Mar 122014
 

Alexander Payne makes movies that I like. I wait for them, watch them, remember them, but without ever mistaking them as bigger than they are. They are short stories on film. Which is the opposite of a failing.

Interesting. Beautiful.

I loved this film for two reasons. First, it refuses to tell us that people are the boring standard people we imagine them to be in most of our movies but it doesn’t ironize or idealize them either. They are ordinary and interesting. Second, the photography could have been an annoying sign of “indie-film” credibility. But it wasn’t. Instead, it thematized the approach to character: the ordinary world is interesting and beautiful when looked at with care and with craft.

Not Gothic.

In the days after seeing this film, I kept thinking about that fact that this film, which at every moment seemed as if it should manifest as gothic, never does. Lynch who at every moment should manifest as an antecedent does not. I’ve decided that this evasion of the gothic is not an accident, but is in fact a conscious effect generated by refusing the past’s claim on the present.

(The gothic is, in an important sense, an eruption of the past into the present: a ghost, a family history, an archaic brutality, the body in the closet, whatever. This is the context for Faulkner’s famous line from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”)

In Nebraska, the central characters live in the present, insistently. They mock the idea of living under the shadow of the past. The most obvious example of this is also the film’s most excerpted moment: the mother not only speaks ill of the dead as she shuffles from tombstone to tombstone in a cemetery, she mocks the dead for being dead and gone, lifting her skirts to their graves and laughing at the fact that they wanted but cannot have her still-living body. Skin sags down the back of her knees and over the elastic of her socks but she glories in the fact that her body alive is better than any flesh rotten underground.

Every conflict between the world and the core family (the father, the mother, the two sons) arises because someone claims rights based on the past. Aunts, uncles, cousins and old acquaintances lay claim to the family’s future by speaking of past debts. Yet these debt are all illegitimate, baseless and without force. When the parents meet old friends in this movie? They have nothing to say to them. And the old man on the street who keeps thanking the father and son for coming back to their home town? He’s a comic figure. The central characters refuse to be (and laugh at the idea of being) haunted. 

I think this refusal of the gothic goes a way towards accounting for the difference between Payne’s films and those of his indie-film contemporaries.

 Mar 12, 2014  Movie Logs Tagged with: ,
Mar 112014
 

Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux are surprisingly similar films and stumble over nearly identical narrative problems: both want to be sci-fi epics with surprise endings. I’d never recognized this as a potential problem, but after seeing these films, I realize that sci-fi world-building and the generation of surprises or twists actually depend upon two very different approaches to providing narrative information.

World building is judged by how completely (and suggestively) an imagined world is explained. Exposition necessarily comes early and is extensive. In this, successful world-building seems to me a bit like a rocket trying to hit escape velocity: it roars full force early on, and if everything goes right, it can power-down and sail to its destination. The long and detailed voice-over narrations that open Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux but then disappear are examples of what I mean.

Surprise endings work in just the opposite direction. Viewers supply a probable ending that the narration cultivates (or at least permits) by providing only incomplete information in the early portions of the film. When at the film’s end the missing information is provided or the overlooked information is brought to the foreground, the surprise reshapes the details of the story into a different plot. In Ender’s Game, for example, Ender (and in the book, the readers) discovers that the game he has been playing in preparation for a war is in fact the war itself. In Aeon Flux, Aeon discovers that she and everyone she know is a clone and that the villain she’s been sent to kill is a hero attempting to save everyone’s life.

The problem these films run into is that no reader can supply an unsurprising ending against which the “true” ending appears a surprise because the initial world and any story outcomes have to be built by the narration. Stated differently, there are no viewers competent to provide an adequate starting point from which a twist can register as surprise. If you tell me Ender plays a game, he’s playing a game. If you tell me he’s fighting a war, he’s fighting a war. I have no basis to assume anything about what is normal or likely in this imaginary world. And if you tell me one thing is going on and then later reveal that that’s not the case, it feels like a cheat. (I think sci-fi novels have a few more easy tricks up their sleeves than films do to work around this problem.)

There are, of course, examples of how to get around this problem. The Matrix and Terminator both have it both ways by beginning in an imagined world that appears to be exactly like our own. As a result, this world needs little explaining and a set of audience expectations are built in. The surprise–which in both cases boils down to different versions of “things are not what they seem”–is also revealed early, roughly at the end of their first acts. In both cases, the familiarity of the initial world and the early presentation of the unexpected “ending” reduces the conflict between surprise and world building. In a sense, in both cases surprise is used as a tool for the world building.

