Sunday, May 1, 2016

Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

I saw Disney's live-action version of The Jungle Book directed by Jon Favreau, and overall I was visually impressed, if disappointed as a political progressive and a feminist.

To start with the good stuff, though, the film's digital effects are astounding, its script and direction quite capable, and while there were no real surprises -- the film telegraphs every development quite clearly -- I had a good time watching the film in the theater.

As others have noted, The Jungle Book's single greatest achievement is its computer generated images (CGI) of its various animal characters. I have written and presented on the topic of CGI animals in film, and just last year had a discussion with several film scholars about how very few digital animal performances in film manage to cross the "uncanny valley." But The Jungle Book's creatures look quite believable, setting a new high bar for realistic-looking CGI animals in major studio releases.

As Rajeev Balasubramanyam insightfully notes, the new version attempts to deracinate and deterritorialize its Rudyard Kipling source material, taking a stalwart of British imperialist literature and turning it into a kind of bland, globalized, Indiana Jones-esque theme park ride.* As Balasubramanyam writes:
While the CGI-rendered jungle looks very real, it does not feel much like India, or indeed any single place. Favreau’s jungle is more of a global one, resembling a composite of familiar scenes from The Lion King then Avatar, and then perhaps Arizona, or Rajasthan, or the Sahara. Anything that smacks of cultural specificity has been eliminated
I agree with Balasubramanyam's reading and would add that the film makes clear its deterritorialized position from the very start. The opening Disney logo comes up, including that aerial shot that swoops backward over the ramparts of the iconic Disney castle as "When You Wish Upon a Star" plays. Then it continues its track back under an archway of jungle flora to reveal the words "The Jungle Book" etched in stone, and finally pans right across a waterfall to establish the film's "jungle" setting. That is, there is no fade to black or cut of any kind between the "magic kingdom" corporate logo and The Jungle Book's establishing shot. It is all one continuous take. The movie literally takes place inside a Disney theme park. It is neither a real jungle nor even a strictly real place, it is Disneyland or Walt Disney World.

It is also a completely homosocial, males-only environment. Before seeing The Jungle Book, I braced myself for lots of racism and imperialism, and that stuff is surely present in the film. For example, the main "good" animals, such as Baloo (Bill Murray) and Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), are all white-sounding and/or British, while the film's chief villain, Shere Khan, is one of the few creatures voiced by a black (albeit British) actor, Idris Elba.

Yet what really bowls me over is the film's sexism. There are only two speaking female roles in The Jungle Book: Mowgli's angelic, fiercely loyal wolf mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o) and the vile sexual seductress of a snake, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson). That's it. Devoted, perfect mother or slithering, murdering whore. Yay, Disney!

Kaa sez: "I want to fuck-- I mean eat -- you, my delicious little morsel."

In addition -- and perhaps this is somewhat unavoidable when making a film of this kind -- I feel that there are several shots of Mowgli (Neel Sethi) running around and posing in The Jungle Book that folks like Jared Fogle would jerk off to. And if the cinematography doesn't already encourage thoughts of pedophilia and sexual predation, Mowgli's scene with Kaa makes the sexual stakes of his adventures clear. This reboot of The Jungle Book franchise features no human female love interest for Mowgli -- that is surely being saved for the sequel -- but Kaa's erotically charged scene reminds us that sexual women are dangerous beings who threaten to eat us alive. Better to remain in a state of immature arrested development, safely ensconced with our male friends. Thank God Baloo the bear shows up just in time to pulverize that slutty snake! (What is this, one of those fucked-up animated sequences from The Wall?)

Anyway, all in all, I recommend that you catch The Jungle Book in a theater if you like state of the art special effects or want to see a sexist, racist, but superficially enjoyable and extremely well-made movie about a boy's adventures with talking animals in a jungle environment that feels more like the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom mining cart chase than it does any real-world locale.

For that opening long take in which we are drawn into a virtual Disney theme park is the most meaningful shot in this entire movie. That first shot carries The Jungle Book's primary message: that we will all be watching Disney products for the rest of our lives, and after we die, our descendants will do the same. Like Mowgli, none of us is ever going to grow up and none of us is ever getting out of the jungle. We live in Disney's world now. Our great-grandchildren will pay sixty five space credits to see 4D versions of Star Wars Episode Twenty Six and Captain America: Infinity Civil Galactic Guardians of the Galaxy Meets Valhalla and Jungle Book 9: Mowgli Carter of Mars.

That's us, dangling from the limb. Disney is going to eat us.

UPDATE 5/2/2016: It took a day for this to sink in, bit I have realized another annoyingly retrograde aspect of The Jungle Book's shitty sexism: the film uses the word "man" to refer to humankind. Mowgli is a "man-cub," the village is the "man-village," etc. I assume it's the same phrasing used in the original Kipling texts, but that was 1894, this is fucking 2016 for Christ's sake. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation made the change from the original series' iconic yet sexist opening phrase "To boldly go where no man has gone before" to "To boldly go where no one has gone before" way back in 1987. Get with it, people!

