[2019] Joker

WINK.

Part of Joker‘s allure, and one of the drivers behind its billion-dollar returns, is this cheeky in-joke that Director, Todd Phillips, dangles in front of his audience. “Ah.” He projects. “Surely my audiences will understand that this is more than a comic book movie.” He leans back. “They’ll certainly know that Arthur Fleck is a metaphor for Modern™ life!” He looks disconcertingly over to those sitting 12 rows back. All brows are furrowed. “The world is just so terrible and it’s cruel!”

Joaquin Phoenix breathes lots of life into Fleck aka the “Joker” and his take is eons more maudlin than Heath Ledger’s sardonic villain. There’s nothing about Phoenix’s Joker that’s fun. But does the audience get it? The connection between Fleck’s persona non grata status and the society he’s “forced” into is about as lucid as possible. It’s not supposed to be terrible hard to figure out. DO YOU GET IT?

WINK.

It’ll be hard to tell, but there’s almost certainly a large portion of Joker’s viewership that prides themselves on understanding that Phillips wanted to make this very shallow point. “It’s more than a comic book movie.” Sure, but so was The Dark Knight and Ledger’s Joker also skewered “society” by showing and not telling how chaotic life could be if he simply egged on opposable and immovable forces. Fleck is Thomas Wayne’s secret love child? At least Taxi Driver didn’t try to undermine Travis Bickle’s descent into madness by “revealing” that he was actually Senator Palantine’s long-lost child. Or that he’d been conceived inside a taxi, so he’s having prenatal pangs of violence. Both would have worked as narrative motifs. Both would have failed as poignant plot points.

“Make it make sense!”

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[1972] The Emigrants

I still have no idea where Småland is without looking at a map, and even when I do, it’s not immediately obvious what I’m looking at. I’m told it’s an historical province located in the Southwest of modern-day Sweden. I’m also told that provinces have no administrative functions but serve as cultural heuristics for fellow countryfolk. Outside Småland, Swedes have certain opinions of Smålandians. Folks who live in Jönköping and beyond, or whose heritage emanates from the adjectives that describe its place, Småland is something else. It really makes one think about what’s important when it comes to identity and place. I’m curious if assumptions from 50, 100, 200 years ago still hold. Which brings us to place, identity and otherhood in 1971’s The Emigrants: American critics saw enough in this movie to nominate it for Best Picture even though I’m sure most of them couldn’t pick out Småland on a map, let alone Chisago County, where our characters wound up after a very long journey. (To them and, at over 3 hours, to us.)

It’s curious because, to this point, the Academy hadn’t paid very much attention to non-English speaking film, outside Best Foreign Language film. In 41 years up to the 1971 awards, The Emigrants was only the 3rd non-English film to grab a nomination: Z in 1969 and La Grand Illusion in 1937, and still one of only 13 ever. The trajectory of The Emigrants and its language-successor, Cries & Whispers feels very “anointing the other,” in a quest to promote diversity. This pattern was self-indulgent and short-lived: the next foreign-language film to earn a Best Picture nomination was 1995’s Il Postino and 2019’s Parasite was the first foreign-language winner. What do these examples prove? Very little, except that if we look even a little bit outside American cinema, there’s dozens of other countries’ film industries to dig into, which all have incredible origin stories. The theory of American film exceptionalism is more a story of quantity over quality.

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{No. 62: Method Acting} [1979] Kramer vs. Kramer

Unless it’s the editor’s intent, an audience shouldn’t notice cuts between shots or transitions between scenes. Think: the wipe edit in A New Hope; or, the match cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the dolly zoom interspersed with the violent action shots in Raging Bull. These edits are iconic for adding style and substance to their respective films. They’re integral to the success of telling the story.

Unless it’s the editor’s intent, the audience should not notice transitions between characters in a dialogue scene or quick fades that flow as effortlessly as the narrative itself. Editing, we learn by studying editors, is method. Editors learn by immersing themselves in the script and in the daily shots and in the dark rooms with hundreds of terabytes of film that would run miles long (sometimes it does). A good editor makes a director’s vision shine. A great editor’s director gets them the shots they need to build the story.

