A lack of harmony: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

In Behn Zeitlin’s debut film Beasts of the Southern Wild, his main character is a precocious, wise beyond her years 6-year-old named Hushpuppy, who spends much of the film detailing the ways in which the universe works. However, her persistent mantra of, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right” is as accurate as it is flawed: The universe—and by universe, I assume Zeitlin means society and culture—does require harmony in order to function perfectly, but the universe—indeed, society—can never achieve this harmony because of the many disparate perspectives, experiences, and opinions bouncing around it. The relativism that constitutes the human experience can never allow for such a nebulous quality as “perfect harmony” because one person’s definition of a perfection may well be vastly different someone else’s.

I think this conundrum also applies to the film itself and, by extension, the critical reaction to it. The film has been praised and panned with equal vigor, with some praising it “really wonderful” (Glenn Kenny) and “a passionate and unruly explosion of Americana,” (AO Scott) and others panning it for being “enraptured by [its] own imagery” (Richard Brody), or, simply “bullshit” (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky). Underlying the vast and varied opinions is a special issue, one that isn’t addressed nearly enough in current American criticism: What do we expect of our young filmmakers?

At the risk of sounding derivative, there seems to be two sorts of young independent filmmakers working today: Those who have embraced burgeoning technologies and are readily taking advantage of the wealth of resources currently available to them and those who venture outside of their immediate milieu in examination of more lofty themes Neither sect is making anything that I’d call daringly original; in fact, both are guilty, in one way or another, of a sort of myopia: one that narrows their focus to either masturbatory navel gazing or reductive postulation of arcane subjects. In other words, your Joe Swanbergs versus your Duncan Joneses.

The fact of the matter is there’s a line between the investigative and the self-serving, the ambitious and the pretentious. The unique problem with Beasts of the Southern Wild is that it’s each of these things in equal measure, which explains the polemic responses. When you consider their highly disparate opinions on the work of the aforementioned Joe Swanberg, it makes sense that Brody (pro-Swanberg) would reproach Beasts for being “enraptured by [its] own imagery” while Kenny (anti-Swanberg) would praise said imagery for being “striking, surprising and somehow never off-key.”

Beasts of the Southern wild is both exactly what we need in independent filmmaking and everything that’s wrong with it at the same time. The debate it’s inspiring will, ultimately, transcend the film itself and turn into something less categorical than whether or not it’s any good. It will soon become the watermark of where filmmaking is going in the 21st century, the poster child for Joneses or the whipping boy of the Swanbergs.

Personally, I find this disheartening. I think there’s a lot of good in the film as well as in Zeitlin—the fact that he shot the thing on 16mm alone earns him brownie points. His inquisitive nature and aversion to homage is a welcoming beacon among the endless droves of complacency and intertextualism. But at the same time, Beasts of the Southern Wild is so awash with metaphor, so imbued with allegory that it ultimately says nothing of any real substance. I’m no Kaelist, but her infamous takedown of Malick’s Days of Heaven feels somewhat applicable here.

Is there a middle ground? I’d like to think so, but I’m increasingly doubtful. We’d need a perfect harmony, after all.

Magic Mike and the dismantling of heterosexuality

Yesterday, I read Amy Taubin’s insightful interview with Steven Soderbergh about his new film, Magic Mike. Early in the piece, Soderbergh reveals the film’s intention when he says “I felt that Magic Mike would be the way to build credibility for the final assault on heterosexuality in movies,” the “final assault” in question coming in the form of his forthcoming Liberace biopic.

Magic Mike and co.

The world “assault” is a tad strong, but the fact remains that Soderbergh takes strides in dismantling notions of heterosexuality in film. He achieves this in a number of ways in Magic Mike, namely the ways in which this supposed erotic dance is just about the most un-erotic thing imaginable. Soderbergh (with the aid of choreographer Alison Faulk) stages these dances as grade-school level performance art, equipped with hokey costume and loosely-assembled narratives. The experience seems to be the complete antithesis of what goes down at an all-girl strip club, where the mood is decidedly more lurid and far less showy. At the root of this dichotomy is gender expectation. As evident in the reaction of the women in the film—as well as the women in attendance at the screening I went to—male erotic dance doesn’t appear to be a source of sexual gratification for straight women. Between the incredulous shrieks of “Oh, my God!” and the incessant, nonplussed giggling, male strippers appear to be a novelty—making the plight of Magic Mike and The Kid that much more lamentable. However, the same can’t be said for their female counterparts, who are subjected to far higher degree of sexualization. The patrons at an all-girls strip club may cheer, but never at the spectacle—in other words: “Oh my God, I can’t believe that guy is taking is his shirt off!” as compared to “Fuck yes, that chick is taking her shirt off!”