* For a deeper dive into the differences between Kipling's original stories, the 1967 animated version, and this latest one, check out this insightful post.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Best Movie Ever: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The Leatherface family sez: "Join us for dinner!"

Tobe Hooper's low-budget rural horror masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is my single favorite movie of all time. It appears on every iteration of my personal "Top Films" list and is my go-to answer to the question "What is your favorite movie?" 

I love low-budget films and I love horror films. My love for low-budget film aesthetics dates back to my 1990s independent film fandom, spurred by stuff like Slacker (1991), El Mariachi (1992), Clerks, Go Fish (both 1994), and Gummo (1997) but also via the influence of John Waters, whose films I started watching voraciously in the late '90s and 2000s.

But The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the pivotal film that won me over to the horror genre. I had seen Halloween and a few other slashers (including Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and the incredibly weird Sleepaway Camp) before I first watched Tobe Hooper's masterpiece in 2002. I enjoyed those films, especially Halloween, but Texas Chain Saw really showed me what a powerful horror film can do.*

There is something special, something charged and electric and more about TCM. I don't like the phrase "this movie transcends its genre" because that is both technically impossible (if it is a genre film, it is a genre film and it ain't transcending anything) as well as insulting to whichever genre you happen to be talking about. Genre-film lovers should never use that phrase.

I will instead say that TCM is a superlative example of the rural slasher genre. Along with Peeping Tom, Psycho (both 1960), Black Christmas (1974), and Deep Red (1975), TCM helps set the template for the "classic" slasher which fully emerges by the time of Black Christmas or surely Halloween (1978).

As far as the specifically rural slasher goes, TCM is the best of the best -- its only close rivals are Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II (1987), and the intense, well-shot The Descent (2005). Other more distant (but still worthy) runners-up include Motel Hell (1980), Pumpkinhead (1988), Wrong Turn (2003), Wolf Creek (2005), the even better Wolf Creek 2 (2013), and Rob Zombie's underrated Halloween II (2009).**

Despite (or probably because of) its low budget, Texas Chain Saw's camera work is effective and inventive, its mise-en-scene artfully insane. Its performances are all-out. It is tautly edited and incredibly suspenseful. It is, in every aesthetic category, a triumph of scrappy, compelling, no-frills filmmaking.

One of Texas Chain Saw's great strengths is that it trusts its imagery to convey its ideas. The shot compositions and blocking tell the story without the need for dialogue -- though the dialogue, particularly about the Leatherface family's history in the slaughtering industry ("My family's always been in meat" brags Hitchhiker), is believable as spoken by the characters and simultaneously freighted with deeper thematic implications.

Chain Saw uses many images as "free motifs," that is, as abstract imagery that suggests, rather than outright denotes, meaning. For example, there are several recurring images of circular objects: the sun, the moon, a windmill. To me these suggest cyclical time, prehistoric time, the centripetal energy of the Leatherface family devouring itself.  The windmill in particular hints that the Leatherface family is "spinning its wheels" -- see also the generator that endlessly runs, powering nothing. All these circular images rhyme with each other, with certain circular camera movements as when the van pulls into the gas station, and with Leatherface's twirling dance that ends the film. When Sally flees Leatherface, her journey is also circular, from the house to the gas station then back to the house. Circularity abounds.***

Chain Saw's experimental soundtrack contributes much to the film's overall tone of terror. The minimalist score consists of weird pitch-bent tones resembling metal scraping against metal, plus occasional staccato percussion including cymbals and gongs. The diegetic music, especially the plinky little ditty "Fool for a Blonde" by Roger Bartlett is very eerie and effective during Hitchhiker's bizarre ride in Jerry's van.

Along this same line, pay close attention to the sound design throughout Texas Chain Saw's opening vignette and opening credits -- it's creepy! -- and note how the radio announcer, whose lengthy report about local grave robbings is important, sound bridges us into the film's first scene in the van.

Hitchhiker sez: "I have this knife -- it's a good knife."

In addition to all its artistic and cinematic virtuosity, I love The Texas Chain Saw Massacre because it is an important cultural document, an ecstatically truthful reflection of early seventies American culture. Written and shot by college-aged youths in summer 1973, the original TCM captures U.S. malaise during the period of our national post-Watergate "nervous breakdown." According to historian Andreas Killen:
In 1973 America was jolted by three shocks, following on one another in rapid succession. First, the war in Vietnam ended in the first-ever military defeat for the United States. Second, the Watergate cover-up unraveled, and the presidency of Richard Nixon became engulfed in scandal and, by year's end, calls for impeachment. Last but not least, Americans were hit hard by a collapsing economy: 1973 was also the year of the Arab oil embargo and the beginning of the long slide into stagflation that lasted until the 1980s. Any one of these events alone would have challenged America's image of itself; together they shook the national psyche to its very core.†
In short, Chain Saw is a succinct, powerful snapshot of that shakedown of the national psyche at that pivotal time. Screenwriter Kim Henkel and director Hooper confirm this interpretation on their DVD commentary, explicitly calling the movie a response to the Vietnam war and the Watergate crisis. While all films carry ideological meanings and can be analyzed as reflections of and responses to the cultural concerns of their time, the 1974 Texas Chain Saw is a particularly rich and multi-layered cultural looking-glass. Embracing the tropes of the just-burgeoning slasher genre, Hooper, Henkel and company commit to their project with abandon, infusing their despair and anger over the loss of life in Vietnam and the lies of Nixon into their depiction of the Leatherface family's impotent yet deadly rage against the privileged teenagers who invade their homeland.

