Saturday, June 20, 2015

Great Directors: David Fincher

David Fincher.

I am somewhat hesitant to use the term "great directors" at all because it suggests a kind of auteurism that favors the works of a few so-called "great" filmmakers over films made by lesser-known or less consistent talents. Despite my love of certain directors (Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, Kurosawa, Korine, Soderbergh, Holofcener, etc.) and my tendency to seek out films by directors whose work I know I have enjoyed in the past, I am not ONLY interested in the work of directors I know by name nor do I believe that a "great" director is required to produce great work. However, I could not include this appreciation of David Fincher in my "Overlooked Directors" series because he is certainly not overlooked, not since 1999's Fight Club anyway.

I further acknowledge that greatness is always culturally determined and historically contingent. I recently wrote a piece about the lack of greatness I see in Quentin Tarantino's post-1997 output. In that piece I compare QT's late-career works both to his own earlier, better films AND to several other independent, studio, and non-U.S. directors and films with which I am familiar. To me, as a filmgoer with a fairly deep exposure to many of the same films from which Tarantino borrows his style, his post-1997 work seems derivative, two-dimensional, and not that interesting. By contrast,  I assume his films must feel like an edgy, inventive breath of fresh air to someone who mainly only watches big studio blockbusters and other mainstream stuff.

In addition to a viewer's assumptions and background knowledge, time also changes how we view films and bodies of work. In 1997, Quentin Tarantino's work seemed lively, clever, amazing. In 2015, the novelty has worn thin.

Therefore I judge Fincher in his present moment and context: he is a commercial, studio director with an extraordinary degree of technical and artistic mastery who really really loves to make dark, noirish crime thrillers, often about serial killers.

It might be best if we start off by watching this excellent video:


Tony Zhou, the whip-smart narrator of that video, remarks of watching David Fincher's films that "it's great to watch someone who's actually great at their job." Zhou concludes that "even if you don't like Fincher, this is some of the best craft in directing right now and it is absolutely worth studying."* I couldn't agree more. I will state openly that I think Fincher is one of America's most talented and skilled directors, and he may sit very close to the top of the heap now that Steven Soderbergh has supposedly "retired" from filmmaking.

Let's look at a few of Fincher's best efforts -- chosen quite subjectively by me -- in an attempt to sum up what makes his work so consistently superb.**

"Its production history has usurped its impact." --Scout Tafoya on Alien 3

Alien 3 (1992)
Alien 3 is one of those films that it is fashionable to hate, probably due to the rock-solid construction, immense popularity, and lasting influence of its two precursors, Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). Yet I have always liked Alien 3 and have never quite understood the outcry against it. When I first saw the extensive behind-the-scenes footage of how difficult this threequel was to make, I was surprised, for to me the finished film does not reveal the tumultuous struggle that brought it into being. Like this reviewer, I consider Alien 3 to be on par with the first two Alien films, and in fact I personally prefer it over James Cameron's Aliens.

Of course, much of my preference is surely attributable to genre: I categorically prefer horror films to action films. But like Mr. Constantine says in the review linked above, Alien 3 is a perfect capstone to the Alien trilogy (like him I deny the existence of the abysmal and, ironically, lifeless Alien Resurrection) and a superb stand-alone gothic horror film, especially in its extended version included in the Alien Quadrilogy boxed set:
While it’s admirable of James Cameron to do something different as opposed to a traditional sequel, I do feel that [in Aliens] the aliens became a bit less threatening by having so many of them. [. . .] With Aliens, although there are some surprises, you’re pretty confident that Ripley, Hicks and Newt will all survive. But in Alien 3, like in Alien, it’s made very clear that no one is safe. We’re now in a situation that is just as desperate as the first film.
Indeed. To continue in this vein, let's check out this great video essay about the greatness of Alien 3:


As Scout Tafoya writes in the essay accompanying the video, 
Because the third film revolves almost entirely around Ripley's desire to protect the integrity of her body—specifically her womb—"Alien 3" feels more purely feminist than the previous two movies, for all their innovative images of a badass heroine fighting bugs whose bodies fused male and female genitalia into a Freudian nightmare. In the first movie, she's fighting to save her crew. In the second, she's fighting to save a little girl, and in so doing, embracing her own latent potential for motherhood; the climactic action scene even brings her face-to-face with another mother, the alien queen, in an egg chamber. These are all engaging, relatable motivations, but they're culturally conservative, because they play on the traditional image of woman as potential victim or maternal protector. 
In "Alien 3," Ripley is fighting for Ripley, period.
I agree with this assessment. I have always felt that, while Ripley is undeniably badass in Aliens, the feminist implications of her role in that film have tended to be overstated. I think she is a more progressive figure in the first Alien film, where her gender is barely even at play -- she just does her job as first officer of the Nostromo and her femininity and/or maternal instincts have nothing to do with it. In fact, I think that Alien makes clear that she is a better leader and officer than Dallas, since he makes the devastatingly bad call to insist she admit he and the alien-infested Kane back onboard ship, while she has the good judgment to refuse him. The only way the first film might be seen to "sell out" Ripley on the basis of her gender is when it depicts her in her underwear near the end, subjecting her to the objectifying, erotic masculine gaze germane to all Hollywood cinema.***

The one sexually objectifying series of shots that mars Ridley Scott's 
otherwise perfect horror masterpiece Alien (1979). 

All that said, and to broaden the scope here a little, we should ask: is David Fincher's work sexist? I admit that a couple of his recent works, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, have given me serious pause: the former is about an adolescent-minded guy who treats women misogynistically at every point along his rise to the top, and the latter depicts rape in ways that I find unnerving (especially compared to its Swedish antecedent).† Beyond that, I am inclined to read Gone Girl, Fincher's latest psychosexual thriller, as another of the director's works that leans too heavily in the misogynist direction.††

In this context, Fincher's work reminds me a great deal of Alfred Hitchcock's, both in terms of its technical perfection and in its tendency to be both woman-positive AND misogynist at the same time. Like Hitch, Fincher seems drawn toward stories featuring well-rounded and interesting women characters (e.g., Alien 3, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the Netflix TV series House of Cards) most of whom are dark, edgy, gender-bending, and sexually dangerous in ways reminiscent of the femme fatale of film noir. As such, Fincher's women characters, despite their complexity, often end up getting tortured, raped, and/or murdered at some point in their respective films or programs. I discuss Gone Girl at length elsewhere, but must note here that, despite its technical perfection and edge-of-your-seat thrills, it has drawn a substantial feminist backlash (e.g., here, here, and here) that I find difficult to downplay or refute.

But in any case Alien 3 is great and I strongly suggest that you lay your hands on a copy of the extended 1991 "Assembly Cut" and check it out.

Jodie Foster and a young Kristen Stewart star in David Fincher's 
somewhat under-appreciated thriller Panic Room.

The Game (1997) and Panic Room (2002)
I am quite fond of these two underrated gems, especially the latter. They are genre films, tightly made thrillers with few, if any, deep thoughts on their minds, yet they are so damn well directed and visually rich that they stand out purely for their level of craft.

One of the most remarkable shots in Panic Room is a digital "long take" in the film's first act, just before the 16-minute mark. The shot lasts about three minutes, tracking backward out of Meg's (Jodie Foster) bedroom, between two banister rails, down two stories, past the front window (seeing intruders outside) and into the front door keyhole, back past the front window (still seeing intruders), through the kitchen to the back door, up a story to see an intruder climbing up the fire escape outside, then up a few more to the skylight, then back down into the "panic room" on the house's top floor. What I like about this shot is that it is clearly an impossible shot to get via traditional means -- no camera could fit between those banister rails or inside that keyhole -- yet what Fincher and his team do here is create a mostly digital (computer-generated) shot that attempts to look like a traditional, analog camera move that achieves the physically impossible. I wish more directors and films took advantage of CGI to accomplish stuff like this rather than to overwhelm us with robots.


Aside from his general virtuosity and inventive use of cutting-edge digital effects techniques, I also like that Fincher clearly understands the roots of the genre in which he works, paying homage to other thrillers and noirs such as Kubrick's The Killing:

One of the last shots from David Fincher's Panic Room . . . 

. . . pays homage to this famous, climactic shot from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956).

Fincher's early thrillers and neo-noirs such as Se7enThe Game, and Panic Room ultimately pave the way for his greatest achievement in this area . . .