Acting is different than editing, he writes, seriously. Great acting, as with great editing, should lift a script into the stratosphere. It should inspire! What, then, constitutes great acting: technical touchpoints; a “feeling?” Is it how and how much an actor appropriately emotes? Is it the ability to recite long lectures of soliloquy, or to spit lines ticky-tacky with one or more scene partners? Is it, “you know it when you see it?”

Actors engage in method, too. This immersion technique is meant to cut the distance between the character and the performance. Perfect method acting aims to remove the human from the performance entirely, as if the person were to be a vessel for lines and blocking. It’s not a new technique, but it’s rarely practiced anymore, if it ever was at all (known cobbler and part-time actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, is a famous, noted exception). Anecdotal evidence points to words like “arrogant” and “self-indulgent.” If the “point” is to immerse oneself so deeply in character study that the performance feels “real,” can it ever? If one was not a soldier in World War I, should one attempt to achieve appropriate levels of shell shock to play a soldier with smoldering PTSD? Should a man who hasn’t experienced loss and death fake it for real? Continue reading

[1934] The Thin Man

Despite Martin Scorsese’s best efforts to distinguish films from movies, studios still make low-brow, crowd-pleasers in bulk to help pay for the cinema Scorsese loves and makes. For every superhero reboot and sequel there’s a handful of arthouse dramas that will inevitably either be long, hooked foul balls or deep home runs. Cinephiles want as many of these made as possible, even if the majority of them are Green Book and not The Green Mile. We want creative chain lightning, but we’ll take the trash heap too. I take Scorsese at his word. He’s certainly earned the right to be cranky in public without reproach.

The truth that I know Martin Scorsese knows is that moviemaking is a business and no producer puts together a movie—or a film—on a promise that it will lose money. Intellectual property is expensive, however, and making a movie is lumpy; one cannot make half a movie to sell, seriously. Development and talent are expensive. That’s why movie studios make sequels—long character and dramatic arcs that span multiple movies are an added bonus that dovetail nicely with the economies of scale a serialized franchise brings. Screenwriters don’t have to teach audiences how to understand characters they’ve seen before and dev time shrinks; set pieces can be reused (or in the case of animation, frames, if at all possible). Continue reading

[1941] Citizen Kane

“What’s in a name?”

The sled isn’t interesting; knowing the origin of “Rosebud” doesn’t change Citizen Kane‘s knee-high depth of character and story. Troves of thinkpieces, even within Citizen Kane, have been written and reported about the significance of Charles Foster Kane (an ebullient Orson Welles) and the meaning of the infamous sled, last seen burning in effigy in the great Kane fire sale. “A rose(bud) by any other name,” says A.O. Scott’s review of Kane‘s metanarrative, Mank, and he’s right. It’s objectively a MacGuffin, but because of the entire film before it, the fadeout itself is the film’s true MacGuffin: an unimportant event that has come to define the movie, 80 years later. It’s telling that there’s no mention of it in Mank, the movie about the movie.

What is interesting, and has endured as an endearing feature in Citizen Kane is the use of Christian nicknames—Charlie, Jed—to (successfully) humanize these characters. In no uncertain terms, the two men are caricatures of figures alive in Welles’ present; Citizen Kane is a deep allegory in character and in spirit and it’s hard to remember this. There’s a reverence with a wink here as the audience sees the “real” Charles F. Kane alongside the public CFK, who is, for all intents and purposes, a wealthy, successful, happily-married, self-made man. None of those who worship him would dare call him Charlie. Jedidiah Leland—Jed—does though. In-movie, it’s a sign of familiarity and a sign of humanity. Later, we only hear the rest of the cast refer to him as Mister Kane. It’s telling this movie wasn’t called Mister Kane, or Charles Foster Kane: Man of the People. No; it’s called Citizen Kane. He’s one of us—but he’s not one among us. Continue reading