Which is probably why I keep returning to the film in my writing. I advise my film studies students not to write about or critically analyze films they are too close to as fans, and I usually follow that advice myself. But The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is my exception: I have published one article about the film and plan to include analysis of Texas Chain Saw in a chapter of my (slowly) forthcoming book.

In that article of mine, "Sympathy for the Devil: The Cannibalistic Hillbilly in 1970s Rural Slasher Films," I point out that low-budget rural slashers like Hooper's Texas Chain Saw
present their cannibalistic hillbilly "villains" in extremely sympathetic terms and, due to the emerging conventions of the slasher horror film genre to which they belong, may even present the rural killers as the ultimate "heroes" of their scenarios in a way that a critically acclaimed Hollywood studio film like Deliverance does not attempt.†† 
Indeed, in TCM, the teens who intrude upon the Leatherface family property, especially the males, are presented as insensitive, oblivious jerks who think nothing of entering the Leatherface house uninvited. Even wheelchair-bound Franklin, who has a strange affinity for Hitchhiker and an appropriate sense of foreboding about the threat the rural family represents, is so whiny that he drives his sister Sally -- TCM's protagonist and Final Girl -- to distraction. Franklin is easy for the viewer to pity but hard for most viewers to like. Of all TCM's teens only Sally and maybe Pam are relatable.

Meanwhile, despite his violent, psychotic tendencies, Leatherface in particular is shown to be emotionally vulnerable at certain key moments of the film. His two brothers bully and mistreat him when they're all at home together, and the viewer sees Leatherface's fear and worry after the third teen, Jerry, walks into his house unannounced. This provocative, finely nuanced ambiguity about who we're supposed to feel for and root for places The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the highest echelon of successful horror movies, alongside other masterpieces like Peeping Tom, Psycho, and King Kong.

Leatherface sez: "I'm frightened and upset and deserving of your sympathy."

Beyond singling out The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as my personal favorite film, I am also quite serious (if hyperbolic) when I call it the "Best Movie Ever" -- that is, I would definitely place it on any more "objective" Top 100 Films list I had a hand in creating. Like so many canon-generating lists, Entertainment Weekly's is, in my view, disappointingly light on horror films, including only seven: Psycho (#5), King Kong (#11), Jaws (#18), Rosemary's Baby (#36), Frankenstein (#55), The Shining (#66), and Night of the Living Dead (#79) -- all of which I'd keep.

But where is Nosferatu (1922)? Vampyr (1932)? Halloween (1978)? Videodrome (1983)? Peeping Tom (1960)? Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (1960)? John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)? Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977)?

John Carpenter sez: "Not a single movie in your Top 100, EW? You're fucking kidding me!"

What about Alien (1979)? Gojira (1954)? Wait a minute, EW, you're really putting The Fucking Dark Knight and Return of the Stupid King on your Top 100 Films list and not Gojira? That's completely fucked up.

Furthermore, any "Top 100 Films" list that excludes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre -- one of the most terrifying, visceral, brilliantly crafted, culturally significant, and influential American horror films ever made -- needs serious revision.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Gunnar Hansen, the original and best Leatherface actor.

Bonus Afterthought: Why the 2003 remake is a worthless abomination. I hate to waste any space at all discussing the 2003 Marcus Nispel Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, a formulaic, boring, worthless piece of shit that completely misses the point of what made the original scary or compelling. Instead of creating truly horrific situations arising from the motivations of the characters, the 2003 version goes for cheap jump scares -- yes, a cat even jumps out at one point -- lots of gore, and improbable, ill-motivated plot twists.

Besides its bland aesthetics, abuse of cattle prod cinema techniques, and crappy plotting, the remake's worst offenses are its decision to give the Leatherface family a surname -- Hewitt, which I guess is supposed to be "funny" -- and to fully explain the hillbilly clan's (hackneyed, pedestrian) behavioral motivations.

You see, in the 2003 version, the Leatherface -- er, Hewitt -- clan kidnaps babies because they want to expand their brood and be parents. Sadly, this is a stupid and disastrous miscalculation on the filmmakers' part, for it makes the Hewitts comprehensible to us in a way that deflates their power to horrify. It completely negates the powerful structural social critique of the original. The 1974 Leatherface clan kills because, as professional meat slaughterers, it is all they have ever known. They have been displaced from their jobs by the advent of the air gun stunner. Their family pride in their profession has been stripped from them, so they just keep on butchering -- now humans instead of cattle.