A look of shock—not necessarily lust.

This conflict of gender expectations is at the center of Magic Mike much like it is at the center of his other 2012 film, Haywire. In both films, it’s the physicality of the human form that defines the character. Gina Carano’s Mallory Kane has a outwardly feminine frame, but as Soderbergh demonstrates both pictorially and thematically—seen in those jazzily orchestrated fight scenes and Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor’s exchange of “I’ve never [assassinated] a woman before” and “Oh, you shouldn’t think of her as being a woman. No, that would be a huge mistake”—her character is defined by far more than just her physical appearance. So if McGregor is right, and we’re not meant to think of Carano as a woman, her obvious femininity is at odds with her masculine ability to, well, kick people’s asses really well. The space between this conflict is Soderbergh’s chief concern.

Gina Carano grappling with, of all people, Channing Tatum

Magic Mike, meanwhile, poses similar question: Can a dude who strips for a living have ambitions that extend beyond just stripping for a living? It’s unwise—and just plain rude—to assume that strippers, male or female, have zero aspirations beyond taking their clothes off for money. Likely, many of them wish they could make money doing other things—Tatum clearly does. And yet here’s Cody Horn, who’s gradual warming toward Tatum is both the narrative’s emotional arc and Soderbergh’s frame of reference to gender expectations. She’s skeptic of his profession and the influence it has on her brother; as a medical assistant who works long hours, she feels as if she has the moral high ground. The lesson she eventually learns is that one can’t judge another based on their physical attributes. Tatum, aside from being a bit of a meat-head, is an artist: His handcrafted furniture is his true passion—one that requires a good amount pf physical excursion, an eloquent thematic touch from Soderbergh and writer Reid Carolin—but the country’s economic struggles keep him from fully realizing this dream.

Discovering these layers in Magic Mike amid its other themes of ambition, the commodification of sexuality, and the aforementioned economic crisis made the film all the more rich.

Weekend viewing: The Black Godfather

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Friday marked the start of a great movie-going weekend in Chicago, one that’s filled with such regal offerings as Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Mia Hansen-Love’s Goodbye First Love. Crashing the highbrow party is the 1974 blaxploitation actioner The Black Godfather (Sat 6/30, 7 and 9:15 PM, at Doc Films), which, along with films like The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) and Trick Baby (1972), does wonders to distill the notion that the genre was all cheap thrills and big ‘fros. If nothing else, the film could provide a nice antidote for those seeking a more facile viewing experience that doesn’t require them to turn their brain completely off.

Although it does does partake in its share of 70s grindhouse crudeness—complete with the requisite gratuitous nudity and random acts of cartoonish violence—writer director John Evans pays close attention to some latent themes that similar films tend to gloss right over. Like most blaxploitation fare, The Black Godfather is a crime drama centered on themes of power, corruption, and ambition under the guise of 1970s race relations. Rod Perry stars as an up-and-coming crime lord who beefs with Don Chastain, the head of Caucasian heroin cartel that peddles their wares in his neighborhood. Perry, a drug dealer himself, claims wants Chastain out of the picture because his drugs are poisoning the black community. But here’s the kicker: once Chastain is dealt with, Perry will be free to sell his drugs to the community, a key contradiction that befalls most blaxploitation films in lieu to the aforementioned nudity and violence.

Evans, however, refuses to gloss over this contradiction. In fact, he opts to place this conflict squarely within text of the film: as the external conflict of Perry vs Chastain plays out in a maelstrom of gunfire and car chases, the internal conflict between Perry and Damu King, who plays a militant black nationalist whom Perry hires as something of a muscle man to help regulate the streets, is where the film finds its true footing. Perry and King both see independence from white influence as a key to African American success, but they different vastly on just how achieve it: Perry, the open market capitalist, asserts more than once that “poverty is a crime,” whereas King is a leftist revolutionary in the vein of the Maoist Black Panthers. Their philosophical differences make The Black Godfather a sort of sociocultural and socioeconomic examination of the post-Civil Rights black experience.

Evans sums up his argument in a climactic scene, in which Perry and King nearly come to blows when deciding how to take care of Chastain once and for all. Perry proclaims that the problem is “out there, not in here,” and calls for a resolution so that they may achieve their common goal of becoming independent of white influence. Evans moves in for a slow zoom as the two partake in an elaborate handshake, signifying a bridging of the gap between the two ideologies—which, of course, leads directly to an elaborate and bloody shootout in a hospital. This is grindhouse cinema we’re talking about, after all.