A beautifully lit and composed shot from the opening sequence of Zodiac
David Fincher's 2007 neo-noir masterpiece.

Zodiac (2007)
Zodiac is Fincher's hands-down best film in my view. I really don't know what to say about it except: see it. It may be that I am ill-equipped to speak critically about Zodiac because I am too close to it -- it is one of my all-time favorite movies. It is essentially a film noir (more precisely a neo-noir, that is, a noir-like film made after 1958), which is one of my very favorite film genres / styles. Briefly glossed, film noir is a style that emerged as part a cycle of crime films starting in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Structurally, the noir is an offshoot or adaptation of the crime thriller, especially the police procedural. What makes the film noir distinct from its antecedents is its high-contrast lighting style, its rain-soaked nighttime city streets, its morally ambiguous characters, and its focus on the process of an investigation as opposed to its outcome (a great many noirs end ambiguously or with the real culprit uncaught). According to French film theorists Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton,
the moral ambivalence, the criminality, the complex contradictions in motives and events, all conspire to make the viewer co-experience that anguish and insecurity which are the true emotions of contemporary film noir. All films of this cycle create a similar emotional effect: that state of tension instilled in the spectator when the psychological reference points are removed. †††
This applies oh so well to Zodiac, in which everyday guy Robert Graysmith becomes obsessed with the case of the Zodiac Killer and utterly loses touch with his family life in the process. He finds the killer, but does he catch him? Watch the movie to find out.

Note Zodiac's noir-like high contrast lighting that plunges 
Robert's (Jake Gyllenhaal) face into shadow. 

For those of you who have read my American Hustle review, you will recall that I critiqued that film for over-doing its "70s-ness," going too far over the top, creating something that felt off-putting, hyper-real, and historically wrong. Zodiac is my positive counter-example for how to get a 1970s period piece exactly right.

Zodiac represents neo-noir at its very best. Its aesthetics are a masterful mixture of neo-noir style and a perfectly rendered 1970s period piece -- kind of like the serial killer plot of Dirty Harry shot, lit, and paced as if it were Night Moves or Chinatown.

Mark Ruffalo walking in front of a bluescreen in San Francisco shooting Zodiac

Equally interesting as what we see onscreen in Zodiac are the cutting-edge processes used to bring them about. I could attempt to explain in detail how Fincher and his associates created 1970s San Francisco via complex bluescreen technology etc., but why not once again defer to an informative video?


Deliciously twisted and sprawling, intelligently scripted, and (as always) boldly shot, lit, and edited, Fincher's Zodiac is a masterpiece for both Fincher and the neo-noir tradition writ large. Please see it.

Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey in season one episode two of House of Cards.

House of Cards (2 episodes, 2013)
Folks who know me will attest that it is difficult to win me over as a regular watcher of dramatic television shows (comedy is a different story). I am well aware of the "quality TV" revolution and have watched a few pivotal series, like Oz and The Shield, to completion, but I swear I've made several earnest efforts to get into The Sopranos and have never made it past season two. I made it three and a half seasons into Mad Men and got bored. Dramatic shows, no matter how well-produced, just don't typically seem to hold my attention for long.

Fincher's Netflix Original Series House of Cards is an exception. I don't even normally like Kevin Spacey -- I usually find him too "actor-y" and over-determined in his onscreen performances -- and yet I like him here. (I also basically like him in Se7en as well -- his hamminess meshes well with that somewhat fantastical / fanatical character.) I watched all of seasons one and two of Cards and enjoyed them both quite a bit.

That said, my interest in House of Cards has flagged a bit as it heads into its third season. Part of my issue is that I think Claire Underwood's (Robin Wright) story got compromised in season two. As Karen Valby's critique of Claire's season two story arc makes clear, she is such an awesome, compelling, uncompromising character to begin with that it is a major letdown to discover that a past sexual assault may be a motivating factor explaining her present-day edge. As Valby asks: "can’t we enjoy standing aghast in the face of Claire’s ruthlessness without saddling her with such an excruciating foundation?" I sincerely wish we could. I join with Valby in asking "quality" television shows to quit falling back on rape as a stock story device imposed upon otherwise extremely compelling and interesting female characters.

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood on House of Cards

I guess that brings us back to the misogyny point, and it is an issue that continues to haunt Fincher's latest works. I must acknowledge Fincher as one of the greatest living American filmmakers. His mastery of his craft is exceptionally high, his films consistently superb, and even when he makes sexist missteps, his films are never anything less than emotionally and visually provocative. Even when I am troubled by some of their gendered implications, I nevertheless enjoy and marvel at (most of) Fincher's films. Yet that sexist vibe is palpably in there, perhaps nowhere more so than in Gone Girl. That troubles me and may, for me, somewhat diminish Fincher's cinematic achievements over time if it continues.

--
* Zhou has a Patreon site where he solicits financial support for his superb and essential "Every Frame a Painting" video essay series.
** Note that I am not discussing Fight Club (1999), because frankly, I don't like that film much. I find it thematically pretentious (with its false "anti-capitalist" message), and ideologically dangerous (striving to be a satire I think but presenting Edward Norton's character too sympathetically to work as a critique of his white, hypermasculine bullshittery). I am not discussing Se7en (1995) because, while I like it a lot, I think Zhou's video essay says enough about what makes this generally well-received film great.
*** Here I refer to the well-known feminist analysis of Hollywood cinema by Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," which correctly points out that Hollywood objectifies women onscreen via sexist camera and costuming techniques Mulvey calls the "male gaze."
† For more on the sexism of the geeky protagonist of The Social Network, see my co-authored article, "Postmodern Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity."
†† I capsule-reviewed Gone Girl in my 2014 end of year roundup, concluding that it is "an amazingly well-wrought thriller with an unfortunate, mile-wide misogynist streak."
††† Borde and Chaumeton, "Towards a Definition of Film Noir" in The Film Noir Reader (Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini, Limelight Editions, 1996) p. 25.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Review: The Fog (1980)

Hal Holbrook as Father Malone in The Fog, John Carpenter's underrated 
supernatural revenge thriller.  

I am a major John Carpenter fan. He is an enormously talented and consistent genre filmmaker whose string of 1970s and 1980s films, including Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Starman (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and They Live (1988), establish him as one of the key figures of the Hollywood Renaissance. However, due to his somewhat lower budgets and propensity to stick to "low" genres like horror, action, and science fiction, he often gets short shrift in accounts of this uniquely fertile period in American filmmaking.*

Carpenter's revenge-of-ghosts thriller The Fog was a somewhat troubled production, requiring extensive reshoots late in the process and receiving mixed reviews upon its release in early 1980. But it fared okay at the box office and is by no means despised, just somewhat overlooked, especially in comparison to the bigger hits that bracket it.

I am a pretty big fan of The Fog, rating it my third or fourth favorite Carpenter film overall, behind Assault, The Thing, and Halloween. I feel great love for the Carpenter / Kurt Russell collaborations Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, yet I confess that I re-watch The Fog far more often than I do either of those two pictures. I probably even re-watch it more frequently than I do Halloween these days.** Why do I enjoy The Fog so much? Let me explain.

Darwin Joston, who played the second lead in Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, makes a cameo appearance as medical examiner Dr. Phibes in The Fog

Like The Thing, Carpenter's 1982 career masterpiece, The Fog is a true ensemble film, and both the specific individuals involved and their onscreen performances here are absolutely superior. We're talking about Carpenter regulars Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis, and Adrienne Barbeau, plus legendary performers Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook, and John Houseman making impressive late-career appearances (though the latter only appears in a very brief cameo, essentially introducing the film). As if that weren't enough, Carpenter himself makes a cameo in front of the camera as church handyman Bennett, something he rarely ever does. His line delivery is not terrific, but it's neat to see him in there. And his early scene with Father Malone is the only one in the film in which the performances are anything less than stellar.

Indeed, like Jaws 2 or other films of the 1970s, The Fog's more relaxed moments of character development -- which it is unafraid to embrace at length, allowing the movie to "breathe" in ways few post-1980s mainstream genre films manage -- are especially good, and feel especially "real." Now I know the word "real" is an extremely subjective, slippery, and historically contingent term to use in reference to complexly constructed storytelling media like movies. All films are fiction films, and none -- not even documentaries -- represent true, lived reality with particularly great fidelity. So maybe the adjective I'm looking for here is "lived-in," an appearance of comfortable, easy familiarity that connotes psychological depth and emotional richness using only a few briefly sketched details. The best example of this from The Fog (though there are many, including every conversation between Nancy Loomis and Janet Leigh) is the scene between Nick and Elizabeth at Nick's house in Antonio Bay.