(I also wonder–although I can’t come up with a good example right now–whether, generic expectations can offer a substitute for an initially familiar world as a way of getting around the problem…)

Whatever the case, judging by Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux, pulling off the late surprise in sci-fi is clearly tough to do. And when it fails to come off, the consequences seem pretty dire. It’s easy to wind up not caring. And then everything fizzles.

Mar 102014
 

I love sci-fi but so much of it is just terrible or silly kid stuff. This movie is proof it doesn’t have to be.

The narrative is small scale: focused point-of-view, clear stakes, well-defined obstacles and time-frames. The setting however is monumental: these characters move in a hostile environment accessible only because of people’s efforts to reach beyond our limits through science and technology. Our tools and our knowledge bring us beyond our natural state.

The film feels modern and relevant–it’s real people dealing with the consequences of our technical short-sightedness–but it is also extraordinarily beautiful. In a film culture lost in seas of noise–visual and aural–this movie goes silently, moves slowly. It looks around and breaths (although sometimes too quickly given the available oxygen).

Perhaps most importantly, this is sci-fi that holds onto a faith in human reason. It has hope in our potential. There’s no cyberpunk pessimism about corporate capital here. Yes, technological fallout our stupidity and carelessness creates problems. But by working together and being tough mentally and physically, the characters overcome these problems through reason. 

Coming after Children of Men, Gravity makes Alfonso Cuaron, unexpectedly but happily, a name to watch in science fiction.

 Mar 10, 2014  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
Mar 092014
 

Steve McQueen‘s latest is the best movie I’ve seen in a long time. Beautifully photographed and constructed. I especially like how shots were established as static photographs that movement and action seeped into. A technique that emphasized the visual beauty of the film while thematizing the way life went on and around the horrors of slavery without reacting to it.

Two examples: the barred window to Solomon’s cell seen from outside, but when he eventually walks up to the bars, the camera looks up and away to the city lights in the distance; and the long shot of Solomon, near-hanged and on tip-toe, as after a few moments, other slaves slowly walk into or through the background to do their daily chores.

I gave Shame a hard time for it’s ending, but both it and this film operate on the (very blurred) boundary line between art and popular art. Very few of the other films right now seem to aim for anything but the popular.

And on a selfish note, this film is a great resource for when I’m teaching slave narratives in my lit course this Fall.

 Mar 9, 2014  Movie Logs Tagged with: ,
Mar 082014
 

Again this year, me and my friend Caitlin tried to watch all of the best picture nominees prior to the Oscars. We did it last year and it wasn’t much of a hassle. I just needed to catch up on a few.

But this year, when I looked at the list of nominees, I realized I’d seen almost none of them. I didn’t get to everything in the few weeks I had, but still, by the night of the show, I’d more-or-less seen everything except Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle.

Over the next few days, I’ll slowly post my logs. Once they are all up, this link will bring you to a list of all my notes on everything I saw that was nominated in 2014.

 Mar 8, 2014  Movie Logs
Mar 082014
 

I decided to rematch Verhoeven‘s Robocop because I will surely see the remake, especially given how interesting I found the remake of his Total Recall. And when I was done, I was thinking about storytelling.

This film posits an complete world at its outset and develops a clear story with speed and economy. In part this completeness comes from the multiple contrasting points-of-view provided by the many flat, stock characters that populate the film. (This technique reminds me of Henry Fielding’s use of conflicts between what a character wants and what they do to create psychologies.) These multiple points-of-view are kept in check by a story structure that repeats locations such as the factory and the boardroom so as to create order and closure.

This is carefully controlled filmmaking. Even if the subject may not be everybody’s cup of tea.

 

 Mar 8, 2014  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
Mar 072014
 

A documentary about nuclear power, and the environmentalists who have decided that, despite our fears, it is the safest way to combat the climate change caused by fossil fuels.

Two segments caught my attention. In the first, the filmmakers take natural background radiation readings in various cities and in wild landscapes around the world. These vary widely, are often quite high and no correlation has been found between the variations and illness. Then the filmmakers take readings at Fukushima and at Chernobyl. They are among the lowest shown. In the second, a scientist talks about a breeder reactor project that was constructed, was functional and was tested. It could not meltdown, could not explode, and it was a closed system recycling its own waste a fuel for decades. And blanket opposition to nuclear shut the project down leaving less safe plants–like the ones at Fukushima–to be built instead.

I came away realizing I don’t know enough about nuclear energy to have confidence in my opinions or in what I learned here. But I’m curious and need to track down more information.

 Mar 7, 2014  Movie Logs, Scratch File Tagged with: