06 January 2013

stream of consciousness.

Nearly every day of my life, I spend way too much time on Facebook. And it goes without saying that there's a compelling argument to be made that any time at all on Facebook is too much time—but for the sake of argument, let's suppose there's a hypothetically healthy amount of time to piss away on the Walmart of social-networking sites. (Think about it. Even their logo colors and sans-serif fonts look like kissing cousins.) I can't help but speculate, however unscientifically, that the point at which the site delivers me to apoplectic fits of rage is a reliable symptom that I've surpassed that healthy time limit. My internal egg timer should then go off—and in the interest of my own mental health I should probably flee the internet and start meditating or taking sitar lessons or something.

But I never learn, do I? What is it about this inane website—so brimming with venomous, ungrammatical proselytizing and banal chit-chat—that lures me back again and again? Why don't I just hole up in my blogspace and write angry letters to the government like any self-respecting crackpot? Good questions. I'm tempted to believe that this is a Train Wreck phenomenon—in which the spectator is repulsed but also endlessly fascinated by tragedy—the tragedy in question in this case being the decline of Western Civilization—and, since the internet no longer recognizes discrete geographical borders, the decline of Everything and Everyone.

A bit too grandiose? I think so. What's interesting about Facebook isn't that it's causing the world to be more fucked-up than it was pre-Facebook, but that it's broadcasting the evidence of this fucked-uppedness—immediately and without the intermediary of 'respectable' media—so that we can't live in denial anymore. 

Before Facebook, for example, I probably wouldn't have known that some of my friends—and by extension so many Americans—were borderline illiterates. Arrogantly perhaps, I would have assumed that we were all in the same linguistic ballpark. This isn't a conscious assumption, mind you. I'm not delusional, after all. But when a question doesn't assert itself directly in our lives, we tend not to supply an answer. If I never had any cause to wonder if my friends and relatives were butchers of the English language, I probably wouldn't have considered it. 

Facebook is like that. It tells us so many things about other people that we never really asked. We might have been aware of so-and-so's political leanings, generally speaking, but we might never have known the sputtering anger and hatred that informs his individual positions if Facebook hadn't come along and supplied a handy soapbox for any and all to mount and declaim from. 

What bothers me about Facebook more than the typical bugaboos of political posts and those obnoxious Facebook game updates is the outrageous banality of so much of the communication there. In real life, when we meet up with vague acquaintances, we're likely to engage in pointless small talk, just to fill the blank space that arises between us, but Facebook presents us with a permanent blank space to fill—and users are all too eager to fill it with the minutiae of their everyday lives—what they're having for dinner, what the weather's like, whether they're feeling tired or excited, how their day's shaping up, what their plans for the weekend are, and so on and so forth. 

I'm one of those cranks who believe we shouldn't speak (or post) unless we have something to say. And by 'something to say' I mean something that might be interesting to the general public outside of the hermetically-sealed domain of our egos. If we want to hear ourselves talk, there's such a thing as an internal monologue. We can talk our own ears off inside the hollows of our private consciousness without cluttering up the world with more noise. The world is already noisy enough these days, and as the tentacles of technology keep reaching to heretofore unimagined corners of our lives, the world only promises to get noisier. Admittedly, this isn't an exact science. What we think is interesting might bore anyone in our vicinity to tears, but I think most of us are endowed with a self-awareness that tells us that our laundry or toenail-clipping probably doesn't require a formal declaration or press conference. 

It must be a horrifying history lesson for militant Facebook users to discover that a century ago people had to content themselves with a private knowledge of the dishes in the sink that need washing. They couldn't tell the whole world about it. Can you imagine? All of that ordinary, self-referential cognition without any outlet? (Oh, the humanity!) They couldn't even pick up a (land line) telephone and call up their mothers to tell them. They lacked the technology to inflict their egos upon friends, family members, and complete strangers halfway across the globe.  

