[1973] American Graffiti

Nostalgia is a hell of a marketing technique. It, as a concept, can be sufficiently disaggregated so that each person’s experience is both universal and personal. Lots of new media relies on the unreachable past. There exists, as I’ve written about before, a term called sonder, which means nostalgia for a time not one’s own. Midnight in Paris captures this feeling to the letter, and commodifies it so that its message can be bought and sold by the very people it aims to placate with dreams of subservience to the artistes de La Belle Époque. Nostalgia is also overwhelming. Instead of inspiration, nostalgic media inspires selective memory, further confusing past narratives. Drowning in nostalgia is akin to a drug-induced coma. Here’s the trick for those who insist on capitalizing on it: rinse and repeat. People will become nostalgic of their own nostalgia.

That’s where, in 1973, George Lucas sold middle-aged Boomers on a “better” time, some ten years earlier, before fake war and realpolitik took generations of Americans to dirt futures. The concept is bizarre, because presumably these very Boomers lived this era, perhaps not as wantonly as the four underdeveloped kids, but they very much existed and had formed their own memories of 1962. Remember, 1962 was the apex year of postwar prosperity for an average American kid. The question for Lucas and his producer, somehow Francis Ford Coppola, is not what they should write the movie about, it’s who is this movie for, exactly? Was it a dopamine insult for Americans who couldn’t stand having family and friends napalming Cambodians and systematically picked off near Hanoi? Was a movie going to suddenly placate the hippies? The answer, in short, is totally, absolutely, and exactly. Here’s a mind-blowing number: in 2019 dollars American Graffiti would have made $800 million on a budget of just over $4 million. This movie made an overwhelming amount of money selling a truly empty version of American Life. Continue reading

[2014] Whiplash

Power can be a frightening subject, but it can also be used to explain away the end of things. Partnerships, whether thrust upon or voluntary, are continuous, minor exchanges of power throughout. When a sovereign directs his subjects to do the bidding of the Crown, the King is exploiting his uninundated power upon ultimately powerless people. When democratic processes mask power, through funnymoney campaigns, who wins? Power can always be recast as a struggle among constituencies; always in motion, teetering atop a spinning point. At some point, every aspect breaks, in order, without notices. Nothing knows existence anymore.

Whiplash is about a power dynamic between two less-than-stellar characters; it is because the audience is watching two antiheros duke out unrepented angst for two hours across many movie months. Neither player has an emotional majority, and in seeps excess power. In blazing boorishness, JK Simmons, seething with disappointment in everything plays Terence Fletcher, a jazz instructor of undetermined but presumably stellar qualifications. In crippling consternation, Miles Teller, slithering with ego and id, plays Andrew Neiman, a drummer of self-sabotage, bad luck, and unquestionable talent. The tale unfolds as typical power dynamic drama often do: one man sees the collective success of a team as his own creation and success. The other man is scratching the walls raw for approval from the gatekeeper to his success, at the behest of everything else. Audiences will inevitably attempt to piece together why this is the case through context clues (plenty) and clever story by outline omission (lots). Director Damien Chazelle masterfully shows and not tells his take on anxiety, adrenaline, and authority.

Power is not tradeable and there is no such thing as “equal power” because there is always a time dilation. The opening few scenes in Whiplash are blurry because no dynamics have yet been established, which serves this story and mood. Fletcher is a menacing presence, the audience can tell; he looms in the background, but then he tosses—no hurls—a chair at Andrew when he cannot immediately tell whether he is anchoring the piece a little fast or a little slow. Where the power play manifests is in the idea that it doesn’t matter if Andrew was playing fast or slow; it was that he was playing at all relied on the whim of a monolith determined on extracting genius FOR THE GREATER GOOD, whose good was neither great nor greater. At every step, to be particularly honest about dissecting the motivating factors for each player, we’d have to ask “for whom”? And we’d be wrong. Continue reading

[2016] Hell or High Water

The Western ceased as an artform in early 1993, when Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven closed the chapter on a much-loved and rarely-maligned genre. Westerns were wholly post Manifest United States, though their premise has been recycled through Shakespeare and Kurosawa, setting the human experience against a backdrop of nothhingness – as the desert has sand and more desert – removes the setting from the movie’s intent. Every character written into a western usually exudes an invisible two-mile sphere from her center point that seemingly bounces off every object with which it comes in contact. This is a prerequisite for this genre it seems, that operates on lone-wolf syndrome and synthesis: the character on which we focus has a larger bubble than everyone else and we, the audience, are supposed to fit empathy inside of it.

