[1996] Fargo

Fargo, North Dakota, the place, sits on a crossroads betwixt Interstates 29 and 94, whose interchange will direct travelers from Billings, Montana to Kansas City, Missouri (or Kansas, pick ’em). The clover design is meant to deliver ease to drivers, eliminating the need for other traffic control measures, like stoplights, and to allow drivers to continue their blissful 17 hour drive across the barren nothingness. There’s a faster way, of course, that takes our drivers through Sioux Falls, SD, eliminating the need to travel through North Dakota at all. But that’s not why our family is on this road trip; it’s to see America, as the framers of the state lines intended.

Across Montana, through Dakota (N), then south through Dakota (S), our family will miss Nebraska totally, through a planning decision that routed I-29 along Iowa’s western edge, instead of Nebraska’s eastern boarder. It’s the same reason this sedan will miss Kansas, until this car makes it to dual thread Kansas City. It’s been a pleasant drive thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars Americans paid to pave its lands so that it’s easy enough to drive hundreds of miles for pleasure. Interchanges abound.

Fargo, the movie, happened somewhere on these interchanges, or maybe even further east, in Minnesota, where Jerry Lundegaard (brilliantly oafed by William H. Macy) started his slow tumble into madness. This character is a naïve klutz; a harebrain among pinheads, all of them. Every part of Lundegaard is a cruel gag. It’s where the Coens’ now thrive, casting characterization itself as a character, but were using their early work as a playground. Audiences hear “The Dude” and conjure exactly the effusive image of Jeff Bridges in his robe, sipping unpaid-for milk. Audiences also hear Jerry Lundegaard and think “oh yea, you betcha,” in that Minne-sowta drawl; they think of “Farego” and the woodchipper. It’s a triumph. (This is auteur theory).

Continue reading

[1935] Top Hat

On-screen couples are always more attuned to one another, mostly because the relationship is manufactured. And that’s a fine outcome. It’s fine for people writing a story to include some sort of idealized hook to control for chaos down across screen-time. This type of escapism is not new, but when filmmakers began to craft narrative on screen as a mainstream prospect in the mid-1930s, audiences could share in seeing these emotions on screen for the first time. Books, while accessible, left much of the narrative in a reader’s hands; movies, did a lot more showing than telling. The best movies, still, do a lot more showing than telling.

Top Hat is a raw and clever “screwball” romantic comedy, on the heels of It Happened One Night, pitting two electrifying performers together in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. How iconic are these two? Their names, if not what they’re known for, have been dragooned through film and entertainment history as icons (especially Fred Astaire; this might be because his last name is also, for a song’s sake, extremely rhymable). Astaire played his Jerry-as-dancer before his Jerry-as-actor, and Ginger played her Dale-as-well-rounded everywoman. They’re each other’s foil. The writing places these two characters as far apart as possible, but circumstance (also the writer) pulled them together in the laziest way possible: stage directions.

But what Top Hat is, above all, is a fun movie about attractive people making easy choices. There’s no doubt that Jerry and Dale would be together and the fun in this movie are the song-and-dance breaks that brought both Astaire and Rogers their fame. The movie’s heel is instantly dislikeable, and the minor characters are hapless memes. To be totally fair, this package works as a storytelling device and has been repeated in almost every romantic comedy, ever. Top Hat, its predecessors and its emulators, made it fine to escape into the hazy laze, and audiences were thankful for it. Dotted throughout film history are romcoms with different iterations on the manufacture; often if there was a new leap in technology, screenwriters would find a new way to wink-wink the leads apart. (Oh no! My AIM chat got disconnected!) Continue reading

[2016] Arrival

Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life is a disastrous work of hard science fiction. It doesn’t concern itself with important topics like faster-than-speed-of-light travel and the rigors and failures of data science and analysis. It mocks hard-coded human genetic behavior, like the ability to necessarily and programmatically, ipso facto, comprehend language. It’s instead entirely preoccupied with the squishy science of human failures and the unknowable uncertainty of entropy. Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov might call Chiang’s work “cute,” for instance.

Simply because a work of fiction has scientific elements can classify it, by definition, as science-fiction. But self-serious critics have split the genre, seemingly for the sake of criticism, into hard and soft. The subclasses are meant to mimic hard and soft sciences—think chemistry and physics versus anthropology and media studies. Science’s concern is to attempt to explain the human condition and how we fit into the larger scheme of the Universe.  For its part, “science” has been around for less than half a breath on the time scale it—hard—science attempts to explain. Making sense of chaos is a messy enough business; entropy indeed. 