One of my favorite scenes in The Fog: Nick (Tom Atkins) and Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis) discuss her drawings and their lives in a wonderfully natural and intimate sequence. 

This naturalness or lived-in-ness carries over into the film's brilliant use of locations, especially the lighthouse from which Stevie Wayne's radio show broadcasts nightly. Carpenter's use of actual northern California exteriors really pays off in The Fog -- the film looks like few other Hollywood productions do solely on this basis. The choice to shoot at least partially in northern Cal subtly evokes that other uncanny thriller associated with the region, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). By saying this I do not mean to compare The Fog to Vertigo in terms of artistic accomplishment, emotional impact, or overall quality, for in all these areas, Hitchcock's film is superior. I simply mean to point out that Carpenter uses his locations very well. They lend a visual richness and depth to The Fog.

Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) hikes down the stairs to her lighthouse radio station. This exterior was shot on location on the northern California coast. 

The Fog also does a lovely job paying homage to other films and narrative traditions that have come before. As I've said, The Fog's scenery vaguely reminds me of the locales of Vertigo: Antonio Bay evokes the highway leading to the redwood forests, Father Malone's church substitutes for the Spanish mission. Beyond that, Janet Leigh's presence in this film obviously recalls Psycho. The film's climactic showdown in Father Malone's chapel, with our ensemble of heroes fighting off murderous ghosties coming in through the windows, is surely a deliberate callback to similar scenes in Night of the Living Dead. And Stevie Wayne's concluding admonition to "Look for the fog!" is a direct echo of The Thing from Another World's "Watch the skies!" Lastly, The Fog's whole central narrative arc about vengeful, supernatural creatures emerging from the sea to kill a bunch of clueless townspeople evokes, well, every scary story about hook-handed murderers you've ever heard around a campfire.

Indeed, Houseman's opening pre-credits vignette, depicting just such a story being told to children around a campfire, makes clear that The Fog knows it is treading well-worn narrative ground here, revealing that its main purpose is to have us sit back and enjoy the ride while it offers us an occasional scare accompanied by a nudge and a wink. I think that this knowingness, the film's touch of intentional camp, is one of the central pleasures to be had in viewing The Fog.

Sandy (Nancy Loomis) and Kathy (Janet Leigh) discuss the curse that has fallen upon their town with the gloomy, inconsolable Father Malone.

Along this line, the film's greatest triumph is the casting and performance of Hal Holbrook as Father Malone. In contrast to the scenes with the rest of the cast, none of the scenes involving Malone feel "lived-in" or real, but rather hyperbolically melodramatic and symbolically overdetermined. If everybody else in Antonio Bay is going about their daily lives in a relatively pedestrian way, Malone feels like he has been dropped into the proceedings from the set of a histrionically overcharged morality play. However incongruous this may sound as I write it, trust me: Malone's every scenery chewing moment is absolutely delightful. Malone is both the moral center of the town (and the film) and the most entertaining single element to be found in The Fog.

The only elements that compete with Malone for sheer entertainment value are some of the juicy murders committed by the film's verbally reticent sea-ghosts.

[Note: This next paragraph contains SPOILERS so if you want to avoid them, skip down past the screenshot of the Antonio Bay coastline.]

As Halloween aptly demonstrates, John Carpenter knows how to stage thrilling, horrific-but-not-too-gory death scenes. As with Halloween, in The Fog there are relatively few actual killings (only six people die) but most of these folks' final moments are pretty memorable. The best and most brutal deaths are the first ones, on board the ill-fated trawler Sea Grass, but my personal favorite killing is that of over-confident, wisecracking weather reporter Dan (Charles Cyphers) -- the buildup to that particular death is priceless. And as with the little girl murdered by gangsters early on in Assault on Precinct 13The Fog demonstrates that Carpenter is unafraid to brutally kill off innocent, good-hearted, sympathetic characters we care about in order to raise the stakes. The deaths of Dan and Mrs. Kobritz are the best examples of this.

Mrs. Kobritz's last stand. 

Antonio Bay at twilight, an example of The Fog's top-notch scenery and cinematography and a signal that "the coast is clear" regarding SPOILERS in this review. 

Discussing The Fog's killing scenes brings to mind the film's one possible weakness, the element that motivated its eleventh-hour reshoots and serves as a key criticism for its detractors: its somewhat inconsistent tone. Most of the explicit parts of The Fog's murder scenes were added late and feel more slasher-ish than uncannily ghost-like. The aforementioned character-development scenes, like those between Nick and Elizabeth, feel more like they belong in Hal Ashby's Shampoo than they do in a John Carpenter-directed horror film. Contrasting with both of these more "realistic" elements are the supernatural, glowing fog and the ghosts it brings with it, which are uncanny and creepy but not truly very shocking or scary. For some viewers, these three different tones may not cohere well or add up to anything particularly impactful by the film's last reel.

Yet for me, The Fog's disparate elements weave together well, aided by Father Malone's relentless hammering of the vile motivations behind the revenge plot and the film's frequent, highly adept use of cross-cutting to suggest simultaneity and thematic linkage between its various story strands.  

In sum, The Fog is a glorious mishmash of casting choices, genre conventions, and film references that somehow jells in a way that really works for me. Is it the scariest ghost story you'll ever see on screen? No, not by a long shot.*** Is it John Carpenter's best film? No, not that either. But is it full of self-aware pleasures, superb cinematography, (mostly) lived-in performances, and a few fun scares? Absolutely. Is it worth your time? I'd say so.

Father Malone sez: "We're all murderers!"

Bonus afterthought: I have never seen the 2005 remake of The Fog and never plan to -- you're joking, right? 

--
* By Hollywood's standards, "low-budget" means around $6 million or less. Carpenter's Halloween was made for $325,000 and The Fog was reportedly made for approximately $1 million. For more information about the Hollywood Renaissance, see my review of Bonnie and Clyde.
** Halloween is a big movie for me, because it is the film my younger brother used to lure me into horror film fandom in the first place, and it is surely the John Carpenter film I have seen the most number of times by far. It will always maintain a special place in my viewing history and my heart, even if there are other horror films (such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Videodrome) and John Carpenter films (especially Assault on Precinct 13, my very favorite) that I enjoy more than I do Halloween. It may also be that once I saw Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974) and realized that Carpenter stole most of Halloween's innovative visual ideas from that earlier slasher, my appreciation for Halloween was somewhat diminished.
*** That distinction surely belongs to Kairo (2001, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa) or maybe The Innocents (1961, dir. Jack Clayton). 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Review: Mad Max Fury Road (2015)


I am somewhat giddily in love with Mad Max: Fury Road. As of this writing, I have seen it twice in the theaters, plan to see it there once more, and have already pre-ordered it on DVD.* I know I will be enjoying this film for years to come and will teach it in my future "Women and Film" courses. Therefore I don't think my future self will be too upset if I declare it to be the best mainstream action film of the year 2015. It is one of the best films bar none that I have seen in a long time (since I saw Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan earlier this year at any rate).

Yes, I love Fury Road like a fanboy. Still, I completely understand some folks' concerns about and criticisms of the movie. It's a bit violent and brutal, of course, and some reviewers consider it to be too thinly plotted. Furthermore, while its themes are pronouncedly feminist, it does demonstrate some noticeable objectification of female bodies. Its real-life environmental record is abysmal. I will address some of these concerns later in this spoiler-inclusive review. Yet for me, given that so much contemporary mainstream action fare is so much crappier than Fury Road in quality and ideology, it is easy to focus on what this movie gets right and to slightly overlook the ways in which it plays into retrograde conventions.

Adam Lubitow, writing for the Rochester City newspaper, says almost everything I would want to say about the film -- I urge you to read his review in full. He writes:
At 70 years old, George Miller has put his younger peers to shame, producing an instant classic of the [action] genre. His film is packed with thrillingly kinetic action sequences, filled with unforgettable images; the world of "Mad Max" is a marvel of production and costume design. Each frame is brimming with details that demonstrate how much thought and care went into building this universe.
Indeed. The incredibly high degree of filmmaking craft on display here is so stunning that this io9 writer calls Fury Road's very existence in today's Hollywood "a miracle." I am inclined to agree.