Classic westerns, High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, say, dive into bubble-man vs. other bubble-man, bubble-man vs. bubble-community, bubble-man vs. bubble-treasure. Unforgiven asked the audience to examine the self-immolation of bubble-man vs. himself; Eastwood gives his soul the diameter to which so many directors gave the untouchable treatment. This should make this man explode, but there is a pensive quality and a finality to Unforgiven that mostly left the genre undoable anymore. Reworks always fell short and any new attempts at a western came across as aloof, pastiche, or marred by too-small bubbles. If the characters were either not approachable enough or too approachable, or they became caricatures of themselves, the western genre and especially audience would abjectly reject them, sometimes especially quickly or without a second thought. Even acceptable remakes, though wildly unnecessary, like 2010’s True Grit remake (with Jeff Bridges [good casting] in John Wayne’s role), fell short of the atmosphere and ambiance they aimed to capture. It was a consequence of the genre itself bursting out any approachable ideas.

Hell or High Water pierced this veil. This movie is so good while being so modern that it seems to exist solely because no critic could outright dismiss it and no audience could, even subliminally, ignore it. Jeff Bridges, seemingly born to remake Westerns, absolutely crushes his role as stoic-cum-playful sheriff, but the star of this movie is Chris Pine, campy-bubble-man Kirk in Star Trek iterations. He is almost too handsome to make me believe that he has suffered as much as he did, but nevertheless, the steel bubble he erects around his person is ferociously believable and the setting, Texas in its many iterations, is functionally an anti-setting: the trope of lawless West Texas has become part of the history that, culturally, it doesn’t need an explanation. West Texas is the bubble Hell or High Water is trying to wedge into. Then, there is a bubble around the whole state. How can a character study resolve this? Continue reading

[2011] War Horse

Movies like War Horse are terribly misleading. Movies like War Horse sell the audience on emotional resonance through distance and time: that any situation can be made good if we just throw enough stimuli at it. Not only is this misleading, it’s dishonest, and if our goal is to make a movie fun, then producers of movies like War Horse certainly think lying is the most fun. We can pass on this movie as a piece of serious art and a piece of frivolous fun, mostly because it’s almost three hours long and the main point seems to be “this horse can survive through WAR, what are you doing with your life?”

The trope isn’t new and this particular iteration is not even that bad. The movie is a fine Steven Spielberg epic, though not coming anywhere near Saving Private Ryan for its depth or E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial for its reach. Each smaller story plays as a vignette that serves its higher purpose, which is clear, but we don’t ever get the chance to explore whether this idea is particularly interesting or if we are just supposed to like it because we are supposed to enjoy and respect war, and horses. Why wouldn’t we respect a movie about both? Because at the core of the human experience is a deep aversion to feeling the fool. Movies like War Horse are more manipulation than movie — they’re neither tongue-in-cheek nor overtly serious, like Saving Private Ryan or even, perhaps especially, Schindler’s List. When an audience member must decide to like something outright based on an invented consensus, the floor falls out faster than a horse hoof hawking hogwash.

Other movies, somehow and somewhat offensively geared toward “confused women,” like The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood or The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants treat the idea of the magical, fixable object with little to no deference. We aren’t supposed to care about these movies and they aren’t made to win Oscars, they’re made to make people feel a sense of completion. In that way, these movies are rounded-out narratives, even if the story feels flat. The simple hero’s journey in about 100 minutes is not a bad way to spend two hours. But with prestige, even faux-prestige, comes with expectations that have to be managed. War Horse cost someone over $66 million to make; even though it took in a two-point-five times return on this investment, this movie begged for Oscar nominations to reinforce the weight of its convictions, even if, again, without Spielberg and a Christmas release, the schlock doesn’t really weigh anything.  Continue reading

[1991] The Silence of the Lambs

Mediocre acting performances treated as legendary run rampant throughout film history. It adds to a film’s mystique when a consensus concerned critique deems a performance more than merely marginal — it elevates the lore to must-see status for film novices, and will often be included on best-of lists by more seasoned viewers. Reputation begins to precede its merits and once a film reaches this status, merited or not, subjective review loses meaning. It becomes too popular to deride for fear of contrarianism.