Their insanity and cannibalism is therefore a logical extension of the core principles of capitalism -- they are simply small business-people doing what they need to to survive.††† The inappropriateness of their choice of raw materials serves as a savage critique of the capitalist system, showing the desperate, horrific lengths to which the economically disenfranchised must resort to survive.

The 2003 version offers no such critique or thematic nuance. It is simply about a family who wants more babies and who isn't horrifying or scary at all. Yawn!

* Perhaps due to the early influence of Halloween and Texas Chain Saw, to this day I generally prefer slasher and serial killer-based horror films and thrillers. Along this line, let me recommend the raw and terrifying Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and the criminally under-seen Peeping Tom (1960). And, on the horror-comedy side, Man Bites Dog (1992). And of course Hitchcock's classic Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
** The elephant in the room here is Deliverance, which at least indirectly inspired the rural horror slasher cycle and the figure of the monstrous hillbilly. But that film itself is not precisely a horror film. It's more of a dark male melodrama with higher artistic pretensions than most slashers. Psycho also (again) sets an important precedent for TCM via the rural locale of the Bates Motel. But rural locales, from Dracula's castle to Night of the Living Dead's farmhouse to Them!'s California desert, predominate in the horror film.
*** I'm pretty sure I noticed this circle motif due to reading Christopher Sharrett's "The Idea of Apocalypse in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Sharrett says some really smart and insightful stuff about TCM in that indispensable article, found in Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film (ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharrett, Scarecrow Press 2004).
† Andreas Killen, 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America (Bloomsbury, 2006) p. 2.
†† Carter Soles, "Sympathy for the Devil" in Ecocinema Theory and Practice (ed. Stephen Rust, Salma Monani, and Sean Cubitt, Routledge 2013) p. 237.
††† This idea comes from Robin Wood, in his "An Introduction to the American Horror Film." also found in Planks of Reason (Scarecrow Press 2004). 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

German Expressionism and its Descendants

"As has often been noted, it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between horror and science fiction. Not only that, it can at times be difficult to distinguish between horror and the crime film, and science fiction, adventure and fantasy as well."
-- Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood p. 85.

Expressionism is an artistic movement that began in Germany around the turn of the twentieth century. Expressionism at first emerged in poetry and painting before moving into theater and, eventually, film. The style eschews realism in favor of a more intensely subjective point of view. It favors oblique angles, forced perspective, heavy lines, and distorted and grotesque imagery. With its roots in the trauma of losing World War One and subsequently plummeting into a recession, German Expressionism tends to depict exaggerated / extreme emotional states, usually grim or negative ones like terror, fear, pain, sadness, disorientation, loss, etc.

Though it predates German Expressionism proper, Norwegian painter Edvard Munch's The Scream (1893, 1910) is considered exemplary of Expressionist aesthetics and was itself influential on twentieth-century Expressionism.

The interwar period of German film production, lasting from 1919-1933, is known as “Weimar Cinema.” It is named after the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first democratic government. The tumultuous, unstable Weimar period coincides with the emergence of German Expressionist cinema -- that is, Weimar cinema and Expressionism are somewhat synonymous. Noting that "German’s cultural strength in the 1920s stood in marked contrast to its political and military weakness," historian of German film Stephen Brockmann describes Weimar Expressionism as
characterized particularly by the use of chiaroscuro (an Italian word containing the words for light and dark and indicating sharp contrasts between light and shadow), by jagged and bizarre sets that indicate an otherworldly or inhuman space, or that reflect the torments of the individual soul, and by stylized, unnatural acting.* 
I would add that many Expressionist films use mise-en-scene to simultaneously indicate otherworldly, uncanny spaces AND individual torment, as in Count Orlok's castle and surroundings in Nosferatu (1922), or the Moloch sequence when Freder first visits the underground factory in Metropolis (1927).

Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele's Living Room in Neulengbach (1911). . . 

. . . features weird angles, heavy lines, and a distorted sense of perspective similar to what we see in this shot from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). 

The first German Expressionist film was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), directed by Robert Wiene. Caligari tells the story of Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a homicidal somnambulist controlled by the evil Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). As part of an attraction at a traveling carnival, Cesare tells people's futures, which usually involve impending death -- then at night, in a trance, he goes into town and murders them. Brockmann calls Caligari the "quintessential example of German Expressionist cinema" and suggests that, via the psychological instability of its onscreen protagonists, the film unnervingly depicts an "entire world that is possibly out of balance" (pp. 59, 62).**

High-contrast lighting is one of the most pronounced aesthetic properties of German Expressionism, horror films, and films noir, as these stills from Caligari, Dracula (1931), and The Third Man (1949) respectively demonstrate.

German Expressionist cinema had run its course by about 1930 with The Blue Angel or 1931 with M. Yet its techniques, style, and thematic tendencies have been enormously influential on many subsequent film cycles and genres.