By no means is The Black Godfather what one would call master filmmaking, but it possesses a thematic and stylistic seriousness unbecoming of many blaxploitation films. The happy middle ground the two protagonists achieve rings as a sort of idealistic possibility that, considering the prototypical conclusion of violence and bloodshed, Evans might not have considered possible. It’s impossible to know for certain because, most unfortunately, Evans only had the opportunity to write and direct three other films. Two were the blaxploitation offerings Speeding Up Time (1971) and Blackjack (1978), while the other was a short documentary about Huey Newton and the Black Panther movement called What Do You People Want?—you can watch it here, thanks to IMDB.

It’s disheartening to think about the brevity of Evans’ work. His other work, though not as thematically compelling, benefits from his deft understanding of stylistic technique. He had the eye of a real classicist; his penchant for wideshots, high and low angles, and narrative economy evoke Jules Dassin at his best. Had he enjoyed a longer career, I’m sure he would have produced some true classics.

Notebook 3: Prometheus/At Sea/Color/Palaces/Moonrise/Dreamer

A few notes on some recently released films:

Prometheus

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, U.S., 2012): So much of this film has already been said and written that it seems somewhat pointless of me to share my two cents, so I’ll keep it brief: Prometheus is a good movie and the sort of escapist cinema that’s actually worth watching. The story isn’t nearly as smart as it think it is—the ideas it explores are no more intellectual than the kind teenagers explore the first time they do ‘shrooms—but I found the film valuable for its classic approach to setting and characterization: The Fordian approach to archetypes, plethora of studio or otherwise handmade sets, and reliance on genre are all tropes of Ridley Scott, who, after the abysmal Body of Lies and Robin Hood, appears have a spring in his directorial step.

Unlike some people, I wasn’t bothered by the obvious holes and ramshackle plotting in the script. Yes, it didn’t make much sense, and yes, not everything was explained in a neat and tidy fashion, but the central theme here is one already explored far more successfully in Jacques Tourneur films like The Leopard Man and Night of the Demon—namely, Dana Andrews’ assertion that “it’s better not to know.” If the film ends unsatisfactorily from a narrative standpoint, it’s in service of this theme and this theme entirely. Personally, I welcome this sort of ambiguity, even at the expense of logic and particularly when it comes in the form of a Hollywood blockbuster, where plotlines are painfully cut and dry. [B]

Two Years at Sea

Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers, U.K., 2011): Perhaps more than any other contemporary filmmaker, Ben Rivers stresses the importance of an image: The emotions they sustain, the information they share, the language of their form, and the vitality of their presence. His newest film is Two Years at Sea, which is his first feature length film after working entirely in the short form. Like most of his work, it blurs the line between documentary and fiction, but in a way that’s far less conceptual—and gimmicky—than it sounds. It chronicles the day-to-day of a Jake Williams, an elderly man who’s sequestered himself away from society and spends his days in a dilapidated hut in the middle of the Scottish countryside.

The film unfolds with the greatest of ease. It’s entirely dialogue-free and follows only the slightest of narratives, but its use of sound, light, and composition create a story all their own. Two Years at Sea is a portrait, in the purest sense of the word—an impressionistic reverie that evokes a sort of introspection I find unique to Rivers’ style. Throughout the film, I found myself reconciling with Williams’ way of life; whether or not I agreed with it; whether or not I thought he had all the answers or none at all. Of course, the point of the film isn’t to answer any of these questions, but the way Rivers is able to carve such deep avenues of thought from seemingly innocuous images is both a rare gift and true feat. [A]

The Color Wheel

The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, U.S., 2011): Here’s a unique case: A film that’s so hilarious yet beleaguering, formally precise yet crudely amateurish, and intellectually stimulating yet thematically burdensome that even after a second viewing, I’m still not sure exactly where I stand with it. What I do know is this: The Color Wheel is unlike any movie to be released in a decade—at least of those that I’ve seen. It follows a stylistic logic all its own and makes no apologies as it ambles between classic road comedy, absurdist chamber drama, and psycho-sexual diegesis.

That said, I’m still not sure how much I like the movie. Its reliance on intersexuality, usually cited as one of its greatest strengths, places it squarely within a reoccurring and increasingly tiresome trope of contemporary indie filmmaking. Perry has made no allusions to the film’s sampling of Phillip Roth and Jerry Lewis, but rather than contextualize these influences via theme or characterization, they’re used more like footnotes, or, to put it bluntly, an excuse for Perry to wax intellectual on what he learned as a clerk at the lauded Kim’s Video.

