Monday, August 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds & Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007 & 2009), & Holla Backing

**Major Spoilers (for both films)**

Mélanie Laurent as icy French-Jewish victim Shosanna

Inglourious Basterds is a vibrant resurrection of old-fashioned filmmaking. It recalls the day when films could move slowly in repletion with full-blooded dialogue, as long as the exchanges were taut with drama and emotions. Of course, mixed into Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's surely Kill Bill-induced propensity for meta flourishes - in this case, the segmentation of the film into titled chapters, hyper-flashbacks, and the inexplicable Samuel L. Jackson voice-over that accompanies these "hyper-flashes." In light of the ostensible ostentation of the latter two, I'll begin by offering this consideration, before anyone inclined to dismisses the blunt Tarantino-ism of them outright: in light of my own belief that narrative film really should be more uninhibited towards pedantry, as long as integrated in ways artful or sophisticated, I feel compelled to embrace the seemingly indulgent moments with the defense: what else to do with such a profusion of information you feel compelled to - the need to, as Tarantino admirably does - educate your audience with?

In this case, putting such particular locution in the mouth of Jackson is, really, the only way the film could have gotten away with it. Imagine a neutral voice giving the spiel on nitrate celluloid and we would have been witness to an ugly and meaningless Frankensteinian graft of narrative fiction film with documentary. With Jackson's recognizable, highly characteristic, long Tarantino-associated voice used in lieu, we instead are hearing the voice of cinema - Tarantino's cinema, at least - itself speak to us (I know, I know), as if that is exactly what it is supposed to do, in its storytelling omniscience and oneness with history. Perfectly plush with this are Tarantino's choice visual accompaniments to these spiels, driven by his finely pitched sense of pop semiotics: in the Hugo Stiglitz backstory, Stiglitz and a slew of slaughterable, unexalted Nazi high commanders are represented as pictures in a German newspaper; in the film's final narration regarding the nitrate, a disembodied hand is seen burning a test sample of nitrate cinema in what is clearly purely an act of practical demonstration - but lit perfectly as it is, against a deep velvet-black background, it becomes stock footage made transcendental: the industrial truth, the divine fact of the material, now further evinced in a vivid-dull vacuum (like Godard's cosmic pebble held up into the nothingness by Emily Brontë in Weekend). Also during this nitrate narration, is, very appropriately, a clip from Hitchcock's Sabotage--- these are documentary-isms, but of true cinematic cloth, where God-of-Cinema Hitchcock's obscure little film seems to cannily take on retroactive, premonitory wisdom - prophesying Tarantino's alternative history, where real life and cinematic representation are equally integral and enlightening... and just as Tarantino's promise for true deconstruction (of both cinema and reality) finally comes to fruition in this, his latest and most ambitious film (along with Death Proof).

But moving on, apart from these meta-flourishes and my apologia for them, Inglourious Basterds often comes off as Tarantino's most traditional film, recreating classical Hollywood storytelling in all its theatrical and steadied beats. Scenes are not trivialized as pure sine qua non for a concision plot, but are instead stages being set for weighty dialogic interplay, in which leisurely time takes on the politics and psychology of its fraught wartime interaction; takes on the expounding of historical context; and allows the audience to absorb and deconstruct the thematic intricacies of his screenplay, as lithe with its scrutiny of history and war as Death Proof is thick with trauma and tragedy.

Despite this newfound traditionalism, Tarantino's highly stylized aesthetic remains, to great effect. Tarantino has shown himself very inclined to taking moviemaking to aesthetic extremities, very French in their hope to reveal film as tome of all storytelling concepts, strategies, and symptoms - this being done in order not to call out cinema, but to have cinema reach its fullest potential to provoke intent critical presence from viewers when watching films. The virtue in a filmmaker with the correct strategy to artifice in his arsenal is the implied desire that his or her work be looked at just as if a painting on a gallery wall... your hand stroking your chin... one eyebrow haughtily raised in a preliminary skepticism that films must break through, by proving its astuteness and moral intelligence -- before it can then be allowed to move you wholly.

Tarantino revives a tradition of classical storytelling that will gladly, enthusiastically equate story-telling with the reality of historical minuteness, and movie-making with the importance of historical awareness (if not accuracy, quite apparently...) - historical awareness being a rhetorical viewpoint, critical thinking, and a liberated moral imperative of true re-evaluative retrospection, this being something which even history books - those integral developmental tools of forcing neutral, strictly textbook history down already apathetic kids' crapholes in the schoolroom-politik - often neglect themselves. He has written his screenplay with such deliberate structure - so as to accommodate a rather glacial pace - that he is practically acknowledging and directly forsaking the shorthand, visually over-dependent ways of modern filmmaking, and his screenplay is practically brimming with this ulterior sense of rebellious, educative purposefulness. Inglourious Basterds is a film that does not take it upon itself to circumvent long minutes of context in order to cater to shortened attention spans, resistance to learning, and disinterest in engaging with the undeniable fact that the most compelling narratives, the most telling details, and the key to true understanding - in real life - do in fact unfold with the trickle of seconds and the duration of minutes, and the most efficient way to glean knowledge is time spent with the basic exchange of words.

Inglourious Basterds happily comes "very close enough" to giving me just what I wanted from it - that being, a regard for history that is educated, that is engaged, and that deals seriously with war, its mechanics (seen in the Hans Landa character's mercenary playing of the field), and its repercussions (seen in the doomed opposition between Shosanna and Fredrick Zoller) - and it does so critically, with a sense of distance (as is pretty much a given with Tarantino's playful artificiality and methodical visual attention), and with a straightforward and clearheaded refusal to exploit, as we see egregiously done in NATION'S PRIDE - the "fake real-life, non-fictional fiction, narrative propoganda-film-within-the-film" by fake Joseph Goebbels, which we see featured in Inglourious Basterds.

In Inglourious Basterds, the titular Basterds and their dishing of Nazi comeuppance serves only peripherally, without a wish to provoke applause and cheers (even the big death of You-Know-Who is dark and burdened instead of the glorious ahistorical shenanigan we expect). The Basterds are ciphered swiftly in two short scenes. In the first of the Basterds' scenes, we see Brad Pitt's Lieutenant Aldo Raine presenting, practically for the viewer (since I'm sure the troop are already pretty clear what their M.O. is), the incantation needed to initiate the soldier into the group-think, in this case a group-think of abnormal sociopathy. In the second scene, we get to see them at work and we are given one brief look at a scalping to register the absurd commitment these men have put upon themselves. The men are presented as blithe, unquestioning, and with a strange combination of belief and ambivalence regarding their objective. No emotional connections are to be made with any of them. Their existence and their practices we see registered only in the fears and frustrations of the Nazi and the Nazi eminence, who at this point are mostly concerned with preserving the last breath of dignity and control the regime has left in it -- which is exactly what the Basterds threaten above all other opposing units, even over whole battalions. Their unusualness and vindictiveness serve as the most scathing indictment of Nazi power's own unusual and vindictive cruelty.