This list runs deep, especially among Best Picture nominees. Of the 529 films nominated (so far), a reasonable guess might be a quarter to a third of them are marginally worthy at best in contemporary and extracontemporary context. The script is fine, the directing serves a purpose, and the vision is reasonably well executed. But the performances, for some reason, are marketed as glimmering and transcendent and the industry eats itself. Exemplifying this point seems counter-productive, but I’m often looking at Russell Crowe.

One of a handful of performances that shreds this thread is Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. This performance is so outrageously chilling and so magnificently acted that no amount of overreaction to it seems unreasonable. If a critic were to write that Hopkins as Lecter is the best Best Actor, this critic would not argue it. Only George C. Scott as General Patton in Patton, Ernest Borgnine as Marty in Marty, or Daniel Day-Lewis as whichever character’s skin he’s wearing, would near Hopkins’ heights. Even more incalculable is that Hopkins completely dominates this movie as a spectre — he’s only on screen for a handful of minutes but manages to seep into every conversation during the movie, and is what most viewers continue to talk about after the fact, never mind Jodie Foster’s good performance as FBI Agent. Hopkins/Lecter has surpassed words. Audiences then and now turn to a specific, stuttering seethe that’s usually paired with fava beans and a nice Chianti. This type of characterization and embeddedness is rare in modern society. Where competing for entertainment bandwidth has become a no-win bloodsport, that a decades-old movie “quote” sticks to the lexicon. It is a tribute to Hopkins and his enduring legacy.

It’s unfair to couch The Silence of the Lambs‘ other Oscar wins within Hopkins’ performance, but it’s dishonest not to, too. It is (at least as of the 90th awards, and will likely be for the foreseeable future) one of three films to sweep major categories — Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Original Screenplay — and it is not too far from true to say that the other four awards also belong to Anthony Hopkins. We can spend thousands of words trying to retrofit why this is most likely true, but it would be prudent to look into the nuances of this performance to understand this point. I asked ANP contributor and director Matthew Laud to weigh in:  Continue reading

[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

[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

[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.

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[1934] One Night Of Love

onenightofloveWe tend to think of the media we consume as products, finished from their inception. The point of a talented production and relations staff is to control the narrative; filming is going smoothly, no actor or director feels slighted (at least publicly); and that the release is planned, and executed perfectly from the production schedule through opening night and beyond. If we knew about petty behavior, like we sometimes, do, or we heard about struggle, perhaps the talent is a little less lofty, shrouded in a little less mythos. We want art, maybe not especially film, to dazzle us as a triumph over entropy and the natural path of a Luddite society. And so the process is controlled, with conflict carefully curated and presented to us with or without commentary.

The early talking films, spreading wide throughout the 1930s, proved the technology to record sound to tape and sync it with a moving image became cheaper, more prevalent, and its welders more proficient. Commentary about film was limited, perhaps not by ambition, but by bandwidth: the cost of ink and demand for media process stood at odds and remember media was not yet social, but curated by the powerful few who controlled what was said, who said it, where it would be seen, and when the masses would get to see it. The press was free insofar as the worldmakers believed it so. In short: the corrupt and the balmy occupied the same space. The early film, One Night of Love, was no exception to this way of the world.

Its story isn’t new. It centers around a slice of life of the human spirit: a burgeoning opera singer happens upon a willing and renowned teacher, and they form a bond, ultimately leading to her success and their togetherness. Every film in the 1930s innovated in some way, either technologically or in how it presented a story. One Night of Love helped to push the movie operatic Musical: before popular music became, well, popular, the Opera dominated the space, as the vocal response to a genre that’s teetered across vocal/instrumental divide since the human learned to make sound and to harness it. One Night of Love employed one of the 1920’s operatic stars, Grace Moore, to sing the part and she did so, for all we know, as well as was asked.  Continue reading