[2013] Zero Dark Thirty

zerodarkthirty2012posterHumans have found a way, compressed to virtual 1s and 0s, to make the world “flat.” That obstacles like time and space once prevented information from traveling from New York to New Jersey the long way round seems, now, and soon to our children’s children, ancient. That every human doesn’t have access to his virtual, visceral surroundings is a tragedy, to some, though the very ones that can’t know where the nearest coffee shop is have no access to the raw good two hectares away. In a way, we’ve never been further apart.

Add in narrators, who explain the event all (some) (very few) of us are seeing along with them, in misleading detail. They don’t mean to mislead, of course, but can’t help focusing an event, that for all intents and purposes, is happening through their own personal experience, the experience and profit/information motive of their employer, and the legal directive from anywhere else. Rip these bits up, reassemble them, and remove much of the original source, and you have a sheeny Zero Dark Thirty.

There is no doubt that this film was crafted by an auteur at the height of her craft. Director Kathryn Bigelow knows how to make a film with vision, with gumption, and with bite. Her films are visceral and award-worthy: The Hurt Locker won Best Picture just four years before this craft; it was made without the advanced history of bin Laden’s postmature death, which would happen, according to all available, corroborated evidence, two years later, at a fortified complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan. This is a movie whose premise is so highly contested that it would require wireframing from steel nerves to pass it off as anything more than: before there was bin Laden, and after there wasn’t. But the audience cares about CIA analyst Maya and they care about the piecing together of this narrative, true or not. It cares more about the narrator, unreliable almost by definition, than it does the facts. Zero Dark Thirty is a promise fulfilled to an audience that asked nothing in return. Continue reading “[2013] Zero Dark Thirty”

[2012] Django Unchained

mv5bmjiyntq5njq1ov5bml5banbnxkftztcwodg1mdu4oa-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_l learned, recently, that Alexandre Dumas was a black man writing white stories in the nineteenth century. Cornerstones in American literature – The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers – were written back-to-back in 1844 and 1845 in a post-revolutionary but pre-abolition world. The era is specifically important and places this work into a context not unlike the films we watch today, of yore: representative and reflective. Depending on the reader’s station, she will read Dumas’ work with a particular bent and her life will be further honed because of it. A wealthy white woman in 1855 might understand, through no fault of her own (though, it is very much her fault) The Count of Monte Cristo as a personal attack on the long-aft bourgeoisie, dismantling the wealthy for the betterment of the working and underrepresented classes. A modern black man might read it as a triumph of the wrongly imprisoned over corruption and the consolidation of white power. The very real differences in how people read art makes literature entirely subjective and wholly personal. The same holds true for film.

I learned that Alexandre Dumas was a black man from watching Django Unchained.

That this is true is a testament to how young people are learned and I must read him differently now that I know I know his race, regardless of how I read him before. Does it matter, at all, that I learned this fact from a film? Here are the arguments for both.

No: How a person learns something is irrelevant and that he knows it now is the whole point of education. When building a person, his combination of experiences, truism, faults and values make him who he is and the purpose of education is to ensure that he  has access to as much information as possible. Combined with critical thought these ideas become ritualistic: he will draw upon them to make decisions day-to-day, whether by choice or by subchoice. I happened to choose to watch Django Unchained and by way of this choice I learned a fact about a historically significant figure. I can now make more refined choices about how I think about him, his historical context, his offshoots and literary descendants, and modern application of the Higher point, should I choose to attribute one. For this I thank writer and director (and actor) Quentin Tarantino.

Yes: The question here is why this wasn’t taught to me while in an institute of lower learning. Why were my English teachers, or professors, apt to teach race as contextual clues to enhance the richness of the text. It is not rare that a person’s demography has a circular relationship to his work; in fact by presenting the work of literature as a standalone object, we are doing every aspect involved a disservice. The teacher is teaching nothing; the students are learning next to nothing. Beyond basic reading comprehension, which is necessary and overrated, knowing who Edmond Dantès is and what is struggle is is unimportant. Why did I learn this fact from a movie, in passing? Continue reading “[2012] Django Unchained”

[2001] Gosford Park

gosford_park_movieWe can never know necessarily the true center of anything, really. There is shaky fact that defines a beginning and an end, depending on who you’re asking, their own relationship to the subject, and the motivation as to why one would lie. There is always confusion over whether we care about the spiritual center – a task’s essence – or if we care about its temporal center – a task’s chaos. If each aspect of our lives is governed by an asymmetric sense of place and time, then locating the exact center(s) is good in retrospect, sort of. A post-mortem does us no good until after we’re dead.