I can see why this would impress and even stimulate some viewers, particularly the kind of people who enjoy conversations about art and cinema that equate to little more than a dick measuring contest—”Oh, you’ve seen this movie? What about that movie?” “I own the Region 2 copy of that movie and have seen it more times than anybody every”—but these are by far the least interesting elements of The Color Wheel. What makes the film great and possibly important is the way it makes zero apologies for whatever it is it’s trying to do. There isn’t a feeble or unnecessary scene in the whole thing—even when Perry reaches for moments he hasn’t earned (I’m speaking of the climactic scene, in particular)—which can’t be said for most films, independent or otherwise. [B+]

Palaces of Pity

Palaces of Pity (Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt, Portugal, 2011): The opening sequence of this enigmatic parable begins with the lines “The country has changed, but we are the same,” muttered by a wealthy old woman who’s watching her teenaged granddaughters run drills in an empty soccer stadium. We soon learn that one of these granddaughters—either Ana (Catarina Gaspar) or Margarida (Andreia Martins)—are directly in line for her inheritance, although grandma’s yet to decide on who it will be. Rather than focus on the conflict of this scenario, the goal of the narrative is to contextualize history as an ephemeral and ethereal ghost story. In addition to her wealth, grandma is intent on passing down Portugal’s violent past: A flashback takes us back to the Portuguese Inquisition and we see the grandmother—portraying some sort of high-ranking official—condemning two gay men to burn at the stake. It’s within this symbiosis of past transgressions and contemporary malevolence where the characters find themselves, and, additionally, where Abrantes and Schmidt harvest their thematic concerns. Also, fire, as it turns out, winds up having a distinct roll in the film’s climactic moments.

Palaces of Pity is daring in its concept, but at the same time, there’s something very derivative about it—it evokes the loose narratives of Manoel de Oliveira and the diaphanous characterization of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but to fairly diminished returns. That said, the film is outright gorgeous to look at. The way Abrantes and Schmidt blend long shots with medium close ups, as well as images of the actors and images of landscape, are quite inventive. Their eye for composition, as illustrated in the shot above, also cannot be undervalued. [B-]

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, U.S., 2012): The director who inspired a thousand shitty Halloween costumes returns with this touching, hilarious, and deftly realized fantasy about two twelve-year-olds who fall desperately in love and set out to start a new life together in the woods of their island town. Full disclosure: I’ve had my fair share of qualms with Anderson in the past. Though I have admiration for Bottle Rocket and consider Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums two of my very favorite films, his output from The Life Aquatic to The Fantastic Mr. Fox felt, to me, less like a director moving forward with his craft and more like a director content to rest on his creative laurels. Richard Brody has since come to the defense of Anderson’s oeuvre, essentially stating that to love one Anderson film, one must love all Anderson films. I’m not sure I agree with the logic, but I understand the sentiment: Anderson’s filmography is one of stylistic unification, a veritable tapestry of moods and colors that are truly unique to him. So ingrained in his style are his films that the style has become inseparable from the text, which strikes me as both remarkable and infuriating.

That said, Moonrise Kingdom feels to me a culmination of years of work, a true step forward in the sense of what Brody calls the “intensification of [his] characteristics, or even just their more explicit revelation.” It may very well be his best film, and I think that’s thanks in large part to his subjects: The aforementioned star-crossed lovers. Anderson’s films have all featured adults as their main characters (or young adults, in the case of Max Fisher), but they often suffer from an arrested development that renders them childlike. In Moonrise Kingodm, his two main characters are, in fact, children, which I suppose made them easier to sympathize with. But make no mistake: These are acutely Andersonian characters—in fact, they’re highly reminiscent of Richie and Margo Tenenbaum, and I imagine the short-lived excursion to the Natural History Museum detailed in their film played out quite similarly to the one Sam and Suzy embark on in this film.

Like all Anderson films, their visual and literal text are imbued with cinematic history. Watching his films is like playing a game of Cinephile Bingo. In this film, there are touches of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (particularly in the scenes set on a the beach), Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants, and Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child. Something I noticed this time around: Anderson’s famous pans and tracking shots are usually attributed to Orson Welles, but aside from the film’s opening sequence—an exhilarating overture that magnificently sets the tone for what will follow—not much else felt particularly Wellesian. Instead, I sensed a great deal of Brian de Palma in the way he used his camera. Perhaps I’m wrong in this, but I couldn’t see past it. [A]

I Have Always Been a Dreamer

I Have Always Been a Dreamer (Sabine Gruffat, U.S., 2012): Sabine Gruffat‘s visual essay examines the cycle of urbanization, using Detroit and Dubai as examples if its lowest and highest points, respectively. Video essays are an interesting from in that they’re entirely subjective. While many documentaries strive for objectivity—an ultimately impossible endeavor given the conscious efforts of a filmmaker to show certain images—film essays function as the exact opposite: They encourage and require the personal touch of the director and don’t possess any sort of formal or conceptual “rules.”

Gruffat illustrates this by eliminating talking head interviews and experimenting with synch sound. She’ll often show images of herself talking with an interviewee, and rather present what he or she said, simply relay the information as she interpreted it. The result is a highly personal, daringly original survey of two cities that share more in common than meets the eye. For me, the most interesting aspects of Gruffat’s film were the way she juxtaposed each city’s financial wealth with its cultural wealth. Dubai has the benefit of billions of dollars on its side but appears to be culturally bankrupt. There’s a deep infatuation with all things American—its materialism and its consumerism, primarily—but any true form of expression on behalf of its residents is stymied at every turn, such as a photographer who makes good money taking commercial photos of resorts and apartment buildings but keeps his highly political and highly disobedient art prints a secret in order to maintain his business. Meanwhile, in Detroit, the city’s funds are more or less nonexistent but its citizens enjoy certain freedoms those in Dubai do not, such as one person’s efforts to run an arthouse movie theater in an abandoned high school.

Gruffat intertwines the political and the personal in often profound ways, but never quite takes the steps to make any assured proclamations herself—never quite takes full advantage of the film essay style. She shares a unique relationship with each city and I wish she had explored that further. [B+]

Notebook 2: Sea/Anatolia/Film/Cigarettes/Hunger/Engagement

The Deep Blue Sea

A few notes on some recently watched films:

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, U.K., 2011): The newest film from Terrence Davies isn’t his best—I’ll grant that distinction to The Long Day Closes (1992)—but The Deep Blue Sea is unique for the way it contextualizes memory as its main mode of storytelling. The elegant dissolves Davies uses are the perfect tool the propel a narrative that jumps back and forth through time. Images come and go with a graceful fluidity that’s not only a testament to Davies calculated mise en scene, but also David Charap’s editing chops.

It’s a style that differs from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), which also relied on the act of memory to contextualize story and emotion. For Malick, it was a rootless camera that articulated the sensation of memory. Davies, meanwhile, relies more on the rhythm of montage. Both styles work well, although Davies’s approach is more elegant, more tactile, which, to be frank, sometimes gave The Deep Blue Sea a less lively and less invigorating aesthetic.

Davies’s first three films, known collectively as The Terence Davies Trilogy (1976-1983), are more amateurish in comparison but possess a stronger thrust of personality than The Deep Blue Sea, thanks not only to their autobiographical elements but also their realist tone. However, they do fail in one aspect where The Deep Blue Sea does not, and that is the contextualization of memory. The crude pacing of each film—particularly the first installment, Children (1976)—render certain flashback sequences hamfisted and unrefined. The Deep Blue Sea made me yearn for a Davies film that merges both styles, not unlike The Long Day Closes or his other masterwork, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988).

Still, any Davies film is worthy of note. Even a less successful one is better than most. [B]

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2011): I have little patience for “slow cinema.” Not the stuff itself—in fact, I actively revere the work of such “slow” cinestes as Bela Tarr, Jia Zhang-ke, and Carlos Reygadas—but rather the notion that “slow cinema” is somehow different than “cinema,” and, even worse, somehow better. The thing I—and I imagine most other people—admire most about the work of Tarr and his ilk is the respect they show to time and temporality. In particular, Tarr’s films feel more “real” to me than any other filmmaker’s precisely because of their extended run times and lengthy, fully realized long takes. The Turin Horse, thus far the best film of 2012, is perhaps the finest example of contemporary “slow cinema” we have.