Specifically, Expressionist cinema gives rise to the sound horror film (predominantly a rural genre, descended mainly from Caligari and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu) and, later, to film noir (predominantly an urban genre, descended from Caligari and most other Expressionist films). German Expressionism (especially Fritz Lang's Metropolis) also exerts a strong influence on the development of science fiction, horror's generic cousin. No Metropolis = no Bladerunner.

The Replicants in Bladerunner . . .

. . . are cinematic descendants of the Maria robot from Metropolis . . .

. . . as is this guy.

Speaking of Bladerunner, observe how film noir and science-fiction blend together so organically in that film. Same with stuff like Dark City (1998) and the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy (2005-12). I think these genres and styles intermix well because of their shared Expressionist heritage -- its aesthetic strategies and dark, grisly themes. Along this same line, there's Tim Burton's excellent Batman duology (1989, 1992), especially the criminally underrated Batman Returns, which mixes noir and sci-fi and horror and gothic melodrama all in one. It's a veritable Expressionism-descendant feast!

"Holy genre mash-ups, Oswald Cobblepot!"

In his historically grounded book Genre and Hollywood, Steve Neale refuses to split apart cinematic sci-fi and horror, treating them as "related, but also as distinct" intertwined genres (p. 85). One only need consider obvious examples like Alien (grotesque body horror meets hard sci-fi) and Bladerunner (with its Metropolis-like "evil robot run amok" plotline plus raw frozen eyeballs and graphic head squeezings) to see the truth of this conception. Also note how certain monster movies, especially 1950s ones like The Thing from Another World (1951), GojiraThem! (both 1954), and even the slightly more "hard" sci-fi thriller Forbidden Planet (1956) tread a super-fine, nearly indistinguishable line between horror and science-fiction.

However, despite their inherent messiness and tendency to hybridize, film genres have specific histories. The sound horror film begins with the Universal monster-movie cycle launched by Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. The American film noir starts with The Maltese Falcon in 1942 though I've heard Julien Duvivier's Pepe Le Moko (1937) and even Fritz Lang's M (1931) put forward as credible candidates for the "first" film noir.*** In any case, as we've seen, both horror and noir share an antecedent: German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s.

Film horror is a fusion of Expressionism (twisted psychology, high-contrast lighting, dark shadows) with the literary Gothic (or romantic gothic, including Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.) and the grotesque (the explicit blood, gore, graphic monstrosity, and gross-out stuff).

Film Noir is a fusion of Expressionism (twisted psychology, high-contrast lighting, dark shadows) with hardboiled detective fiction and the police procedural film genre.† Film noir is extremely male-centered due to its ties to the hardboiled tradition, the police procedural, and the gangster film.

Like the melodrama or weepie, film noir favors style and sensationalism over complex character psychology. But unlike the melodrama, which uses elevated style to convey heightened (usually female) emotions and to evoke viewer pathos, film noir uses its distinct stylistic repertoire to reflect (primarily) white, male subjectivity and to achieve a disorienting, alienating effect.

As Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton argue in "Towards a Definition of Film Noir,"
the moral ambivalence, the criminality, the complex contradictions in motives and events, all conspire to make the viewer co-experience the anguish and insecurity which are the true emotions of contemporary film noir.††

At first glance, this alienating strategy would seem to be at odds with the attempt to generate pathos, but the more I think about it, maybe it isn't. After all, Borde and Chaumeton describe the "anguish and insecurity" central to the viewer's experience of film noir as "emotions," which are the traditional domain of melodrama.

Furthermore, both noir and melodrama use highly stylized mise-en-scene to achieve their effects, so there is always a tension between the intensity of the subjective emotions being evoked and one's distanciating awareness of stylistics and surface aesthetics. It may be most accurate to say that classic film noir is a form of highly stylized male melodrama, a violent precursor to the male weepies of the 1950s starring method actors like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean.

That said, despite its ventures into the realm of male melodrama, I'm pretty sure the film noir has more in common with the action film and the horror film (distanciating genres) than with the weepie or the Gothic romance (emotional genres). Or does it? Paul Schrader says it favors compositional tension over action . . . crap. Hard to pin down.

Anyway, to conclude, I'll say a few words about some must-see German Expressionist (and related) films:

Subtitled "A Symphony of Horror," F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) is probably my favorite German Expressionist movie. Unusual for its being shot outdoors in real wilderness locations, Nosferatu is the main progenitor (along with Caligari) of the sound horror film. The influence is direct: Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Gothic novel Dracula (1897). which also provides (legally obtained) story material for Universal Studios' Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi.

Plus legendary Expressionist cinematographer Karl Freund, who lensed The Last Laugh for Murnau and Metropolis for Fritz Lang, was Tod Browning's cinematographer on Dracula.

Count Dracula sez: "I may be Transylvanian, but my cinematographer is a German Expressionist!"

Either The Last Laugh (1924) or Faust (1926) could stake a legitimate claim to being F.W. Murnau’s greatest German Expressionist film masterpiece. (His greatest film ever, Sunrise, was made in Hollywood so I'm not counting it here.)