But the latest Mad Max installment's specialness doesn't stop there. Lubitow's insightful review notes Fury Road's "unabashed feminist streak":
It's the rare action movie (or any genre for that matter) that not only passes the Bechdel test, but does so with flying colors. At a certain point, there are 12 women on screen, all talking to one another, never about a man. For a film with a plotline about women being treated as sex slaves, it's never exploitative. We're never forced to witness their abuse, and only meet the women after they've escaped. The film's mindset can be summed up by the first clear look we get of the freed brides: rejoicing as they use a bolt cutter to help each other break free of their painful-looking chastity belts.
Once Max joins Furiosa and company about twenty minutes in, he searches the War Rig's cab for guns but misses Furiosa's gearshift knife, which she reveals to the viewer (but not Max) as a punchline to the scene. This whole sequence exemplifies what makes Fury Road so unique and great: Max's "serious" action hero behavior is rendered comedic, his paranoia shown to be misplaced even as it simultaneously illuminates how deeply traumatized he is. We are shown (not told) that Furiosa has complete control over this situation and is not scared of Max at all. Her reveal of the gearshift knife informs us that she could have pulled that knife at any time and killed him, but has elected not to. This wonderful sequence, and the one that follows it in which Max works to remove his metal face mask with a file, positions him as an object of laughter, just like Ronny (Nic Cage) in Moonstruck, being made fun of for his melodramatic suffering after the loss of his hand.**

"I lost my hand!" laments Ronny Cammereri. Film scholar Kathleen Karlyn argues that moments of male melodrama in Moonstruck are tempered by female laughter, re-centering the film's narrative around women's power to disrupt patriarchal oppression via comedy. The same general strategy holds true for Mad Max: Fury Road, in which female power renders "serious" male heroics funny.

In short, Imperator Furiosa is the protagonist of Fury Road and Max is essentially her comic sidekick. He plays a key role in the action, has some great fight sequences, and we feel his pain and trauma via inventive, sparingly used flashbacks, yet there is no doubt that Furiosa is this story's hero.

Furthermore, the movie is at great pains to illustrate that the dominant form of masculinity in its world is bankrupt, hollow and destructive: we see a belt with a Death Skull motif placed over Immortan Joe's crotch at the outset, just before he withholds from his people the life-giving water coming from his symbolic triple-phallus. Then, at the end of the film, the milk-giving mothers open these same water valves for good.

Meanwhile, our gang goes through the valley -- a vaginal metaphor -- bringing seeds back through the same valley to the water-rich Citadel and giving birth to a new civilization. This sort of thing has prompted some reviews to call the film ecofeminist.


Yet as Philip Smith correctly argues, Fury Road does indulge one sexist cinematic convention: the visual objectification of women's bodies. Immortan Joe's scantily clad wives are indeed put on display for the viewer's pleasure, in accordance with the pervasive Hollywood practice documented by film scholar Laura Mulvey.*** Yet I am inclined to agree with Lubitow and others who see these characters as being developed enough to alleviate accusations that their depiction is gratuitous or exploitative. In the context of the film, their relative nudity has been imposed upon them by their patriarchal oppressor, so it functions as a reminder of the conditions from which they are proactively escaping. Furthermore, they are given much more to do in this film than to just stand around being objectified.

This pro-woman, pro-feminist stance is so rare to see in a mainstream action film, and so delightfully surprising and refreshing as presented in Fury Road, that mother Cecily Kellogg even took her nine-year-old daughter to see the film despite its "R" rating, because "it kicks ass, and that ass-kicking is done by a huge variety of women." She writes:
There's a small moment in the movie where [Max] turns the big gun with the last bullet over to Furiosa because she's a better shot. Frankly, it's stunning. I've never once seen that in a movie.
Me neither! Kellogg's comment exposes one of the Fury Road's greatest strengths, and the main reason it is destined for "classic" status: its ability to convey important character development moments in action rather than dialogue. Indeed, the best thing about Fury Road, besides its bold feminist ideology, is its complete commitment to "Show, don't tell" filmmaking (what Hitchcock and others call "pure cinema").

For some (re-)viewers, this "show don't tell" aesthetic is taken too far. Film blogger David Palmer, echoing similar yet more forgiving comments made by Entertainment Weekly reviewer Chris Nashawaty, writes that Fury Road is too much "style over substance" and that "from a narrative perspective, it leaves much to be desired." While I respect his view on the matter, I can't help but wonder if the recent (post-1990s) spat of over-explicated blockbusters -- a style of over-talked, superficially cerebral action film of which Christopher Nolan is the undisputed king, though Michael Bay is also guilty of over-complicating his "plots" with needless chatter about doomsday devices irrelevant to the films' action -- has blunted many contemporary viewers' ability to pick up on subtle visual cues, rendering it difficult for such viewers to register unexplicated actions as a legitimate form of characterization.

On a tangential yet related note, I think this same phenomenon of slight viewer inattentiveness and expectation that anything important will be spelled out in dialogue is what leads many commentators to erroneously label the films of Stanley Kubrick as "cold" or "antiseptic" or "distant." Forsooth, those films are full of life and humor and deep emotion, but Kubrick achieves his effects (affects?) by creating dissonance, tension, even (at times) deliberate contradictions between what characters say and what we see. His characters lie and obfuscate and dissemble, displaying a lack of self-awareness that is both intensely amusing and true to life. Nowhere is this technique used more clearly and sublimely than in his great masterpiece Barry Lyndon (1975), in which almost everything the smug, hilariously self-satisfied narrator tells the viewer about Redmond Barry is incomplete, misleading, and/or outright false. The meaning of that film lies in the discrepancy between what we are TOLD of Barry and what we are SHOWN of him. It requires a perceptive viewer and multiple viewings to suss this out.

I place Fury Road in the same category. It is, quite literally, deceptively simple on the surface, yet is freighted with meaning. Unmistakably feminist meaning. Lubitow agrees:
Despite the sparse dialogue, there's just enough development so that every character gets their own arc. The brides all have distinct personalities, and we come to know each of the characters not through tedious exposition, but through the actions they take.
As this video essayist points out, part of Fury Road's visual power lies in its refusal to use Chaos Cinema techniques, instead relying on more traditional (or "classical") shot framings and editing techniques:


Fury Road's stunning visual beauty also has a lot to do with its location, and therein lies a sad story of ethical misdeeds. The production's sketchy environmental report card is thoughtfully discussed by ecocritic Steve Rust here. In that piece, Rust points out that
[what’s] most concerning about Miller’s latest film isn’t the message audiences take away from the text, [but] the actual environmental impact of the film on on the areas where it was filmed in the [ecologically] sensitive desert of Namibia. Back in 2013, when only hard-core fans and industry insiders were following the film’s production, the film stirred up controversy for a short time over concerns that the film crew was tearing up the desert.
Rust quotes Guardian reporter Natasya Tay, who writes that “a leaked environmental report claims [Fury Road's] film crew damaged sensitive areas meant to be protected, endangering reptiles and rare cacti.” Rust notes that despite the implications of that leaked report, the film was given a pass by the regional film commission, and he concludes that "the question remains whether the NFC (Namibia Film Commission) sought to cover up the damage in order to avoid controversy and maintain good public relations so as to bring more films to the country for the economic benefits they provide."

Environmental abuses by film crews is a pervasive problem that needs to be remedied. Yet at the same time, as Bitch Magazine's Sarah Mirk argues, Fury Road's ecofeminist message may go some distance toward discouraging the kind of real-world abuses the film's production itself committed:
the toughest people you’ll meet in this dystopia are a collective of old women who are diligent heirloom seed savers. In the midst of the desert’s chaos and murder, they see a clear path forward: Find a way to heal the earth. The secret weapon of Fury Road is not a bigger gun, a faster car, an improbable spaceship, or a boy genius. It’s a pile of heirloom seeds. In the end, nothing is more powerful in the desert than the simple forces of soil, seeds, water, and tender care.
I do not excuse the environmental damage Miller's production crew inflicted upon Namibia's Dorob national park, and I sincerely hope that Fury Road and future productions like it will be firmly held to environmental standards that disallow such flagrant abuses.

As for me, it seems that my inner cinephile and my inner feminist have gotten the better of my inner ecocritic in this case.

GO SEE THIS MOVIE.

Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa, the real star (and protagonist) of George Miller's contemporary masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road

Bonus auto-ethnographic afterthoughtsMad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) was the first Mad Max film I ever got to see in the theater. Prior to that I saw The Road Warrior (1981) many many times on VHS, and much later I saw the original Mad Max (1979) on home video as well. For me, The Road Warrior in particular is an iconic and much-beloved action film of my youth and beyond. Even Mel Gibson's late-career racist antics have not dimmed the greatness of Mad Max 2 for me. That movie set an incredibly high bar for high-octane action, a lived-in universe, mythological storytelling, and realistic lo-fi special effects that few other films have achieved so effectively.

Miller himself has made clear that Fury Road does not occupy any particular place in the Mad Max "chronology," a term I place in quotes because, aside from the events of Mad Max presumably happening first, there is no specific chronology to any of the films in the series. That said, I did notice one little visual detail at the very end of Fury Road that suggests a (hyper-)link to an earlier installment. Right at the end of the film, as the big truck platform is being lowered to receive Imperator Furiosa and the crowd is chanting "Let her up! Let her up!" I spied two guards on that platform wearing metal helmets encasing their whole heads. Could this possibly be an oblique reference to Lord Humungus (pictured at left), the villain of The Road Warrior? Is one of these Humungus-like soldiers serving Immortan Joe the actual future Lord Humungus? Or are these guards a couple of Humungus's past followers? Or are metal helmets just fashionable in the post-apocalypse? My guess is that we'll never know for sure.

Theron and Miller on set in Namibia.

UPDATE 6/20/2015: I found yet another extremely laudatory review of Mad Max: Fury Road, by Grantland's Alex Pappademas, which accurately claims, among other things, that "we live in times of lowered expectation, blockbuster-wise; we pretend that not-insulting relaunches of old IP are worthy and that the rare worthy ones are also interesting and necessary. We’re lying to ourselves, but we do it because there’s almost nothing else out there." He then describes Fury Road as a glorious exception to this situation. I wanted to link the review here because it is both very well written and because it notes several details -- George Miller's original plans to shoot Fury Road with Mel Gibson back in 2001, its visual shout-outs to Peter Weir's The Cars that Ate Paris -- that I haven't seen discussed anywhere else. It also contains a nice sum-up of the main theme of each of the four Mad Max films. This is the kind of review I want to re-read in ten years or so in order to marvel at how presciently Pappademas declares the film to be "one of the best action movies of the decade."

--
* I haven't embraced Blu-Ray yet because, even though I have access to a Blu-Ray player at home, I am a film studies professor and my college has not yet converted to Blu-Ray.
** Kathleen Karlyn makes this convincing argument in her classic essay, "Comedy, Melodrama, and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter," anthologized in Classical Hollywood Comedy (1995, ed. Karnick and Jenkins) pp. 39-59.
*** See Mulvey's famous and influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," originally published in Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975) pp. 6-18.
† EW's Nashawaty later clarified that he really liked Fury Road, especially for the visceral impact and "insane beauty of the film’s practical effects and old-school stunts. There were sequences in Fury Road where I actually thought someone might die while the camera was rolling. When you compare that to something like San Andreas, where, as disposably entertaining as it is, you never for a second believe anything you’re seeing with your eyes, then the intoxicating and nervously giddy power of practical effects becomes obvious."
 As a potential example of this blunting effect, Palmer makes the baffling statement that "there are several points where two of the girls traveling with Max ask what will happen to them if the cult leader catches them, and I kept wondering the same thing." Isn't it obvious? They will be returned to sexual subjugation! Do we need a graphic scene of Immortan Joe violently raping his imprisoned "wives" in order to make those stakes clear?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Reef vs. Open Water


If you're like me, then sometimes, just to relax, you need to kick back with a good "revenge of nature" horror movie featuring sharks. I am a big fan of this genre, and while I do not watch every single shark attack film out there, and mostly avoid documentaries about sharks, I am always on the lookout for quality fiction films in which a bunch of poor bastards get stalked, terrorized, killed, and eaten by sharks.

Obviously, Jaws is the greatest of all such films and I have gone on record as a defender of its sequels as well.

Here I wish to talk about two lower-budget revenge-of-shark films that I find particularly enjoyable.* I started out thinking I would write this review solely about The Reef (2010, Australia, dir. Andrew Traucki), which is one of my favorites, but in the name of balanced reportage I decided to re-watch Open Water (2003, USA, dir. Chris Kentis), a movie that always "hangs together" with The Reef in my mind. Open Water was much better than I remembered it being so I decided to include it in my discussion.

I should mention that despite the post's catchy title, the pairing of The Reef with Open Water is not intended as a "versus" in the confrontational or competitive sense, but simply as a comparison of the two films -- in the end, I really like and recommend both movies, for different reasons.

One of the more frightening bits of underwater cinematography from Open Water

First things first: The Reef and Open Water both do very well with their shark photography, making it feel like the sharks and their victims share real space together. I appreciate that both films use footage of real sharks rather than depend upon CGI. I think the shark imagery may be slightly better in The Reef, if only because the film allows us to really see the shark up close several times in moderately long takes. By contrast, Open Water uses shakier handheld camera shots and quick cuts to give us only very brief glimpses of the sharks. While I like how some of these quick shots are framed, they get a bit maddening after awhile. As one disgruntled reviewer puts it:
Open Water's "what's lurking beneath" technique is drastically overused. The "lurking" never pays off. One becomes numb to it. Just eat them, for crying out loud.
While Open Water's coyness about showing its sharks aligns it with some of the greats of the genre including Jaws, the film indeed lacks the pulse-pounding climactic payoff of its bigger-budgeted genre-mates. Given the movie's overall tone, I like Open Water's ending, both for its bleakness and for its homage to a key shot from Jaws' opening moments, yet I understand why folks like Box Office Mojo's Ford find Open Water slow-moving and unsuspenseful.

While well-composed, Open Water's quick glimpses of sharks under the surface . . . 

. . . are not quite as horrifying as seeing the shark up close and personal in a sustained shot, as in The Reef

Open Water's deliberate pace is bound up with its inclusion of many elements that are not common to other sharks-murder-humans-type movies. The tension between protagonists Susan and Daniel introduces an "indie"-film edge to the story's central relationship. The nighttime storm sequence is shot quite daringly and artfully: it repeatedly cuts to pitch black screens. And at several points along the way (mostly in the beginning) Open Water goes into arty montage sequences of wildlife and landscape that feel imported from a Werner Herzog film and/or the opening sequence of City of God. I am not complaining about these elements, I actually appreciate them and the existential seriousness and visual beauty they bring to the proceedings. Nevertheless, they take Open Water slightly outside "kick back and watch sharks kill people and have a good time" territory.

In contrast, The Reef maintains a warm, light tone and fast pace. In The Reef, everyone starts off as friends and even Kate and Luke move from uncertain and tentative to clearly still interested in each other quite swiftly. The Reef emphasizes hope and love, with no heavy, existential darkness like that of Open Water's night storm sequence accompanied by Susan's fervent praying. No, the only darkness in The Reef is materially inconvenient, baldly terrifying darkness like that which Luke encounters as he looks for supplies inside the flooded cabin of an overturned sailboat.

The Reef's Luke looks for useful gear in the flooded interior of the overturned sailboat Boomerang -- in terrifying pitch-darkness.

Broadly speaking, Open Water is about how modern bureaucracy, white peoples' need for cheap tourism, and lack of personal connections between married people lead to mistakes that destroy us, then we get eaten by sharks, whereas The Reef is about bonding with friends and relatives, mending past relationships and discovering rekindled love, then we get eaten by sharks.

Interestingly, both films claim to be based upon true events, always a proposition to be treated dubiously when it comes to commercially produced fiction films, yet Open Water in particular features several homages to Jaws: the clanging of the buoy bell, the film's last shot, and the surnames of its two protagonists, Susan Watkins and Daniel Kintner. These touches belie the film's claims to truth but are quite enjoyable.

A search of Open Water's protagonists' IDs reveals their last names are Watkins and Kintner, in reference to Chrissy Watkins and Alex Kintner, the first two shark attack victims in Jaws.

Despite their differences in style -- The Reef is pure low-budget suspense thriller whereas Open Water is a bit more serious-minded and artsy -- both films get across their character-building and story development moments effectively. The Reef lays out the group dynamics of its five principal characters immediately, diving right into the matter of Kate and Luke's past romantic relationship. Similarly, Open Water opens with deft scenes illustrating subtle tension between Dan and Susan, and later on, the means by which the couple gets left behind by the diving company is made very clear over the course of two or three brief, momentary scenes.