[1957] 12 Angry Men

Some years ago, after the United States elected our dumbest citizen president, Aneela Mirchandani wrote for The Odd Post, “Twelve Angry Trump Voters,” casting each of Sidney Lumet’s fictional jurors as archetypical Trumpers, accompanied by quick but deft analysis as to why these jurors behaviors would translate into a Trump vote. With the exception of Juror no. 8, who Mirchandani astutely points out that his “not guilty” vote was not one of truth, but one of truth-seeking, the rest of the jurors are convinced of the prosecution’s case. This author makes a great case comparing attitudes from the foregone Great Era to today’s Great Again Era: they haven’t really changed. Maybe humans, as advanced apes and herd animals, are just wired this way.

I first read Mirchandani’s essay at around the same time I discovered Dorothy Thompson’s essay, written for Harper’s in 1941, called “Who Goes Nazi?” In it, Thompson, who witnessed Hitler and Nazism’s rise in Germany in the 1930s, surveys a room of fictional soiree attendees, defining each by their nature and nurture and thusly assimilating them into two categories: would this person be a Nazi, or not? For it’s plaudits, “Who Goes Nazi?” is a blunt, sobering take and shouldn’t be taken as a syllogism: Nazism isn’t an “if this, then that.” It’s “if those, then him.” It’s a complicated business accusing fake people of being real Nazis.

It seems obvious in the age of obvious Trumpism (there’s always been threads of anti-intellectualism, but never as a hegemonic power) which of 12 Angry Men‘s jurors would have voted for 45, but the analysis is already done. Instead, it would be an interesting exercise to try and peg each character as one who would go Nazi, or not.


Martin Balsam as Juror 1, the jury foreman; an assistant high school American football coach. (not a Nazi)

Juror 1 is not a Nazi. His neutrality is obvious and though he’d see the Nazis’ attempt to wrest control of the Reichstag and think nothing but politics-as-usual, until he’d begin to notice a growing number of small changes to his daily life. He’s interested in keeping the peace, and someone interested in the status quo doesn’t stir the pot, but nor does he actively oppose change. He’ll find his way to a country that is more liberated, perhaps the United States, before the first invasion. He’ll sign up to fight Nazis but will likely find a job pushing papers.

John Fiedler as Juror 2, a meek and unpretentious bank worker who is dominated by others. (Nazi)

Besides Juror 10, Juror 2 is the most obvious Nazi of the bunch. He’ll be a rank-and-file Nazi, assigned to do unspeakable tragedy, and he’ll never find courage to say no to his superiors, of which there are many. After the war, he’ll plead ignorance and will be sentenced at Nuremburg.

Lee J. Cobb as Juror 3, a hot-tempered owner of a courier business who is estranged from his son; the most passionate advocate of a guilty verdict. (not a Nazi)

Although the proclivity for Nazism is there, Juror 3 doesn’t feel hate towards everyone. He’s reeling from the relationship with his son and is projecting his feelings outward. He’s reasoned himself into his verdict, but is finally reasoned out after he’s forced to face his own feelings. Juror 3 could go Nazi, but only if he’s kept away from the true horrors, which would instantly flip him. Death couldn’t escape Germany in the 1930s; Juror 3 doesn’t go Nazi.

E. G. Marshall as Juror 4, a rational, unflappable, self-assured, and analytical stock broker. (Nazi)

Juror 4 is the purest Nazi in the bunch; he’s found a way to rationalize National Socialism–not as a mechanism to scapegoat the other–but as a pathology toward net benefits to him and his family. He stands to gain by joining up with the Nazi party and would likely command others as his unflappable nature makes him perfect for this role. He’d likely have no problem subordinating Juror 10.

Jack Klugman as Juror 5, a man who grew up in a violent slum, sensitive to insults about his upbringing. (not a Nazi)

 

Juror 5 is proud of his heritage, and likely has spent time with people from all backgrounds. He’s continuously confused why others can’t follow his path out of poverty, and feels contempt toward those who try to cheat their way out. But he doesn’t feel right scapegoating them. He’s initially allured by the structure of Nazism but can’t stand for its ideals as, above all else, a hate group. Juror 5’s loyalty is to his community, and won’t stand for its people to be culled based on race or religion.

