for the Ain't Rights as they try to escape this nightmare of a situation.

Poots has a wonderfully evocative face, her massive eyes and slightly drooping mouth expressing a natural sense of melancholy and disappointment. As such hers is a perfect bit of casting: you might see her as a badass rebel chick who gets to help the good guys, or you just might take note of how tragic this situation is for her. She’s just seen her best friend get killed, and now she’s in an impossibly difficult survival scenario. If you watch her performance closely, her face, the way she draws out her syllables, you realize she’s not just a genre heroine, but, like the members of the Ain’t Rights, a real person, dealing with the shocking and tragic nature of the situation. 

You might argue that I’m taking this way too far, that these elements are unintentional and that this is a straight genre film with a mean soul. After all, this is a film with killer mutts, dogs trained to slaughter and who in fact take out a two unfortunate members of the Ain’t Rights. Yet in the film’s end, when Pat and Amber at last emerge victorious and the trainer of the dogs is shot dead, we see one of them walk over and rest its head on its master. It’s troubling, but also a deeply sad, potent image, and one that I don’t think Saulnier would have included if he didn’t intend Green Room as something just a little more than a brilliant exercise in genre filmmaking. When you get into the film’s exciting beats and rhythms, this is something that’s easy to miss. But all you have to do is watch from the right point of view and you see it was there all along.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Wiener-Dog (2016)

The new Todd Solondz movie Wiener-Dog is funny, sad, and cruel and a host of other potent adjectives. In other words, it's like all Todd Solondz movies, and your adjectival description of it will largely be based on your perspective on him and the world around you. Can you differentiate mean-spiritedness and comedy? Can you find pathos in cruelty? Above all, can you attempt to understand and appreciate Solondz's stance on life even if it's not your own?

What's that stance? Well, as Wiener-Dog and just about all of Solondz's other works indicate, life is confusing, painful, and above all, ugly: from bodily fluids and physical oddities, to the futility of dreams, mental disease, and old age, what is life other than a grand burden? One thing Solondz does value is the comedy that is inextricable from the drama of existence, and something he certainly does not deny is a human's capacity to feel, to engage emotionally with another person. Wiener-Dog in particular has some of the most emotionally raw material Solondz has ever written. I should also be clear in stating that when I say Solondz is interested in emotion while also overemphasizing the ghastly facets of life, he's all but allowing himself to be labeled a humanist. We're back to perspective, and if you cannot see that Solondz prizes existence, perhaps consider it.

Narrative wise this his version of a dog movie, as we follow an adorable, albeit mostly inexpressive Dachshund around from various owners. The four homes the wiener-dog finds herself in suggest a roadmap of sorts through life's stages: We start with a young boy named Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who gets the dog from his parents (played by Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy, both excellent as always). Remi has the sort of philosophical inquisitiveness typical of the children in Solondz movies, but when it comes to the practical handling of a pet, he's got a few lessons to learn.

Eventually we'll follow Wiener-Dog as she is rescued from euthanasia by Greta Gerwig's Dawn (a resurrection of the character played by Heather Matarazzo in Solondz's first feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse--seen within the context of that film, this segment takes on additional power), who goes on a road-trip with an old high school classmate, played by Kieran Culkin. While this would represent the youth-in-revolt element of the film's "journey-through-life" structure, it's also the kindest and most gentle portion of the story, thanks in large part to Gerwig's awkward vulnerability and sweetness, the polar opposite of when we saw her in last year's Mistress America.

The final two segments of the movie involve Danny DeVito as an aging and emotionally fraught screenwriter and New York film professor, and then finally Ellen Burstyn as an old woman who seems to have had the life sucked out of her and has decided to name Wiener-Dog Cancer. The DeVitto sequence is powerful (one monologue is especially heart-wrenching and is proof that all you need is one dynamite scene to make an unremarkable character a giant) though some of the satire of New York film school seems a bit obvious given the director's eclectic sense of humor. And that's it: The Journey of Life, Todd Solondz-Style.