The Reef gets its early character-building moments, like this one between romantic leads Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling) and Kate (Zoe Naylor), really spot-on. 

While this may reveal me to be too much a child of the 1980s, I love The Reef's soundtrack. Its main theme sounds like a nuanced version of something John Carpenter might have composed for one of his horror films in his heyday, and the "sailing theme" is a mellow piece that sounds similar to a Sade backing track. Open Water's score is more ominous and overblown than it needs to be, overselling many moments that would be more effective selling themselves. But though I don't enjoy Open Water's score quite as much, I suppose it suits the overall darker tone of its film.

It's hard to tell from this still, but this is part of a really nice, swooping helicopter shot during one of The Reef's sailing montages. 

In the end, The Reef, with its more straightforward genre-embracing pleasures, has more re-watch value for me. It is suspenseful and scary, and I like the main characters more than I do the couple in Open Water, therefore more is at stake for me. I really want The Reef's Luke and Kate to survive their ordeal with the Great White and make it back to land together. By contrast, in Open Water I think the pleasure comes from the other direction: I don't like the protagonist couple very much so I sadistically root for the sharks. Open Water's Susan gradually becomes more noble and relatable as the story transpires, but I never really like or care about Daniel, which lowers the stakes for me a little.

To sum up, I enjoy both these films, but maybe it says something that while I appreciated Open Water this time out -- only my second time viewing it since the mid-2000s -- I possess my own copy of The Reef and have seen it at least four or five times. And I will probably watch it several more times before I return to Open Water again.

The Reef's lead shark means business. 

--
* The Reef's budget is listed here as being $3.8 million, which is a tiny budget by Hollywood standards, and Open Water was made for less that $500,000, which doesn't even exist by Hollywood standards. In current Hollywood parlance, any film made for under $10 million counts as low-budget.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

On Trailer Park Boys


I am a big fan of Trailer Park Boys (2001-present), a Nova Scotia-produced "mockumentary" comedy series about the wacky denizens of Sunnyvale Trailer Park, especially Julian, Bubbles, and Ricky. The show originally (seasons 1-7) aired on Canadian television, though I first saw it streaming on Netflix, which it still does. Netflix is now producing new seasons of the show: Seasons 8 and 9 (2014-2015) are available now and Seasons 10 and 11 are in the works.

Trailer Park Boys is wonderful because it is one of those comedies in which very smart people are making comedy about very dumb characters, doing so with a lot of warmth, humanity, and love. The show's messages are in fact quite humanistic and optimistic, despite the show's constant swearing, pervasive drug use, and occasional gunplay. There is absolutely no mean-spiritedness about this show that I have ever been able to detect in my repeated watchings. Most importantly, the show is consistently hilarious. I place it alongside Party Down, Arrested Development, Fawlty Towers, PullingPeep Show, and the British version of The Office as one of the all-time funniest and cleverest television comedies I have seen.

Comedy genius Christopher Guest describes British comedy as "Silliness framed in intelligence. Even when it's stupid, you know intelligent people are doing it and that makes it a different joke." This principle applies to the superb Canadian comedy series Trailer Park Boys.

The first five seasons of Trailer Park Boys are all excellent, with seasons two, three, and five particular standouts. I would say that probably season three, the one in which Julian and Ricky and co. save money toward a cruise, is the all-around best, though I also have strong affinity for season two, the "Freedom 35" season featuring Ellen Page as Mr. Lahey's daughter Trina.

So is season two, the Ellen Page season, the very best overall season of the show? Although I am partial to season one (for reasons I'll come back to near the end of the review), the show really hits its stride in season two. It includes fine episodes like "Jim Lahey is a Drunk Bastard" (Ep02), about a crucial trailer park supervisor election, "A Dope Trailer is No Place for a Kitty" (Ep04), depicting the burning of Bubbles' shed and his relocation to J-Roc's van, and "The Bible Pimp" (Ep05), featuring (among its many delights) some suspicious bible peddlers and several classic Sam Losco moments during the extended conflict over the discarded hot dogs.

Sam Losco will be sure to take care of the problem. 

That said, "Kiss of Freedom," the season three opener, is probably the best episode of the entire series. It is tightly scripted with a brilliant climactic payoff involving Jim Lahey's bare bum and it stands as one of the clearest articulations of the whole series' core values. In the episode, Ricky goes from prince to pauper in swift and hilarious fashion, yet he never loses sight of what's most important to him: his family, especially his daughter Trinity. "Kiss of Freedom" is as funny as any TPB episode but is also has the most heart of any of them.

Two highly enjoyable musically themed episodes, "Who's the Microphone Assassin?" and "Closer to the Heart," occupy the middle of season three.

Late in season three, "Where the Fuck is Randy's Barbecue" (S03 Ep06) is a favorite, especially Ricky's balcony pepper spray battle with an elderly man and Lahey and Randy's big reveal at the end. Plus this episode introduces Constable Erica Miller into the mix and opens with one of the best Ricky vs. Randy battles, culminating in a spatula spanking for the ages.

"We're about to sail into a shit tidepool, Randy, so we better pull in the jib 
before it gets covered with shit."

Really, the whole narrative arc of season three, with the boys saving for a cruise and Constable Erica Miller complicating things for Julian, is pretty damn good.

By contrast, season four is a bit uneven, with flat-out great episodes sitting alongside some pretty mediocre ones. Yes, "The Green Bastard" (S04 Ep04), with its mighty showdown in the wrestling ring, is one of the best eppies ever, and "Conky" (S04 Ep05) is wonderfully off the rails, but "Rub 'N Tiz'zug" (Ep03) ain't great, recycling Cyrus as its villain in a mostly uninspired plot. And "If you Love Something Set it Free" (Ep06), the one with Steve French, bores me a little too. But the season finale, "Working Man," is pretty damn great, doing what most of the best eppies by this point in the game tend to do: go over the top.

Season four's outdoor dope fields, located  away from the park, is clever way to integrate new locales into the series. I especially like the use of the King of Donair as a kind of funky musical hangout in "Working Man," yet overall there isn't much urgency in this season until right near the end. "Propane Propane," while not the most tightly scripted episode, flows well and has some terrific bits like seeing Lahey and Randy's "cowboy and indian" outfits and blind Bubbles trying to get his rig license. "Propane Propane" makes for a good two-parter with the season finale, "Working Man," which is a pretty terrific episode culminating in Mr. Lahey's full-on showdown with Ricky in downtown Dartmouth.

"You just opened Pandora's Shitbox, Ray!"

Season five is especially good. In contrast to the somewhat meandering season four, the "hash driveway" meta-storyline in season five is awesome. It raises the stakes, fuels dramatic/hilarious tensions between Ricky and Julian, and keeps things geographically where they should be: in the trailer park. "The Fuckin Way She Goes," "Don't Cross the Shit Line," and "Jim Lahey is a Fucking Drunk and He Always Will Be" are especially superb season five episodes. Maybe the only somewhat weak season five eppy is "The Winds of Shit."

[UPDATE 5/22/2015: I just re-watched "The Winds of Shit" and now regret naming it as a weak episode. It really isn't. It features Mr. Lahey explaining the "shit barometer" to Bubbles, one of Ricky's best negotiations with local law enforcement, and a sweet finale in which Ricky apologizes to Trinity after he is caught in a deception. These wonderful details and nuances that come to life anew upon every re-watch exemplify something that is true of the series in general: it is a very confident show. I always feel like Trailer Park Boys knows where it is going, both on the micro- and macro-levels. Bravo!]

In any case, Lahey's obsession with his "shitmoths," the liquor bottles ornamenting the interior of his trailer from "Don't Cross the Shit Line" onward, is fricking priceless.

Special note on the Bladerunner reference in "Give Peace a Chance," the season five opener: Ricky and Bubbles discuss the film during their visit to Terry and Dennis's place, then outside Lahey's trailer Bubbles looks at a bee yard ornament, an homage to Olmos' origami unicorn.

Season six is also pretty good, it's the last Cory and Trevor season and it ends well.

