August 9, 2013

I'm watching a movie on my iPhone. It's a tiny thing, and I'm not wearing headphones, so the sound is a bit tinny. I'm hunched over, my head down—and the posture seems familiar somehow, the experience not a new one, not contemporary at all—but maybe it's every time I've watched a movie. Maybe if I look up I'll be in a nickelodeon and we'll all be hunched over Kinetescopes and watching Why Mrs. Jones Got a Divorce or The Gay Shoe Clerk or The Mystic Swing—or maybe it's just Hulu Plus or Fandor or Amazon or Netflix streaming them, finally getting every motion picture right there in our hands—diminished but endless—or endlessly diminished.  A few years ago someone posted a video of David Lynch growling how pathetic it is that you think you're watching a movie on your "fucking phone"—and in the background played the Apple jingle, gently upbeat, optimistic about what you'll view next. I nod in agreement with David—and return to the movie in my hand.

July 14, 2013 [Pacific Rim]

Here's some typically Japanglish cockeyed poetry: neon-genesis-evangelion—three words in a row without any clear connective thread, but evocative: a "neon genesis" would be quite a thing, all pale yellow and pink and aqua and Kelly green—and an "evangelion"; what could that be? Some kind of evangelizing hellion?

Don't be silly: Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the brightest jewels in the anime crown, silly-sexy and startling and surprisingly complex and comic-book straightforward, depending on which episode or incarnation you happen upon. The one I saw at the movies, though, came in through a side door: Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro's heartfelt love letter to that pastel cartoon—even more so than an homage to big monster rally movies, although there's plenty of those. And along the way are hints of H.P. Lovecraft and Thunderbirds Are Go! and sundry pop-apocalypse movies and comics and animations.

After Transformers, people who like movies were understandably skittish about this one. But del Toro is reliable, whether campy (Hellboy) or Gothic (Cronos) or surreal (Pan's Labyrinth)—and always somehow moving, as he is most of all with The Devil's Backbone.  I'd heard at one point he was supposed to direct The Hobbit—and I was relieved; I knew he would approach a beloved children's book with affection and respect, no matter how extravagant the effects.

Instead, though, he found an outlet for untrammeled extravagance in Pacific Rim—indeed, it might not have worked if approached with anything resembling restraint.  He often likes to mix-n-match genres and moods, and that kid-at-play instinct serves this movie well—although it manages to keep its head and, unlike Transformers movies, actually lets us see what's going on. The action sequences are—what word can suffice? "Gargantuan"? "Monumental"? "Colossal"? They all sound self-evident—or Golden Age Hollywood overcooked, the kind of thing the ad department would scream all over posters for DeMille pictures. What I remember is the beauty of it, the shining water cascading over light and silver, the deep dark overlaid with flashes and a glow that made me care less what was happening, as long as I could keep looking at it.

Children know how to watch movies better than anyone because they're so good at seeing—not the analytical stare of the critic or the "male gaze" that claims ownership. No, children look not at something but within it—and not with "empathy," exactly; that's too moral a vision. They see something for not only what it is but what it is to them—no, that's not quite right either. All I know is that a child—if you haven't damaged him or told her to stop daydreaming—can look at the bark of a tree or a wallpaper pattern and not be bored. Their gaze seems simple; actually, it's deep and untrained, so it's free to keep gazing, a constant act we cease as we become adults—but one that a lucky few revive, sometimes just watching giant robots splash around.

June 30, 2013 [Husbands, Pineapple Express, The Heat]

I'm sorry I missed This Is the End last month—no, really I am.  Pineapple Express made me laugh, still does—in large part because of its home-made feeling, as though the players have known each other for years—and for all I know maybe they have; in any case, it was as if an elaborate home movie had been found, something kids would do in their backyard—because it was juvenile and slapdash, but persistent in its efforts to make everyone comfortable with foolish fun.  Most important, it felt improvised—but not lazy, the great danger of such freedom as cameras roll.  And maybe a worse danger: not being funny, which Pineapple Express avoided because the actors were so generous with each other, and did everything they could to stick it out together.

Not to make too big a fuss about it—when have I ever?—but this kind of picture, as raunchy and gross and stupid as it may be, brings me back to John Cassavetes' work, in particular Husbands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes himself method-improvising their way through a long post-funeral meander.  I went on YouTube and reminded myself that I hadn't imagined it: the three of them really did go on The Dick Cavett Show and wreak havoc, maybe drunk, certainly in their own altered counter-culture-Stooges state, wrestling and yelling and mugging and even driving Cavett off the set for a while. As I reflect on that moment in 1970, it reminds me that the '70s had a spark of hope as it tried to smash foolish idols and find new kinds of comedy and tragedy. The cynicism and egoism that came with such efforts was inevitable, but sometimes I can look past that to the childhood joy of breaking windows that decade so often encouraged.

Now, one could argue that Cassavetes & Co. were geniuses, so such cinematic horseplay achieved a certain height—or depth, whatever. But Pineapple Express—and, I suspect, This Is the End—have their own inspired height/depth aspirations. I said they were generous to each other; well, they're also generous to us, inviting us in and palling around the dangerous curves of the ad lib and the unexpected.

