Saturday, March 31, 2012

Finnegans Wake: Book I, Chapters 1-4

From the very first page of Finnegans Wake, I knew I was in for a rough ride. Beginning in the middle of a sentence that will eventually be completed by the other fragment closing the book, the Wake plunges into a dense mire of language that collides various tongues into an idioglossia of puns and references so obscure as to be their own words, a sort of twin-speak warping of Dublin's geographical makeup that makes the esoteric written atlas provided by Ulysses seem as easy to read as a star map.

It's heady stuff, a gnarled (if flowing) run of portmanteaux and wordplay that seems to delight in instantly alienating the audience. The first chapter (and the next three) read like the Oxen of the Sun chapter of Ulysses, that book's most challenging, obscurant part. With fewer resources handy for the first-time reader than I had for Ulysses, Finnegans Wake proved an instant struggle. It took hours, whole hours, to read even one chapter.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005)

I've been meaning to write a defense of the director's cut of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (one of my favorite movies of the Aughts), for some time now, so I knew what to choose for my latest Criminally Underrated piece for Spectrum Culture. The theatrical cut is an admittedly mediocre movie, stressing Gladiator-esque action in an attempt to cash in on Lord of the Rings. The director's cut, however, belongs with films like Munich and Gangs of New York as some of the finest American filmmaking to seriously address the War on Terror and the modern context of endless infighting, wrongheaded wars and relativist righteousness, typically through the prism of the past. All three films (even Gangs, which concerns the American Civil War, not ages-old Middle Eastern conflicts) suggest a cyclical movement of violence from outside forces that creates seemingly endless fighting that eventually tears apart people from the inside. Kingdom of Heaven takes (even) more liberties with history than the other two, but its fundamental position, that peace, however tenuous and short-lived, is preferable to senseless war, is delivered with a nuance I've sadly come not to expect from Scott.

My full piece is up at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Life of Brian on Friday Night, Saturday Morning

It's a Life of Brian kind of day, to my surprise. My blogging buddy Ryan over at The Matinee chose the film for his latest Blind Spots entry (my own, for Robert Bresson's L'Argent, is up now as well). Life of Brian is my favorite Monty Python film, even over Holy Grail, and I was as shocked that Ryan hadn't seen it as I was thrilled to read his thoughts on the matter. But no respect to Ryan, who is a great writer, but the bigger revelation of the day was that YouTube FINALLY has the complete episode of Friday Night, Saturday Morning that addressed the film's controversy in an hour-long debate between Monty Python members John Cleese and Michael Palin and two Christian detractors, broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge (fantastically British name) and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark.

L'Argent (Robert Bresson, 1983)

[This is my March entry for my Blind Spots selections]

Robert Bresson famously referred to his non-professional actors as models, and he even more famously bypassed people altogether when he chose an animal to be the centerpiece of Au hasard Balthazar. Why not, then, extrapolate even further and cast an inanimate object as the lead? Bresson's final film, L'Argent, settles on a nominal protagonist after a fluid opening sequence, but its true centerpiece is its titular object, an item of artificially created meaning and worth but one that is, in the words of one character, "God incarnate."

Bresson's films, despite their stark framing and minute focus on detail, always seem to capture the world, and generally not in flattering terms. But there is nevertheless some kind of release to his work, even if it occasionally borders on Flannery O'Connor levels of grotesquely ironic. Such a release is absent in L'Argent, which ends on one of the most profoundly unsettling notes I've ever seen. Some directors grow soft with age; Bresson, 81 when the film premiered, unleashed his most unsparing evaluation of the human race in a career rife with piercing, harsh insights.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Steven Spielberg: Munich

An act of American obliviousness sets in motion the events of Munich. At the 1972 Olympics, a group of American athletes stumble across some Palestinian men attempting to get past a gate. Used to the sight of small bands of men from different countries roaming the area, the Americans jovially call out to them and ask what event they're in. Blind to the tense, apprehensive faces of the men, the athletes show them in and depart on friendly terms. But before the Americans are even out of range, the group is already pulling out new clothes and weapons to storm the hotel room holding the Israeli Olympic team. They do, and everything else plays out on the actual newscasts recorded over the next 18 hours. It ends, of course, with Jim McKay's infamous declaration, "They're all gone."