[UPDATE 5/26/2015: Wow! Season six RULES. The season opener has Lahey fighting Trevor and Cory inside their new "Convenients Store," episode two "The Cheeseburger Picnic" is a great one, and "High Definition Piss Jugs" -- with guest star Steve Rogers and the debut of Bubbles' Kittyland Love Center -- probably belongs on the list of all-time best eppies. The Rashomon-like revelations of "Halloween 1977" tell a crucial part of Jim Lahey's back story, plus we get to see young Julian, Ricky, and Bubbles in their Chewbacca and C-3P0 costumes. And that episode's opening vignette, in which Bubbles counsels Randy about some inexplicable but ultimately "normal" sexual feelings he's having, is another favorite. Then Sam Losco violently returns for season closer "Gimme My Fucking Money or Randy's Dead!" Good times!]

Sebastian Bach is truly hilarious in Season 7 Episode 4 "Friends of the Road."

Season seven is diminished by the absence of Cory and Trevor, yet features some great Sam Losco stuff (him wooing Barb Lahey, singing at the nightclub, etc.). Also, the guest appearance of Sebastian Bach in "Friends of the Road" is an exhilarating high point of the entire series. Sebastian Bach is fuckin' funny!

Though I like the campfire scene near the end, and love that the music of Kim Mitchell saves the day, I nevertheless must declare "We Can't Call People Without Wings Angels" to be the weakest of the season and possibly the series. It is a bit too narrative-driven, there isn't much time alotted to spontaneous comedy gags (though Ricky slipping down the riverbank multiple times is priceless).

"Jump the Cheeseburger" is awesome though.

Season eight is worth watching, it is solid but maybe not great. Season nine, however, is really strong, maybe the best season since six or even five. The stuff with Ricky's manger and Willy the goat is really terrific, as is the storyline with J-Roc's long lost son.

To bring this back to the beginning, season one tends to get slightly weaker reviews due to its slower first couple of episodes. I love those early character-builders, however, and would place midseason episodes "Mr. Lahey's Got My Porno Tape" and "I'm Not Gay, I Love Lucy. Wait a Second, Maybe I am Gay." alongside other series-best nominees.

Ricky and this bank employee on the right have a glorious altercation midway through season one episode "I'm Not Gay, I Love Lucy. Wait a Second, Maybe I am Gay." 

To sum up, I agree with this:
"Imagine the consistently taut plotting and surprising humor of the Simpsons set in Desperate Living's landscape of trash and indignantly crass characters and you've basically got Trailer Park Boys." -- Lily Sparks
Ricky's finest hour. The choice he makes here catalyzes a remarkable climactic incident in "Kiss of Freedom," my choice for series-best episode of Trailer Park Boys.

Trailer Park Boys' Six Most Essential Episodes:

1. "Kiss of Freedom" (S03 Ep01)
2. "The Bible Pimp" (S02 Ep05) (esp. as a stand-alone)
3. "Jim Lahey is a Drunk Bastard" (S02 Ep02)
4. "The Delusions of Officer Jim Lahey" (S03 Ep07)
5. "The Green Bastard" (S04 Ep04)
6. "Conky" (S04 Ep05)

It's splitting hairs between those top three. "Jim Lahey is a Drunk Bastard," the election episode, may actually be the best single episode, or else "Kiss of Freedom," for the reasons stated earlier. "The Bible Pimp" has one of the very best opening vignettes (see list below) and probably works best as a stand-alone introduction to the series since the impact of "Drunk Bastard" and "Kiss" may depend upon knowing the back stories of Jim Lahey & Randy and Ricky & Trinity, respectively. I could also name "The Delusions of Officer Jim Lahey" as a particular standout, featuring "Deputy" Randy and Officer Lahey's attempt to clean up the streets of Sunnyvale once it is temporarily declared a town. Hell, any episode that commences with Jim Lahey declaring "I'm getting drunk today. Big time!" is obviously going to be momentous.

Bubbles vs. Tania and Hampton in the opening vignette of "The Bible Pimp," one of the most hilarious openers and all-time funniest stand-alone episodes of Trailer Park Boys.

Trailer Park Boys' Five Funniest Opening Vignettes:

1. "A Man's Gotta Eat" (S04 Ep02) has the BEST cold open of whole series, involving Dino the satellite television guy. Listen carefully to Bubbles during this one, then, at the end, sit back and enjoy Ricky's van-windshield-trashing for the ages.
2. "The Bible Pimp" (S02 Ep05), a vignette in which an interesting Socratic dialogue between Bubbles and the Bible salespeople takes place.
3. "Where the Fuck is Randy's Barbecue" (S03 Ep06) has one of the best Ricky vs. Randy battles featuring an epic spatula spanking.
4. "I'm Not Gay, I Love Lucy. Wait a Second, Maybe I am Gay." (S01 Ep05), depicting the "family day" battle, in which Ricky grapples with Randy while wearing an MLK shirt.
5. "Rub N' Tizzug" (S04 Ep03): The baseball bat-wielding samsquamsh battle.

Mr. Lahey sez: "Don't cross the shit line."

Bonus Afterthought: IF you like Trailer Park Boys, then it is probably worth your time to check out Swearnet: The Movie (2014). I haven't seen any of the other TPB films, of which there are several.

"Ispo fuck off-o!"

Friday, April 3, 2015

Tarantino's Plateau

Infantile, loudmouthed American film director Quentin Tarantino in 2012. 

In this post I will explain why I am underwhelmed by Quentin Tarantino's post-1997 work. Now I know that many people, including mainstream Hollywood and even several critics I respect, really love Tarantino's films, and I know there is no way I am going to disabuse anybody of their Tarantino fandom by writing this expose. That is not my aim here. My goal is simply to articulate why I do not share that fandom and to enumerate the reasons why, because:

(1) I am quite tired of telling people that I do not consider Quentin Tarantino a "great" filmmaker and having them stare at me disbelievingly, and

(2) I am convinced that a goodly chunk of Tarantino's current fan base is unaware of the genres and films that Tarantino's work draws upon, because when I try to explain that QT's films consist almost entirely of elements borrowed from the work of 1970s filmmakers, I often get blank stares.*

My hope is that this post will serve as both an explanation for my ho-hum feelings about QT's recent work and as a quasi-resource for fans and non-fans alike who might wish to further explore the films and filmmakers that have made QT's work what it is.

Since Tarantino's popularity and reputation is the main reason I'm writing about him, let's start with a truthful assessment of why Tarantino's work is popular. There are three main reasons:

(1) His ability to write appealing, snappy dialogue. In this interview, QT comes right out and admits that his main strength (or at least main interest) is writing -- discussing what he'll do when he retires from film directing, he says:
I'll probably just be a writer, or I'll just write novels, and I'll write film literature and film books and subtextual film criticism, things like that.**
This makes sense to me. Tarantino started out as a video store clerk and giant fan of the movies, and in many ways I suspect he would make a better screenwriter or film critic than he does a director.

(2) His involvement with the Miramax-era indie director star system. Tarantino's fame rests to a large extent upon how effectively he has marketed himself -- and how aggressively Miramax has marketed him -- as the "indie" poster child of the 1990s. Thanks to the runaway success of Pulp Fiction, he became the biggest director-star of the decade, and Miramax built their business on doing business with QT. In Down and Dirty Pictures, his history of the 1990s independent film sector, Peter Biskind calls Miramax "the House that Quentin Built," writing that:
Pulp Fiction became the Star Wars of independents, exploding expectations for what an indie film could do at the box office. By raising the bar, changing the rules of the game, Pulp caused Miramax gradually to lose interest in the kind of dinky, uncommercial films that are not amenable to big-money studio marketing strategies, that is, the kind of classic indies that maverick filmmakers liked to make.*** 
Once Pulp hit big in 1994, Tarantino became the vehicle through which Miramax commercialized and widened the audience for "indie" films, backed by Disney, their corporate parent. Yes, you read that right: by the time Miramax acquired and released Tarantino's second film, Disney wholly owned the "indie" distributor. Disney financed Pulp Fiction.

(3) Many of his fans may not be familiar with the works from which QT borrows his cinematic techniques and tone. Tarantino is primarily a highly skilled and culturally savvy postmodern recycler -- his visual and tonal playbook is almost entirely borrowed from 1970s filmmakers like Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, and Hong Kong action directors too numerous to mention.


For example, Pulp Fiction may have broken commercial barriers in terms of introducing a slickly packaged version of the Miramax/Sundance "indie" sensibility to mainstream audiences, but aesthetically and thematically the film is what you'd get if the 1970s filmmakers mentioned above collaborated on a hip color remake of The Set-Up (1949) and/or The Killers (1946) with QT writing the dialogue.