However, I’m hesitant to claim Tarr’s films to be more thematically resonant than that of, say, Robert Bresson, whose longest film is A Man Escaped (1956), which clocks in at a comparatively meager ninety-nine minutes. Lisandro Alonso, for my money one of the very best filmmakers alive today, also works with pithy run times. Comparatively, the absurd run times of a Lav Diaz or Jacques Rivette film are, frankly, in direct opposition with human nature. Out 1 (1971) might be the greatest film ever made, but no human being was made to sit indoors, in the dark, for 12 hours straight, and to require someone to do so is nothing short of pompous. Besides, as Hitchcock once said, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”

Meanwhile, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is among the finest purveyors of “slow cinema” working today, even if his latest Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a somewhat uneven effort. The first half of the film is its best, when its narrative is still ambiguous and its sweeping landscapes and breathtakingly deep focus frequently put the guy behind the film’s namesake to shame. Then it shifts to a more conventional and procedural narrative in its second half. Ceylan seems to be trying his hand at the sort of conversationalist drama that David Fincher has come to more or less perfect, but I found myself longing for the mysteriousness of the film’s open spaces. [B+]

This Is Not a Film

This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2011): Jafar Panahi is a fascinating person. This was only made more evident in This Is Not a Film, which he made while under house arrest after the Iranian government targeted him for the insubordinate nature of his work. He was banned from filmmaking for twenty years (hence the title) but set out to document his imprisonment in an attempt to both quench his artistic thirst and also shed light on his precarious circumstances.

Panahi’s films have always straddled the line between documentary and fiction, efforts that have been rightly labeled by many as “humanitarian.” Indeed, as highly political as Panahi’s films are, references to and critiques of contemporary Iranian culture are tacit but no less crucial elements in what are predominately human stories, with The Mirror (1997) being perhaps the best example I can think of. In the eyes of the government, this made him, well, ungovernable.

But Panahi isn’t some politicized radical or capricious ne’er-do-well. He has the soul of an artist and a need to express himself. This is Not a Film may be an act of protest—indeed, it is an act of protest, and a fervid one at that—but it’s also a desperate yawp for the necessity of self-expression. Whether or not it’s a “film,” is irrelevant. The title is a joke, for starters, but ultimately, like any movie worth a damn, This is Not a Film is a statement. It might not be a “film,” but it’s a masterful piece of cinema. [A]

Twenty Cigarettes

Twenty Cigarettes (James Benning, U.S., 2011): The film’s of James Benning present a special sort of problem for me. Namely, I don’t consider them experimental. I can see why others do, of course: Films like 10 Skies, 13 Lakes, and the much-lauded California Trilogy are so non-narrative that audiences are quick to label them as unconventional. What some don’t realize is Benning’s films do tell a story, often in the most pure and unadulterated way possible. As Jonathan Rosenbaum asserts in his review of the California Trilogy, “The linear thrust of narrative tends to be hypnotic. In contrast, Benning’s movies demand to be read rather than simply followed.”

In opening oneself to the nuances of a Benning film, one will find that “experimental” is inaccurate phrasing and something like “untouched” becomes far more apt. Before long, one might even find that, in comparison to Benning, narrative-driven films would be more accurately labeled “experimental,” considering the myriad channels of sight and sound that pulse through them.

Twenty Cigarettes, his newest film, is another simple concept: twenty people (friends of Benning’s), framed in a medium close up, smoking a cigarette. Benning set up the camera, placed the “actor” in front of it, and left the area until he or she finished smoking. The result is vintage Benning—with the added twist of it being the first time he’s worked in the digital medium—in that the images he captures are left to their own devices. The added human elements makes the film that much more stirring. My favorite aspect was the way in which the “actors” were usually hesitant to look directly into the camera, as if it made them uncomfortable—not at all unlike the way people avoid looking directly into the eye of another person. [A]

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, U.S., 2012): Prior to seeing this film, I knew very little about its source material other than that it was exceedingly popular. This put me in a minority, of course, but it didn’t keep me from more or less enjoying what I saw. The central conceit of the film is interesting if not a bit gimmicky: Forcing youngsters into a deadly battle royal (see what I did there?) is a disturbing prospect, but the film itself can’t be labeled as such.

In truth, most of the film’s most intriguing elements aren’t in the Hunger Games themselves. The socioeconomic backdrop of the film’s alternate reality bears striking resemblance to our own, a sort of 99% vs 1% configuration that juxtaposes the extravagantly wealthy against, well, every one else. To play this up, The Hunger Games boasts an extremely ornamental style. Each character’s class level is instantly recognizable by their costuming and manner of behavior—the peacocky garb and grand gestures of Elizabeth Banks as compared to the drab rags and timid movements of Jennifer Lawrence, for example. Whenever the film leaves the acutely realized world of the Capitol, things get considerably less interesting. [C+]