If art mimics life in its absurdity only, it can be useful to try to identify an art movement’s center. The creative apex is a reasonable as any point to start a debrief for all those that come after. And still there will be argument, and for good reason. The most methodological way to go about choosing a center-point is to throw a dart at it and hope it sticks; fight away. Film, literature, painting, poetry, sculpture theory will be better for it.

In film it is helpful to talk about eras in terms of technology and we talk about firsts too often, and lasts not often enough. The “western” is a concrete example of this boxing; John Wayne’s mainstay is an obvious and therefore contentious center of the genre. We can think about the timeline imaginatively to organize these thoughts; humans love lists. The more we striate, too, the more nuanced the arguments can become: what about the British period drama?

The spiritual center of 1971’s Upstairs, Downstairs and 2010’s Downton Abbey, is 2001’s Gosford Park. Part Clue, too, Gosford Park captures turn-of-the (last) century class considerations in a haughty, but wholly British way. The landed elite dine and demure in lavish luxury while the working servants and butlers clean and crude in dingy dungeons. The air is of “other,” which, through an omnipotent, omnipresent technique allows the reader to decide who is “better.” We are meant to disparage the wealthy and root for the poor; the most well-written British period dramas also allow for some room to question our presented assumptions: the wealthy, while obnoxious, must churn or burn their wealth or find themselves pariahs, with no outside from whence they may gaze on what was once had.

Do we care about these people anyway?  Continue reading “[2001] Gosford Park”

[2011] The Tree of Life

tumblr_lyn29gp54m1qd4hdlo1_1280Just because something seems obvious, does not make it so, and the straight lines we often associate with time seem to stretch indeterminately depending on individual perspective and the wondering, orthogonal sonder* of others. Yet, vectors do not maketh man; actions do.

Artists, especially ones who seem to operate solely on no trajectory at all defy the hardwired conservatism that demands humans play it safe for the betterment of the species. They often buck the trend of playing it safe to test the boundaries of human experience. Art, then, works as a shared experience because sharing the otherness of experiences is essentially risk-free. They, the reader, don’t experience successes and failures as the artist and because something must be experienced solo, can’t experience the swooping success of completion. When we finish watching a movie, there is no revel in the midst of chaos, but a satisfaction of task exodus. And we move onto the next one immediately, but alone and sometimes together.

The human which defies convention pays the price for organizing chaos. How, then, do we reward the risk? Continue reading “[2011] The Tree of Life”

[1928/29] In Old Arizona

mv5bmtdlnjbjnwmtodlhzs00yjawlwjlmdqtzmmwmtrhnzlmytc0xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjuxode0mdy-_v1_sy1000_cr007431000_al_We shouldn’t celebrate the “first” of anything, really; we can celebrate the best of it, but the two are not necessarily equal. Groundbreaking technology or a story that has been told in a certain way for the first time is worth noting, but not celebrating. Insofar as humans are concerned with chronicling history, it matters that In Old Arizona was the first talking western, the first iteration of O. Henry’s “Calico Kid,” and the first instance of the singing cowboy motif so that we can compare any future iterations against these: we innovate because we don’t want to repeat the past.

In all other instances, we can ignore innovation for the sake of progress. In Old Arizona is not a movie worth watching more than once, but it will remain on the List of Important Things forever.

That the film seems both longer and shorter that it is demands a deep dive into its editing. Sacrosanct firstness aside this movie is too long: the story is simple by design and follows an arc borne by stage and silent film – so why the 100 minutes? Director Irving Cummings and his editor, Louis Loeffler, must have thought that the valence of each scene maketh lean movie. Or, the financial reality left this team unable to make many cuts in post-production because refilming wasn’t an option. Or, actors’ contracts required a certain percentage of screen-time (or somewhat similar).

