My latest piece for Musings is about movies set in Hollywood, and how everything gets weirder from there.
Category: Film (page 1 of 14)
When Paul Thomas Anderson sat down for an interview with Marc Maron in January, he said of his 1999 film Magnolia that, if he were making it today, it would be a great deal shorter. The film runs just over three hours, and though Anderson didn’t disown the film at all, he did talk about what drove him to make it the way he did. His father — actor, announcer, and radio personality Ernie Anderson — died in February 1997, a few months before the release of Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and Anderson spoke to Maron about the degree to which Magnolia was a way for him to process his grief. It’s very much a film of and about mourning: Anderson, not yet 30, was wrestling with the death of his father, and the film that came out of that is wounded, frenetic, and restless with emotion. There’s very little release in the film. Rather, initial set-ups will build to emotional intensity and hold it, often cutting between multiple story lines caught at similarly fraught moments, scored to swirling music that never lets up. It’s raw, is what it is: uncomfortable, yearning, rocking back and forth. It’s the work of a young man working through something big. It’s no surprise that he’d tell that story differently now. More than fifteen years have passed, and Anderson’s evolved both as a filmmaker and as a person. But that’s precisely why Magnolia is so important the way it is.
Art is many things, but among them it’s a snapshot of the artist at that moment in time. Here is how they decide to tell the story; here is what they value; here is what they revere or disdain. Of course Anderson at 45 wouldn’t make the same Magnolia as Anderson at 30. That’s the whole point. It’s a work by a gifted artist at that instant in their life. A year on either side, and the final product would be different. Magnolia is the howl over a hospital bed, the thump of the first clod of dirt hitting the coffin lid, the sweat on the pallbearer’s palms. It’s a reckoning, and it’s made from inside the pain. A film made with the benefit of distance provided by time wouldn’t necessarily be bad (Anderson hasn’t made a bad film yet), but it would necessarily be different. The monologue about regret still has blood on the page:
The film runs thick with the themes of parent-child relationships, forgiveness, loneliness, and reconciliation. There are two elderly, cancer-ridden fathers who have destroyed their relationships with their children; a third abusive father who exploits his son; a has-been pining after an unrequited love; a divorced cop struggling to do what’s right; and adult children, stunted by abuse, who have to learn how to live. When Anderson talked to Maron, he said there are parts of the film, possibly entire plots, he’d do away with now, and the film does indeed sprawl. But that sprawl is part of what makes the film rewarding. It’s a movie made by a guy trying to feel everything at once, then trying to understand it and get it down on paper. It’s obsessed with coincidence and chance, with the intersection of mercy and grace, with the way we can make mistake after mistake but still find the opportunity to make up for it. The performances are uniformly stellar, the individual stories land with weight and power, and the film still has the power to stir in the viewer the same awe and fear it evoked all those years ago. Watching it fifteen years later, you’re struck not by how long it is, but by how short; not by how much is in it, but by the shadows of the world just outside the frame.
For Musings: a look at Junebug, redemption, and the South:
My latest piece for Musings is about Croupier. I feel lucky to have actually caught this in the theater when it was released. It was my introduction to Clive Owen, and for years after, I thought first of Croupier whenever I saw him. He’s fantastic in it.
My latest piece for Musings is about Night Moves, a fantastic neo-noir from 1975 that dives deep into the moral uncertainty of the era.
At Oscilloscope’s Musings, I talk about Zero Effect, a sharp-edged mystery-dramedy from 1998 that deserves a wider audience.
My first piece for Oscilloscope’s Musings is about a standout scene in Clean and Sober, one of those great little dramas that can be too easily forgotten. (Good news: you can rent it for a couple bucks.)
Watching The Rundown recently, I was struck by how efficient and enjoyable the action scenes were. After a minute, I realized it was because each of the action scenes also functioned as a narrative one: that is, the story moved forward with the action, and it was different when the action stopped. This is a fundamental requirement for scenes like this, but so many modern action movies ignore it.
If you can pull any scene out of a movie and not change the narrative, or if you can drop a scene in a different part of a movie, that scene needs to go. Every scene is a miniature arc, and it moves the story forward. This is easy to grasp when thinking about regular old dramatic scenes of, say, two people talking, or going out to dinner, or driving somewhere, or negotiating for something, or really anything. But the rule1 holds for special genres like action or musicals, too. When the romantic lead bursts into song, he’s going to use those verses to come to a conclusion: he should pursue his lover, or quit his job, or do whatever the story is offering him. Before the song, he’s uncertain; when it’s done, he knows what to do. That’s progress.