We went to see The Heat and felt a similar centrifugal force—or maybe, as the observers, it was centripetal—then again, when we laughed we became a part of the movie, so maybe the force is centrifugal only when I laugh—oh, screw it: The Heat moved like Cassavetes and Seth Rogan and James Franco and the others back there spinning and flinging us around.  Melissa McCarthy, even when the physics are all wrong—as they were with Identity Thief earlier this year—still sends off sparks, mumbling asides like Popeye and riffing on every little thing. In The Heat she seems to have regained her footing—only to jump straight up, yanking along Sandra Bullock, the two of them unashamed and even eager, like those guys in their ultra-R-rated bromances, to cast off all dignity in order to find something funny.
And one thought more: Sandra Bullock, the postmodern Lucille Ball, emerges in The Heat as one of the most generous actors I've seen. She lets McCarthy flop around like a fish—or pummel like a jackhammer—and keeps right up—and not merely by exercising her own freakout (although by the end the plot requires her personality to be McCarthy-ized); no, she accepts her straight woman role and finds its own awkward-embarrassed slapstick. McCarthy's sneering at Bullock's pajamas is masterful: she misunderstands the garment, then covers by mocking it, imagining a surreal bed-tuxedo, overstepping a little, as she often does—but here it works, because all Bullock has to do is wear the darn pajamas and let McCarthy put her foot in her mouth and mutter insults around it.  I won't hesitate to say that at these moments Bullock's touch is light and precise—again, allowing McCarthy's outrages to work.

Well, back to the '70s one more time: All these post-millennial comedies owe more to National Lampoon than to Porky's: the former peeps and giggles at girls, while the latter, both as a magazine and the force behind Animal House and Vacation, wanted to free the actors—especially John Belushi and Chevy Chase—to let them tear down the walls of propriety in their own way—which seems filled with a kind of joy—even if by the end all your idols are smashed.


November 20, 2012 [Lincoln]

Among his observations of Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted "Uncle Abe"'s "boyish cheerfulness" in telling a story or delivering a witty line: "When he has made his remark, he looks up at you with great satisfaction, and shows all his white teeth, and laughs." Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis do the same with Lincoln: despite the wrangling, the anguish, the horror of having to grind out politics during slaughter, they find Lincoln's sharp and openhearted mind with great satisfaction—and ask us to laugh with him, the survivor's laugh, startled that one is still alive despite all that calamity, and suddenly realizing the truth of bravery, that you have to earn it, the hardest labor of all.

Already, they're Oscar-buzzing about Argo, a movie about movies—plus it's patriotic in a non-denominational way. And, like Lincoln, it depends on engrossing us with the process, since history has already told us the punchline. But Lincoln made me wonder how it was going to end, as though I was not watching dramatized facts but listening to one of Lincoln's illustrative stories—that even as he told it, became proverbial. As Emerson also notes in his eulogy, "I am sure if this man had ruled in a period of less facility of printing, he would have become mythological in a very few years, like Aesop." And of course Emerson was wrong: the man did become mythological. I haven't visited the Lincoln Memorial in twenty years or so, but I still recall how quiet everyone grew in there, tourist-chatter minimized in front of that saddest face in American politics. Lincoln knows that look, and Day-Lewis reproduces it with uncanny mimetic power—but there's a light in there, too, one whose purpose is moral, and that wants to shine "with immense power"—as Lincoln thunders about himself as President—and not just at that moment, but along the long decades, now centuries, since he finagled the Amendment to the Constitution despite the Constitution, all the while showing his teeth and laughing.

November 12, 2012 [Skyfall]

How cool was Daniel Craig in Layer Cake? As cool as that other guy, Jason Statham, in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (and by the way: when it's time to finally make a Doc Savage movie the right way, they better get Statham), the two of them instant old hands, neo-Rat Pack-ers to the core.

Statham, though, was more of a jack-in-the-box than Craig, and more working-class—and he's never lost that almost-light touch, bounding around and double-flipping his way out of kinetic scrapes. Daniel Craig seemed to settle down, hold it in—and so he made perfect sense as James Bond—twice, for sure, Quantum of Solace not the disappointment some decided it had to be—maybe only because Craig seemed confident that he could just keep being the best Bond since Connery.

Fortunately, the guys who spend the money didn't listen to the Quantum of Solace complainers—or maybe they did: Skyfall manages to be both old-school Bond and Dark Knight-ish moody. Sam Mendes directs with a nice bifurcation: when things aren't dizzy and careening they're painterly and balanced—Jim Emerson in his blog Scanners points out how symmetrical the framing often is—and it's one of the best things about the movie, the almost comic-book-ish centering of the hero in the frame while around him lights and patterns and golden splashes fly.

—And one more bifurcation: of Bond himself, in his evil double, Javier Bardem's Silva. Sure, Bond villains always have more fun than Bond, but Bardem bears down on Bond with those wild eyes of his—and he sees himself in Bond, and makes Bond see himself in Silva. Between the two of them, the movie reaches further than pop pulp and reassures me that all those Bond films are not, in the end, simply too many Bond films. As long as Craig keeps his gaze level and his mouth shut, he'll gives us a Bond that knows his duty and just keeps working—as he does in the novels, a little bemused, but solid.


September 25, 2012 [How to Survive a Plague]

How to Survive a Plague chronicles a mighty effort: to deal with AIDS during the Reagan/Bush years. Just tapping out those words is daunting—I remember what the bigger better kinder gentler America was like during that decade-plus—and it was a struggle, mostly between those who saw the end at last to New Deal liberalism and those who knew that America was about to change. We were post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-oil—but also mid-Ayatollah, with the Soviet Union teetering on the brink of the Information Age and unable to keep its balance—plus Poland having enough of it and new waves of terrorism adding to an already-global sense that everyone's neighbor was building something dangerous in the basement.