But despite the film's title, Munich does not end with the conclusion of its heinous massacre; it's only just begun. In fact, Munich may not even be about the aftermath of the killings in the titular city. Released in proximity with the 9/11-conjuring fever dream War of the Worlds, Munich serves as the more thoughtful, severe follow-up to the notion of a terrorist attack and society's response to it. Spielberg's reenactments of news crews frantically assembling outside the hotel, scrambling for any new updates as their presence only worsens the situation, is as indicative of Spielberg's true aims as the final shot showing the New York skyline with the World Trade Center still standing in the middle of the frame. Munich may be about a specific event and the fallout from it, but the director clearly wants us to apply the lessons the movie teaches to more current issues of terrorism and counterterrorism.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Steven Spielberg: War of the Worlds

It's just as well that War of the Worlds was hobbled upon its initial release by the lingering effects of Tom Cruise's infamous couch-jumping whatever. If Americans were going to let a stupid thing like that distract them, who knows how they might have reacted if they realized what all the movie had to say about 9/11 and the still-raging debate over Iraq. Even the conclusion of H.G. Wells' original novel, forecast in the opening credits expanding outward from single-cell organisms to humanity and even the cosmos, reflects the pitfalls of the War on Terror. "Occupations always fail!" declares a mad character late in the film, and one gets the distinct feeling he isn't just talking about invaders from Mars.

But War of the Worlds is, for the most part, not a commentary on the War on Terror so much as snapshot of what inspired it and how the national emotions of panic, grief, rage and bewilderment contributed to it. There's no criticism here; that would come with Spielberg's other 2005 film. No, War of the Worlds' primary aim is still to function as a blockbuster, but in its finely detailed, occasionally surreal construction is an almost therapeutic attempt to recreate an event fresh in the nation's mind, all the better to study it and to (hopefully) make a more informed decision than we did when that day actually happened.

50 Book Pledge #10: Geoff Dyer — Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room

I received a review copy of this for Spectrum Culture, which I requested the second I heard about the book's existence. It didn't disappoint: Dyer's incessant rambling and personal anecdotes actually capture the spirit of Tarkovsky's masterpiece more readily than a more deconstructive monograph might have done, connecting with the film on an emotional rather than intellectual level. Tarkovsky would have approved. I'll have more to say on the subject in my forthcoming review but, for now, know that I highly recommend it, despite the occasional bit of superior dismissal on Dyer's part (not for Stalker, but seemingly for everything else ever made in the world).

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Reading Diary: Finnegans Wake

Reading Log

Book I, Ch. 1-4

I had not planned on keeping a running journal of my reading of Finnegans Wake, James Joyce's final, most elaborate opus, the way I did for Ulysses. However, as I begin to struggle—and I mean struggle—with the Wake, I figure it might do me good to keep a record of my thoughts in some vain attempt to organize what little I've managed to eke out of it so far. It may well be that this journal comes to resemble Robert Falcon Scott's Arctic diary, but damn it I need to do all I can to even start with this book.

I imagine I'll write posts by chapter as I did for Ulysses, though my first entry might consist of the first four chapters as I don't know that I've understood enough of any one of them to have enough thoughts for individual articles. I am slowly, ever so slowly, getting into the rhythm of the novel, even laughing aloud at times, and I plan on getting the famous Skeleton Key companion to give me a bit of a boost in understanding the basics. Worry not, Joyceans: I am not so foolish as to try to "get" Finnegans Wake. But as with Ulysses, I need a more solid foundation before I can slip into Joyce's nocturnal, panlingual orgy of shifting foci and character names and his free-associative wordplay. Still, despite my occasional flashes of pure, seething rage at the impossible density, I am curiously drawn to each page, rereading passages not merely out of necessity but because I can sense the music in them calling even to a tone-deaf id-jeeot like me. As much as I grapple with each page and eventually move on clueless as ever, I have the vague notion that, should I ever make it out to the other end, I'll be a devoted fan. But I suppose we'll see, won't we?

50 Book Pledge #9: Suzanne Collins — The Hunger Games

I feel toward this book and its subsequent adaptation the way I do about Jurassic Park: both have amazing conceits and advantages unique to each form of the story, yet neither fully succeeds. The film cuts a lot of the book's waffle, but it fails to further develop, or even just reflect, the book's lack of celebration in the Games and its disgust with the waste of life to sate the rich and maintain order. On the flip side, Collins' longer novel utterly fails to clarify the layout of her imagined world, and her use of first-person perspective seems a way to avoid having to define anything outside Katniss' narrow experience. The excess of the novel has barely anything to do with character or environment, instead wasting pages on useless anecdotes, even in the midst of the games where Katniss' survival instincts are momentarily cast aside to let her dreamily reminisce.