Action movies, done right, work the same way. No matter how spectacular or extravagant the action, it has to push the story along. Die Hard is, as always, a good example. When John McClane squares off against his first terrorist, it’s not just a fight scene, but a move forward for the script. When the scene is over, McClane knows more about who he’s up against, he starts to plan counterattacks, he makes decisions about what to do next, etc. If you removed the fight, and went right from “terrorist stalks McClane” to “McClane, now inexplicably bloodied, walks through the building,” you’d have a gap. The action scene fits.
The Rundown knows this and acts accordingly. When Beck (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) fights a group of rebels in the Amazon rainforest, he’s not just filling screen time, but saving his life and forging a new alliance in the process. When he and his cohorts find an ancient treasure and cause a cave-in, they emerge from the accident with the treasure in hand. If they didn’t, there’d be no reason for the cave-in. Everything has a reason for being, which is part of what makes the film so enjoyable.2
A lot of modern action movies forget this, and they string together action scenes that are designed to smother the viewer but that don’t have much reason for being. There’s a car chase scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that doesn’t change the story but merely prolongs the inevitable. The 2009 Star Trek comes to mind, too: quite a few of its action scenes could be taken out with no change on the story. When Kirk and Scotty beam aboard the Enterprise late in the film, Scotty winds up in a tube filled with water, and Kirk has to race to free him. Take that out, and they still make it to the ship, and they still get apprehended by security. It doesn’t do anything but pad the run time. Related to this, a lot of modern action movies (especially Marvel’s) often operate in bad faith by assuming that, if you’re watching, then you inherently care about all these characters and know their backstories and are just excited to see them do stuff. But The Rundown is its own, self-contained world, so it has to do the work of introducing characters to the viewer and then keeping the viewer invested through drama. This, again, is 101-level stuff, but it gets overlooked so often in today’s tentpole market that it’s almost startling to see a movie that does it right.
Action is narrative. When an action movie bears this in mind, the action feels exciting and propulsive. When it doesn’t, the action feels cursory and forgettable. Story is above all.
All rules can be broken if they’re broken the right way. Malick communicates in tone poems, but they still cohere in their own way.↩
It’s also got a nice energy and a sense of genuine adventure, as well as a solid cast topped by The Rock (eminently charming) and Seann William Scott (perennially underrated).↩
Over at Movie Mezzanine, I take a look at the films of Cameron Crowe, and I talk (in part) about how his movies are also his mission statements.
(Thanks to The Dissolve for the link.)
Cinematically, we seem to be running past the point of recognizable superheroes, i.e., those characters with a large enough pop culture profile and a long enough media history to make them broadly marketable. Superman first appeared in 1938, and Batman followed in 1939; both of them soon expanded from comic books into radio, TV, and movies. Captain America and Wonder Woman came in 1941. But Spider-Man, Ant-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers — these are products of the 1960s, and they’ve seen varying degrees of success in their attempts to enter the cultural mainstream. Their stories and supporting characters are less well known, which makes them potentially much more confusing and alienating for what we’ll call the average moviegoer: someone with a passing acquaintance with these characters, but not someone who reads (or grew up reading) the various comic books that detailed all these characters’ cosmic adventures. When the Joker shows up in The Dark Knight, we’re able to call back to Jack Nicholson, Cesar Romero, even the voice of Mark Hamill; when an interdimensional being uses telekinesis to build Egypt’s pyramids in a post-credits stinger, we have no idea what is happening. I wonder if there’s a point past which the audience won’t be able to keep up with the studios. Maybe it makes sense, in a way, to keep “rebooting” the popular superhero franchises every 10-15 years. They’ve got the momentum.
I’m always fascinated when certain concepts from movies or television break free from their sources and become part of the pop culture lexicon. This is different from popular quotes or characters. What I’m talking about are those instances where things themselves become shorthand for ideas. Examples I’ve been able to come up with:
• Mr. Mom (n.): Now-dated slang for a father lending a hand in what were stereotypically motherly tasks.
• MacGyver (v.): To rig up a needlessly complicated device or mechanism.
• Daisy Dukes (n.): Short shorts existed long before The Dukes of Hazzard, but this became a catch-all phrase.
• Gaslight (v.): To cruelly destroy someone’s memory or perception.
What’s important is that these phrases hint at their origin but aren’t dependent upon it, becoming broader in application over time. For instance, gaslighting doesn’t mean to drive one’s wife insane as part of a complicated heist, but rather, to generally manipulate someone’s perception of reality. These phrases become larger than the works that inspired them. Seinfeld wound up popularizing some, too (like “close talker”), but just as often those were catch phrases that lived and died with the show.
There have to be more than these few I’ve listed. I just need to start remembering them.