Arrival, the rebranding of Story of Your Life in movie form, is a masterwork of soft science fiction, then. Part of what makes soft(er) science fiction so appealing is as an analog or as an alternative is the freedom it gives an author or filmmaker to simply tell a story free of self-imposed real-world constraints that don’t apply in made-up worlds borne from the author’s mind alone. This particular story focuses on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity (eat your heart out, Einstein!), tying one’s ability to experience the world directly to their understanding of language. This anthropological treatise is complicated but not unknowable, which makes it a perfect subject for science fiction. Chiang is a masterful writer, Villeneuve, a meditative director, and Amy Adams, a deft actor. It took a relative combination of these elements to pull off the meditative needlework that Arrival eventually became. 

It’s another marginal but effective difference between hard and soft science fiction: the “give” in the storytelling. Because hard science fiction, think Interstellar (which hired actual astrophysicists to accurately represent an on-screen black hole) is so married to its accuracy, insofar as the laws of nature are concerned, its rigidity assumes the form and function of the story. Insofar as the laws of nurture? They’re squishy for softer pieces. If it’s inconvenient that a black hole be scientifically accurate, then filmmakers can just build a tesseract at the event horizon and make the whole story a metaphor for love (…wait). Continue reading

[1973] The Sting

Pauline Kael is easily the most influential film critic that most of the world has forgotten. What makes her style—and voice—more distinct than her peers and especially modern critics is the absolute sincerity with which she wields her devastating pen. Tone is near impossible to master and it’s important to understand how hard it is to douse your words in them without trying to. It’s the game all writers play. Kael had mastered it and then some.

To be critical without being unfair, to pick apart a film with legendary wit without being sarcastic or even sardonic is Kael’s greatest strength. Pauline Kael always told her own story without rewriting the work she covered, but always accepted the work as is—a trait armchair critics and bloggers can’t seem to shed; “but if only director X had done such and such” was most often nowhere near Kael’s reviews. She would always do well to play, not Devil’s advocate, but critic’s advocate, putting words to exactly why a beloved movie was just not as good as we thought it was. Her work, which often got her in hot hot heat with editors and made few friends behind the camera, gave cover to every other critic and ran counter-cultural to a pervasive narrative that popular was either good or bad. Kael’s writing focused on the work. She’s a driving force behind why I’m adamant to finish this blog: I’m looking for a why.

Her review of Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris is as artful as the film itself. It’s a brilliant trick of phrasing and construction, matching Bertolucci’s inward eroticism made outward by Brando’s performance of American masochism. It would seem that Kael thinks of two minds of Last Tango: shock and awe that it was made and shock and awe that the top masters of their craft would make this movie, effectively turning the deck of cards upwards and demanding audiences to pick a card. It’s what Kael does with her reviews. She’ll always guess your card but not because she was looking at the deck.

This review, written the same year as her one-shot takedown of 1973’s Best Picture winner, The Sting, infantilizes the Redford/Newman “thriller.” Her criticism is valid if the reader is looking for reasons not to like it, but it’s the undertones—not so soft—that make a very simple point. She is, in effect, calling out some combination of actor, director, film, industry for straight-washing and woman-erasure in about 200 words. And she’s right and she says it right in the review. What if Last Tango was about a gay “relationship?” What if Shaw (Newman) and Kelly (Redford) sought a relationship that wasn’t poking fun at homoerotic tropes, or propped women instead of equalizing a whole gender? Not to fall into the trap that I’d set for myself: director George Roy Hill made the movie he made and therefore we must judge it for its merits and faults on its face, which Kael does, too. Continue reading

[1988] Mississippi Burning

As years progress, I’m continuously uncertain whether the majority of us understands right and wrong. Granted, this distinction is often not as binary as we’d like it to be (and using “objectively” to preface any extremely non-objective statement, e.g. “objectively, billionaire philanthropy is wrong,” is an instant way to open oneself up to semantic argument). But there are objective, ipso facto rights and wrongs, chiefly, slavery and the subjugation of other humans, is objectively wrong. There’s no justification for it. And yet it happened, and is happening by other names, today, still, even though there’s no justification for it. There’s a long treatise on Wait But Why that I won’t rehash here in full, but Tim makes an incredible argument about parametric power and I believe him.

Mississippi Burning, released in 1988, rehashed a still-unsettled incident from 1964. It commented on the maddening fact that the United States has subjugated Black people to non-entity-at-best for over what was then 300 years.  That’s fifteen generations of families first enslaved and then discarded as other. It’s pathetic but powerful that we still have to say this in 2020, over four hundred years—20 generations—later: Black Lives Matter.