The dog itself is ultimately less a character than a tool for human investigation. If there is a statement at all about canines here it's the misanthropic notion that the variety of ways humans are rotten renders them incapable of caring for pets. It's a false notion and I doubt one that even Solondz's bleak outlook finds accurate, but it's here because it fits into the director's idea of comedy. Humor is present in everything, intertwined with even the bleakest and toughest of circumstances. Which brings me to the film's ending, which I won't reveal, but nonetheless feel compelled to say something about: It does go too far. I've sat through many a sick joke by Todd Solondz but I always find a way to see where he's coming from and to find virtue in his point of view. Here though I've a hard time looking beyond the sick joke. Ultimately though, I don't mind because I know Solondz doesn't care what anyone thinks about his work as long as they react strongly to it in some way. And I hope he keeps making films. I'll still come back for more.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dune Revisit

I re-watched David Lynch's Dune last night, a good seven years after I first saw it. My original impression was that it was confusing but impressive, very bad in a very good sort of way. Now I see it as a confounding piece of non-entertainment, an utterly boring slog that left me wondering: should we even try to talk about what's wrong with this film, or should we just ignore it all together?

First off, in terms of plot and ideas, there's very little to say. I recall having difficulty understanding what exactly was going on when I first saw the movie. This time around, the story made more sense mainly because I realized how simple it actually is beneath the muddled means by which its told. It's basically a story about a messianic "chosen one" who saves a planet. The mechanics of the plot involve rival planets, power schemes, trickery, and revenge. The devices for narrative momentum consist of a dangerous drug and giant worms lurking beneath the sand of a desert planet where most the film's action takes place. The rest of the movie consists of inane action sequences, too many non-sensical conversations between under-developed, dull characters to count, failed attempts at exposition, and of course the visuals.

Lynch does provide some striking imagery, such as a unborn baby in a womb that looks like an infant's head sticking out of a pool of blood. But perhaps the biggest disappointment of Dune, once you realize that it's an empty vessel with regards to plot, character, and emotion, is that despite Lynch's flair for style, he's still unable to come up with a coherent or memorable sequence. The action scenes involving the worms could have been thrilling given the money that went into them, but instead Lynch shows no understanding as to how to make them coherent or interesting, let alone exciting (there's also major editing problems, wherein important moments of action seem to just end with no explanation of their resolution). Or take the climactic knife fight between the film's hero, played by Kyle MacLachlan, and one of the baddies, portrayed by Sting (who must have thought he was signing up for a magazine shoot instead of a movie). Like every other action scene in this movie, Lynch is either uninterested in generating suspense, or simply acknowledging that he doesn't know how it's done. The sequence is completely inept and devoid of any intensity, as if Lynch had never seen a single good action scene in his life. You'll find this sort of listlessness all over Dune (another standout is when MacLachlan is supposed to be training his new people with sonic weapons and Lynch recklessly rushes through this rather than attempting to show the process).

That, to me, is Dune's biggest flaw. That the story and the characters and the themes are so trite doesn't bother me too much. There are great movies out there with similar problems. But when I'm also bored by what I am seeing, by this supposedly fantastic world Lynch has conjured, I cannot quite accept it.

One final point: the dialogue is pretty horrendous, but to its credit the film does have one great line. I'm not sure if Lynch wrote it or if he took it from Frank Herbert's novel. I love it either way: "Without change, something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens."

Friday, August 26, 2016

Written on the Wind (1956)

Grand, melodramatic, colorful, and supremely entertaining, Written on the Wind in many ways seems like the definitive Douglas Sirk movie. The film oozes with melodrama to the point where you might question Sirk's sincerity, and its story doesn't feel as rooted in the 1950s as Sirk's most popular film, All that Heaven Allows, does. While the latter is certainly pretty great, its reliance on social issues for much of its dramatic weight makes it feel too of a time rather than timeless.

Written on the Wind, released a year after Heaven, fits within a grander tradition of storytelling, rife with portentous notions about family, friendship, honor, and jealousy, honesty, deception, expectation, fulfillment, disappointment, love, and the complex neuroses weigh down people with that much on their shoulders. I list these items with no intention of describing any of them in depth. The film, honestly, doesn't afford the viewer much opportunity to do so. It's aware that these themes are embedded in the narrative, and it's also aware that it doesn't really address them in any complicated way. It sounds like an epic, but at only 100 minutes, it's actually not interested in being one.