• It’s excessive and inappropriate to spend time in a review or essay gushing over the physical attributes of a movie star. That is, it’s one thing to acknowledge their appearance — or even their beauty — and another to make panting comments that edge against lasciviousness.
• Yet we go to the movies precisely because the people on the screen are so good-looking. Put characters actors aside for a minute and think about mainstream, meat-and-potatoes actors and actresses from Hollywood’s inception to today. These are attractive people, chosen because they’re attractive. We want them to be capable performers, yes, but we also want them to be beautiful because we want to look at them. We want to be able to spend two hours staring at something we find attractive, and movies let us do that free of judgment.
• Honest film criticism would, by necessity, need to reckon with this on a regular basis. And not just in the (rightly) expected ways that examine the methods by which fluctuating, hypocritical standards of beauty enforce rigid rules for young women, either. Rather, criticism would need to talk about bodies as forms, shapes, vessels, machines — as part of the artistic and aesthetic experience of the film. When someone moves across the frame with lithe grace; when two faces touch; when a hand strays to an ankle; when a man or woman is photographed to appear stunning. This is part of why we’re watching the movie, and to ignore it, or to pretend otherwise, would be dishonest.
• Perhaps we avoid such discussions in criticism not out of a sense of propriety (i.e., embarrassment at the topic itself) but out of uncertainty (i.e., we don’t know whether such observations would cheapen the film, or the act of writing about it). Additionally, the rise of television recaps and weekly attempts at reviews1 has popularized a critical emphasis on pure narrative and sociological reflections, sometimes at the expense of examining the filmmaking itself — the technique, the mechanics, and the bodies in motion.
• There must be, as in so many things, a middle path: a way to talk about physical beauty as artistic expression, not the target of juvenile lust. Further, it has to be possible to talk about attraction and desire — things that have powered the world since its creation, things that have started wars and brought life and art into being — with a frankness and candor that respects them for what they are. These forms on the screen are part of the picture.
No weekly TV reviews can ever be fully realized or effective, since the work itself is being broadcast and discussed episodically.↩
I recently rewatched The Hunt for Red October, which turns 25 this year. This is one of those action movies I can revisit again and again without diminishing returns, but only partly because it’s a relic from my childhood. 1 Rather, it remains such a compelling film because it maintains steady, calm focus on the human stakes at hand. International espionage and acts of war are discussed, but those are head-fakes. The real story here is about two men on separate but overlapping missions, and how they go about doing them. No cities are destroyed, no worlds are blown apart. There aren’t even that many deaths. The worry of a nuclear strike isn’t real, either: the U.S. officials consider it a possibility, but Ramius is a defector, not a madman. It is, compared with the blockbusters of today, a small film. And that’s the key to its appeal.
Modern blockbusters are usually about the world being in peril, at which point various superheroes or powers are allied to bring civilization back from annihilation. The Marvel movies are opening this up to the entire universe. But The Hunt for Red October is small-stakes action storytelling, which is to say it’s about the people, not the pyrotechnics. “Small” might be misleading here, since this is still an action movie fueled by memories of the Cold War that had just ended; I just mean “smaller than would come to be the norm.” When the world is constantly in danger on the big screen, then we as audiences grow numb to outsized narratives. But when the action is rooted in personal relationships and allowed to play out on a regional level, then we’re able to get our hands around it. It’s no accident that director John McTiernan helmed Die Hard in 1988 and Red October two years later, and that both action films not only stand the test of time 2, but that they’re also all about relationships. Die Hard means nothing if we don’t see John McClane struggling to reconnect with, and ultimately save, his wife. Similarly, Red October means nothing if we don’t have Ramius mourning his wife and reckoning with his life’s meaning, or Jack Ryan doing his best to keep the peace. By staying small, by sticking with these people and making the story matter to them, the filmmaker creates something that works for everyone.
When I was in India researching “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we went to this huge, ice cream picture palace to see a Bollywood movie. Here we were, with 2,000 Indians watching a film in Hindi, and there was the lowest possible comedy and then incredible drama and tragedy, and then (they) break out in songs. And it was three-and-a-half hours! We thought we had suddenly learnt Hindi, because we understood everything! We thought it was incredible. How involved the audience were. How uncool they were — how their coolness had been ripped aside, and how they were united in this singular sharing of the story. The thrill of thinking, “Could we ever do that in the West? Could we ever get past that cerebral cool and perceived cool?” — Baz Luhrmann
Musicals have been on my mind lately. I revisited Singin’ in the Rain several weeks ago, and in the past few days I’ve rewatched the 2007 edition of Hairspray and selected moments from Moulin Rouge!. What continues to stand out is the paradoxical tension in the way musicals do increasingly fantastical things as a means of removing emotional artifice from the narrative. Those moments that are the least realistic, that is, least representative of the world we live in — the moments when men and women actually slip into song, or dance, or rearrange reality entirely — are precisely those moments where the characters in question are being most honest with themselves, with each other, and with the viewer. The songs are what allow the characters to say how they really feel, and they almost always do this in exposed, even flowery language.