Of course, Tarantino is not the only pastiche artist working in Hollywood today nor over the course of its history, and I do not mean to say that pastiche or sampling other people's styles is an illegitimate artistic strategy. But I am very tired of hearing QT's work trumpeted as boldly original and visionary by fans unfamiliar with the works he replicates. I cannot know what QT's reputation will be going forward, and I know his fans love him, but his reputation as a "visionary" or a "pioneer" rests more upon how he has been marketed and promoted than upon sober assessment of his work.

Believe me, I get that QT is a postmodern filmmaker, and as such he should not be expected to produce deep works of startling emotional resonance or thematic impact. I do not judge him alongside other filmmakers (like Cronenberg or Holofcener or McQueen or Bergman or von Trier) who actually have something palpable to say in / with their work. I get that he is more like Soderbergh or Korine or Refn, that is, someone whose main aim in filmmaking is surface play, inter-textuality, and "sampling" or reworking pop-culture elements that have come before. My central complaint about Tarantino is simply that he does this sampling less well than any of the filmmakers I have just named, that his debt to his influences is so clunkily obvious that his films function as ciphers or hyperlinks pointing me back to other, better films by Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, Alejandro Jodorowski, Gordon Parks, etc. As Timothy Dugdale writes,
In the Tarantino funhouse, you've seen it all before yet never in such quicksilver and audacious assembly. [. . .] In no Tarantino film are emotional demands made on the audience, except for self-congratulation in catching all the cinematic allusions and artifice of emotional intensity.†
While I would dispute the final clause of that first sentence, I agree that there isn't much to cling on to in Tarantino's work except the cleverness of the assembly of the borrowed parts and, of course, the snappy dialogue. So when that assembly is tight, as in his first three films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown), the movies are at least pleasurable to watch, though for me they don't have much repeat-viewing value. However, when a Tarantino film sprawls unnecessarily (as in Kill Bill Vols 1 and 2 and Django Unchained) or is constructed badly or messily (as in Death Proof and Inglorious Basterds) the end result is a movie with really enjoyable scenes but not much holding it together as a whole movie. And this is the core of my critique of Tarantino's work: that he has not made a coherent whole movie since Jackie Brown.

Jackie Brown, my choice for Tarantino's best movie. 

The best efforts Tarantino has made in this area are his debut, Reservoir Dogs, which coheres quite well within its episodic structure, and Jackie Brown, his best movie bar none. However, ever since 1997's Brown, his career has plateaued and he has been unable to produce another film as coherent and impactful as his first three efforts. Kill Bill flows okay but is overlong and too thinly premised.††  Inglorious Basterds is, in terms of overall narrative structure, an uneven mess.††† And even by QT's own admission, Death Proof is totally fucked, like two totally different films with different premises hastily grafted together. This would be okay if it were more artsy or "deep" or did something interesting with its structure (like David Lynch does in his 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive), but no, it's just a pretty decent first half clumsily affixed to a drawn-out, if visually breathtaking, documentary about a death-defying stunt by Zoe Bell.

Interestingly, while Basterds is Tarantino's second-worst film in terms of overall coherence and structure, it contains a couple of his best-ever scenes, particularly the basement bar sequence. This is the paradox of Tarantino's work: pretty great in the particulars, but pretty sloppy, even lousy, in the big picture.

My overall position on Tarantino aligns closely with that of popular British film critic Mark Kermode, who shares my esteem for QT's early work and breaks down "The Tarantino Situation" in this succinct video:


As Kermode says, Tarantino is "a much better filmmaker than we've had any reason to believe recently." Or as he puts it in another more recent video review, "It's like watching someone still playing with the same set of toys as when they first started out, but originally he was constrained by time and by budget, and he is a really talented director [. . .] but why can't he do it in a more disciplined way?"

Or, as Doc Benway put a bit more bluntly it in a fairly recent Facebook discussion:
I was recently considering the line from Pulp Fiction, "Zed's dead, baby, Zed's dead" often interpreted as a reference to Nick Zedd, which seems quite plausible considering Tarantino's arrogant flaunting of his cinephilia. But it's interesting how this intertextual reference works within the narrative. Really, this line encapsulates the reactionary impact of Tarantino on American cinema. At one fell swoop, he reduces the tradition of subversive American experimental cinema to a homophobic caricature, shoots it in the gut, and steals its energy (in the figure of the chopper). To me, Butch is the perfect stand-in for Tarantino - a washed up hack and misogynist with a daddy complex whose "cool" is supposed to magically position him as the loveable protagonist.
Benway glancingly refers to Tarantino's tendency toward public arrogance, which I admit is a contributing factor in how I feel about the man's films. I don't want to dwell too much on QT's seeming egotism and I want to make clear that I don't know if he is truly arrogant in real life. I'm merely talking about his loudmouthed, grating public persona here. Suffice to say that I have a hard time feeling comfortable with or supportive of a director who thinks it's okay to do this, even in jest.

As the second Cracked.com list entry linked here elaborates,
[Tarantino is] never one to shy away from praising Quentin Tarantino, whether he's cockily telling an interviewer that "Inglorious was so good, I don't know how I'm going to top myself," or just generally acting like a total fucking lunatic at awards shows, you don't have to look too far to find examples of douchechill-inspiring Tarantino-isms.
Indeed.

I recently re-watched Reservoir Dogs, my second-favorite Tarantino film after Jackie Brown, and was a bit shocked by the seemingly casual racism and sexism of practically all its characters. The film opens with Tarantino himself (in a cameo as "Mr. Brown") discussing Madonna's "Like a Virgin" by describing violent, penetrative sex that is painful to the woman involved. This constitutes an abrupt, harshly misogynistic cold open for QT's debut film, and while I am NOT saying that QT is racist or sexist just because his characters are, nevertheless it gets tiring and un-pleasurable to sit through ninety minutes of pervasive, violently misogynistic and racist chatter, however cleverly written. At least that's how I felt on this re-watch.

That said, I must admit that the camera work and visuals in Dogs are top-notch; QT and his team can frame up eye-popping, iconic compositions with the best of them.

The visuals in Tarantino's films are well-composed, catchy, and iconic.

Whatever else happens, at least we'll always have those first three films: Reservoir DogsPulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown. These constitute a tight little trilogy of mostly great Tarantino-ness (though I find the basement rape scene in Pulp to be disturbing in what I assume are unintended ways). And there are many enjoyable moments to be found in the later films too -- hell, I enjoy about 60% of Death Proof and probably 75% of Django Unchained if I'm being honest.

But I will always lament the Tarantino that could have been, the director who could have taken more risks since 1997 instead of continuing the same generic routine ad infinitum. But as the most well-known director to emerge from the 1990s Sundance scene, maybe it was foolish to ever expect any other outcome than the one we got. Tarantino's work has achieved widespread commercial success, so why change the product or vary the brand? Hollywood is not fundamentally a risk-taking business, and post-1997 Tarantino is a risk-averse director. If he were willing, as he did when making Jackie Brown, to take real artistic and ideological risks with his films, rather than simply posturing publicly as if he had, I would be much more interested in his work.

--
* As I will make clear throughout this post, the one major exception to my contention that QT is not very original or interesting is in his ability to write snappy, compelling dialogue. Tarantino is a superb writer of dialogue, no doubt about it. His first two films excepted, he does not write compelling screen stories very well, and he has almost no ability to self-regulate or make wise choices in the editing room, but I will never deny that he writes fabulous and very funny dialogue.
** Here's the link to the full, uncensored interview.
*** Biskind, Down and Dirty Pictures (Simon & Schuster, 2004) p. 195.
† From "The French New Wave: New Again" in New Punk Cinema (Ed. Nicholas Rombes, Edinburgh UP, 2005) p. 62.
†† For the record, I am okay with straight-ahead genre films and do not mean to dismiss Kill Bill simply because it is a straightforward revenge thriller. Its problem is that it feels spread too thin, its pacing is off, and it drags on way too long. In this sense it is a harbinger of much of what is to come in Tarantino's subsequent mid-career works.
††† Try this simple exercise: answer the question, "Who is the protagonist of Inglorious Basterds?" Let me know if you ever figure that out; I never have. I have a friend who suggests that it's actually Hans Landa, and that makes more sense than any other answer, but still isn't satisfying.