Of the two, Laugh is more intimate, the tale of one humble (yet proud) doorman's downfall into old age and despair. Laugh's dynamic camera work and insistence upon the visual -- it uses a mobile, "untethered" camera style and eschews intertitles -- makes it stand out in the German Expressionist film canon. (Again, you'll have to see Sunrise if you want to see Murnau top himself in this area.)

Then there's Faust, the highest-budgeted Expressionist film Murnau worked on, grandiose in scale and breathtaking in its use of lighting and special effects. Frankly, for its startling imagery alone, and for Emil Jannings' insane performance as Mephisto, Faust might be my tied-for-favorite Murnau film.  In any case, if you want a succinct one-two punch of some of the most provocative, dark, and beautiful German Expressionist cinema ever made, you can hardly go wrong with either of these mid-career Murnau masterpieces.

Mephisto sez: "Watch German Expressionist cinema or I'll incinerate your SOUL!!"

Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) is the one other German Expressionist film -- besides The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and at least one of Murnau's -- that I urge everyone to see. Metropolis is a grand, dystopian adventure story, told on a big canvas with lost of eccentric weirdness to enjoy along the way. All the Dr. Rotwang stuff is great, as is the havoc wreaked by the Maria robot once she's set loose. Metropolis is the ur-text of urban sci-fi / dystopian horror -- pretty much all later science-fiction owes a debt to Lang's epic film. So carve out some time -- Metropolis is long, two hours and thirty three minutes -- and see the damn thing. Hell, we're lucky to even be able to see it in its (mostly) complete form at all.

Sunrise (1927), subtitled "A Song of Two Humans," was made in Hollywood but still rivals (and possibly surpasses) any of the Expressionist masterpieces Murnau made in Germany. Released in the year "silent films reached perfection and then disappeared," Sunrise, according to Roger Ebert, "was not a box-office success, but the industry knew it was looking at a masterpiece." Turner Classic Movies' Bret Wood goes even further, boldly claiming that Sunrise "represents the artistic pinnacle of the cinema as a purely visual medium." In other words, go see Sunrise.

M. (1931) is Lang’s proto-noir masterpiece about a manhunt for a serial killer. The suspenseful, spooky, brilliantly edited and sound-designed M incepts the serial-killer thriller, and is the most obvious Expressionist antecedent to Hitchcock's 1930s work and to film noir in general.

Scarlet Street (1945), a classic Hollywood film noir directed by Lang.

Nosferatu (1979), Werner Herzog’s amazing color and sound remake of Murnau’s original, silent Nosferatu. I highly recommend Herzog's uniquely updated take on the vampire myth, with a freakishly edgy Klaus Kinski playing the title role. (I discuss Herzog's version glancingly here.) 

Orson Welles' Macbeth (1948).

German Expressionist Cinema also inspired Jean Vigo's Poetic Realism, Dreyer, Hitchcock, Welles, and possibly Gordon Willis' low-exposure work on The Godfather. Not to mention Batman's most enduring nemesis, the Joker.

German Expressionist film star Conrad Veidt sez: "I'm the original inspiration for the Joker, Batman fans!"

* Brockmann, A Critical History of German Film (Camden House, 2010) p. 43, 50. Brockmann's introductory overview of Weimar Cinema on pp. 43-57 is essential reading if you are interested in the history of Expressionist cinema.
** Intriguingly, Brockmann also mentions Caligari as example of the cinematic uncanny (p. 65), a subject I will take up at length in a separate, forthcoming post.
*** It dawns on me that I will need to write a whole separate post (or two) on film noir, perhaps in conjunction with Entertainment Weekly's #27 film, The Maltese Falcon (1941).
† Fritz Lang is a key figure here -- the great Expressionist director left Germany for Hollywood after Hitler took power and subsequently made several American noirs including Ministry of Fear (1943) and Scarlet Street (1945). Indeed, Brockmann calls Lang "one of the transmission mechanisms by which German Expressionist sensibilities influenced American film noir" (p. 84).
†† Borde and Chaumeton's 1955 essay is reprinted in Alain Silver and James Ursini's Film Noir Reader (Limelight Editions, 1996) pp. 17-25.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Review: Prometheus (2012)

Here's the verdict: Prometheus rocks!

Writing about Ridley Scott's 2015 film The Martian last December, I commented that
despite its coherence and high entertainment value, I did not actually like The Martian as much as I liked Prometheus, another recent sci-fi thriller by director Ridley Scott. I know many folks dislike Prometheus, finding it anywhere from mildly to exceedingly disappointing, but for me it is a key example of a noble failure: a film that is incoherent in many of its particulars but falls short of the mark because it makes a bold attempt to be something truly distinct and thought-provoking. For all its imperfections -- which mainly boil down to a few erratically motivated characters, a derivative and predictable plot, and some confusing ambiguity about how exactly the black oil works -- Prometheus really sticks with me, and its highs -- like the initial foray into the facility and the automated surgery sequence late in the film -- reach much higher than anything in the much more tame The Martian.
Prometheus' artificial man David (Michael Fassbender) is up to something vile.