The movie splits time between recounting the deaths of three Civil Rights activists, killed for their work in Mississippi in 1964 registering Black citizens to vote, and the relationship between two buddy/FBI agents sent to investigate their murders. These stories work in tandem, with built-in pressure points, perhaps even counter-intuitive ones, like the state government willfully ignoring the Federal directive to integrate at least, tolerate at best. The interplay between Gene Hackman and Willem Defoe is another pressure point, and is a strong analogue for the old adage of “missing the forest for the trees,” which almost allows the bad actors to win. But there are four other pressure points that help craft this story—the timing and our collective memories of MISSBURN—Mississippi Burning.

Continue reading

[1934] It Happened One Night

One of the stranger, maybe unintentional consequences of the 1930s’ Hays Code was an industry-wide move to hush-hush the unacceptable and repackage it into media moste moral.

Euphemism became a stalwart technique, if it wasn’t already before. Filmmakers and studio executives didn’t invent it, didn’t perfect it, and lost its thread when the Code was lifted in the late 1960s, ushering a golden age of filmmaking. With one fewer (granted, huge) constraint lifted, morality became a function of what studios were willing to produce and what audiences were willing to watch. It was a huge change from “what a governing body was willing to allow.” Freedom of expression brought us movies like Midnight Cowboy in 1969, which, just two years earlier would have been Midday Cowboy, and been about an actual cowboy.

Of course, these rules only applied to films made in America, so it would seem that France and Italy, certainly, exhausted the need to explore sex (pro tip: they didn’t) and violence with a 40 year head start. It’s not true, but America does sill have a tenuous Puritanical relationship with sex and sexuality in a way more liberated countries don’t. There’s less of a fine line between art and pornography in the United States, and the moste modern moral types still seek to protect young people from (female, or female-presenting) breasts, but will happily allow a child to witness gruesome death and produce a Happy Meal about it.

Almost like repressing healthy sexual (and non-sexual!) relationships, packaging them as euphemism for decades, and classifying them as pornography if not perfectly saintlike has had at least some effect on the content American audiences expect. Sex is still shocking; it’s still mostly banned on commercial television and nudity will earn lots of movies a revenue-dampening R, or revenue-killing NC-17 rating from the latest iteration of the Hays Code, the MPAA (but that’s for another discussion). Euphemism, however, will often drag ratings down to PG-13 levels, where it’s safe to say a few swear words and pan out from what the audience “knows” to be a sexual encounter. So it helps at the box office, too. Continue reading

[1972] Deliverance

There’s not a lot of nuance in the other. There’s you, and then there’s the people who are not you.

In your world, there’s you, your team, your group. In this group are people that agree with you, people that agree with people you agree with, and so forth. It’s both expansive and inclusive, but it’s insulated; and it requires an outgroup, whose shores seem to constantly be receding. The outgroup is, of course, definitely wrong and it’s important to say so. In castigating the other as “wrong,” you’ve given up nuance. Deliverance is the ultimate ingroup/outgroup movie on its surface, and lots has been written about its city slicker versus backcountry savagery.

This is the least interesting discussion we might have about Deliverance, a movie filled with nuance and shifting group dynamics. It continues to be unfair to paint parts of America with a broad a brush as Deliverance does. In the late 1960s / early 1970s, lots of America was not urbane, urbanized in the eyes of our four “protagonists.” And just because some parts of American culture are different than others does not ascribe to them inherent value. This is not to apologize for *that* scene in this movie as a gross over-generalization. It’s just to say that there’s a lot more to the humanity that’s been overloaded onto the city slickers and underfunded re: the rural folks. Continue reading

[1962] To Kill A Mockingbird

There’s a handful of roles made for a single actor. It’s rare that an audience will remember an actor by a single role. It takes a confluence of happenstance–timing being the big one. The right actor in the right circumstance with the right personality and experience meets the right writer who writes for the right projection of self; the plot is timely and impactful and the characterization is meaningful, riddled with emotional cues and the director and supporting cast have the right combination of empathy to allow the role to breathe or constrict, as written.

This is rare. It’s rare to get a handful of these circumstances in the same state, and even more unlikely to have them convalesce on the same set. George C. Scott as General Patton in Patton is one. Daniel Day-Lewis bucks this trend and seemingly rearranges spacetime to force the pieces together as Christy Brown in My Left Foot, William Cutting in Gangs of New York, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, President Lincoln in Lincoln, and about half a dozen others. One more to add to this list is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

We’ve got to consider context, too. The external factors that audiences have access to were off the radar to audiences in 1962: it was an age of simmering indifference and false innocence. Americans were lulled into great times of growth. Post-war America ushered in a generation of prosperity and security, mildly plagued by simmering tensions in the East. Fathers and brothers who served their country and came home in Europe or Asia were rewarded with access to education, credit and stable jobs. It was never this way for black Americans, though. It wasn’t even a secret.

Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird from within an era of piercing  failure of justice. Her words, with the benefit of experience, said the quiet part deceptively loud. Through her characters, tightly constructed, the reader sought idealism and the aforementioned justice for humanity. She defended different and championed compassion for the men and women she made. What American idealism had done for 300 years–dehumanized the black experience–Harper Lee, herself white, tried to tackle over 200 or so pages. For whatever looming threat lurked overseas unbeknownst for generations, the internal war we’d been fighting in America raged, nearly invisible to the naked eye. We’d fought to free the slaves a hundred years ago, but the lives of others remained nominally unaffected. Never forget Emmett Till.

Lee’s book, and Robert Mulligan’s movie, is what gives those who would otherwise ignore civil rights of others standing to fight for them, for all Americans, and especially black Americans.

Continue reading

[1929/30] All Quiet On The Western Front

It’s hard to name Western propagandists whose message advocated for war. During times just after intensive global strife, particularly war, lots of the filmmakers sought to describe the horror of war and its lasting effects on the people war devours. Even when one side defeats an enemy, lots of the film made after World War II and Vietnam chose to downplay the idea of victory. The message gleams clear from the genre–there are no winners in war, but losers and broken men.

There’s no indifference in war. Even Leni Riefenstahl, a German woman fascinated and adored by Nazis, but never officially charged as a Nazi, never made “pro-war” films. Ostensibly, she made movies with titles like Der Sieg des Glaubens (“The Victory of Faith”), and her twin masterclasses, Triumph des Willens (The Triumph of the Will) and Olympia (documenting the 1936 Munich Olympics). Close readers know there’s a deeper story to her work, to sow discord for one group and glory for another. This in and of itself isn’t problematic. In fact, most chronicles of war take a stance on an output–death toll–or outcome–a changed national jingoism. Even the documentaries, supposedly full of fact and nothing else, are also full of tone and timbre. There’s no such thing as objectivity. You know how you know? Ask five people to define what the word “objective” means.

This take is not defending Leni Riefenstahl, the propaganda she and her, er, cronies produced, or any of the outputs or actions of war. It is worth noting, however that German propaganda seemed especially fiery and pugnacious, especially between the two world wars, inclusive. The spewed lots of pro-might campaigns, ruthlessness toward apologists, and calls to arms to preemptively position the Fatherland toward a position of power. Odd then the timing of All Quiet on the Western Front, a perfectly placed propaganda picture released as Wiemar was on its last legs. It delivered a clear message and implied a warning to the next decade: war is not glory; war is not might; war is death; and war is fright. Continue reading

[1973] Cries and Whispers

There’s enough copy out there about how Ingmar Bergman drenched his feature, Cries and Whispers in red (röd). He chose red (especially after the majority of his earlier work was monochrome) for its striking visuals, color theory, and connection to Swedish history. If nothing else, in Sweden a specific red, Falu Rödfärg, colors a significant number of buildings, especially in the countryside. Red, across cultures, symbolizes passion, lust, desire, etc. It’s also the least visible of the color spectrum, so I’ll offer that Bergman chose to oversaturate the film with it to stand it out. It’s the first thing you’ll notice about this movie.

That’s really all there is to say about the color red and Cries and Whispers. There’s lots of scholarship about it. That’s enough.

The not-so-secret fact about the Oscars is their Americanness: of the 566 films to ever have been nominated, 12 have been filmed in a language other than English. This isn’t surprising–the Academy voters are mostly native English speakers, American audiences overwhelmingly see movies performed in English, and despite the premise that the Oscar winner should best represent the gestalt of the year, what we really mean is the zeitgeist of American culture. The road to global reach is unpaved, likely, but we’d like to think that language is the one phenomenon we can overcome; there are subtitles.

But alas, Cries and Whispers was the last Swedish movie to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (but not first! The Emigrants” was nominated just a year earlier. The Emigrants, however wasn’t wholly Swedish, either. It’s a Swedish-rooted story about America).

Swedish, as a language, is sort of bonkers to decipher, and nagging to the native English speaker because of its Germanic roots and bouncy gait. Its structure, like any language spoken by millions of people, follows a pattern, and there’s more than a few cognates. But there’s still great distance between Swedish and English, and it’s an effective barrier between the two cultures. Cries and Whispers is incredibly Swedish, incredibly Bergman, but also full of universal tones ahead of their time: the quiet tragedy of women.

Continue reading