The Five-Year Engagement

The Five-Year Engagement (Nicholas Stoller, U.S., 2012): There’s a classic quality to Jason Segal I can’t help feel compelled by. He’s like Jack Lemmon, only more shlubby and inelegant, and, by extension, exceedingly sympathetic. I could easily see him slipping into the character of Buddy in The Apartment (1960) or even Joe Clay in Days of Wine and Roses (1962). At the same time, Segal possesses the sort of insecurity that leading Hollywood men of the ’60s and ’50s—or even the ’80s and ’90s, for that matter—simply didn’t have. The character he plays in The Five-Year Engagement—Tom, a gifted chef with aspirations to run his own kitchen—is emotional in ways that are unique to 21st century masculinity. In sacrificing his career goals for his fiance’s, Tom swallows much of his pride in an act of good faith that would have painted him as spineless in the age of Cary Grant. This, of course, leads him to resent his fiance and becomes the source of the film’s drama, but the act in itself is unique to modern masculinity.

For this and other reasons, Jason Segal is a sort of neo-classical actor, while The Five-Year Engagement is a nifty neo-classical romantic comedy that views the genre with a distinctly contemporary lens. For instance, if this film had been a Wilder/Diamond joint—Wilder being the film’s most noticeable filmic deity, alongside Howard Hawks and a dash of Frank Capra—the conflict that faces the couple would have had far more to do with their prolonged marriage rather than their divergent career goals. But Tom and Violet live a life that’s akin to marriage, in that they already live and sleep together.

When considering this, The-Five Year Engagement quickly becomes less about the politics between a man and woman on a romantic level and more about the politics between a man and woman, period. Ultimately, the film is a successful examination of reappointed gender expectations and their indisposition to classic Hollywood forms. Segal and his collaborator Nicholas Stoller likely didn’t intend for the film to be a deconstructionist effort, but that’s how I saw it. [B]

My own Sight and Sound list

Anticipation for Sight and Sound‘s lauded and highly debated Greatest Films of All-Time list is mounting. Once every decade, the venerable British film magazine polls assorted film critics, theorists, scholars and historians, as well as noted film directors, asking them to perform a simple task: select the ten greatest films ever made.

No “greatest film” list can ever represent any final word on such a subject, but the Sight and Sound poll is seen as something of an authority. This is probably because the caliber of the individuals polled is extremely high: From Peter Wollen to Jonathan Rosenbaum to Slavoj Zizek to Gilles Jacob—to put it bluntly, these people know what the fuck they’re talking about.

Only occasionally do I know what the fuck I’m talking. That said, that doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion. So in a world where J. Hoberman and I are considered colleagues, here’s the list I’d submit to Sight and Sound. Some are personal favorites of mine—ones I believe I can make a case for—while others are no-brainers: Films I and many others sincerely regard as the greatest ever made. Brief explanations follow.

1. La Règle du jeu (Renoir, ’39): I mean, if I have to explain…
2. L’Atalante (Vigo, ’34): Ditto.
3. The Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, ’29): The first film to fully encapsulate what makes cinema the ultimate art.
4. Rear Window (Hitchcock, ’54): Most will point to Vertigo, but for me, Rear Window is Hitchcock at his most imagistic, formalistic, and essayistic. Unparalleled.
5. Playime (Tati, ’67): Some are postulating that this film will be the newest entry to the list, and for good reason. It’s the greatest “3-D” film ever made.
6. Sunrise (Murnau, ’27): Dave Kehr called it the “greatest foreign film ever made in American.” Pretty much sums it up.
7. Monsieur Verdoux (Chaplin, ’47): Grossly misunderstood. Grossly underrated. An elegant gesture from one of the greatest film artists in the twilight of his career.
8. King Lear (Godard, ’87): It’s Godard’s greatest film, meaning it has to be one of the greatest films of all time, right? Look at me—I’m using logic!
9. The Shining (Kubrick, ’80): Kubrick never made a film so personal. It’s so endlessly enigmatic that it gave us this film, which tells me that, in addition to being first-rate genre cinema, it can also eventually teach us a thing or two about the nuances of filmic interpretation.
10. Late Spring (Ozu, ’49): Because I reckon I need at least one Ozu on here, and this is the one I keep coming back to.

Reflecting on this list, I realize what a fool’s game it is. No matter what, you’re always working with a limited scope. For example, I personally consider it a travesty that I have nothing from Bresson, Ford, Mizoguchi, Dreyer or Welles on here. But if I did, that’d mean possibly leaving off the likes of Ozu, Renoir, Vigo, Godard and Hitchcock, which would also be a shame. I’m irritated by it, and it’s my own list.