I wrote about some of this a few years ago, in a piece on Moulin Rouge!:
Against the wall and unable to think, [Christian] begins to recite Elton John’s “Your Song,” and the easy devotion of the lyrics fit his character perfectly. But it’s when he lets loose and begins to sing that the scene takes on new life and dimension. There are better songs out there than this one, but what matters in the moment is the honesty of the relationship that’s blooming. Luhrmann makes giant, candy-colored, often surreal-looking films, but he never fakes emotion. Ever. That genuineness comes shining through as Christian sings to Satine, sailing her out onto a cloud and capturing her heart. He returns to her later that night and unleashes a medley of pop songs covering everyone from The Beatles to Kiss to U2 to David Bowie. It’s an amalgam that would be almost laughable if there weren’t so much heart behind it; it’s like Luhrmann is having Christian assemble the ultimate mix tape. […]
Luhrmann manages to inhabit a space that allows for large-scale filmmaking that still relies on honest emotion, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The film lives for two hours in the tension between losing control and having the courage just to try, just as the narrative itself discovers that every love story is underpinned with loss. By turns comic and tragic, funny and sad, the movie is ultimately concerned with trying to capture as many disparate aspects of love and life as it can, leading to a finale that’s as uplifting and heartbreaking as any Luhrmann could have hoped to create, and he hasn’t topped the film since. “Moulin Rouge!” is a moving tribute to that notion of love constant beyond death, of forgiveness for wrongdoing, and of the belief that the cost of losing love is always worth the risk of searching for it.
In film, as in so many things, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. And Moulin Rouge! says its piece well. Luhrmann stuffs the frame with ideas, and as ostentatious as he is, he’s also willing to not call attention to certain images or details, content instead to let the viewer find them or to just let their existence color the experience on a subliminal level. (A nice touch: when Christian’s rendition of “Your Song” transitions to a fantasy, his jacket changes to one lined with sequins to catch the moonlight. He’s never still long enough for it to be really noticeable — it’s more of an atmospheric touch than anything.) Yet the statement works in a different way for the medium: musicals are often saying big, broad, poetic things, and they’re doing it through theatrical devices specifically designed to make the performer and viewer more vulnerable. There is no hiding here. It’s the opposite of almost every other film form, in which characters often struggle to remain independent or stoic as they experience life and love. This is a genre that practically bleeds through the projector. To watch someone sing and dance with all their heart is to witness something pure, and gentle, and honest in that we don’t often see on screen. Giving yourself over to a work of art that does this means allowing yourself to be as vulnerable as the characters, and that’s increasingly a difficult thing to do.
What mostly keeps us from engaging with works on this level is the fear of being seen as vulnerable, or being marked as soft. It’s not a requirement to like a musical just because it’s a musical, of course, just like there’s no guarantee a musical is automatically going to be good just by the merit of its genre. But honestly reckoning with something that requires such a high degree of vulnerability from the viewer is hard to do when most of us are used to dealing with things through at least several different layers of ironic posturing. As Christy Wampole wrote in the New York Times in 2012:
As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom? […]
What would it take to overcome the cultural pull of irony? Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.
If we find ourselves less willing in general to be honest, to risk being sad or happy in a genuine way — to risk being moved by a work of art, or risk being let down by one — how much harder will it be to give ourselves over to those works that are designed to be especially vulnerable and revealing? If there’s nothing more honest than someone singing their heart out, how do we keep ourselves from losing the strength to watch? Romance, musical, family drama: any genre that revolves around (or even touches on) the need for emotional frailty will come to seem foreign, difficult, frightening. Keeping ourselves at a distance from the work is a great way of protecting ourselves, but a lousy way of enjoying something, and of living. Closing that distance is necessary.
That’s the danger of the “cerebral cool” or “perceived cool” that Luhrmann fought when creating Moulin Rouge!, and which continues today. It wasn’t just a musical, but one about love, and one that used existing pop songs in awkward and endearing fashion to get its point across. Contrast it with something like the 2012 film version of the musical Les Miserables, which is somehow cooler and less resonant. The best I can figure is that that version of Les Miserables feels like it’s trying to impress me, whereas other musicals feel like they’re unafraid to tell a sweeping story and be a little corny. They put a little more on the line, and it comes through on some deep level I can’t explain. But I know that I don’t want to give it up, or become immune to it.