It's very important to point out that the Holocaust is respectfully left off the table in this film, so that it can focus on being a statement on a separate humane matter (of which the persecution of the Jews is certainly not entirely removed). This alternative statement is strongly anti-war, and in a most particular way: instead of equating war with evil acts, it cuts to the banal locus of it all and equates war to insensate social politics. The film is a statement against categorizations; that is, those plural terms denoting nation and creed, which so effectively perpetuate the systematization (nationalist, geopolitical, jingoist) which then spurs the philosophically illogical game of war. These terms end up being the logically insubstantial justification for our inhumanity. Terms such as "Nazi," even... and, in spite of how pointedly that particularly culpable group deserves such damnation to a label of their evil (in the film, justice is to literally carve it into their skin), the film suggests the gesture of category itself, inherently, is amorality personified. Humane commentary runs strong throughout Inglourious Basterds, and Tarantino's undeniably analytical, deconstructive methods reach for a higher, more sophisticated, more higher-minded instructiveness than the usual war film. Thus, the film reveals itself not a statement on Evil [German] People, but instead a very productive statement on inhumanity as it most often is: borne from mechanical politics. Waltz's initial monologue in the film's very first scene practically contains the whole message of the film: we often irrationally categorize groups, i.e. the "verminous," "plague-spreading" rats vs. cute squirrels. But rats don't deserve it as there's hardly, truly a difference - just prejudices that last from stigmatized social histories and the unfortunate reality of socialized divides.

The film generally knows that we know this Adolf Hitler is behind serious atrocities. The Basterds are fueled by a disrespect for German life that is spurred now by something more than personal vindication (which is probable, since the clear majority of the unit are Jews), more than innate militarism - it's a disregard for the Nazi commonwealth that is as irrational as it deserved, embedded only because of the fact sides have been chosen, dictators elected, and everyone's wartime roles have been codified, petrified, carved in stone, largely depending on what language one speaks and not who anyone is (I refrain from referencing "the individual" because that is not what I talk about; "who anyone is" is in fact who everyone is: a human being, beset by circumstances). As history is want to do, the sides have been determined, the politics necessitated, and best they not be tampered with (you know, with various frivolous, apolitical things like philosophy, humanism, and transcendental understandings). Only a select few - those intelligent and cunning enough - are aware of the awful, insidious thing called politics... and their morals usually suffer due to this understanding. It is often they who can speak multiple languages (without giving themselves away, as Michael Fassbender's British lieutenant does, due to not only a linguistic umbilical cord to his prided mother country, but to that irrepressible British properness). Hans Landa is one of those select few whose mastery of the chess board bares no Achilles Heel -- the reason he is such a towering figure in the film is because his loyalties only lie with himself, having mastered multiple languages because even his native German he does not insist defines him.

Landa represents pure, cold politics - devoid of even Hitler's repugnant-but-all-too-pitiably-human neurotics. Landa is pure smarts, with what would be an almost transcendent rhetorical intelligence and perceptiveness of the world's pithy emotions and human vulnerability, if he only weren't also so devoid of morals and humanity. It's rather impressive to get such a pure materialist character from Tarantino with Landa, one who he actually doesn't want us to empathize with on any level. Stuntman Mike was given the humanity of his normalcy, his aging, his nostalgia; Ordell Robie his dumb pride in his entrepreneurial successes; but all Landa has is his appealing but nevertheless materialist desire for a house on Nantucket Island.


Inglourious Basterds
evokes a veritable playground for war to show itself as something not virtuous and true, but filled with snakes and snake pits, and where the sad few still able to feel things (Shosanna and Fredrick, by virtue of their respect for virtuous cinema) end up finishing themselves and each other off due to the scars on their humanity inflicted by war and the lords of war.

Tarantino's self-referential regard for cinema is the ideal prism with which to reveal the enforced "characters" that make up war, from the lowliest (Shosanna and her colored amour, Marcel) to the highest (Hitler and Winston Churchill), and how these numerous cinematically and jingoistically solidified and chic representations are a rejection (justified and unjustified, more justifiable in the case of Shosanna's personal loss) of true humanity and an absorption of these people into the self-destroying realm of pure politics - which, in the cinematic regard, is the very definition of propaganda... which this film clearly argues is an affront to cinema, and only to be cleansed by burning it all to the ground.

Again in cinematic and clearly not historical regard: how else can the likes of Shosanna change history, if not by divesting all her humanity to the depraved single-mindedness of a cinematic Avenging Angel? How else can the Basterds do the same, without giving themselves up to the senseless and practically-mythic grandstanding of their methods? If you think about it, they really make no sense: their behavior, their "collecting," seems more suited for a band of bounty hunters, if it wasn't that their only payment was a seeming giddy investment in the idea that the Nazis really really deserve it. Operating purely out of some mission to instill fear into the Third Reich and not necessarily to operate strategically (that is, until Operation Kino goes into effect), the Basterds are pure cinematic fantasy. Their lack of backstory, emotional stakes, any sensical context, and their raffish impassivity works to group their arbitrary, autopilot acts with all other characters working purely militarily and for no apparent personal, vulnerable impetus (and that includes the covert British military intrigue-mongers and Bridget Von Hammersmark, also passion-devoid and implied merely mercenary in her Allied siding). The only contrast provided is by Shosanna, and the impassioned, personal justice she looks for.

The brilliance of Inglourious Basterds is I don't feel Tarantino is so much indicting the Basterds' violence, as it is often read (nor, in conjuction, any enjoyment of their violence by audience members, at least audience members aware of the morality at play in his film). This is in acknowledgment of the completely symbolic function they serve in validating our deepest revulsion to the Nazi regime and what they did. After all, unlike Von Hammersmark and the prim and proper strategics of Operation Kino's British masterminds, they aren't murdering for the sake of comfort or victory... they do it because the Nazis have been doing the awful things they've been doing. It is on this separate, more fantastical level, which is ironically both the more dismaying and the more righteous, that we are asked to register their mercilessness. If indeed moral infection has clearly crept into their actions, considering their brutality and enjoyment of their brutality, the infection has originated from a fusion of circumstance: both the Nazi's unforgivable inhumanity as well as the way war and its politics (yes, while unavoidable in this world) is inherently, philosophically antithetical to humans being real humans, which the Basterds's depthless personas embody. The Basterds serve as transgression of the Nazis (in their literal brutalities), but also as transgression/manifestation of the depersonalized landscape of war-time: as a troupe so renegade, they don't act on dispassionate, ordered command procedures and orders, but instead seem free to act purely on vindictiveness that is very personal (for us, not them).

Tarantino separates the Basterds in that sense, and it is for the better, so that the film does not come off as a puerile, shitty message film crowing: "For shame... sinking to their level!" (After all, Tarantino may be critiquing exploitation films, but he still loves them to pieces, movie geek that he is.) But, at some degree, it is his purpose nevertheless to highly demonstrate the meaninglessness of the Basterds' brutality, which he does by, as mentioned, never attaching to their acts any personal virtue and emotional presence.

But while the film maturely deems it not its place to avert and avow the common passions held against Nazism by its victims, the film's great message is that rhetorical, intellectual point about the very meaninglessness of humankind's divisions. As the Captain who Eli Roth's Bear Jew beats to death early in the film says: he did not win his medal for killing Jews, but for bravery, as all soldiers do, many of innocent mind yet accepting an honor philosophically skewed to its very marrow. This man may be a Nazi now, but, to give him the benefit of the doubt that perhaps psychologically he isn't an Amon Goeth (or a Hans Landa), the only difference between him and one of the Basterds is he was born in the wrong nation and was taught to not value the life of a people just as good as his own.

