[1934] Viva Villa!

1024px-viva_villa_posterWe learned from JFK and especially from Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line that there exists a small margin where a film is documentary and a where the same movie is a work of fiction. Obviously, a movie is a work of fiction if it is demonstrably or explicitly false: the author of the script made up a story, likely based on his experience or close cousins thereof, and this story receives a visual interpretation. There also exists movies more truth than fiction, whose story spine errs heavily in favor of honest, actual events, whose false parts are either included for narrative’s sake or to intentionally confound an audience. Some genres require more (horror/suspense), and others, less (period piece).

A film is either true, or as true as possible, or false with elements of truth, even if the truth is capital-T truth. All media needs some sort of relatable element, even a sliver of something to grasp. Otherwise, perhaps on purpose, the film will be nonsense incarnate and unwatchable. We can be sure, though, that no film is one-hundred-percent truth, even if it bills itself as documentary. Even primary sources, firsthand accounts of events that for certain happened, have fallibility: the human memory is imperfect.  Continue reading “[1934] Viva Villa!”

[1976] Taxi Driver

taxi_driver_movieposterWe cannot ever be certain how many people live in a place. Article I, Section 2 of the US Constitution mandates that the Union count it citizens every so often, as to get an accurate number of Representatives from the individual states to Congress. In the 228 years since the first decennial census, the Census Bureau, now housed in the Department of Commerce, has conducted 22 of these surveys – each one attempting to coalesce on the actual number of people who live in a place, and certain characteristics about them. The hope, we hope, is to strive for a count of people close to the actual number of people; these two numbers have (probably) been close for some time. The decennial census direct order to the governing institutions from the United States’ governing documents.

It is still voluntary.

People, (probably) in the low-millions range, fall through the thin comb but these people still drive cars or take buses on roads provided to everyone, breathe clean air regulated by strict pollution laws, and reasonably expect clean water to be delivered to their homes, and dirty water taken away. No representative exists to hear their voices because their voices, statistically speaking, don’t exist.

Expanding this logic, thousands, if not more, Travis Bickles roam public streets and the Internet, free to exist, essentially detached from reality. They consume apple pie and drink coffee out of a misanthropic ritual. They subsume pornography because sex is violence, and violence is normal. They drive or walk or bike around, almost aimlessly, not out of academic nihilism, but out of actual desperation that is too distinct to classify, and unfair to study. We have no way to help them, because they don’t exist; but they think, and they plan and they plot, …sometimes. We can’t know. Taxi Driver is an innocuous enough title for a movie about a man angry at nothing and everything at the same time – so he drives a taxi to unwind.  Continue reading “[1976] Taxi Driver”

[2006] Babel

babel_posterSince it became cheap and ubiquitous, the Internet has revolutionized how we communicate; the first total shift since the telephone, and the second since the printing press. The narrative around how has shrunk almost exponentially, as well, as physical contact is no longer a necessity, the human voice is supplicant to the typed word. People have friends they’ve never met, do business with robots, and can sometimes tell the difference between real and not real. The Internet is the simulacra Baudrillard didn’t know he worried about; he was (somewhat) ambivalent about its takeaway meaning. He couldn’t know, but he could induce where culture was going (which, to be fair, is a simulacra of meaning), and he could wax obscenity about it.

We should take care to communicate outside meme culture, however. A clickity-clack of links spreads almost like a virus across the globe. I can watch television in the United States, while downloading images from Morocco, learning recipes from Mexico, and meeting my partner in Japan. I can do all of these things simultaneously, and then I can blog about them. If I craft a narrative about it, I can make a movie via these links; if I do it quickly enough, I can make a hyperlink film.

Babel is representative. It corrals four realistically, yet improbably, simultaneous stories from four corners of the world and tells them in a sort of jumble, linking the stories, possibly, albeit improbably. These stories are really about fate and the impact of small actions. Babel unravels rather than unfolds. It is meant to be representative of fragility, randomness, luck, chance, …probably. Films like Babel: 2004’s winner, Crash, 2000’s nominee, Traffic, 2012’s Cloud Atlas, and so forth, always mean to be world-shattering with meaning, dripping with reflections on the human experience. These movies get self-aware and they always leave some sort of sour taste after the awe of connectedness wears off. These movies feel like pyrite.