The movie opens with an impromptu trip to New York by Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) and Mitch Wayne (Sirk regular Rock Hudson). One's a alcoholic playboy and heir to a lucrative oil business, and the other his longtime chum and geologist for the business. One's reckless, the other responsible, and the former gets the girl the latter secretly admires, Lucy, an executive secretary played by Lauren Bacall. Despite her fairly distinguished position in New York, Lucy envisions settling down with a husband and kids, and describes herself at the beginning as a "soul searcher." Though she recognizes that Kyle is deeply problematic, the fact that he seems to see in Lucy an opportunity to change his ways and settle down indicates to her that this could be a mutually beneficial relationship.

After the film's lengthy opening bit, we skip ahead five weeks where Kyle and Lucy are now married, while Mitch saunters in the background, resentful from his secret love for Lucy and the fact that he did not act upon it as quickly as his friend did. At this point we're introduced the fourth major player in the film, Kyle's sister maniacal sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone). Cut from the same cloth as her brother, Marylee drinks too much, has serious daddy issues, and is both obsessed with and incapable of getting Mitch to fall in love with her. Her self-destructive behavior is both a cause and a result of her loneliness, and I'm reminded of a line from a certain song, "I drink 'cause I'm lonesome and I'm lonesome 'cause I drink." She also, as the plot progresses into something that borders on pulp, displays attributes of a Shakespearian menace, a little Iago here, a little Lady Macbeth there.

Like all of his 1950s melodramas, Sirk brings his trademark ornate visual style, loaded with artificial autumnal exteriors and intensely lit interiors full of blues and reds. But it's not simply Sirk's sense of production design and lighting that makes him such a memorable stylist, but also his ability to put together a memorable sequence. What happens in a Douglas Sirk movie is always dramatic, but how it happens is the reason he's so intoxicating. Take the scene in this film when Marylee returns from a reckless night out with a gas-station attendant which results in the police taking her home. She goes straight up to her room, puts on a silky red gown, blasts music from her record player, and starts to dance. Her father has just become fully aware of the sexual deviant his daughter really is, and when he hears the loud music from upstairs he decides he must confront her. Sirk intercuts Marylee dancing intensely in her room--like she's under some sort of spell--with her father moving up the stairs towards her room. Sirk frames Marylee from the waste down as she dances, like she's some sort of firestorm, crazed, not quite human. We finally see her face as she collapses in a chair, laughing gleefully, and at the same time her father also collapses down the stairs, dead from a heart attack. It's a sequence that's just as energetic as it is tragic. We see Marylee even more deranged than we'd seen her previously because now her father is fully cognizant of and forced to grapple with the degree of her promiscuity.

One aspect of the film I still have trouble with is the level of sincerity with which Sirk approaches this story. If you read Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay on the film, you'll find he spends much of it talking about Sirk's subversive approach to the material and the irony that pervades it. It certainly makes sense given Sirk's disdain for the cultural norms of the time coupled with just how serious a lot of the so called "great works" of the 1950s really were. But at the same time I still find in his films-even this one-a decent commitment to the characters' psychology, an attempt at capturing something like real emotion amidst the trashiness of it all. However, I think it'd be a mistake to read the film as somehow both sincere and ironic. It's one or the other, and I suppose the beauty of it is that both viewpoints work. When you consider the aforementioned "themes" of the movie you can't help but snicker a little. But at the same time the movie approaches them, however shallowly, with a genuine sense of emotion.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Two Men in Manhattan (1958)

This is the sort of movie that's main value is to satisfy the cinephile's need to find the unknown and unheralded works of a great director. Jean Pierre Melville's 1958 merger of French and American aesthetics and ideologies is ok in and of itself, but for anyone obsessed with his body of work it's a must-see. I suppose you've got to love the way he suggests a juicy pulp noir with a plot involving a French reporter and his sleazy buddy photographer as they attempt to track a missing French diplomat in New York, only to offer a fairly mundane journey into Manhattan nightlife that anticipates the calm coolness of the New Wave crime films that would emerge in full swing a year later with Godard's Breathless.