Before Facebook, I had absolutely no idea how boring most people are. It never occurred to me that if you gave the average schmo a megahorn to broadcast his thoughts to the world, all he'd be able to come up with are reports on how he slept the night before or the status of the lawn: does it need mowing or not? Don't get me wrong. I understand that the ordinary details are (generally speaking) the substance of our lives, but I try to remember that my ordinary details are the substance of my life, not yours. 

Facebook reveals how difficult it is for people to think outside of themselves. Maybe as society grows more accustomed to social media as a fact of life, it will learn how to contend with a captive audience. I hate to equate a person's life with a movie or other entertainment, but it's about time Facebookers understand the economics of attention spans. When Cuba Gooding Jr. started making nothing but crap-movie after crap-movie, people stopped paying attention to him and his movies got lost in the direct-to-Netflix market. Likewise, people need to understand that when they yammer on and on about how they hate Mondays or about their dentist appointment later in the day people will stop 'listening' to them. They'll be hidden from the news feed altogether, which is really akin to not existing at all in this strange new world we're embarking upon. 

Please always remember your freedom of expression is not free. Your Facebook friends have to pay for it.

The status updates featured in this blog post were not generated by any of my Facebook friends or any of their friends. These are status updates from people I don't know (and don't wish to know). The names have been withheld to protect the innocent extremely guilty.

05 January 2013

2012: the year in cinema, the final chapter.

Aren't you lucky? This is the final installment in the retrospective, and this is the one where I actually praise the films I liked from 2012. Praising things isn't something that comes naturally to me—because I usually have a nagging feeling that things could have somehow been better. And that couldn't be much more true than in 2012. It wasn't a very good year in film overall. It seems as though I say that every year, just as the dyspeptic financial pundits seem to perform their grim autopsies on the American economy every year. The bright side is that eventually things have to get better. In film and the economy. Right? There is a rock-bottom somewhere, and I have a feeling we'll find it—and then we can have our Cher-like combacks. Do you believe in life after love? I do, Ms. Sarkisian, but it's high-time we put away the tassels and get out the compression socks.

I have to admit I was impressed with Josh Trank's revisionist superhero tale Chronicle, in which two bookish cousins (Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell) and their token black friend (Michael B. Jordan) happen upon a crystalline energy force in the forest that gives them incredible powers, like strength, telekinesis, and levitation. Now don't get your hopes up. This isn't exactly naturalistic reimagining of the classic superhero tale, but it does ground the unbelievable in a more relatable world than the typical Marvel comic book adaptations. And it's entertaining—which I suppose is the most critical factor in a superhero movie, right? There are even a few exhilarating moments in the film—like when the airborne boys are suddenly grazed by a commercial airplane and during the apocalyptic finale, where there is a sense of real peril. This isn't Zod tossing city busses across the street; even if the psychologies here are a tad simplistic, they're at least convincing in on an immediate level. 

I have to admit that Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained qualifies as a disappointment—but that's only because I know that it's a Tarantino film. You can't help feeling that only half of his pistons were firing for this slavery blaxploitation mish-mash. Firstly, the plot is much too slack—especially for a two hour and forty-five minute movie. At the outset, the real plot of the film is deferred until later so that we can watch Django and a German dentist named Schultz (Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz) do a little bounty hunting. This is an uncomfortably pointless stretch of the film—but fortunately it's not all that long before we get to the meat of the adventure, in which Django and Schultz try to get back Django's wife (Kerry Washington) from a grinning, sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). It's unfortunate that this part of the film doesn't make much sense. Did they really need to dream up this elaborate and ridiculous charade to buy back an ordinary plantation slave? I tend to doubt it, and the rationale that Schultz offers isn't very persuasive. It's essentially a clumsy MacGuffin that didn't even bother to disguise itself. 

And yet... a subpar Tarantino film is generally better than a top effort by a lesser director. For the most part, Django Unchained is entertaining—if not terribly thought-provoking—and is peppered throughout with some great scenes that make you forget (for a little while at least) the bloated running time. 