Into this murk sprung Reagan with a kindly smile for some, a you-just-don't-get-it shake of the head for others, and a tear-down-that-wall growl for the cameras.  I'm long done joking about the actor in the White House, the Bedtime for Bonzo sneer. No matter what they were or what you thought of them, Reagan's promises were kept—and to do so he had to put up a wall against the facts of life.

—And into that murk sprung AIDS, and it was as though all the seething resentments of the past half-century had an outlet. There it was, a disease that seemed made especially for someone it was always safe to scorn, fags—and boy did we dive in.  I can't think of those years without recalling Eddie Murphy in, I think, Delirious—I'm not sure; one of his concert films—talking about girlfriends going out with their gay pal and getting a little kiss from him and coming home with that AIDS on their lips.  Man, was he funny.

—And into that murk sprung ACT UP, with its successes and missteps, even failures, but which rose up and fought back—and they were right all long: they ended up being us, as much Ryan White as Rock Hudson. And knowing that helped us finally to shut up—or at least show up—Jesse Helms and even, just a little, just for a while, the John Joseph O'Connors and Reaganites—and now here we are, trying hard to leave each other alone—the great American Dream of independence from other people's stupidity—while finding ways to lend a hand.  But Silence still = Death, and the good AIDS drugs we got at last should be just the start; after all, that urge to be left alone can be a knife, and it cuts both ways: We don't want to hear it any more, whether it's homophobia or racism or whatever wall we build because we're tired, we've got bigger problems than who marries whom and what we're supposed to do about it.  But if all those people who worked so hard in the '80s are dead now, somebody has to keep doing something—even if it's a misstep or failure.  How to Survive a Plague reminds me that silence can be a sin—with its own wages, its only wages, one decade after another.  




September 23, 2012 [End of Watch]

End of Watch is a "found footage" movie, the cop's Media Studies course project and the crooks' lookit-me videos combined with cop-car cameras all edited to give us a movie that gets as close as anything I've seen to the privacy of the everyday—even though that "everyday" is frequently punctuated by gunshots and fist-fights. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña seize this opportunity and make us believe not only that they're L.A. cops but that they've known each other for years. And their humor, anger, and love—for reckless action and each other—suffuse the movie with the sharp lines of bright sunlit conviction.

And so I barely noticed when the camera suddenly leaves the characters' hands and asserts the experience as a movie, a constructed thing that is not organic but scripted, not a path we follow along with them but a straight line to a hell that the director and writer, David Ayer, has delineated before, filled with melodrama and Hollywood-filtered fury—with Christian Bale in Harsh Times and Kurt Russell in Dark Blue and perhaps most famously with Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in Training Day. As rough as these rides may have been, they were discernibly movies, and I could let them move along their course without getting involved.

But here Ayer draws back, lets the conversation between Brian and Mike be itself—as though I was in the back seat with them, or standing off to the side in those tense living rooms and alleyways. So when the conceit of the character-held consumer-end video camera ends, I barely noticed. Ayer simply also seemed to be there, and so it made sense he'd hold the camera for them as everything fell apart, when filming stuff was the last thing they were thinking of or needed.


September 21, 2012 [The Master]

After his pseudo-doc I'm Still Here—which itself came after that night on Letterman when it all started, when Joaquin Phoenix paid tribute to Andy Kaufman and debuted an act of biographical scope in the same space where Andy wrestled, literally, with his own talent and its outer limits—here at that moment of seeing-is-believing, I wasn't sure what to believe. It was so strange it could've be true—Joaquin is one of the granddaddies of all liars because, time and again, he isn't here at all—he's scared to death in the Malaysian prison in Return to Paradise and a prissy-cruel Roman in Gladiator and the kid who hits it out of the park in Signs and of course Johnny Cash—always eager to wear a new nose or hat—if I may paraphrase comments I attribute to Laurence Olivier and Dan Aykroyd, respectively, as they discuss what it means to act—but with Joaquin it's plastic surgery, not mere haberdashery, his face, his self, cut and reshaped.

He takes this as far as I want to see anyone go in The Master—as though the De Niro of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull had merged and imploded like a black hole into which everything he might have been falls into the well of the character, and out comes not merely a "character" but some living entity, a flesh-and-bone ghost of the man who isn't there—because a new one has taken his place, craggy and bent, but as strong as mad conviction.

This fits The Master well. This movie roams around the American Century and sees P.T. Barnums everywhere—so many, one born every minute, a country full of hucksters huckstering everyone, including themselves, from vibrating swamis to Dianetic spacemen floating in optimistic mysticism to middle-class Mysterious Reike Thoughts barely touching the surface of healing, hands-on and always looking.

—And they look so long, so deeply, that they pass through hucksterism into faith—and all of it American-New, shining in certainty. Oh, it all may have started in antique dimness, incense floating, vague glyphs on stone walls; but as World War II propelled us into consumption and re-invention, we looked everywhere we could for new minds, new bodies, and a New World we could carry around in our heads.

The Master details that portage, our little boats beating against the current—as Joaquin walks back and forth, back and forth, exercising his muscles filled with booze and loss—and violence, a violent "performance"—if that weak word can stand up to what Phoenix does here, making me afraid for him—how far can he go until he's so far gone he can come back?—and so here I am, another sucker on the vine, conned by spiritual healing, Joaquin's restless hands placed just so on my eyes until I see only what he shows me.  The movie already sinks into confusion and obscurity—but his face remains, his eyes especially, looking past me toward whatever Master compelled him to go so far.