Having just re-watched Prometheus for my fourth or fifth time, I swear the movie gets better every time I see it. Sure, there are unanswered questions and some character decisions that feel ill-motivated or at least ill-advised. But particularly given its visual, tonal, and thematic debts to 2001: A Space Odyssey (same opening shot, David's similarity to HAL, the idea of humanity making contact with a vastly superior alien species), I find its somewhat distant, "kept at arm's length" tone to suit the material rather well.

Prometheus' opening shot is quite similar to the first shot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Here AV Club's Tasha Robinson sums up the Alien prequel's strengths: 
From a technical standpoint, Prometheus is an unqualified success. The design is gorgeous, to the point where much of that slow-paced exploration seems designed solely to let the filmmakers show off their accomplishments and their imagination. It’s the first Alien franchise movie to imply that the technology of its future can be beautiful and artistic, not merely worn and weary. And it’s the first in the franchise to work at making humans feel tiny to the point of cosmic insignificance, rather than merely physically fragile.
She concludes that "Until that frantic last act, Prometheus is essentially an abstract remake of Alien for contemplative grown-ups." Indeed, despite some minor differences Prometheus mainly copies Alien's plot, reskinning those familiar structures with awe-inducing visuals and a contemplative, even spiritual tone. As A.O. Scott writes of Prometheus' first half,
the shudders of sublimity only grow more intense as Mr. Scott elegantly lays out a series of overlapping conceits. You might also call them science-fiction clich├ęs, but the amazing thing is that, at least for a while, they don’t feel that way. The visual scheme is sufficiently captivating, and most of the performances are subtle enough that whatever skepticism you may arrive with quickly turns into happy disorientation. The 3-D is unusually graceful — your gaze is absorbed rather than assaulted — and you are pulled into a world of lovely and disconcerting strangeness with plenty of time to puzzle over the behavior of its inhabitants.
Prometheus takes its tonal cues from Alien and, just as importantly, the aforementioned 2001. As Scott observes, in the end "Prometheus kind of spoils itself with twists and reversals that pull the movie away from its lofty, mind-blowing potential." That is, by the third act, Prometheus sacrifices its lofty, 2001-like thematic aspirations for plot-driven, more Alien-like twists and scares.

Yet despite its grander ambitions, Prometheus falls well short of its 1979 counterpart. As Robinson writes, the prequel fails to adequately develop and motivate its non-Shaw, non-David cast members: "for much of the film, the mission rather than the people is the star, which makes it hard to connect emotionally when things fall apart for some of those people." I agree with this. Charlize Theron's Vickers works but is distant and hard to read. (Fassbender's David is also enigmatic and hard to read, but that is as it should be -- he is both an artificial man and duplicitous. Plus Fassbender is so great and is given sufficient screen time in which to fully develop such nuances. Theron gets jack -- maybe only four or five substantive scenes?)

Truthfully, all the Prometheus scientists and crew are under-developed, even Captain Janek, played by extraordinary screen presence and fine actor Idris Elba.* By comparison, the original Alien does an amazing job fleshing out each and every crew member, making their relationships and dialogue feel natural.

Plus, in Alien much of the tension springs from knowing (or not knowing) who exactly is in charge of the vessel Nostromo at any given time. Dallas is in charge until he leaves the ship, then Ripley is supposed to be in charge yet Ash overrides her when he breaks quarantine procedures to allow Kane back on board. Thus, before the alien even shows up, there is conflict, a power struggle. In Prometheus, there is verbal talk about who outranks who -- Peter Weyland's hologram says Dr. Shaw is in charge, then Vickers firmly asserts otherwise -- yet nothing concrete comes of this. Vickers never really challenges Shaw and Holloway nor forbids them from doing anything they want. The one thing she explicitly forbids -- using the surgical pod -- Shaw does anyway.

To be fair, Alien is a remarkable achievement it would be difficult for practically any film to match or replicate. Yet it is Prometheus' curse to forever be compared to its superior predecessor, for obvious reasons.

However, any movie that, like Prometheus, successfully combines the plot of Alien with the tone of 2001 is going to score major points with me, since those are two of my very favorite movies.

Many critics and Alien franchise fans have responded quite negatively to Prometheus, finding its plot ridden with holes and its characterizations flimsy. Forbes' David DiSalvo writes that "the film’s ultimate failure is that there aren’t any real characters to invest in." Ouch! I wouldn't go that far, but I probably represent a minority view.**

In any case, this guy definitely wins the "biggest dipshit in the movie" award.

DiSalvo correctly notes that director Scott is a "gifted world-builder and an excellent shooter" but adds that "the success of his films has always hinged on the quality of his screenwriters." So true! Many folks including Meredith Woerner and J.F. Sargent have penned breakdowns of what controversial, no-ending-having screenwriter Damon Lindelof specifically brought to the project. Lindelof was brought on board to revise an earlier script by Jon Spaihts, and whatever brilliance or flaws the earlier draft may have possessed, we know the final Lindelof screenplay leaves a few strands dangling -- most notably, any hint of what actually motivates the Engineers. Indeed, DiSalvo specifically faults the writing for the film's failings: "in the case of Prometheus, what’s responsible for the vacant barbarism of the aliens is merely the limited imaginations of their authors."