Inglourious Basterds inhabits a point in history when the realities of victim and victimizer have evaporated from the scene, leaving only skeletal structures and frameworks, representations and symbols with which the only thing to do is analyze. This is not a point in World War II, but a temporally current point, a now in which all narratives and storytelling based on WWII are in purview. In the same way, the film is not about the Holocaust, nor is it really about combat. It very explicitly is a film about the political. The film is an archetypal, skeletal illustration of WWII, stripped down to a cast of players thrust to us as representations of their given nations and sides. It provides astutely pared-down delineations of the structure to war, allowing us an entrance into its intimidating inaccessibility - that is, the void between us and the War Machine's "Great Small-mindedness," which the film processes and discovers an ironic upside to: that it could, in fact, all be boiled down to "Kill Hitler and end the war tonight."

The film as a key to uncovering accessibility in the crazy, terrible logistics of war is a good way of looking at the film. This "accessibility" - that is, its elating humanist messages that it unlocks in the muddy realities of a political, belligerent world - is found in that promotion of a totalizing view of humanity, as well as Tarantino's indulgence in pro-cinema/anti-propaganda commentary, that part of it so mercifully clear-cut. Since this is a film in which there is pretty much zero true humanity on display, the humane message of it all is rooted in its rhetoric and what is between and beneath the more apparent lines of wartime antics, chic aggression, and, yes, the unflappable style of war pictures, often in embrace of their fairy tale, good vs. bad war stories. IB is in the Tarantino tradition - taking on revenge genres and revealing all their complications: why they must be relegated to exist "only in the movies."

Tarantino picking war apart down to its skeleton is seen in how each chapter very methodically introduces one new actor in its playing field. For instance, Chapter 1 gives us Landa as a special unit officer in the Nazi High Command. Chapter 2 is devoted to the Inglourious "terrorist group," Chapter 3 to the personal avenger Shosanna, and Chapter 4 shrewdly introduces into the picture the British ops, very covertly sneaking their way into our previously brazen war film and entering into a partnernship with Chapter 2's previously renegade Basterds. Each with one short segment, we are told all we need to know about them with the economy of a story that has already gone where it's bound to go (as is the nature of history). But it's not so much victims and victimizers have "evaporated," as I had put it, but that, while they do, surely and sadly, exist, they are conceived as if film characters in an overly machinated and morally obtuse genre film - which this film (I argue) is not. The film is a brilliant dual look at and conflation of the moral obtuseness of war with the moral obtuseness of perceptions of war, such as those of the morally obtuse characters within the film -- and, yes, filmmakers and their war movies, so often more than rather morally obtuse.

The film's characters are not written so as to be superficial but as to be manifestations of the prejudicial role-playing that, essentially, is what makes up war. This is very much a poignant statement the film makes, and one not plagued by high-minded tactlessness. The film asks us to understand the victimizer, sure, but hardly is it a spineless defensive. It's acuteness is in the fact that it does not come off as a work of some contemporary moralizer or modern bleeding heart looking back at WWII and making his statement on its meaninglessness when millions of innocents died and the world was at the grip of a true tyrant. What Tarantino does is root it in its past, but a past that is already an allegory, a satire, and a farce itself. Millions die because of farce - because politics and war is both utterly horrible and utterly farcical. Tarantino doesn't have to let anyone off the hook with a post-modern jab at "historicity."

The brilliance of IB can be pinpointed in its never having to serve us a "Nazi with a heart of Gold" or a "non-Nazi with a change of heart" (that is, a realization of inhumanity; for example, a Basterd taking pity on a Nazi). It knows that if it gave us a Nazi with a heart of Gold, it would be apologizing for the Nazis, which is misguided, and if it gave us a non-Nazi with a change of heart, it would be showing us humanity does indeed exist, but just as long as you're not an Evil Nazi, which would similarly be a swooping narrative bomb of misconceived moral angling.

While the Good/Bad distinction is muddied, Landa's final turn of the screw - treason to the Nazis in exchange for, not just amnesty, but rewards - remains a horribly offensive breach in the Good/Bad distinction we do nevertheless cling dearly to. It also is a pointed illustration of how often human principle and personal belief is not always at the center of political persuasion. The evil of Landa is his playing under the rules of politics, bureaucracy, and material gain, not moral or personal principles (which are always preferable, as thoughtless as the Basterds' own principles are). His one misstep is his belief that the rules of war are applied as fastidiously as he applied them, by an enemy (the Basterds) not interested in politics - only the allotment of just deserts. The brilliance of IB's ending is they give him exactly what he deserves: not death, like the Nazi grunts they exterminated. His agreement with the US is not broken - he still gets his money, his house, and his immunity. The great irony of his punishment - a swastika carved on his forehead for all his Nantucket friends to see - is that it's the kind of punishment only people with a conscience could appreciate, which makes it just the right punishment to knock down Landa's high-and-mighty, clung-to sense of anti-moral dignity.

Its eponymous group of soldiers in reality rendered mere background players in the film, the title then takes on a nice sense of irony and metaphor (exemplified by the superb character posters taglined "[Actor] is a Basterd"). There is not one complete innocent in its cast of main characters. Only peripheral characters (not to mention the characters not shown, but most certainly haunting the film's wings: the Holocaust victims and the blameless young men of all nations fighting on the battlefield), rooted in their commonness, assume the moral spotlessness the film's avatars of politics and war do not. The barroom scene stands as the film's most alarming instance of its humanity-divested avatars of politics and war intermingling with and catching in the crossfire a handful of "true people" characters, like the German soldier with the new baby or the unassuming waitress: true innocents, and not bled-dry archetypes like everyone else. A tense standoff made of equal number sheep and wolves, Tarantino very sharply uses this scene to surprise us with Von Hammersmark's own baseless callousness and quickness to kill (before later having Landa himself call her out, with a line that burns with personal incrimination: "And when you purchase friends like Bridget von Hammersmark, you get what you paid for"). Landa, of course, has no qualms with "turning Good" and denying his nation and countrymen. The film's devotion to bold drama fleshes out Shosanna and Fredrick Zoller, both clearly standing as the film's emotional anchors and figures of innocence... of course, both quickly corrupted and disposed, Tarantino refusing to short-shrift the ugliness they have inhabited as pawns in wartime games of depravity.

While both are sullied by war, Shosanna, of course, is in the role of the victim, and her pitiable status allows her complete separation from matters of militarism and brutalism... at least in the interim, before she gets the Nazi High Command in her grasp. It also gives her the time to find a kindred soul in Marcel, their relationship being pretty much the film's only completely unsullied bright spot. She and Marcel are the only completely sympathetic character and her division from the rest of the characters is prominent.

Zoller, on the other hand, is the character that must - but unfortunately so - be laid susceptible to disdain and critique. The disadvantages are completely court-side, and the court's all his: he's a Nazi, he's politically climbing, and he's a man (as opposed to Shosanna as a female). But the film affects valiantly to give him all the benefits of a doubt, and he ultimately serves sympathetically, and as the film's statement on the deleterious effect of political favor (and, more digressively, the masculine empowerment that can be propagated by military entrenchment) - all the factors with which one can damn this man, but not in sacrifice of any innocence that may lie underneath all of that, which Tarantino shows embodied in his moral respect and value of cinema.