A much more successful exploitation film was William Friedkin's adaptation of Tracy Letts' play Killer Joe, which makes Django look a little timid by comparison. I think the film should be included in an evolving genre that we might aptly call white trash gothic.  Matthew McConaughey stars as the title character, a corrupt Southern cop-slash-hired hit man who is employed by a young man with gambling debts (Emile Hirsch) to kill his mother for a life insurance payoff. His trailer-trash family members—seemingly escaped from the green room at The Jerry Springer Show—serve as his accomplices and adversaries in this brutal exploration of the deformity of morals in contemporary America. McConaughey and Gina Gershon enact a particular grotesque ceremonial with a 'K Fried C' drumstick near the film's conclusion that delivers us, it would seem, to a hell defined by depraved ingenuity. Whether this adds up to very much for you probably depends on how cynical you are. If you're a glass-half-full type, you'll probably see it as little more than a circus side show.

Speaking of brutality... Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly was another exercise in cynicism that was about as subtle as a sledgehammer in china shop. This isn't a criticism, per se, because I feel that it works as a sort of over-the-top gloss on the ethical malaise in the economically faltering America of today. Brad Pitt plays a very different hit man from McConaughey's; Pitt's Jackie is a steely professional with a reserved sense of propriety, which is dictated less by morality than a taste for simplicity and efficiency. Jackie wouldn't have the time or inclination for the excesses of Killer Joe. I'm not exactly sure that this makes him a 'better' man—because the same unremitting self-interest characterizes them both—but if we can't condone his choices, then maybe we can admire his work ethic. The Achilles' heel of the film is two overly long, irrelevant, and energy-sapping scenes with James Gandolfini, who plays an old school hit man who's lost his professional mojo. You can almost hear the film screeching to a halt when Gandolfini is on the screen.

A more serene brutality informs David Cronenberg's adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel Cosmopolis. The greater part of the film takes place in a limousine crawling through Manhattan (actually, a very poorly disguised Toronto) so that a powerful and indolent businessman (Robert Pattinson) can get a haircut. Here and there along the way, his limo is invaded by colleagues, acquaintances, and paramours who engage in alternately Mamet-like, didactic, and inscrutable dialogues on the bankruptcy (in more ways than one) of contemporary American life. Obviously this isn't a film that I would recommend to everyone, but its provocative, Socratic chill kind of hit my sweet spot. I can understand completely why people would or might hate this film with a violent passion, but its flaws—which are not slight, by any means—are overlookable for the pleasure of a front row seat watching society symbolically going down the shitter. (Because it's 'merely' symbolic, the film offers more food for thought than despair.)

But enough is enough. It's time to unveil my Top 5 film list of 2012—but again I'd ask that you remember that I still haven't seen a few major contenders like Michael Haneke's Amour and Leos Carax's Holy Motors. I haven't discussed all of these films, but the blog needs to move on to other topics. I'm getting restless.

1. Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos)
2. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
3. Alps (Giorgios Lanthimos)
4. Killer Joe (William Friedkin)
5. Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)

04 January 2013

2012: the year in cinema, part deux.

In 1964, Andy Warhol unleashed his intentionally unwatchable film Empire on an unsuspecting public. The joke—assuming there was one—was directed at anybody foolish (or pretentious) enough to approach the eight-hour continuous shot of the Empire State Building as if it were an assimilable cinematic product. Of course Empire wasn't something you were intended to sit and watch, like an ordinary entertainment—and I'm quite certain Warhol himself never made it through even a fraction of the whole; it was intended to just be there, on the sidelines or periphery as a commentary—either provocative or trite, as you happen to see it—on film and art itself. If you were actually dumb enough to sit through all eight hours of Empire and to scrupulously watch it as an active audience member, well... you probably deserved whatever psychic pain you experienced...