December 30, 2011 [A Separation]

All I knew about A Separation was that it is an Iranian film about a husband and wife who separate; she leaves the country, they have difficulties, we get to explore Iran's sense of itself and its place in the world.

Some of that happens, but A Separation is not, of course, political; as with the cinema of any repressive society—Poland under the Soviets, China just about any time during the twentieth century, the U.S. during the 1950s—social issues are coded as personal problems. The wife says she cannot live in Iran any more; her reasons are not explicit. They have a young teenaged daughter, and the wife won't leave Iran unless the daughter goes with her. The girl won't leave her father and grandfather, who suffers from Alzheimer's, and so the wife stays in Iran, while her work visa nears its expiration date.

The politics of such a separation, though, are almost completely submerged beneath the personal difficulties it generates. The husband needs a caretaker for his father, hires a woman who's pregnant. She has difficulties with the father—there's a scene in which he soils himself and she needs to call a religious authority to see if it's permissible to touch him—and she ties the father to his bed while she leaves for long-undisclosed (but tragic) reasons—which set off her own husband, who is desperately anxious and disappointed, and so quick to violent anger.  The daughter, bookish and sweet, is naturally conflicted and miserable—and the husband grows frantic trying to juggle everyone's needs and issues, not the least his own.

And that's only the barest sketch of the plot. This could be one heckuva Lifetime movie, it's so full of incident and anguish. It generates a deep commitment to keep watching, a real instance of I-wanna-see-how-it-turns-out. And you know, forget Lifetime; this would've been at home in the 1950s, somewhere in the vicinity of Douglas Sirk—even with its ground-level film style, the camera close, bumping into the characters, handheld and intimate—or pulling back out of respect for their privacy—A Separation echoes those opulent Technicolor weepers, in which hysteria and panic seem the response of choice—and rightly so, the lives they lead are so hectically unhappy.

Jim, whose education as an historian allows him to grasp the Big Picture quickly, is fond of saying that, if you want to rejuvenate an American neighborhood, fill it with refugees from totalitarian states. Well, A Separation doesn't emigrate anyone, but it shows me once more that Iran's dour politics create what Scorsese calls "smugglers": filmmakers who cannot always say what they think, but can show us what it means. Iran's rich film culture, then, may depend on the restrictions of its politics. Not to be flippant, but I've always noticed that the real test of a comedian's talents is to work clean. He/she is censored, but that censorship becomes an opportunity to look more deeply into the things everyone sees, and to show it back to them more clearly. In the case of A Separation, it's sad because it's true.


November 20, 2011 [Tyrannosaur]

I'm watching Joseph in Tyrannosaur fuming and feeling the pressure of his own rage and letting it run rampant in sorrow and regret and play itself out—only to let it build again, as frightening a sight as I've seen in a movie in a long time—and I wondered where I'd seen the actor before, Peter Mullan, here so deeply buried in himself that his neck and chin disappear and all that's left is unreadable eyes that hide his disappointment and turn it into something like death—and then I remembered: Syd the refugee handler in Children of Men, a man of infinite humor and brutality willing, if the price is right, to be a good man or a bully-boy—and in either case to act with reckless unconcern for where his elbows and knees and fists might land, your neck or mine, a pregnant woman or the last child.

Here in Tyrannosaur, though, he's asked to calm down and simmer, simmer—then boil over—and to find maybe some hint of compassion, something he doesn't want to tear in half—because, of course, it's always himself he's tearing at, his tiny hands of no need, not with all those teeth and those jaws like a machine that could turn a car into a cube. He's a dinosaur, all right, should be long gone—but it's like Jurassic Park in his neighborhood, where he still roars late at night and hunts whenever he's hungry.

The actor Paddy Considine has a friendly face—as a director, though, he saves all hints of friendship for some later date, maybe long after everything's gone and whatever new age will replace ours has re-imagined our DNA so thoroughly that we're thankfully unrecognizable. But before extinction, Joseph finds an opportunity to shed his skin and change—but the woman he'd terrorized, befriended, and finally decided to love evolves under the pressures of her degrading life and turns into her own version of a thunder lizard, killing her mortal enemy and curling up in exhaustion—but with Joseph, somehow, the two of them waiting for the comet to hit and send them into the last blanketing winter they'll ever need, resting at last.


September 19, 2011 [Drive]

As soon as Drive started, just the music and titles, I thought of Thief, of Michael Mann and the early '80s—and a little farther back to other cars-n-crooks movies, the good ones: The Driver, of course, and Vanishing Point and yes certainly Bullitt. But Drive adds a deeply, ah, "European" sense of pacing. American movies are about things happening—even if it's all conversations, as the film versions of plays often naturally are—The Little Foxes, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, even The Bad Seed; Hollywood movies are Classical in the Greek sense: action determines character. And once you put those characters in cars, they move faster and faster, doing more, running ahead of our expectations, sometimes even the camera.

But European movies—and what I guess we still call "foreign films" in general—are about states of being. The characters remain very still, almost waiting for the action to come to them. They respond, and often move—sometimes drastically, sometimes in joy or rage; but then the atmosphere itself moves—it's in many ways the main character—and the mood regains control over any impulses the characters might have.

U.S. movies act; foreign films react.

Drive marries the two with a deliberate slowing of everything to discover the proper state of being—and the slowest poke of all is Ryan Gosling, who can be pretty good at being quiet—but here he forces himself into immobility, into an unblinking control over himself. It's in its way one of the most controlled performances I've seen, like De Niro in The Deer Hunter returning from Vietnam and hiding in the motel room, still still still. 

And, like De Niro, the quiet of Gosling's Driver brings tension, then menace. I'm also thinking of James Caan in Thief—visually, at least, this movie's closest relative—and although Caan has never been able to contain himself—always Sonny storming out of the house—his movements in Thief are controlled and precise, like Driver's hand on the wheel, his eye movements, his feelings for his mom-married-to-a-con neighbor—all of it minimal and deliberate.

But we know this can't last: He drives cars fast and dangerously, either as a wheel man for robberies or a movie stunt driver. So when the henchman threatens the neighbor in an elevator, Driver stomps him to death like a Mad Max road warrior; all that's missing is the warpaint and punk hairdo. At that moment, this soft-neon-colored exercise in period evocation not only asserts its "American-ness" but forces its "European" mood to explain such an outburst.

The result is a kind of heroism, almost supernatural, as he drives away wounded from his last stand, the girl safe—now I'm thinking of Val Kilmer in David Mamet's Spartan—and here we go again, the American hero of few words—and so we drive past Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper and John Wayne—but Driver shuts down all the way, his precision is not an action but a reaction to a world that gets smaller the farther into it he looks, the more he drives.
I went to IMDb because for some reason I didn't recognize the director's name. And for godssake: Nicholas Winding Refn is originally from Denmark, and made Valhalla Rising. And so there's that marriage of Hollywood and Europe: a plot-as-thought in which the Old World comes to the New and melts into a fog or fine spray made of ice-crystals and blood. I can shut up now: Drive and Valhalla Rising simply need to stand next to each other and look us in the eye and it all becomes—well, if not clear, then certainly undeniably there.


July 20, 2011 [Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2]

Jean resisted Harry Potter for years. She was happy to see the kids reading, and Harry was a part of that—but she set up a wall between herself and the books. Despite her love for The Lord of the Rings and most fantasy, tales of chivalry, and so on, Harry Potter was denied entrance. I think she felt it was somehow a little too precious; and yes, one can trill "Harry Potter" like the Queen saying "Hell-ooooo!" and there seems much ado about boarding-school rules and their clubbish attachment to "Houses" and competitions—in any case, she wouldn't touch the movies—oh, she took the children to one or another; but the older they grew, the happier she was to let them go on their own or with me.

Every summer, Jean looks for something to read. Nothing too serious, but nothing too foolish—and big enough, either as a single volume or as a series, to keep the summer filled. The children insisted while I remained silent—I've seen all the films, but haven't read any of the books.  And one day in 2010 she picked up the first Harry Potter book.

The punchline is obvious: She became an avid fan, consuming each subsequent sequel in a few days—then on to the movies, one after the other—and all with a wonderful obliviousness to her earlier disdain as she insisted that Netflix hurry it up and send the next movie—better yet: just buy 'em, have 'em handy for repeated viewing.

The year went by, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 became her must-see—and then the sad end of the series earlier tonight, no more new fun at Hogwarts—and, given the film itself, little fun at all. In Great Expectations, as Pip grows up, his language becomes less colorful, his images as narrator more straightforward. The light in Harry's world also loses that Wordsworthian glory and, at least in the Deathly Hallows films, becomes even less than light, more of a thin-then-thick grey mist slowing them all down—and then it all falls apart, brick by brick, until it seems the least likely magic trick is that there's any Hogwarts left at all. The hall where they'd had so many feasts—and Rowling and the filmmakers do not forget how much children love scenes of eating; the food in the Harry Potter stories is monumental in its indulgences—well, no more piles of goodies here, just a makeshift infirmary where beloved characters droop and sometimes fall. The losses are heavy, and the victory simply necessary. They're no longer children, and lose much joy—it's replaced by a purposeful future, one that they give to their children in a postscript that made me sadder than all the light and thunder of the big battle for Hogwarts, even with the dead friends and brothers. Well, maybe not "sad" as much as somber: those children from the books pair off and make homes and children of their own—but that means they won't go back, no more fun on the train, wandering through endless corridors and deeper and higher above the walls and windows of their favorite place.

It ends up being a true children's series as it leads them as gently as it can—and often that is not gently at all—toward adulthood, the gains of which may fill them with purpose; but that necessary seriousness made me happy that we owned all the movies and could see them be little kids as often as we'd like. Of course, they had to keep on and leave us; but, like Jean, we can wait for next summer and grow young again.

May 30, 2011 [The Tree of Life]

If I'm to start with The Tree of Life, I'll begin with Darwin:
“The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during former years may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches ... . The limbs divided into great branches, and these into lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was young, budding twigs ... . Of the many twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear the other branches ... . From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off ... . [We] here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit ... . As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.”
Like Thomas Jefferson's bible—in which he cut out all the miracles—I've also edited this passage from The Origin of Species—except in a reversal of Jefferson's effort: I've left in the poetry, and elided over the science, so that the Tree stands on its own over the entire "crust of the earth." In making his movie, Terrence Malick seems also to have read this passage—but without any editing: He simply may have stared at it, allowed the words to melt into one another—and then meditated on the resulting shape, slowly and quietly, until he saw a spot of color come streaming from the center of it, and watched it spread like the light show at the end of 2001 until it changed the color of his eyes as it did Dave Bowman's in Kubrick's picture, day-glo irises like the Richard Avedon portraits of the Beatles in The White Album, transcended pop and mystic movies.

On the surface, though, of both his eyes and the film, all we have is a middle-aged man remembering a hard father, a gone family, and his life since then. But there are dinosaurs, and tide pools, and what we used to call the "smoke man" clouding the suburban streets with mosquito-killing stuff that's getting into our DNA to spread like light from a flashlight swung in a child's hand, arcing in the early night to form a tenuous dome, a protected station where some things still flourish and fill the earth. 

Are those things memories? Are they atoms? The Tree of Life conjures the former and charts the latter, and concludes they may be the same: Our lives whisper in our ears with others' voices, gone mother and father and brother, hide-and-seek as the night falls—but I can hear laughter, and follow it into the Earth's core, where the other kids wait, hiding just long enough to spring out and change me almost imperceptibly, but still changing.


December 27, 2010 [The Illusionist]

I looked forward to the animated film The Illusionist because it was made by the same person, Sylvain Chomet, who did The Triplets of Belleville, a finely drawn, essentially silent film—albeit a musical—that rescues the term "whimsical" from embarrassed triviality. But that was only part of the pleasure: It's based on a screenplay by Jacques Tati, and I'd read that it refers to a daughter whom Tati had abandoned.

The film does not confront what must be the sad, perhaps even villainous heart of such abandonment—but I didn't expect it would. Tati never confronted anything directly in his films, not even the House of Tomorrow in Mon Oncle, whose surfaces he merely ran restless fingers along and flipped a telling switch or two to expose Tomorrow's shortcomings. Even his "slapstick" can barely live up the term: It is physical, often involving something getting dismantled, but it occurs plainly, quietly, methodically—like M. Hulot's wardrobe, as though the excesses of baggy-pants comedy had been trimmed to fit the contours of a paunchy stork—which, given Tati's physique, it certainly had to be.

That figure appears again in The Illusionist as a broken-down magician unable to withstand the upheavals of early-1960s pop culture, especially within his profession—more precisely, the small clubs that formed the venue for his act. Pushed out by yeah-yeah-yeah moptops, the magician languishes—until he is "adopted" by a young woman/older girl—who has her needs, shoes and nice clothes and freedom and eventually a boyfriend—and the magician does what he can on all fronts—except for the boyfriend part. Their relationship is not romantic, but not quite father-daughter—well, not so that he would admit to it, at least not until he sees he will lose her.

If this is somehow Tati's attempt to explore his actions against his daughter, to reconcile him to her—or maybe just him to the abandonment, to the fact that he would do such a thing—again, if The Illusionist wants to confess and atone, it does so in such an oblique manner that it becomes not only ephemeral but essentially Tati-esque. It was drawn the way Tati's films were paced: sketched lines, soft corners, warm, precise light—all for the sake of melancholy—or maybe something more: the comedy of departure. Knowing what Tati had done, and loving all his films, I felt The Illusionist growing sadder and sadder. It made me feel sorry for both of them, and also certain that nothing could be done to right the wrong—just maybe a quiet release, the moment when he lets the girl go and accepts his loneliness.

That's what it leaves me: the loneliest cartoon I've ever seen, a memory of the worst thing a parent can do and still leave everyone standing—also quietly, in a beautiful but yellowed pool of light.


September 6, 2010 [Tabloid]

To write that, with Tabloid, Errol Morris is like a kid in a candy shop is to permanently warp the definition of both. But Morris' sweet tooth will not be denied, so he digs in to the story of the "Manacled Mormon" with all the zeal of a British tabloid—and that's all the zeal there is. This may be his most "cinematic" movie, filled with camera-tricks and tricky editing—but most of all it's his most "graphic"—as in "graphic design." I was reminded of Ang Lee's Hulk: He, too, accepted his source as not only a narrative but an aesthetic imperative, and visualized, paced, and structured his movie as though it were a comic book. Morris, of course, turns to the tabloid newspaper, and the story is just far enough in the past to provide some real fun: the look of old-school tabloids, back when The National Enquirer knew that the connection between sex, UFOs, and fame was intimate, as private as a true confession—and as eagerly made public. Morris sher-shays la fem, Joyce McKinney, still rabid for attention—and oh, how often rabies (as well as it's hungry cousin, cannibalism) lay at the heart of the old tabloids, all blended in like Rocky Road with young men chained to radiators and hidden cabins where who-knows-what goes on.

—Oh, you-know-what, you rascals! It's already there in your head, before it happens—jeez, you make it happen, you will it into being. Joyce is amazing at this: She perfects the story so that she is innocent and guilty all at once, a dutiful sex kitten, a good girl who's good at being bad. Morris makes a movie, not about making movies, but about narratives, and the ways print journalism verbally and even physically arranges them on the page. There's a central moment when a British tabloid journalist talks about the use of the word "spread-eagled" in the stories; he repeats the word. He pauses; he says it again, leaning on it just a little bit—and Morris flashes it on the screen, one of many screaming—OK: spread-eagled—headlines in his movie.

Eventually, he gives us an interrogation of tabloid truth as well as a—not "celebration" as much as vindication of its aesthetic: He lets us see how well it works, how we get to laugh at it as we keep watching/reading. The very act of critiquing the tabloid demands that we understand it—and once we do, we're the reading public, which is all they wanted—all Morris desires, he who pays the bills with promotional films and ads—and I don't want to misrepresent myself here, or Morris: Those ads are a blast, like his Miller High Life Real Men ads, satirical and straightforward, winking as broadly as any tabloid that calmly (all exclamation points implied) informs us that Hillary Clinton has an alien baby. We laugh—it's as silly as a crazy sexy lady cloning her dogs—but holy crap she did it, Joyce McKinney broke the tabloid barrier and lives not just on the page but in her home, with cloned pups and a story she'll stick to the rest of her life.

July 20, 2010 [Inception]

In Shutter Island earlier this year, Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't sure what he knew, what he remembered, what he could do with it. The movie felt like a Gothic version of Christopher Nolan's Memento—and now as Cobb in Nolan's Inception he lives in dreams again—big-time SF ones this time, yet another grandchild of Philip K. Dick filled with paranoia, split personalities, and breathless plunges down down down where the real life is lived, an underwater id-land that tells its own truths—and those of others, the ones that play themselves out on the surface. But you have to listen carefully, look into the eyes of your fellow-dreamers, and try to figure out who's telling the truth, who's lying—and, most important, which of them is actually you.

Inception has been getting in some trouble with the critics, both professional and online-amateur, for the pliability of its internal rules and the facile nature of its critique of big business. But I think that these elements unpack what's vital about the movie: its assertion that, as Vonnegut says somewhere (Galapagos?), we're headed toward extinction because we've decided that crazy made-up stuff is true, such as that money is important. In Inception, one must be fabulously wealthy to dream inside of one's dreams—unlike Alice, or the King in Alice's dream. They dreamed of dreams for free—but Inception insists that is an idea suitable only for children: the real dreamers are all grown up and dream of flying, but first class, with a hot towel.

But the movie pushes that one step farther—and over the edge: As we cascade off the bridge, we go past the spinning corridor, through the superspy-secret-lair spy film, and into some kind of private town where guilt hides. As in Shutter Island, DiCaprio's character has to press his hand against the unyielding surface of the dream, past the money and privilege that allows one to be an architect of such a town, until—well, the surface is unyielding, so one has to become the surface, melt into it and become unreal to make the dream come true—or to snap out of it and wake up and be more or less free of crazy made-up stuff.


June 14, 2010 [Winter's Bone]

Winter's Bone provides a harsh reminder that the movies can romanticize something so thoroughly that we forget the thing itself. Here's it's moonshining, which close to a century of movies—and TV shows and commercials and cartoons and comic strips—have distilled, if I may use the term, that occupation to a fun-filled, action-packed, fussin-and-a-feudin-and-a-lovin free-for-all of Mountain Dew and Kickapoo Joy Juice and Thunder Roads that somehow have emerged as an either comic or epic view of American Rugged Individualism.

Winter's Bone makes one simple substitution—meth for corn likker—and all that falls apart: It's just a trudge downhill, with frightened children left behind and tight-lipped monsters hunched down in the middle of nowhere—where young Ree must descend to keep her family together. But even here, the film refuses to be a luck-n-pluck trek into victory. The landscape is blank-faced, indifferent to her plight, a tangled mess of snarled underbrush and deadfalls, ravines and treelines with their backs turned. This is Country Living Hell.

—And it's those backwoods entrepreneurs who've made it this way. They have no human feeling left, way out there in their own dreary version of independent spirit, just the kind of suspicion you never want to encounter. I've found myself in the woods of Georgia and New Jersey pine barrens and Pennsylvania foothills, and once or twice lost—and once or twice having to approach a little leaning house with nothing else around—and it's no cliché that you better be careful, maybe think twice, better to stay lost for a while longer than face those flat expressions. There's an urban equivalent to this, but at least the traffic still passes by at your back and the streetlights shine.

Ree goes all the way into those woods, and up to those doors, and I'm scared to death for her every minute. And in the end, she's the only damn hillbilly worth looking twice at, she's the Rugged Individualist, the genuine article, strong as any tree left standing in this strip-mined desolation—and she's all this because she too is scared to death, every minute, and doesn't let it stop her.

As quiet as it is, Winter's Bone was filled with tension. Every step she took was more perilous than any back-road moonshiner-revenuer car chase—and infinitely less raucous, no jangling bluegrass, just the clear sound of her steps, the cold making little crackling puddles for her to step on as she makes her way deeper into the woods.


April 25, 2010 [Departures]

I've just returned from what may be the best film festival in the U.S., Ebertfest (formerly the Overlooked Film Festival)—and what makes it so good is the accessibility—of Roger, the festival guests, other attendees—but most of all, we're all accessing each others' love of the movies. Seeing You, the Living on Wednesday was like going to cinema-church with the ecstatic faithful, everyone pouring all the right emotions all over for everybody else to bathe in. Even Pink Floyd The Wall, with all its flaws, was christened and celebrated. I met Charlie Kaufman, quipped about epic heroes and Barfly with Barbet Schroeder, and chatted with the inestimable David Bordwell. The volcanic ash from Iceland prevented some festival guests from attending—oh, how Mark and I missed hearing from Walter Murch on Apocalypse Now—but the Virginia Theater and our gracious host (Geek that I am, I wish Roger had given me the note he'd scribbled during our brief conversation!) provided all the cine-love I needed.