Much subjective stances have been taken on Zoller's culminate act of brutishness when spurned by Shosanna the penultimate time, and his intimation of an ensuing sexual assault. As I see it, there's is no way we can be sure of this, or that the moment aims to corroborate Zoller's potential to rape, or his overall "badness." I personally feel his moment of weakness, giving in to his understandable frustration with her and his militaristic aggrandizement, strikes one of the film's biggest chords of tragedy, in seeing what war victories claimed and power felt can do to someone, particularly a man - that gender already so inclined to sexually dominate. But, even as both him and Shosanna lay on the projection room floor bleeding due to his final act of vindictiveness, I do not feel his ostensible threat, and her probable fear, is at all enough to certify that there is a push from the film telling us to condemn this character, and re-evaluate his previous gentility as all a Nazi ruse.

I think there's much worth in saying, yes, we're not sure what he'd do, and that his threat and Shosanna's fears do exist on a fundamental ground. But saying that his action and a statement (and his flustered excitation at the thought of projection booth sex) more than halfway certifies that he'd then rape her, and that the "evil Nazi" persona precludes the chance he wouldn't, is counteractive to the film's statement on how politics (which is from where the two character's failed relationship is essentially borne from) are not to make up the individual; that beasts are not the individual, but nurtured largely through experience in socialization (even beasts in matters of sex, as in-built and tantamount it is, are much of the time exacerbated by socialization in patriarchal or masculine norms).

In conjunction with the innocence that we are made to see lay beneath this character, the film is making a clear argument that Zoller is - to some extent, for sympathy and understanding - blind and unwitting to his encasement within and susceptibility to the power he inhabits, triply and court-side, and that I'll list once again: a Nazi officer, a political influence, and a male (again, in relation to Shosanna, female).

Bring your attention to that one false scare where Tarantino psyches us out with the arrival of a car in front of Shosanna's movie theater as she changes the marquee. An anonymous officer uses an act of intimidation in order to get Shosanna into the automobile, in order to be taken to the luncheon with Zoller and Goebbels. The scene exists not just for a throwaway moment of tension, as it may seem at first, but really in order to suggest the chains of power, regimented and insensate, that results through military bureaucracy. Zoller would not have wanted such intimidation be used with Shosanna, and this is very clear when Zoller later greets her with surprise that she'd had accepted his invitation at all. But, in his now highly elevated position, the military has deployed a separate, lower arm of employment to fetch her, a lower officer whose abuse of coercive authority is squarely out of Zoller's control - or, to be realistic, is probably so typical, Zoller would really hardly find much reason to fret over it. He does not commit the mistreatment of Shosanna, but he's blind or has turned a blind eye to the turmoil and fear he is indirectly causing her.

Tarantino tempers all their meetings with the bustle of the world and environment around them - with the one exception being their first meeting. Inflected only with his lovestruck affectations, there is not a word from Zoller about his reputation: it's only movies. It is not until their next meeting at the cafe that, surrounded by adoring citizens and autograph seekers, that he succumb to playing the "celebrity" card and boasting in the blood on his hands.

Everyone's a basterd in Tarantino's WWII worldview.

So the big question is: despite all this, does Inglourious Basterds still really come off as so boorish that its preconceived reputation as a revenge fantasy for the Jewish sticks?

I suppose considering the unfortunate marketing (the self-aware luridness likely not enough to overcome their ostensible surface of war-fetishizing), its reputation preceded it:

But if it does to some extent serve as cathartic wish fulfillment, doused in the drowsing fumes of violent comeuppance, it is all treated with a sense of distance and informed totally by the petrification of a nation's shameful period in history by History (thus giving impetus to the film's fantasy-history elements), attributing almost complete blame on Hitler (and Goebbels even more so, since Tarantino's film seems mostly an outcry over cinema utilized abusively), or, most accurately, Hitler's diabolical perfecting of war. Blame falls on him but also on war itself, and its ability to systematize crystallized cruelty, avarice, and pettiness in all parties.

The film's not needing to throw at us that "Nazi with a heart" in order to make us understand its rhetorical vantage point is probably its strongest testament to its vantage point: that Nazi Germany's negative representation in history and media is, yes, something they must live with... but nevertheless, it is something that is contrived - a Nazi is not a Nazi, but an individual person who has been contrived into a Nazi, that was made into a Nazi. (And this is extra true for movie Nazis, represented solely to villainize and justify tales of war.) The film's insinuated analogy between the contrivances of politics and the contrivances of narratives (as in propaganda, and, as a side note, in the large majority of fiction war film) is, further, a direct parallel to how Hitler contrived his evil ideology, its irrational prejudices, and the masses serving it. Nazism is not people. It is the ill of nationalism and desperation and insecurity, blown up and preyed upon in a grand political scale by Hitler. Only after considering that can we act on the people who mold to its contours.

As far as I see it, 10% of the film (at most) is Tarantino indulging stylistic excess and cheerful violence. 90% of Inglourious Basterds is an elaborate and learned, humanistic and surprising-in-detail recreation of the international playing field at wartime, whether that field is the realm of cinema & propoganda production, language games & ethnic identity, far-reaching political hands (see The Best Film Ever's Rod Taylor playing Winston Churchill), or the very battleground and a terrorist unit undermining the facade. If it's not as sensitive as I may see it as being, it's certainly respectful and smart and rich in perspective, playing against generalizations and effectively not falling into the facile, leaden simplicity of the "arhetorical" (to riff off the term "ahistorical," so commonly thrown at IB) war film such as last year's WWII opus and Nazi apologia Valkyrie.

Inglourious Basterds - 8.5/10


I had quite the experience watching Death Proof, for I believe my third time, with two friends, both who are female. Both are undergraduates studying feminist theory. Both were shocked and disturbed by the film's first half. Both were delighted by the film's second half. Both were undeniably enraptured by all the girl power, and one, being gay, was probably to some extent titillated.

But I was kind of taken aback when, by the end, both exhibited not a trace of sympathy left to give Stuntman Mike. But no, neither were they basking in the thrills and blood-thirst. The two companions in question are not film students, aficionados, or even much of casual filmgoers. Neither are at much a level of desensitization, nor have they watched films enough to have practiced the art of critical distance. Thus, they were filled with an unbridled vehemence for Stuntman Mike, without any residual ironic head-banging or Kurt Russell accolades (I sort of doubt I can ever show them any Kurt Russell film, even that Disney hockey one, and not expect them to feel revulsion towards him). They quickly analyzed the film as so much as it most typically is to be seen: as a quasi-feminist film, providing to the viewer a revenge fantasy posed against men, men who function on taking out their frustrations through the abuse of women.

What this most recent viewing showed me was how deep a wound it is, for those predisposed women, the fact of their physical vulnerability to violence and sexual violence... and far be it for me to tell them they had to see the awfulness that was Stuntman Mike's own victimization. But watching the film with them made me realize how potent the film is, because as they nervously bit their fingers (actually considering the possibility Stuntman Mike might escape the three women in the end, which goes to show their lack of initiation in the formula of exploitation film), I was allowed to perceive a sort of gut-wrenching sadness in the ending that I wouldn't feel if I was watching it alone, or with critically distanced [male] cineastes: a sadness in seeing how large of an advantage males take over females in the real world, and how an endgame for an expurgation of the trauma of this reality, for womenkind in humanity at large, can be so deeply provoked by Tarantino's troubling illustration of the tables turning, through a throwback to the practiced exploitation of empowerment desires and vindication needs provided by a whole swathe of moviemaking, often the only place where such inner wants can be manifested (usually by way of luridly sensational plot elements, such as this film's - essentially - rape-made-vehicular).