Nevertheless, the book's worth reading for Katniss, who pushes back strongly against the "Bella-fication" of young female characters. Collins does give in to a vague love triangle, with Katniss thinking of her friend Gale and dealing with Peeta's maybe-not-so-fabricated-as-it-seems infatuation with her in the arena, but her concern for both boys comes secondary to her independence and willpower. I'm sad that I found an only marginally more interesting world in the text than I did in the film, but I imagine I'll keep reading to see more of this striking character.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)

The characters of The Hunger Games all have dirty fingernails. This is the primary insight to be intuited from director Gary Ross' incessant close-ups on the dirtied children culled from futuristic districts to fight each other to the death in a lasting reminder of the cost of rebellion. Sadly, fingernails are about the only thing I could make out in frenzied maelstrom of splintered images Ross assembles in sub-Bourne fashion. He's dealing with tricky material—the grisly killing of adolescents for sport—and forced to deliver a PG-13 rating to boot. He responds with a form of compromise: he gets to show teenagers dying horribly by making their demises so utterly incoherent that one cannot be sure anything's happened at all until the camera shows the tiniest splash of blood.

The shakycam mania of Ross' direction frustrated me more than usual because, to my surprise, I found myself engaged by the material. I haven't yet read Suzanne Collins' source novel, though I went straight to the nearest bookstore afterward to pick up a copy. Perhaps in her prose I'll find a more nuanced treatment of the themes, one that gives any kind of space to the material and lets the true horror of the titular games sink in rather than be roughly pushed along with all haste. And if nothing else, I'd like to get a fuller portrait of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the insipidly named but instantly memorable protagonist who seems to be locked into opposition with certain sexist trends in young female characters as much as she is 23 other teenagers.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Night at Maud's (Éric Rohmer, 1969)

As my first experience with Éric Rohmer, My Night at Maud's struck me instantly with its gift for dialogue. As highbrow and probing as the speeches in any Godard film, the conversations herein are nevertheless more natural and relatable. Each character eloquently delves into philosophical and moral questions yet never seems arch or artificial. Instead, the sharpness of the writing and delivery makes words that wouldn't be out of place in My Dinner with André feel more at home in a Billy Wilder picture.

So enthralling is the dialogue, in fact, that it can be easy to miss the brilliance of Rohmer's accompanying direction. At least, I assume it's easy to miss, because everything I'd heard about the director's work stressed the uniformity of his narrative setups and aesthetic style, and even the vague words of praise I'd heard passed around on social media and forums seemed to be defensive rather than exultant. But I found a delicately masterful aesthete, capable of what may well be the most elegant ability to reflect a character's point of view I've ever seen. The possessive in the title does not signal that this film is autobiographical, but My Night at Maud's is so effortlessly presents the perspective of its protagonist that it truly begins to feel like a first-person account.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)

My love of the handful of Jane Campion works I've seen inexplicably failed to get me to watch The Piano with any speed. Happily, I finally got the chance to rectify my error for Spectrum Culture, and now I'm kicking myself even harder for waiting so long. Like all the other Campion movies I've seen, this is fantastic, feminocentric yet universal in its scope and emotional resonance. Her direction should rank her among the all-time greats, and her marginalization post-Piano is outrageous. The Piano in particular turns the period piece on its ear, breaking up convention at every turn with her idiosyncratic, singular camera. Its anti-male gaze distance ironically affected me more than the usual intimate, forced wringing of emotional response. It's not my favorite Campion film, but I can see why it won the Palme D'Or.

My full thoughts are over at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, March 19, 2012

21 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Chris Miller, 2012)

21 Jump Street is such an unnecessary remake that even the film itself acknowledges its own pointlessness. It's a moment of upfront honesty rarely seen in the current sausage grinder of audience-insulting retreads that prevent original material from being produced at the expense of works with a (theoretically, at least) built-in audience. Yet what makes the movie such an unexpected delight is that it never lapses into the lazy self-awareness waved around weak films like incense swung from a thurible. Rather than merely name-checking its weaknesses and moving on, 21 Jump Street tinkers with conventions to believably update its subject matter while affectionately parodying the '80s buddy cop tropes that fueled the original TV show.