This is silly. I kind of regret doing it. Oh, well.

Polanski the classicist

Placing Roman Polanski within the parameters of the auteur theory isn’t the simple task it is for other directors. As Paul Coates suggests in his essay on Cul-De-Sac, Polanski may well belong to two separate definitions of auteurism: the kind of auteur that constitutes what Coates asserts is the modern era (where Polanski would find himself aligned with the likes of Antonioni, Godard and fellow Polack Jerzy Skolimowski) and the kind of auteur that is more akin to the original definition of the term, indeed the “classic” one as postulated by Francois Truffaut, the kind that applied to a director who “prided himself on his professionalism,” and “removed the indiscretions of autobiography…by turning them into stories that seem no longer to apply to him,” whose films could be “analyzed in terms of their symbolic concealments”

It was on the basis of this “classic” definition that permitted the Young Turks of Cahiers du Cinema to proclaim that Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks were true artists, on par with the likes of Gaugin and Degas. That Polanski had little regard for the nouvelle vague is evident in his disavowal of classic style. His first three films (Knife in the Water [1962], Repulsion [1965] and most notably, Cul-De-Sac [1966]) are distinct products of the European modern art style that, coincidentally enough, the nouvelle vague helped birth when Godard and Jacques Rivette supplied their films with avant-garde stylistics.

But things changed drastically when Polanski came to Hollywood, culminating in 1974’s Chinatown. Widely regarded as his masterwork and one of the great pieces of American cinema, Chinatown is Polanski’s stab at classic Hollywood filmmaking, co-opting the film noir genre and mirroring the techniques employed by the likes of Hawks and John Ford. However, as indicative of Hollywood classicism as the film is, there’s an air of menace in Chinatown that seems entirely preoccupied with dismantling the myth of Los Angeles. Screenwriter Robert Towne borrowed from William Mulholland’s construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct just before WWI. Much like the dam project in Chinatown, Mulholland’s scheme forced unbeknownst landowners to sell their properties for far less then their worth, thus paving the way for LA to expand. Mulholland pulled it off in 1905; Chinatown, however, is set in 1938. The film isn’t docudrama: it’s revisionist history.

In terms of modernist tactics, this is far as Chinatown goes in resembling Polanski’s previous work, which had similar disregard for history. The rest of the film is the product of “classic” auteurship, with Polanski’s misanthropic view of Los Angeles materializing itself in the form of the evil Noah Cross. Had Chinatown been a work of docudrama, Hollis Mulwray (the obvious stand in for Mulholland) would have been the film’s central antagonist. Instead, Noah Cross is the almost cartoonish villain: he’s all-powerful, not only capable of committing heinous crimes but getting away with them, too. As an untouchable force of pure evil, Noah Cross likely personifies Polanski’s feelings toward the tragedy that befell Sharon Tate. That he insisted on re-writing Robert Towne’s ending so that the film ended on a note that can be rightly‑though perhaps understatedly—described as pessimistic provides insight into the bleak mind-frame he was occupying. Such an act evokes similar actions taken by the likes of Ford, Hawks, and Nicholas Ray, who often made numerous rewrites to the scripts they were assigned in order to inject more personal elements into the text.

That said, the entire film would have benefited from Polanski taking more liberties with Towne’s script, which is arduous and plodding, at best. It’s novelistic structure, though admirable in a formal sense, actively works against Polanski’s strengths as a filmmaker. His absurdist sense of humor, ability to amble between subjective and objective realism, and his sense of tone and atmosphere are all absent in Chinatown, given no room to prosper thanks to the script’s stranglehold. As Dana Polan correctly notes, there isn’t a single scene in the film that isn’t told from Jake Gittes’s point of view (116). This rigid, even oppressive narrative framework forces the viewer down a predetermined path, making Chinatown a far different‑and less enjoyable‑viewing experience than the likes of Repulsion, Cul-De-Sac, and even Rosemary’s Baby [1969]. Despite its scant narrative, the open-air playfulness of a film like Cul-De-Sac proves to be a more democratic film because of its lack of allegiance to a single character or theme. Similar tactics are used in Rosemary’s Baby, as the mystery of the narrative unfolds with objective suspense. While Polanski may have imbued the text of the film with any number of his trademark visual cues and thematic regularities, Chinatown’s abhorrent inflexibility suggests a distinct lack of authorial intent on his behalf. Polanski’s attempt at a piece of classic cinema only proves that his strengths as a filmmaker lie in more modernist techniques.