Or, and most likely, the editing techniques that audiences may know, but likely don’t see, were not yet developed yet. Loeffler relied too heavily on the cut-and-paste with room to insert dialogue cards used exclusively in silent film until that point. The hack job makes this film tiresome with what could have been a tight, 65 minute caper. This film speaks nothing necessarily of his ability as an editor, as he was nominated for Oscars over 30 years later for his work on 1960’s winner, The Apartment, and on The Cardinal.

Continue reading “[1928/29] In Old Arizona”

[1941] The Little Foxes

21355-the-little-foxes-0-230-0-345-cropIn formal probability theory, mathematicians and armchair enthusiasts sometimes describe a technique called “coupling.”

This technique allows for seemingly random variables, x and y, to interact with one another in otherwise random way. Suppose walks that way and this – how can we measure how likely it is that they meet? Or that they never will? Probablists introduce a measure of their own creation to force an interaction, then measure success or failure. This technique allows for the creation of path dependence and bias determination that otherwise could not have been measured.

This is a phenomenal approach to a problem of no consequence. Sure, we care what should happen, but we really only measure what does happen and try to predict, with some accuracy what could happen, given xy, and the medium. Sometimes, with enough certainty, our best guess is correct, and we begin to understand the difference between a graphite prediction and a graphic realization. The Little Foxes, whose production brought Bette Davis and William Wyler together again in 1941, is a film-proximate take on coupling.

The actress and the director make magic; theorists can couple together as much evidence as they want, but there is no measurement for spark and collaborative creativity that can outperform expected results. The Little Foxes proved this in the early 1940s. By way of a proud story, the film pairs together an actress at the height of her career with a director at the height of his. The story had been scene-tested on stage and was destined for imprint on film, with interpretive authority to be canonized as one of the five best of the year. Given this footstool of facts, mathematics aside, a critic from a reel away could have predicted this film’s success from the onset.

And it was almost derailed. Continue reading “[1941] The Little Foxes”

[2015] The Martian

October_2_24_92_99_18.epsThere is a long history of awards’ ceremonies ignoring science fiction as fun but not worthy of enshrinement. Almost, if not all, of the films recorded as Best Picture have been dramas or musicals. The voters, mysterious creatures, but all too predictable, seek to reinforce the gravitas of the human condition, or the light-heartedness of the times between the terrible. Heavy be the high watermark that keeps film from being fun; Drama is Art, but not Fun, because verboten be that particular Venn diagram.

If comedy is the populist mandate for the film industry – and it is – then science fiction is the socialist third-rail. Audiences who scoff at a serious science fiction work – book or movie – often cannot decide whether they enjoy the science or fiction part less. The concepts are too high-minded and far-flung, and the situations just not humanistic. We have not yet been to Mars in any capacity, so instead of letting computer aided graphics show us a branch of the possible, the Academy scoffs. Millions of people saw The Martian and presumably enjoyed it because while the human condition needs history to preserve for future generations, the human condition is not simply a puzzle of the past, it is also very much the struggle for the uncertainty of the future.

Science fiction offers an escape to its readers. The scariest science fiction toes the line between the possible, the macabre, and the near future. The world is broken and we need technology to save it. Eventually, we find out that what we thought we knew was completely wrong, and we unite to crush the dystopia to bring order. The tamest sorts the world out; we are a fixed species in the future and our problems are common and external. We are running out of room and resources for humans, say, so it is time to start exploring our Solar System. Here, science fiction branches off again. There is the fear of being alone in our Universe – and then not – and our neighbors are not benevolent. Then we fight for survival, and we win, because to watch a film about the actual end of the world shows a bleakness reserved for the innermost depths of our minds. There is also the joy of rooting for a singular human who faces dire consequences and must channel the best of us. This character is heroic and faces internal conflict as a matter of narrative. But this human is relatable because his situation is unbelievable, but he is a projection of what we would like ourselves to be.

Continue reading “[2015] The Martian”