As such, it better positions itself to mock the old and the new, commenting equally on classic action film stereotypes and modern stylistic elements. Like Hot Fuzz, 21 Jump Street so faithfully embodies its targets that it winds up an excellent buddy cop film in its own right. How good is the chemistry between its two mutually and self-deprecating leads? So good that I emerged liking, if not loving, Channing Tatum. God help us all.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

50 Book Pledge #8: George R.R. Martin — A Clash of Kings

A Game of Thrones ends with enough cliffhangers that the other six entries in this still-unfinished saga could each be merely a continuation of one of the key threads introduced in the first book. But A Clash of Kings quickly makes clear that Martin is only getting started. The first half of the 730-page novel simultaneously expands and shrinks the scope of the narrative, venturing into uncharted realms of a region so thoroughly mapped in the first book that I presumed we'd already charted everything. Yet Martin also pulls back from the action to reconfigure narrative foci, introducing new POV characters and honing established ones with new character insights and growths.

Some characters who experienced so much upheaval in the first book find themselves somewhat stagnated, their dreams and desires muted by hard reality. Three of my favorite characters thus far—Arya, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen—all experience huge setbacks and perils that force them all to mature even faster than they already have. Meanwhile, the best character of the series, Tyrion Lannister, undergoes bold changes that make him even more endearing and likable even as he fights for the good of his loathsome family. The dynamic between him and his sister, Cersei, now chafing as Queen Regent of a dangerously belligerent son and further stressed over her twin's captivity, is magnificent. The two plot against each other incessantly, and the series of miniature victories each enjoys over the other is as compelling in its own way as the civil war ripping apart Westeros.

Amazingly, A Clash of Kings ends on an even more ambiguous note than A Game of Thrones, with utter chaos sweeping the land and every POV character placed in precarious positions, and all of them displaced from their homes. It's at the point where one wonders what glory any of the contesting kings would take in ruling the Seven Kingdoms, as whomever triumphs stands only to inherit a scorched earth and maimed smallfolk. If A Game of Thrones was unsentimental, A Clash of Kings is almost mercilessly bleak. But that only makes it more gripping to see these people still carrying on, even if in folly.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Faust (F.W. Murnau, 1926)

[This is my second entry in my Blind Spots series]

F.W. Muranu's final German film, Faust, is a glorious send-off for the Hollywood-bound filmmaker. Less poetic than his prior The Last Laugh (and his subsequent Sunrise and City Girl, for that matter), Faust makes up for its relative lack of camera movement for a grandeur that could rival even Lang. It's fitting that Murnau should select for his final work in his homeland the subject of a classic German legend, more so that the film should incorporate various interpretations of that legend to fully explore the folktale.

Modeled chiefly on the first part of Goethe's interpretation of the story, Faust is a film of grandiose darkness. It begins with superimposed images of the four horsemen riding in the clouds, their skeletal figures frozen in grim war poses. Smoke appears in these first shots, as it does in most of the subsequent ones; at times it seems as if hellfire is about to set light to the projector itself. But nothing compares to the sight of Mephisto himself (Emil Jannings), a giant demon revealed in the light of an evil-banishing Archangel. Looking like a mountain with a face, Mephisto is imposing and terrifying even from the torso-up.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

50 Book Pledge #7: George R.R. Martin — A Game of Thrones

I'd never heard of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series before the HBO show was announced, news that didn't make me rush out to read it any faster. I love The Lord of the Rings, but I've never been one for the fantasy genre. I find too much sunniness in it, too much wide-eyed, Arthurian belief in the nobility of the Middle Ages. Good and evil are defined in stark terms, and codes of honor replace thick webs of politics. What a load.

All the more unfortunate, then, that I should have ignored Martin's series for so long. A Game of Thrones is so perfectly catered to what I like and dislike about fantasy that it almost seems made for me. Modeled more after historical fiction than anything, A Game of Thrones is so viciously unsentimental in its travelogue of scheming, intrigue, brutality and rape that it almost comes as a shock when the occasional flash of magic enters the picture. Yet Martin also avoids easy cynicism; his characters are flawed, some to the point of nearly pure evil, yet he contextualizes everyone so well that even the Lannisters have their moments of charm, and not just the sly dwarf Tyrion. There's a clear desire on Martin's part for the chivalry and nobility he casts out of the genre; it's simply that he cannot place it within this world and make it fit. And that is why the only character who truly lives up to the morally absolute, honor-bound standards of typical fantasy cannot even make it all the way through this book, the first of seven, without dying. It's a testament to Martin's skill that he satiated my thirst for more grim, realistic fantastical fiction even as he, for the first time ever, made me truly long for the simplistic goodness of a highborn warrior lord to triumph.

I also love that Martin understands that climaxes need not come in the last five pages and that falling action can be as powerful as saving all the good stuff for the end. This structure makes for a series of shocking twists rather than merely one, and it also helps Martin slowly push the scope of the narrative outward, never settling on any one character or story arc, not even that of poor Eddard Stark. By the end of A Game of Thrones, I couldn't wait to continue on in the series because it so effectively hinted at bigger stories (and not merely bigger action, which is over all too quickly). Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Steven Spielberg: The Terminal

Spielberg's first film to truly address the changing American landscape after September 11, The Terminal is at once a key point in his development and one of his most instantly forgettable movies. Shot on a titanic set intended as a sort of tribute to the great comic canvases of Jacques Tati, The Terminal confines its action to the most logical of starting points when unpacking the effects of 9/11: an airport.

The first shots roll over Customs & Border Patrol setting up for the day at JFK International, cordons being set up to direct incoming travelers as dogs make a quick scan of the place. Soon, the people pour in, travelers of all different nationalities cramming into lines and handing over passports and declaration forms as they are screened by officials in booths. Then the camera pulls back to reveal that these measures are but the first step of heightened security. Above it all, more officials watch on surveillance cameras for any anomalies, the airport now looking more like a casino than a transportation hub. In a few minutes, Spielberg deftly casts a world of total monitoring, where excuses and intentions don't matter. If someone catches an error, arrest and deportation follows swiftly. In this new world, the prospect of travel seems more frightening than exciting.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Last Days Here (Don Argott & Demian Fenton, 2012)

The same pitch that drew me to Last Days Here, that it was a rawer version of 2009's excellent documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, is ultimately what made its weaknesses all the more apparent. Anvil! had a clear sympathy for its subjects that didn't override its ability to treat the forgotten band honestly. Last Days Here simply languishes in the Pentagram frontman's stupor, so lacking in context that it just feels as if we're watching a failure die. It grows uncomfortable quickly, and the vague strands of hope that come into play at the end weren't enough to make me like I hadn't just spied on someone's breakdown for 90 minutes. It's one thing to illuminate pain with cameras; it's another to just record it.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Neveldine/Taylor, 2012)

After the gross incompetence of Marvel's first cinematic crack at one of its intriguing lesser-tier characters, I can't imagine anyone was altogether excited for a sequel to 2007's Ghost Rider. The fact that a sequel has come five years after the fact only compounds the general indifference that surely greeted this project. Nevertheless, Marvel outdid themselves in selecting Neveldine/Taylor to replace über-hack Mark Steven Johnson at the helm. The duo behind the frenzied, magnificently obscene Crank films could bring a refreshingly seedy and gonzo approach to this grindhouse-friendly comic book hero, and suddenly the hysterical miscasting of Nicolas Cage in the first movie became a boon. The thought of the craziest filmmakers in America working with the craziest actor in America seemed too good to be true.

Unfortunately, it is. If Marvel was willing to give this franchise another go, they clearly weren't going to invest much in it, and the result is a film that, in many ways, looks less professional and polished than the works Neveldine/Taylor did as underground filmmakers. Given barely any more money than they received for the excellent, criminally underrated Gamer and expected to make a more CGI-intensive film, Neveldine/Taylor must retreat to Romania to shoot, something they themselves mock with a location card vaguely reading "Eastern Europe."

Monday, March 5, 2012

This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 2012)

I've been wanting to see this film since I heard it was smuggled out of Iran in a cake, and boy did it not disappoint. This is a vital film, probably the most important of my lifetime. One of my favorite Internet writers, Sheila O'Malley (who also ran a fantastic Iranian film blogathon last year to which I contributed), compared This Is Not a Film to Oscar Wilde's De Profundis. I honestly can't think of a better summary. Panahi's filmed limbo is wrenching and outrageous, and his sadness comes not from his fear of prison but the idea of not being able to make art anymore. But even as he despairs of this, he makes what may be his greatest artistic statement yet. Along with Film Socialisme, no other film so optimistically looks at the possibilities of the modern era for filmmaking, and for protest. The Iranian government can firewall the Internet to prevent communication on Twitter, but people will find ways around those blocks. They can take away Panahi's camera, but he still has his iPhone. As infuriating as the injustice behind This Is Not a Film is, rarely have I seen a film so inspiring.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.