Edward Binns as Juror 6, a tough but principled house painter who consistently speaks up when others are verbally disrespected, especially the elderly. (not a Nazi)

Juror 6 might be persuaded to join the Nazi party when presented a compelling pro-German argument and is excited at the prospect of more work, but won’t ultimately join when he’s witness to unspeakable horrors in the name of the “German master race.” He holds respect for older members of his community and he won’t tolerate violence against them.

Jack Warden as Juror 7, a wisecracking salesman and Yankees fan who seems indifferent to his role. (Nazi)

Juror 7 is mostly indifferent to the plight of the German people, but he does find humor in people disappearing around him. He’d certainly go Nazi, if only to “get on with it already.” He’d eventually be applauded for vocally opposing Jesse Owens’ success at the Olympics because those medals “are supposed to be ours.” Eventually he’d make the wrong joke to the wrong official and that will be the end of Juror 7.

Henry Fonda as Davis, Juror 8; an architect, initially the only one to vote “not guilty” and openly question the seemingly clear evidence presented. (not a Nazi)

Juror 8 would likely seek out Oskar Schindler, or another German defiant, and actively work against the Nazis out of deep principle and deep respect for humanity. He’d be among the first to recognize the power grab in 1932 and would be deep in secret meetings to overthrow the injustice. The Nazis would have a special reward for his capture.

Joseph Sweeney as McArdle, Juror 9; an intelligent, wise, and observant senior. (not a Nazi)

 

Juror 9 would never be a Nazi, even if he’d agree to join the party. He doesn’t have the “qualities” needed to sustain the master race and would likely be instantly killed or dive deep into couter-insurgency with Juror 8.

Ed Begley as Juror 10, a pushy, loud-mouthed, and bigoted garage owner. (Nazi)

Unlike Juror 3, Juror 10’s grievances are borne from a deep hatred of the “other,” likely taught to him by his parents or by his local news sources. He’d likely respond to shame if it was the dominant party’s position that his feelings were wrong. However, that’s not the case and his racial animus would like make Juror 10 easy to manipulate and placate with the explicit instructions to “remove” others that he deems “un-German” by the color of their skin or the difference of their beliefs.

George Voskovec as Juror 11, a European watchmaker and naturalized American citizen who demonstrates strong respect for democratic values such as due process. (not a Nazi)

Though naturalized, he’s as much American as his fellow jurors. Having witnessed the horrors of World War I, he’d never wish war on anyone, even if it means he stands the most to gain from a party that mostly aligns with his heritage. He’d never go Nazi, having spent so much of his life fighting against anti-democratic hatred in his home country.

Robert Webber as Juror 12, an indecisive advertising executive. (Nazi)

Juror 12 would relish at the chance to sell any idea, as he was taught to do. He’d finally feel appreciated for his work, transforming his bland career into one more worthy of a cause célèbre–any cause célèbre–even if it means lots of his countrymen would be violently excluded. He would be convinced that he’s acting for the greater good and would be highly regarded among Nazi elite.


Of course this analysis is all fictional speculation and has no basis in reality. It’s a parlor game played to demonstrate character development. The very notion that all twelve jurors all have distinct enough personalities from a glorified table read to speculate their Nazism is a testament to the clarity of 12 Angry Men‘s script and Sidney Lumet’s deft direction.

The analysis could all be wrong, but that’s not the point. Humans are creatures of doubt and deserve to be judged on the soundness of their actions rather than on the whip of their wit. Watch what a man does when given ultimate power to choose. It’s this sense of wonder that sets 12 Angry Men apart. It’s hard to judge against Best Picture winner, The Bridge on the River Kwai. For its lasting power in 8th grade social studies classrooms, it should have been 12 Angry Men, though, and especially against SayonaraPeyton Place, and an analogue, Witness for the Prosecution.

[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).

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[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