As the Internet has matured, the types of media representing it have also changed: hyperlink cinema has slowed down since the early 2000s and movies like Babel are replaced with movies like 2018’s Searching, whose focal point is from the inside of the screen itself. The Best films are supposed to represent the turbulence of the times, sure, but films like Babel overwhelm criticism with false-flag honesty. Films like Searching will come to represent more and more people. Today’s generation grew up on the Internet’s kinks, quirks, buffering and streaming. The future’s generations will include people who have seemingly harnessed the Internet for good and bad. Babel will live right in the middle – not enough (poor, remote) people had Internet – for this story to make logical sense. (Think about all the plots in Seinfeld whose humor would be totally dissolved by a quick mobile call). If we place it in its era, like we must, it stands shallow, but that it stands at all is a testament to director Alejandro González Iñárritu.

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[2001] A Beautiful Mind

115135696_1300x1733Myth supersedes man.

It is impossible to tell in two hours the mess of a man who simultaneously gave language to a fundamental human condition and who also couldn’t, at times, distinguish between real and not real. Thankfully, for the applied economics work that he described so succinctly and eloquently, he did not kill anyone in its stead. Because John Nash held both of these extremes inside of his brain simultaneously, if not incongruously, his story is intrinsically interesting because of the questions it generates: how did he keep himself together enough to give us his famous theory? What challenges did he face and how did he overcome them? Which characters influenced him and how did they evolve to meet him where he was? What don’t we see? Instead of a round look at the person who was, A Beautiful Mind chooses to highlight Nash’s best self, tempering it with periods of prolonged strife. The narrative is clean if not flawed.

In her biography, Sylvia Nasar does not shy away from John Nash the man; in his adaptation, Ron Howard does, and creates John Nash the character, the John Nash that now, outside mathematics and economics enthusiasts, a plurality of audience members know. This is not a problem. As an audience, each person has to decide what to believe, which is the basis of myth. But: a movie like A Beautiful Mind does help us attempt to answer the question of what is more worthwhile from a biography like this, pure truth, as we might expect from the Oscar, or pure entertainment, which we might expect from E!

The distinction between the two is not necessarily evenly distributed. Picture this: there is not a straight line between pure documentary and pure entertainment and the best films hit some sort of apex of some sort of normal distribution. Or, at least, they are supposed to. Empirically, if this is the case, there should be some objective, measurable data to determine “BEST.” Didactically, there is no data besides financial returns and those tend to correspond to popularity, not necessarily quality, and there is no way to marry the two without editorializing the results. So: how should we, as individual readers, and, potentially as a voting bloc, judge the man John Nash as we (or they) evaluate the myth John Nash? Let’s look at a few examples.

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[1943] Heaven Can Wait

It is fundamentally confusing that 1943’s Heaven Can Wait shares a title with the 1978 remake of another movie entirely (1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan). That this strange error exists makes for a confusing legal argument, considering that the newer movie should have run into copyright issues at the very least, and makes for a confusing cultural argument. Why would a studio want an audience to seek out a completely different movie? 

Here Comes Mr. Jordan was itself based on an earlier stage play called Heaven Can Wait, but early studio executives decided to rename it. When remade it took the play’s original title. Even more confusing: 1943’s Heaven Can Wait was itself based off a play called Birthday, whose studio execs decided to change its name to Heaven Can Wait, even though there already existed a play of the same name and the movie minimal narrative ties to it. We can only assume that the studio was not too worried about audiences mistaking these two pieces, the intellectual property laws that guided the convention of copyright were looser or perhaps less strictly enforced, or neither of the above. Perhaps no one bothered to check or, more likely, this wasn’t an issue. 

But these facts seem to be merely inconvenient: there has been no attempt to “correct” the nomenclature in the last 40 years. And besides the loose narrative ties (both plays deal with a person of questionable character waiting in some sort of Muzak purgatory) the stories share no pertinent details.

This phenomenon is not unique to the legacy films either; modern film has seen this happen in two distinct ways. First, constant series reboots make the intellectual property malleable. Every six or so years Spider Man has sought to redefine itself with a more modern take (some would argue a truer-to-the-comic version) on the radioactive spider hero. This phenomenon also doesn’t apply to sequels whose economies of scale decrease seemingly exponentially for studios who are looking to profit (read: all of them) on established universes, familiar characters, and trite, universal storylines. Neither of these phenomena are horrific for film, but they seem to take up a lot of bandwidth and make it increasingly challenging for independent filmmakers to create films that move an artistic needle. Rarely do or will sequels or reboots stand in Best Picture conversations. The populism vs. auteurism and what matters debate is too broad for this take on Heaven Can WaitContinue reading “[1943] Heaven Can Wait”

[1935/2012] Les Misérables

Film without music is a bizarre experience. It is theoretically possible to edit out non-story musical moments from any film – all that is required is the audio stems and a big mute button. The experience would be cold, mildly alluring, and tremendously disjointed. Film scores, often referred to as “the background music,” are clever editing tools to guide an audience through complex story concepts; musical themes signal to the audience that this character has that relationship with this event. Repeat these musical motifs and there exists a complementary story line and tools to tell it. The themes, tone, and timbre of a film are all usually told through a musical story. There is sufficient cause to praise scores within and without the context of their respective films and there is sufficient reason to know of these composers: John Williams, Howard Shore come to mind. Schindler’s List and The Lord of The Rings are treated as masterful because of the treatment of tone via music.