It showed me what makes this film so profound. The film is not a feminist film. It's humanistic on an incredibly universal scale (a statement I make, pretty much verbatim, about what I find the most profound film ever made, The Birds). We are given a tangled web of people feeding the all-too-common domination impulse found within ourselves, permanent in the human condition and a garish part of the primitive being. Humans are inclined to physically rule (men sexually prevail) and emotionally condescend over others, and Death Proof reveals the extents people will go to play the games of power (so satisfying and yearned for as they are) and further, to assert their place in the food chain that isn't the bottom.

In the first half:

We have men (the ringleader played by an extra smarmy Eli Roth) revealing very clearly to us the maliciousness behind their boorishness: their premeditated desire to sexually exploit, and their single-track minds to satisfying their libidos.

We become privy to a hothouse of schoolyard resentment between Jungle Julia and the Rose McGowan character, Pam, and are allowed to feel the sting and see just how insurmountably a relationship - years in the making, built off a dynamic of dominance-resentment - can thoughtlessly exist, borne from the strategic pinprick of all facets of inequality combined: physical (Pam: "Sorry I'm built like a girl, not a black man"), emotional (reference the psychologically alpha Julia, plus her strikingly defensive aversion to respecting Pam at any capacity, surely due to a refusal to acknowledge her flaws and weaknesses, manifested in her unaccountable cruelty towards Pam), and material (see: Julia's burgeoning career as Jungle Julia and ability to climb the ladder, and leave all her peers in the dust of small-town Texas).

Jungle Julia is a swaggerer who we learn has propositioned her close friend Butterfly (or Arlene) - shown very carefully to harbor much less steel in her veins - to a very philosophically troubling, philosophically complicated game she's struck with her radio listeners, and, really, a whole world of men. That is not to say she will not realize her missteps, for she later shows regret and compassion to her sacrificed friend. But seeing the understanding she shows to Butterfly in contrast to that which she does not to show to Pam is an incredibly real and accurate presentation of how people work: keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer, but whichever you do, you're always looking out for yourself.

In the second half of the film...

The conversation consists of funny, popping, honest, candid, refreshingly open, uninhibited, and, most importantly, perceptive banter about the nature of relationships: what we're called for to put out and put in when in a relationship, the necessity for shrewdness in relationships, and the thin line between romance and sexual exploitation (soon enough morphing into the film's general study of the thin line between victimizer and victim).

The Rosario Dawson character Abernathy wants to believe in the integrity of romance, but everyone else is telling her it doesn't exist - that she must work (and enjoy) the politics, power shifts, and competitiveness found in sexual being. So at the end of the film, we see her give in to the diverting pleasure of the game and competition. She succumbs to the vindication of victimizing, reveling in the pain and murder of another - inner desires which the tangly moral and emotional games played previously, at the redneck mechanic's cabin house, strikingly echo. There, we see how hurt Abernathy gets over how she is is separated from the "cool kids," over how backhandedly her "tough chick" friends Zoë (Zoe Bell) and Kim (Tracie Thoms) try to put to her their superiority over her, and over how she is grouped with the girly actress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who, given, she can talk about Vogue with. Rosario, though, in one of the film's most slyly and fascinatingly sophisticated plot touches, is shown to at least be more sophisticated than her actress friend, because she's the one whose cultured and apparently "high-style"-knowing air brings her the serendipitous acquirement of an Italian Vogue. Intellectual superiority is not enough for her, though, and we see her practically whore out her friend, conveniently clad in a cute cheerleader outfit, to the leering mechanic, in order to fulfill her feeling of lack.

The thoughtless, out-for-blood mentality that finds the three women chasing after the injured Stuntman Mike - who has suffered mangled and broken limbs, but never ever the sting of being dominated and bled slowly by another - strikes a troubling note, not a jubilant one, in its absurdity and the pointedness of Abernathy's joyous revelation to the thrill of power. In the same way Stuntman Mike's heinous, pathetic acts are result of the ego he fostered during vitalized youth, Abernathy's "turning on" to violence is similarly a result of the egoistic demands she made clear to her stuntwomen friends previously, totems for her, apparently, of which her nagging awareness is that she falls short of. The film speaks of human beings' need of games and competition to give our lives meaning and satisfaction - the greatest ugly truth. The film's display of revenge and comeuppance is not at all necessarily a display of gender vindication. It's an exaggerated statement on how the need to dominate can suck a world dry of compassion, and how in a world already so often fixed against compassion (a world represented by Stuntman Mike's free reign to stalk, which was itself unleashed by a taunt borne from Julia's on-radio bluster, emphasizing the viciousness of the cycle; not to mention the law enforcement who insist on not doing anything about Stuntman Mike due to their distaste for proving they are as impotent to convict him as they know they are), a complete embrace of merciless violence (brought to you by the escapist movie industry) is perhaps the only way to go - and it's true, especially for women most of all, this sort of cruel entertainment is most closest to being deserved. Let it be known that punishment can be awful, and it can be wholly deserved, by both the pathetic Mike and the glorious women.

But as far as I am concerned, the sad truth is that the need to dominate is the greatest ill of this world. It is primitive and biologically inherent, manifested most often through men's sexual urges. It is roundabout and cyclical, often emerging from the deepest feelings of those who once suffered from their own victimization, who then are compelled by their right to "empowerment" (my apologies to all those fighting racial and gender inequalities out there, for as much as the word "empowerment" troubles me, it is a requirement to assert when those who have power so readily have it) by taking their part in the back-and-forth fist fights of environments characterized by power playing.

It occurred to me how similar the modus operandi of both Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds' are: taking very sensitive topics of victimhood, revealing the absurdities of violence and diffusing them with rich tableaus of the intricate circumstantial (for example, war) and societal conditions (politics, sexual compulsion) that color and calibrate people's worst tendencies.

Add to that, as I've before profusely claimed, Death Proof is just an amazingly beautiful and beautifully poignant film. The whole scene in the bar is just directed to the utmost perfection with such fastidious care: its meditative selection of close-ups of the most glassy and reflective of objects (shot glasses, a dividing glass panel, bottles shimmering of neon and claret, the jukebox mechanisms, etc.); that breathtaking, "How exactly did they shoot that?" overhead shot of the ground as infinite droplets of rain splash upon the dirt in a pristine reflection of blue; the flow of shots that finds Butterfly retreating outside for a cigarette; the steady hold on Pam as she asserts herself against Jungle Julia to Stuntman Mike, watery eyes shimmering of the inner metal she desperately clings to; the presentation of environment and depth, with the Julia posse seen out of focus as we're spending time at the bar with Mike and Pam, and vice versa, or the distance Pam's voice must traverse to query Tarantino's bartender character Warren about the legitimacy of Stuntman Mike's "Stuntman" moniker (then the nonchalant way the physically distant Warren replies, regarding Stuntman as just that - nothing less, nothing more, his terrible pastime kept separate but nonetheless intermingled with his ultimate mundanity). The film's vivid capturing of barroom melancholia and drug-abetted dissatisfaction is really unheralded. The way the neon colors hue the twilight outdoors as the rain pours and smoke wafts. Its love of the female form is undiscriminating, and its love of their simultaneous vulnerability and power is likewise. The lap dance sequence, misguidedly removed in the Grindhouse release for a quick gag, is not just sexy fun, but a scene dripping with emotional gusto as we see sex at its most joyous and carefree (represented by the carefree, unburdened women who watch - and dance, as Robert Rodriguez's nieces do [with nepotistical abandon] - around her) can still be laced by vulnerability, hidden away by whatever party due to the unfortunate existence of unhealthy pride and shame.