Now fast forward to approximately fifty years later. Hungarian director and art-house darling Béla Tarr embraces a similar art—that is, he creates (usually long) films with minimal action, minimal dialogue, and minimal character affect—in other words, films characterized by absence. But the cruel difference between Tarr and Warhol is that Tarr fully expects the audience to watch his extended snapshots and to absorb them as some kind of experience. Now what kind of experience he's aiming at is something I haven't quite figured out, but the critics seem to love him; Susan Sontag once wrote that she intended to watch Tarr's seven-and-a-half-hour visual-dirge Sátántangó once ever year. (In view of her present circumstances, we can no longer hold her to this resolution.) Whenever I insult Tarr's work on the internet—which is one of my hobbies—it seems that his fanboys regress to the fifth grade and start calling me a dummy or neanderthal—which seems an odd response from 'cultured' fans of high-art cinema, but I won't dwell on the irony here. I'm willing to admit that I may be a dummy or a neanderthal, but I'm not willing to admit that it's because I don't like Béla Tarr, who seems (to me) to have an outright contempt for his audience. Make no mistake... Tarr brings out the masochists. They fill his negative spaces with their baggage and pretensions. 

In 2012, Tarr released what he claimed will be his final film. (And the crowd goes wild!) That's right... He's supposedly retiring from filmmaking. But since he's only in his late fifties, I remain skeptical. It's easy to see, however, why a film like The Turin Horse would seem like a good stopping point. It's almost the nth-degree in cinematic minimalism without reverting to Warhol's mostly static shots. In my reading, The Turin Horse is also a loud, valedictory 'fuck you' to his audience, which is compelled—by its duty to art—to endure a two-and-half-hour, starkly-photographed home movie, recording the banality and the complete nothingness which comprises the lives of a peasant, his daughter, and their horse. The man and his daughter rarely speak to each and go through the same domestic rituals again and again—getting Papa dressed, hitching up the horse, going out to the well, boiling two potatoes. (Time to make the donuts!) Needless to say, this isn't Michael Bay. Since both of the main characters are stone-faced and not emotionally forthcoming, the film illustrates nothing but the steely resolve of the underprivileged in reckoning with their hardscrabble lives. I suspect Tarr is trying to make his audience experience these lives, not tell us anything insightful about them—but if so, he undermines the project by keeping his audience at a chilly distance. Instead, we're left only with another stale experiment in cinematic minimalism—the self-parodic swan song of a director who clearly despises every one of us.

03 January 2013

2012: the year in cinema, part 1.

Okay. Mea culpa. So I kind of zoned out during most of December—after I had previously promised myself not to be one of those people who abandons his blog like a drunk Kennedy abandons an underage hooker. I was dazzled by all the blinking Christmas lights and the spectacle of unbridled consumerism. (You probably think I'm being ironic—but you overestimate my economic consciousness. Let them, as the saying goes, eat cake—or other genetically modified foods loaded with nefarious glutens and the semen of disgruntled food processing plant workers.)

Returning to a blog after an unexplained absence is a bit like returning to your college history class after you've ditched for five consecutive weeks. There's some fear involved—and, yes, some guilt too. I have no right to expect anyone's notice. Maybe I'll return to room 203 only to discover the class has decamped for another room with less asbestos in the ceiling—without bothering to leave behind a forwarding address. But that's okay. I've spent the lion's share of my life talking to myself, so this can just be a little more of the same. 

My point in returning today—on the back of a donkey with the villagers waving palm leaves at me—is to discuss 2012: The Year in Cinema. Please notice that I intentionally typed 'Cinema' as kind of a wink-and-nudge  to indicate that we probably won't be talking about John Carter or that one Dark Knight film that caused people to be shot and killed. (I forget what the Dark Knight does in the title. Rises? Returns? Raises chickens? Whatever he does, he can be sure Christian Bale will be doing a lot of scowling and looking like he's trying his darnedest to eject a oversized dry turd from his Bat Rectum.)