There is instead a different take with movie musicals – in which the music is the purpose – and the dialogue serves as transitory at best. This is also different from operatic performance, in which the transitory dialogue is the music. The music is almost always cloyingly nice or dramatically silly. There is room for comedic musicals and overdramatic musicals on purpose. Musicals are marketed as universal and inoffensive – even ones that deal in subjects whose accompanying music sanitizes horror or deleterious violence. And parents will take their children to see them because enjoying music is a universal human trait, innate to children and there is no need to explain what music is to a toddler or pre-teen. Their purpose is to entertain, and they almost uniformly do. There is no objective rub with film or stage musicals.

Les Misérables has been seen and not read for over a century, the first of whose adaptations appeared on screen in film’s first foray, J. Stuart Blackton’s 1909 take. Victor Hugo’s marvelous epic tale is historically rigorous, characteristically clear, and obviously adaptable to be acted, directed, and enjoyed. For 118 years, until 1980, Les Misérables was a film trafficked in dialogue, in characterization, in setting, and in continuity. But in 1980, music, now almost ubiquitous songs like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Master of the House” define the story and frame it as an experience whose story is meant to sell the songs. And it has been wildly successful. Les Misérables’ 2012 adaptation was nominated for Best Picture, the film that best represented the world’s pulse for the year. It, however, was not the first version of this film to do so: 1935’s fifth adaptation (of now 17 overall) was filmed and nominated first. Despite the media narrative, 1935’s version is a better, more succinct and narratively sound version of Hugo’s original. It does not have songs (which were written in the late 1970s) and barely a score. But this film captures Hugo’s existential despair better than 2012’s cartoonish take. 

The success of 1935’s Les Misérables has roots in the limited technological ability of the time, so director Richard Boleslawski’s version required the earnestness and commanding presence of Fredric March’s Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton’s Inspector Javert to carry it; Tom Hooper’s 2012’s Hugh Jackman/Russel Crowe combination provided a vessel for the dialogue and lyrics, but ultimately half-commanded the screen, which emphasized theatrics and framing over keen acting performance. The strength of the music carried the later film, but its ultimate sterility fundamentally violates Hugo’s tale of despair and sacrifice. It is a chore to watch all 160 minutes of Hooper’s film. Also, and not to be understated, Russell Crowe cannot sing, nor realistically would Javert have any narrative reason to.

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[1961] West Side Story

west_side_story_posterIn a world that deals almost exclusively in violence, our media should reflect it accurately, and tell the stories that humans are both hard- and soft-wired to accept. Our narrative-driven consciousness needs no introduction to suffering from a young age. The birthing act itself is hyper violent, rearing a child is bumpy, and letting her loose into the unforgiving wild is dangerous no matter the station. If one’s too rich: people snipe at her heels for a piece of the pie, and if one’s too poor, the street sucks her in with no discernible contempt. Somewhere in the middle, anonymous, is probably best. But it isn’t immune the hyperreal stray bullet from a gun, or the recently rebooted whip-viper of a particularly cruel tongue.

And a media that sanitizes the violence for consumption is the norm. We don’t let our children, whose brains are fluff, see a favela murder or a starving village. We conspicuously edit meaningful conflict from our stories to ease them, the children – the future – into adolescence. And this is commendable, to a point. If adulthood is soul crushing, let the child have a soul, first.

Film doesn’t have a soul. It’s a visual medium for movie “magic,” whose main concern continues to be visual storytelling. The color and movement need to sell the attention span of the audience, which is getting shorter. Quick bursts of violence and sex do this; familiarity with previous characters does this; violence and sex between and among familiarity is intriguing. But this is new, too. The standards have relaxed considerably where there’s no longer a visum prohibitum on what’s allowed to be shown on screen; visum in se is still true and is monitored by what a public will stand. Snuff, as violent as it gets, is not tolerated; neither is anything off-color involving children. Explicit sex is only moderately tolerated, as it is seen as niche, will get an unfriendly rating and killed at the box office; but mostly everything else goes in service of the story.

Continue reading “[1961] West Side Story”