The character of Butterfly is treated with such sensitivity and empathy, her highs and lows tracked with such intimate understanding, that her role strikes me just as potently as any other cinematic martyr, like Joan of Arc and Jesus Christ, and given as pietistic a visual treatment (the close-up of her eyes bathed in holy light - Stuntman Mike as God, cruel asshole of a deliverer - slipping shut in slow-mo prayer). Her image (as well as Pam's) being made to recur spliced in among the film's end credits montage of 50s era yearbook pictures of anonymous girls (played against the April March track "Chick Habit") strikes a chord of amazing symbolic and semiotic profundity - a mournful tribute to a whole slew of forgotten, woebegone womanhood. We see Butterfly (or the stunning actress herself, Vanessa Ferlito) seated in a car as she smiles gently, touchingly to the camera. We see Pam goofing off for the camera, a shot of her back to us as her platinum blonde wig dons a pair of shades and boogies to the music.

Their imagistic recurrence in the film's ending credits has them play warmly to the camera, as if having especially earned their remembrance: they were both representative of the weaker in the film, both giving up their lives without having really been given the nature or opportunity to enjoy domination over others. So, they are given shrine to, among other immaculate meek, knowingly resurrected after having given themselves up as victims for the film's moral and emotional dramatization. It is an allowance for them to be at the top after the painful passion of their fear, vulnerabilities, and ultimate deaths, in all the confidence given to them by grace of their burden of being the gentler creatures in this world. In the end credits, with that split second shot of Ferlito, Tarantino suggests: when all's said and done, and matters of power and dominance lie as ashes to ashes, dust to dust as the human beings who played into them, it is Butterfly sitting at the wheel. It resonates with tenfold poignance.

Death Proof - 9.5/10

Spot-on Reviews:
Cinepassion.org: "'Grindhouse': Half Smirk, Half Transcendence" (Fernando Croce) - Mentions Ferlito in the end credits. Rock.

+++

Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds

Death Proof, but not Inglourious Basterds, is definitely about voyeuristic violence and troubling movieland power, on a decidedly personal scale (i.e. gender and female vulnerability). Inglourious Basterds, though, does not wag its finger at us for being moviegoers propagating bloodlust and power due to an incontrovertible division, as in Death Proof (with the division being sex - it's usually either sex or race when it comes exploitation flicks). I do not quite see Inglourious Basterds as similarly arguing against itself, in some sort of meta self-indictment over violence in cinema - which some people do choose to see in the film. As anti-Nazi as the film is, it never truly cares to implicate itself with a tone of anti-Nazi propaganda or an excess of "pleasurable violence." IB puts the viewer in the same position as Shosanna. While we're not being blamed for wanting to inflict brutal punishment on Nazis, we still are made to see how sad it is we have been justified to sacrifice part of our humanity. Our bloodlust is only due to the film's grand antagonist (which is given flesh through the character of Landa): politics, which have contrived our divisions, and made violence somehow justifiable for some (to enact) and deserved by others (to bear), when in a perfect world, political divisions wouldn't exist.

Violence made justifiable and deserved is the definition of war. The film makes us feel that pettiness.
IB's intellectual points on politics and war I feel don't mesh very well with any moralizing on cinema spectatorship and the bloodthirstiness of the viewer. The commentary exists in the film, yes, especially for audience members going for the "Cool Violence," but it and the film's greater rhetorical point can't really be looked at together. To further this argument, a point to be made about exploitation cinema (which is what Death Proof is, all the way through) is (and should be) a somewhat different point than that to be made about propaganda film (which is what IB's commentary is, through and through). There's a straight-up moralizing clarity to pointing out the trouble in our revelry in Death Proof's violence, but there's more to it than that in our revelry in IB's.

Stuntman Mike may have been vile, but he's human, at least in the very biological sense of the word -
what Hitler did to humanity in WWII is very much not, and Tarantino wants our response to the violence in IB to be more about that, not about sadism in seeing Evil Germans getting butchered as if in a torture porn flick. If our passion for retribution derives mostly from the profundity of our emotional outrage, then Tarantino realizes this is nothing to finger wag at. On the other hand, the dynamics of egoistic power and the enjoyment of dominance in Death Proof is a different matter - the girls at the end killing Stuntman Mike had no greater moral principle but their personal empowerment.

The similarity of the film's strategies - in their taking of film genres often based around their concessions to our more cruel, if very human and very sympathetic, desires, and then deconstructing them - is incredibly rich, and almost uncanny in their mirroring. It makes me wonder what Tarantino must end up doing next, considering he might just have exhausted all that needs to be said with revenge-picture deconstructions in these two pictures!

+++

And while I am on the topic of domination urges, victimization, and how best to deal with these...

There's a network of internet blogs united under the banner name HOLLA BACK, which exist for different regions of the country, and even other territories. Their mission statement on their California incarnation is as follows:
Holla Back Cali empowers anyone, not only those from California, to stand up and resist all forms of street harassment. Street harassment humiliates many women each day. We encourage women to HOLLA BACK at street harassers!
It's a sound idea that strikes me as one of the best ways to deal with these things.

Here's links to some other Holla Back blogs, including Holla Back NYC, which seems to have been the main progenitor:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)

Say what you will about this stupid movie, M. Night Shyamalan's 2004 film The Village has an exquisite first three-quarters, before its half-hearted twist rears its head and inoculates what might've been an edgy tale of isolationist-conservative head games, turning the proceedings into a simplistic sociology fantasy, not decisive or near conclusive enough about the weepy group of wounded puppies that lie at the story's center.

You know you have a problem when the line "Why have we not heard of these rocks before?" stands firmly as the film's sharpest motion towards commentary on political subterfuge, although William Hurt's hearty intonements reverberating through Bryce Dallas Howard's head as she traverses the woods, as well as the village elders' useless baby-with-the-bathwater decision to throw out modern medicines along with everything else, also effectively communicates the insipidity and trauma of controlled repression.

But those first three quarters, they offer some achingly pure statements on romance and courage - those most chivalric-aged and provenly everlasting values - and their selfsameness; tied restlessly to rejuvenation and youth, and troublingly, inexplicably to tumultuousness and modernity.

The Village is at its best channeling the standard Victorian age tales of passions untethered and romance embraced. Shyamalan's a bit too family-friendly for any bodice ripping, but romance is that special thing that is often just as scintillating at its earliest, most innocent stages.

For instance, here is Shyamalan's own lovely moment illustrating that wonderful thing that is unresolved sexual tension, occurring between two still very attractive aging megastars:

||||||||||||||||||||||SHOT 1:


A silent beat after a line of dialogue, then...

(CUT TO:)
||||||||||||||||||||||SHOT 2:

Without seeing the movement of the arm, we see the hand in reach. Her hand had reached out before she even knew it had.

And another moment that achieves heartrending beauty:


The girl joyously, over-emphatically expresses her love to a boy.

SMASH CUT TO:
The girl, wailing, heartbroken.