As a disclaimer, I should point out that I haven't seen quite a few films that I want to see because I live in South Bend, Indiana, and the sixteen screen-cineplex was too busy showing Rise of the Guardians and Cirque du Soleil on eleven-and-a-half screens to make room for Michael Haneke or Leos Carax. Amour—Haneke's (reportedly) grim reverie on old age, infirmity, and death—isn't exactly a tentpole or popcorn film, but it would likely have placed high on my list of best films of the year, based on Haneke's track record as one of the world's greatest living filmmakers. Other notable omissions from my film-viewing roster this year (as of today) include The Impossible, Silver Linings Playbook, Hitchcock, and Life of Pi, which seems like a punishment the angry Cinema Gods came up with to punish me for watching Paul Blart: Mall Cop. I'm sorry... I don't care how many thumbs up (way up!) that thing gets, I ain't watchin' it. I have to draw the line in the sand somewhere. (The bibliography of movies I watched this year appears at the end of this entry. Although some of these movies were originally released in 2011—or even earlier—in their native countries, I am going by the American release date. This concludes the fine print.)

Let's start out with the unflushable bowel movement in the toilet bowl of 2012. Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild had movie critics across the nation spontaneously ejaculating hither and thither and not caring who had to mop up afterward. The moppers, my friends, are you—and anybody else who might buy into this high-fructose corn syrup rapture. Ostensibly, the film is a poetical-mythical reimagining of hurricane Katrina, in which a precocious little girl named Hushpuppy (gag) becomes an instrument of the filmmaker's catharsis. 

You see, when I first started watching Beasts, I was under the impression that the film was made by a black man. I don't know where exactly this impression came from. Maybe if we rigorously traced its origins, we'd find a throbbing nucleus of prejudice informing it—but nevertheless, there it is: As I sat down to watch this film, I was in the mindset of a white man preparing to watch a black filmmaker's reckoning with the injustices of Katrina, in an elaborated, mythical sense. 

It didn't take long to realize and to know, without any reasonable doubt, that Beasts was actually the working-out of some hardcore liberal guilt by a (probably young, probably male, probably privileged) white person. You really couldn't come up with a more trite or patronizing take on social injustice if you tried. The people of the 'Bathtub' (the poor, predominantly black lowlands of New Orleans) are intrinsically good, and the people of the higher lands (the more affluent, the more educated, and the more privileged) are either bad or at least terribly lost—what with their basic disregard of the magical mysteries of this wondrous world. The simple folk of the Bathtub are nobler, more authentic, more attuned to basic rhythms of nature—which the (fallen) city folk are too inundated with the noise of science and bureaucracy to sense. 

Make no mistake. This is an attempted shaming of the privileged. Not only are the guilty of an original sin of sorts—i.e., coming from money—they are also estranged from the essential, primitive instincts which make them fully human. (Poor rich white people!) Benh Zeitlin is atoning for his own status by reiterating that tired dualism of nature vs. society that dates back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and even long before. 

Yup, that's the guy. Benh Zeitlin. I know it's unfair to post his photo like this, as if it's some kind of evidence that he can't or shouldn't make a film about poor black people. But I'm not sure he has actually made a film about poor black people; he's made a film about his hang-ups. The budget for Beasts of the Southern Wild was $1.8 million. That's a lot of money to spend on psychotherapy, Benh. Now that you've patted the poor black people on their heads and 'empowered' them through an appropriation of myth, what have you really said? What have you shared with us that's really worth sharing? You know when somebody comes up to you and wants to tell you about a 'weird' dream they've had, and you're bored just thinking about it—because who really wants to hear about what's rattling around in this person's unconscious mind? Well, Beasts of the Southern Wild is Benh Zeitlin's dream. I hope it's made him feel better, but it kind of made me want to throw up all over the place. 