And maybe the most love came from Departures, a Japanese film about nokan, the ceremony for dressing the dead. The director pointed out that it's a "wet" movie—I forget the Japanese word—meaning that it makes you cry and cry. And it did, with its scenes of at least half a dozen funerals—but they were tears of joy, the human exalting of other humans, even after they're gone. The ceremony itself occurs in the presence of the mourners, and performed as a kind of supine ballet, demure, respectful, loving. The funerals themselves were marked by a wide range of human responses, from the necessary tears to girlish giggling to hurt and resentment—but always returning to love.

The main character is an out-of-work cellist who returns to his home town and responds to a help-wanted ad, misreading a Japanese word so that he believes he's going to work in a travel agency (I'm relieved that the difficulties of Japanese extend to the Japanese). He's more than a little put off—and it gets worse when his first job involves someone who'd died at home and wasn't discovered for a while—but he sticks with it, despite the ghosts of his past and his wife's disdain for his work, and slowly comes to see the place that departure has in journeys.

We all cried, we all laughed, and we all knew we'd seen a movie that for once had earned its Oscar. Its sentimentality ran so deeply it pushed its way out the other side and became something more: a fact of life that we see so often that we forget it's there: that we can take care of one another, we can clean and caress and dress and make each other ready—and in doing so, prepare ourselves for one departure and another.


December 30, 2009 [The White Ribbon]

Michael Haneke's movies shout so loudly down cinema's corridors that echoes are inevitable. Funny Games reminded me of not only Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer but also Murnau's The Last Laugh, in which the film decides that its ending is too sad and supplies an extravagant celebration of good fortune—of course, Silly Games plays that game in reverse, rewinding itself (a fun camera-trick in Murnau's day, a cut-to-the-bone cheat in the home-video age) so that the victims' escape is thwarted. And Time of the Wolf felt like Panic in the Year Zero—but without any panic whatsoever. Both Caché and Lost Highway share the menace of surveillance, the mysterious tape left on the doorstep—although Chaché's surrealism is less, um, comforting than David Lynch's in Lost Highway—if only because Lynch never loses his sense of humor. As he walks down the hall, Haneke calls out, and answers, and joins those other movies in the dark part.

And in The White Ribbon he walks a long long way into the silent era, and finds a black and white movie framed in medium shots for the people, long for landscapes, with voiceover filling in for title cards, a soft focus and a deliberately visual emphasis on faces—pale, like silent movie actors, with that cast of features that you see in movies made right around World War I (when his own movie is set), a look that seems somehow extinct from the species. Was it the diet back then? The water? Maybe it was the sense that the Western world still needed horses and lamplight that gave them that look—at once less hurried and more anxious.

In any case, The White Ribbon stretches out back there in the past and the camera holds on those faces while evil deeds multiply—and evil words (from, of course, the pillars of the community: Baron, preacher, doctor) spill out—but softly, like a memory (the schoolteacher is looking back as an old man at his youth; you can hear it in his voice: that some events have slipped his mind and a number of details are gone). And these memories of sadism and scorn and hidden motives back there in a village of the second decade of the twentieth century spread before us, the years preceding the Great War filled with German uncertainty relieved by casual cruelty—but are we simply seeing the birth of Nazism? Maybe: the children, who seem so mysterious, so flatly impassive—inscrutable—will be in their twenties and thirties during World War II. But of course something else is going on here: a mystery about the nature of mystery. We want to round up the usual suspects and capture all culprits—but suddenly the narrator, our only tie to the story, lets us know that he was drafted into the war, then took over his dead father's tailor shop in another town, and never saw any of the villagers again.

That's all.


October 4, 2009 [Zombieland]

Once Bill Murray pretends to be a zombie to fake out the real zombies, you know that either the zombie genre has arrived or it's all over. Zombieland accepts the former: It knows that the underlying horrors—of consumption, of becoming/being replaced by a Thing, of relentless pursuit—bring with them not only disgust and anxiety but nervous laughter and flat-out absurdity. And like vampires, the zombie-rules are open to interpretation, modification, invention; so the zombie movie is irresistible to certain kinds of filmmakers and audiences willing to play with dread and annihilation—as willing as Goya or Francis Bacon (the painter)—no, maybe more like Harvey Kurztman and the Usual Gang of Idiots from the old E.C. horror comics. Or maybe like both, artists high and low finding a common ground in, well, zombies.

Or maybe it's just Monty Python, the self-awareness, the postmodern extolling of irony—or at least of farce. If so, Zombieland cast its leads perfectly: Jesse Eisenberg, AKA Michael Cera's cousin, is a perfectly awkward non-survivor—paired with a patented crazyman, Woody Harrelson, who's so good at it because he knows he's crazy—and knowing it makes him deliberate and ready for whatever comes to mind. And of course there're girls—but this time around they're filled with grrl power—ruthless survivors looking for an edge as everything is bitten to pieces.

And so it may have come as a pleasant surprise, but it also makes sense that this crew would run into Bill Murray, who almost single-handedly invented the kind of wise-ass ex-fratboy that—at least for a long while—can survive a zombie apocalypse like Bugs Bunny outsmarting every predator, human and otherwise—and who, come to think of it, may actually be the original original wise-ass in American movies, the trickster hero straight out of slave tales and even Uncle Remus—especially here in Zombieland, one big briar patch where only the born-and-bred can pop out the other side and dance a defiant jig of triumph, no matter how short-lived.