Our first introduction to the film's main character: the girl's sister Ivy, in blue, consoling her sister. Her face is only hinted.


Only a mysterious presence of wise understanding,
the camera pulls back as she sings a sweet lullaby:

BACKWARDS TRACKING SHOT:
"Baby sleep, gently sleep...
Life is long, and love is deep."

"Time will be sweet for thee...
All the world to see."

Ivy's face remains only hinted: as a youth - and being as romances and passions are the pivotal thing for the young from the viewpoint of Shyamalan's film - her character has yet to reveal her "face": that is, her inner romances, yet to be exposed (soon to be revealed as a fervent mutual affection between herself and the town's silent hero of equal courageousness: the intrepid Lucius, played by Joaquin Pheonix).

The lullaby's lyrics are a sweet expression of the opportunities of being young, and a capacity for moving on and letting go - which will tie in explicitly to the film's story.

"Time to look up out and know...
How the shadows come and go."

Violin strains quietly come in to harmonize her melody... but not until after she is let to sing the spare first verse alone. The delayed occurrence of James Newton Howard's score evokes a sense of an old standard - a lullaby that at first was only a tool to soothe - retroactively taking on the significance of the world. Listen to it here.

The Village - 5.5/10

M. Night Shyamalan
1. The Village - 5.5/10
2. Signs - 4.5/10
3. The Happening - 4/10
4. Lady in the Water - 4/10
5. The Sixth Sense - 3.5/10 (yeah... I find the film objectionable.)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

THAS: The Perils of Pre, & John Carpenter

No, Pre isn't the precocious name of some olden celluloid maiden in distress. "Pre" as in "pre-" as in pre-production. The horror film website UHM posted this interview with Tobe Hooper on September 9, 2004, discussing with him what was then his upcoming project, Mortuary.

During is the following exchange:
TIM: So what’s your vision for MORTUARY?
TOBE: It’s about this beat up old mortuary that gets moved into by a guy going thru a midlife crisis who goes into a new business, kind of on a lark, a place that is so fucked up and run down that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Once he gets there, he hopes he’ll be able to get some business from the mental institution and the old folks home. And he certainly does. But it’s very weird and very scary and not quite what you think. It’s almost as if Larry Clark was doing a horror film. Kind of like BULLY. Except there will be redeeming characters.
TIM: So it’s BULLY with remorse!
TOBE:
Remorse and redemption. It’s gonna be cool. Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch wrote it, the guys who wrote TOOLBOX. In fact, I just took them out to the location today and now we’re having a writing session because that damn place tells you what to do. Originally, it was set back east and was very gothic. This is gothic, but it’s new gothic. Instead of kids sitting around on some New England porch with the birds chirping, our kids will be sitting around with trains and chemical plants.
Mortuary subsequently went into production and was in post-production by mid-2005.

Well, as much as I appreciate Mortuary (surely more than the next fellow), this Larry 'Kids' Clark horror film Tobe speaks of sounds much more interesting than what we ultimately got with the film. What exactly was decided at the ol' drawing board that transformed what, sounds like, could've been an interesting portrait of cross-generational ennui against a modern urban-industrial backdrop, into the goofy, almost kiddy, piece of fluff that we end up with?

Wasteland and industry! Teens in crisis! Close but no cigar.

As much as I love the man's work, he may just not have had it in him. Hooper's a lovely filmmaker - and that's exactly how I'd characterize him and the appreciation I aim to give him, a filmmaker who knows how to make films "lovely" - but he's hardly the scholastic thinker, able to pursue a good intellectual thread when he sees one and communicate ideas on the screen. John Carpenter will have to do as horror's Patron saint for the on-film treatise, while Hooper has to settle as advocate for expressivity and a less stately (than Carpenter), more free-flowing rhythm of simultaneous animation and empathy, which I like to call "emotionality."

The two directors are evenly matched, as far as I am concerned. Hooper's parts are often better than his whole - moments stunning in their beauty or eccentricity consist a picture that falls apart at the seams as it goes along (case in point, Spontaneous Combustion). Carpenter's more conventional, dully commercial style never quite achieves consistently enough that special exquisiteness and dark daintiness that makes me such an advocate of Hooper, but his films often achieve a studied theoretic precision that, with some mental persistence, can become near the definition of artistic evocations in genre film [see Slant's Eric Henderson's review of The Thing containing a 1-2-3 summation of Halloween, "Assault," and The Fog's formal power, then follow the appropriate hyperlink rabbit hole to Ed Gonzalez's persuasive acclamation for The Fog, which I personally undervalue]. Particularly helpful to the point I'm making: Carpenter's 90s output, Ghosts of Mars and Escape from L.A., while nevertheless idiosyncratically Carpenter works, fall short of the artfulness of his previous films. Yet, they both achieve exhilarating formal grasp of their commentary and social reaches. This goes to show how even without the help of the beatific formal techniques I am such a sucker for in films, a film can still strike gold mines of value as a creative and admirable work.

Hooper's films of deeply subdued, nuanced evocations of mood and emotion satisfy a certain part of my critical palate, while Carpenter's expertly crafted, efficient but always dramatically persuasive output work on a level of superb accessibility [with all due respect going to accessibility (and I say this sincerely, not in the slightly disingenuous way the phrase "... with all due respect... " is typically used)] and the intelligibility of his visual and cinematographic commentary.

Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 stands proudly as his best work. It boasts the same technical robustness and conceptual atmospherics of Halloween and The Thing except with more capacity for emotional range. The film even rivals Prince of Darkness in structural ambition, found in its slow build-up, the first half soaked in the desolate landscapes of poor LA, and prologue that preemptively, ambiguously depicts the roundabout nature of violence committed upon one's fellow man.

That intelligibility of visual statements I mention above is most sharply drawn in this film, as well. Carpenter's visual treatment of gangs and guns remains as bracing as ever.

Steadied, carefully built-to shots of desultory bystanders in the viewer of a precision automatic rifle resonate strongly within the film's story of illegal (and silent) firearms inundating the already destitute streets of the district, while the facelessness of the marauding gangsters stands as a telling and stern artistic decision by Carpenter.

In contrast, his treatment of the characters and interplay inside the station is filled with warmth, his compassion and understanding for them contained in the way he will apprehend the gaze of a character in the action's periphery or highlight the humanness and dignity of their fear (as opposed to the inhumanness of the faceless attackers who both attack and flee as if automatons) by following the rhythms of their visceral or emotional experience with the flair of Carpenter's much-admired spiritual predecessor Howard Hawks.

Pain felt.

Pain transcended by principles.

Captured perfectly by Carpenter in this moment.

John Carpenter
1. Assault on Precinct 13 - 8.5/10
2. Halloween - 7.5/10
3. The Thing
4. Escape from New York - 6.5/10
5. Christine - 6/10
6. They Live
7. Prince of Darkness - 5.5/10
8. The Fog
9. Escape from L.A.
10. Ghosts of Mars
11. In the Mouth of Madness - 4.5/10
12. Vampires - 4/10

All but the bottom two I like quite a bit.