Let's be fair. Zeitlin wasn't the only one toying with myth this year. Ben Affleck turned a curious anecdote from the Iran Hostage Crisis into a cookie-cutter political thriller which can be synopsized (more or less) as 'America, Fuck Yeah!' It's certainly not a terrible movie, but Argo probably wins its plaudits less from its artistry than from a couple of extratextual factors: (1) People are always surprised when an actor can do anything other than act, so a film like Argo is necessarily going to benefit from a little bit of backhanded praise, along the lines of: 'Hey, this Affleck guy directed another movie! And it doesn't suck!' (2) Although in some particulars the real story of Argo has been jerry-rigged beyond recognition, the film is (ostensibly) political, historical... classy. This gives it a certain cachet. It's the kind of film that old Academy members can feel good about voting for, and Lord knows we want nothing else but to make Academy members feel good. 

Ben Affleck is a competent but bland director. He's several notches above a TV movie director, but let's not fool ourselves: he's in the same neighborhood. When all is said and done, Argo feels kind of rote. This isn't to say that there isn't a time and place for rote entertainments—sometimes the familiar and unremarkable can be comforting—but I think the critics have oversold Affleck's talents. He may grow into something better, but let's talk about what he is today: a hard-working, if not terribly gifted filmmaker. Maybe his skill will catch up with his ambition eventually. Stay tuned.

Probably the most (unintentionally) depressing film of the year was Robert Lorenz's The Trouble with the Curve, in which Clint Eastwood surprisingly portrays a grizzled, no-nonsense old grump. (A real stretch for him. I don't know where he summons the wherewithal to play against type like that.) In real life, Eastwood talked to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention, but in Curve, he talks to his penis. I think it was considerate of Lorenz to place this scene right at the beginning of the film. After all, what Eastwood discusses with his uncooperative member is less interesting than what the scene says to us, the viewers: 'This is a baseball movie with Eastwood and Justin Timberlake. What the fuck were you expecting exactly? Fanny and Alexander, for Chrissake?' Yes, viewers, the blame can only be directed at ourselves.

There is a scene early on in which Eastwood visits his wife's grave and sings 'You Are My Sunshine' to her rotting, buried corpse. I think this was supposed to be poignant. And I'm sure if I could have stopped giggling for a minute I would have been deeply moved by it. 

There are so many major problems with this movie that I'm too overwhelmed thinking about them to list them all for you. It's like when you have so many things to do that you can't bring yourself to do even one of them. I will point out two things before I take Curve out behind the barn and put it out of its misery with a shotgun: (1) The plot relies so heavily on coincidence and happenstance that it could very easily have ended up an altogether different and more satisfying film in which all the characters are miserable and suicidal at the end—if only fate would have thrown us a proverbial bone. I'm not even convinced that a script was written for this film. I think the director just said, 'Well, we need everything to end happily so let's just have everything kind of work out somehow and hope nobody notices that none of it makes much sense.' (2) What? You haven't seen Matthew Lillard play enough completely evil bug-eyed villains? Well, Curve has you covered there. Lillard, as always, makes Pol Pot look like Dinah Shore. 

Another crappy film from 2012 worth mentioning is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel starring a bunch of old British people, that kid from Slumdog Millionaire (whose career is about to expire in a few minutes), and Judi Dench's downy mustache. The only reason this movie was ever made was to pacify the elderly. They always complain that movies nowadays are so bad and filled with all that sex and violence. Well, this is the film industry's way of saying, 'Here. Here's your movie. Now shut up the fuck up for another year.'

[To be continued.]

My viewing list for 2012 (that serves as the basis for these blogs) is as follows: 21 Jump Street, Argo, Bachelorette, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Chronicle, Cosmopolis, Dark Horse, The Deep Blue Sea, Django Unchained, God Bless America, Goodbye First Love, Keyhole, The Kid with a Bike, Killer Joe, Killing Them Softly, Les Misérables, Lincoln, The Loneliest Planet, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Oslo August 31st, Price Check, Ruby Sparks, Save the Date, The Sound of My Voice, Take This Waltz, The Turin Horse, Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, The Trouble with the Curve, and Union Square.