There's surprisingly little tension in the film, both in terms of characters and plot. There's also not any real sense of danger (the bulk of the movie consists of the main characters questioning various women, such as a singer, an actress, and a dancer, who may have connections with the man in question) and when the French ambassador is finally discovered, you almost laugh at how unremarkable the secret behind his disappearance really is. There's potential for a great examination of media exploitation for personal gain, as the French reporter, played by Melville himself, is at odds with the photographer, who wants to manipulate the events behind the diplomat's disappearance for personal gain. As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in a great discussion on the DVD's Bonus Features, the movie presents a dichotomy between The French and American attitudes with regards to public scandal. In France, you remain hushed, but in America you muckrake your way to glory. It's not that the film sidesteps these issues, but it also never really commits itself to the issue the way, say, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole did.

Two Men in Manhattan is a minor film with minor pleasures. It paints Manhattan as a city that seems to stay awake just for these two ambitious scoundrels. There's a certain artificial and sometimes surreal quality to the nightlife painted here, as if Melville created a New York he imagined that in fact does not really exist (most of the interiors were actually just sets made in France). Perhaps the most American-obsessed of all the great French filmmakers, Melville finally got to make a film about America, yet it remains stubbornly French. Watching it, you sense Melville either gave up on the film, or didn't even fully commit himself to begin with. Unlike a lot of great directors, Melville's most popular works are, I think, his best. If you've never seen Le Cercle Rouge, Army of Shadows, Le Samurai, or Bob Le Flambeur, start with those. Then perhaps check out Leon Morin, Priest, and The Silence of the Sea. Seen within the context of his great work, I think there's some real enjoyment to be found with Two Men in Manhattan. Outside of such a framework, it doesn't offer much.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Lauren Wilford on Room

The immense accumulation of praise Room received last year from its debut at Toronto to its awards season push left me a little perplexed when I finally saw it earlier this year. I didn't think it was especially great even though I admired its intentions. People ask why film criticism matters, and while there are a myriad of answers, one is quite simply that a really stellar and thoughtful piece can alter your initial reaction to a work and make you see it an entirely new way. This may sound a tad trite, but it's not when you actually sit down and experience the act of reading and how great writing will alter notions and perspectives. That's not to say that one should not always try to come up with their own ideas about something and let criticism simply support those ideas. That, after all, is a chief academic ideal for anyone who's gone through an upper level English college course or beyond. But sometimes you find the criticism before you find your own ideas, and sometimes you have to simply accept and embrace its power.

Since I saw Room I've barely thought about it at all (not exactly fitting given the idea expressed in the previous paragraph, but hey, you can only think about so many movies!) I recently happened upon this essay by Lauren Wilford (a deeply thoughtful writer whose latest piece on Darren Aronofsky's Noah and the nature of literary adaptations is a must read) on the movie and started to read it and found it to be extremely enlightening, particularly in its analysis of Brie Larson's character. I found the performance to be good, but the character to be underwhelming as in: there's so much that could be done with this character but the film doesn't seem very interested in doing that. In retrospect, perhaps I didn't wrestle with this film enough. Wilford writes: 
Ma is a victim of affliction. Weil stresses that such a condition cannot be shared. It is “specific, irreducible to any other thing, like sounds we cannot explain at all to a deaf-mute.” When Ma decides to tell Jack part of the truth of their situation in Room, she must try to explain the unexplainable — about how there’s a whole real world outside, with room for all the cats and dogs — but for some things, he still has to stay in the wardrobe. Some days inside Room, Ma would have a “gone day.” We see Ma in bed, submerged in sorrow, in a montage of shots showing how Jack passes the time when she is away. There is a shot in the latter half of the film where Jack tries to follow a distraught Ma, but she slams the bathroom door behind her, shutting him out of her suffering. The camera stays outside the bathroom. It is an echo of the wardrobe door that Ma gently shut on Jack the start of the film. There are places that he cannot go. There are places that we cannot go.