Friday, August 7, 2009

In Which I Prove Myself a Grump; or, UP (Pete Docter, 2009)

UP is another superlative Pixar outing - low on inane jokes, the self-gratifying distraction of pop culture references, and the distracting gratification of potty humor, and instead, high on genuine pathos, exquisite animation, and a tangle of life lessons to sort through with your kids if you have 'em - which is unceasingly more alluring than the dullard sitcoms of Dreamworks Animation and its ilk. PIXAR attempts artistically sound filmmaking and storytelling, that which prides in subtlety and nuance (the most humane characteristics, as far as I see things) and so forgo the commercial appeals of generalization and mass culturism and whatever "-centricity" that are pandered to by animation studios more interested in targeting niches instead of realizing that all walks can be united by the true challenge (to both audience and maker) that is a good story with the grandest ambitions and the greatest sincerity of intellectual endeavor [case in point, last year's WALL-E, a truly visionary and fantastic fable (despite shortcomings) of soft-spoken speculative fiction], leading, then, the intellectually and emotionally willing a forward step towards moral and intellectual maturity. It is non-pandering, challenging, ambitiously sincere mainstream entertainment, ambushing the realm of mainstream children's entertainment, which is such a large part of children's experience, and providing them joy that has little to do with kung fu animals and collect-'em-all dragons (and I'm taking a jab at two of the better Dreamworks offerings).

This is what PIXAR does: contribute so entirely healthily to the development of minds - young minds - by infiltrating the morass of joke-driven, gimmick-driven popular culture they are exposed to, and taking on the challenge of making awe-inspiring, horizon-expanding movies in the mainstream sphere. PIXAR is mainstream, tentpole moviemaking that has proven always, unerringly healthy, taking on the brute force of the masses by showing just how engaging and mind-blowing sophistication can be - making the family movie equivalent of culinary delicacy, as is so wonderfully emphasized in PIXAR's 2007 film Ratatouille.

PIXAR is practically an institution now, producing one film per year; a self-sustaining production studio (despite working under Disney's banner), universally valued, and one at which we can expect to find that value of sincerity, subtlety, and nuance which is lacking in most else that we can call "institutions," those things that belabor and presume their influence on society by insisting on the broadest dogmas. Even as I will pursue to take down the critically acclaimed UP down a couple pegs, my admiration of PIXAR - and the lofty terms it's adopted for its cultural function - maintains its placement.

Similarly to Ratatouille, UP takes a rather outlandish premise and convincingly makes us buy into it with the help of carefully chosen real world details, like the balloon strings pulled so tight you can pluck them, and the usual Pixar scattering of unexaggerated emotional content. The opening montage and the pivotal scrawled message snuck into Carl's memento mori (a wife's promontory defensive-action, sprung-loaded before death, ready for that moment when Carl would need it most) are as poignant as the film sets them up to be.

And so, with all this said about UP's quality and integrity of spirit, I feel a bit petty and punctilious for now nitpicking the film, with such a clinical eye, the flaws of its more mechanical aspects and the niggling logical cracks in its admirable thematic veneer.

I cannot help but feel that the film betrays itself to the need of formula and frays its thematic edges in the process. There is a struggle to find cohesion between the poignance of Carl's life values regarding love as an adventure, with the pre-packaged dependability of a murderous megalomaniac as black-and-white villain, and the defense of the humane rights of a plucky, anthropomorphized bird, which come off slightly too much as cookie-cutter devices to shoe-horn into the film its diverting action plot, also involving talking, aeroplane-flying canines.

Imagine if this were a Miyazaki film like My Neighbor Totoro, which sustains its own story of mortality woes, emotional fantasies, and exotic creatures without implementing a literalistic antagonist or chase sequences. That film and UP are two different films with two different tones to register, of course, and UP happily justifies its high-flying thrills with its smartly in-built sentiments regarding extraordinary adventure, but the adventure plot in UP does not compliment well enough the emotional themes of the story. If this were a Miyazaki film, Carl's emotional transformations would not be so dependent on the actions of secondary characters forcing him into decisions of "the right thing to do vs. the wrong" - such as the Boy Scout Russell's decampment to rescue the bird forcing Carl into re-evaluating his obligations to his lost love. This, though, feels dislodged from what the film should be communicating, regarding how to let go of grief in order to perpetuate love and caring, not in order to perform moral obligations to a victimized animal.

The conflict between the villain Muntz and the bird is overplayed, both in Muntz' child-killing mercilessness and the bird Kevin's humanistic intelligibility (in her being a mother). The film's "right and wrong" bias is too decisive on the mechanics of Muntz' motivations and the bird's habitative rights instead of Carl's personal feelings. The ethical choices this plot puts upon Carl just feel thrust onto the film like a non-sequitur. Maybe Carl was right the first time, that Muntz and the bird really aren't his concern?

Really, and here is where my "grump" factor truly comes in (or "uncaring, animal-murdering son of a bitch" factor): if Muntz wasn't so evil, his desire to capture the bird would easily transform into a professional scientific expedition. The issue then would not be the harm brought to a lovable bird, but merely ecological ethics more sufficing of an NGO hissy-fit than a high-flying rescue mission by a motley trio. Not to mention, as callous as it is to say: animals get captured for exhibition all the time. That Carl must put aside his very personal odyssey in order to deal with a psychopath and put in sure enough peril his young stowaway-dependee's life for the sake of animal rights is a tall order to ask of the bereaved old man, and if Russell weren't such a fellow casualty of a broken family, I'm sure his demands on Carl would have much less of an impact. Russell's fatherlessness thus strikes me as rather shoe-horned and besides-the-point as well, added in only to create the most contrived of emotional attachments between the two characters, and most artificial of catalysts for Carl's realization that his own emotional fulfillment, I guess, does not have to be found in the heartbreakingly devoted way he originally planned - and especially when he's lucky enough to have a particularly needy surrogate son just pop up on his flying porch, of course having magically survived the initial ascent without having plummeted to his doom.


There is certainly well enough attempt to integrate the film's faulty plot mechanics into the thematic, tonal fabric of the film. For instance - firstly - the bird is made to be a mother, a thematic point meant to emphasize the sacrifices made in the name of that pure sort of love that consists motherhood - or the relationship between true soulmates, as were Carl and his deceased wife. Counteractively, though, this plot element weakens the film, in its targeting people's most conventionally enforced, default sense of morality instead of enlivening the message of living for the loves in one's life... living for love in transcendence and acceptance of boundaries made by societal expectations and personal sacrifices (such as, respectively, the bills that need paying in the film's prologue that keep Carl and his wife from realizing their dreams, and the corrupting need for respect instilled in Muntz that keeps him from embracing anything else, including a trace of compassion).

The film, in fact, would've worked better if Kevin did not have baby chicks. It would've given Carl's decision to value Kevin's life a more discerning imperative - a promotion of "new relationships," mostly, or just a new caring-for-the-sake-of-caring - instead of forcing on the audience arbitrary sympathies over orphan babies in an environment of Muntz' hostile gamesmanship.

Second in the film's attempt to link its arbitrary adventure elements to the gentle, nondescript tale of an old man fulfilling he and his dead wife's dream adventure is its characterization of Muntz's villainy. His ethical no-nos are shown to be driven by a lust for legacy (albeit one not frantically built upon fabrications, as often they are in the real world). This is as opposed to Carl, whose lack of progeny does not devalue the love of his wife and the love he can give because of that love. As moving as this contrast is, though, there is little to garner from Muntz' psychosis itself, due to how one-note and simplistic the character is.

UP - 7/10

Top 5 PIXAR:
1. Ratatouille
2. The Incredibles
3. Toy Story 2
4. WALL-E
5. Finding Nemo