I agree that Prometheus' writing is inconsistent and sometimes illogical from story structure and character motivation points of view. For example, as this piece points out (in item number 5), Holloway's helmet removal moment seems out of character for a scientist, plus it lowers the stakes for the whole "deadly planet" setup. And speaking of the strangely crackpottish Holloway, his choice to get drunk mid-movie, while potentially understandable -- he's suffered a major disappointment, he thinks all the Engineers are dead -- is nevertheless odd. As Woerner points out, in the unfilmed Spaihts screenplay Holloway "doesn't pout and turn into a giant drunk baby."

To me, however, both Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David (Michael Fassbender) are compelling, fully developed characters, which is fortunate since they are the two main drivers of Prometheus' narrative. Shaw and David both wish to make contact with the Engineers, but for very different reasons. Shaw sees the Engineers as creator-gods and wants them to tell her about the origins and meaning of human existence. David starts the film seeking the Engineers mainly on his master's behalf, but by the end it seems that David's curiosity about and connection to the Engineer pilot, and his decision to seek the Engineer homeworld with Shaw, is wholly his own. 

David muses: "Hey, doesn't this same exact thing happen to Ash and Bishop?!"

What I'm saying is that whatever flaws Prometheus possesses, they are not outright deal-breakers. I like this movie very much. I enjoyed it the first time I saw it, and my appreciation for and enjoyment of it grows with each revisit.  

To conclude, as J.F. Sargent opines, "as much as Prometheus sucked (for some people), it’s also pretty clear that the ghost of greatness is lingering just beneath the surface." For me, that greatness is just close enough to the surface to shine through clearly and palpably. I highly recommend Prometheus.

Captain Janek sez: "Come on, guys! We non-white men have got to sacrifice ourselves for the white woman and the Aryan-looking robot!"

* Idris Elba should definitely be the next (post-Daniel Craig) James Bond. Please, cinema gods, let that happen.
** I have, in similar fashion, defended the notorious "flop" blockbuster John Carter (2012), stating that it "will age well, and will be regarded more highly once the hubbub over its big budget and small theatrical returns have died down." I would still call John Carter a good movie but it hasn't been a heavy re-watcher for me: I've only seen it once since I saw it in the theater. By contrast, I have returned to the (much better) Prometheus several times, with increased appreciation for its merits each time. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

EW #88: The Dark Knight (2008)

Eighty-eight is my very favorite number. I love the number eight to begin with, then eighty-eight doubles down on the lovely symmetry and orderly vibe of the numeral 8 while also taking the number eleven, another favorite, as a factor. So of course the universe would conspire to place Christopher Nolan's "serious" blockbuster The Dark Knight, a film about which I have decidedly mixed feelings, at the #88 position on Entertainment Weekly's summer 2013 Top 100 films list. Like the film itself, this coincidence, which surely is the outcome of several happy and unhappy accidents, nevertheless feels laden with portent.

My biggest problem with The Dark Knight is that I am not sure how morally responsible it is to make a superhero blockbuster film that purports to treat its subject "seriously," as if Batman existed in a world "grounded in realism," yet that seems so unthinking in its retrograde endorsement of conservative, pro-War on Terror, pro-vigilante ideologies.* It could be that the film's internally contradictory yet palpably right-wing messages are, as Jonathan Lethem puts it, simply a reflection of post-9/11 America's deep confusion about what or how to think about its own recent history:
In its narrative gaps, its false depths leading nowhere in particular, its bogus grief over stakeless destruction and faked death, “The Dark Knight” echoes a civil discourse strained to helplessness by panic, overreaction and cultivated grievance. No wonder we crave an entertainment like “The Dark Knight,” where every topic we’re unable to quit not-thinking about is whirled into a cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear and, finally, absolving confusion.
I find these observations insightful. I also agree with Lethem that "a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway, chaotic form its ultimate content" -- this rings true.

It's also true that, Batpod chase and Heath Ledger's performance aside, The Dark Knight is not much fun. As I have said before, I am a huge proponent of fun and comedy in blockbuster action movies, so all of Nolan's trilogy misses the mark for me on a fundamental level.

"Waaaahhh! They blew up my World Trade Cent-- I mean, my girlfriend!"

In his review of the recent superhero film Batman vs. Superman, A.O. Scott sums up another facet of the "serious blockbuster" problem:
Intellectual pretension, long an occupational hazard in the superhero business, has been elevated to a creative principle. Christopher Nolan is partly to blame. His “Dark Knight” entries in the Batman saga raised the genre’s allegorical stakes and dialed down the humor to an all-but-imperceptible whisper. Still, Mr. Nolan’s filmmaking skill — above all the coherence of his inky, cruel vision of Gotham City and environs — enabled those movies to carry at least some of their self-assigned thematic weight.
While some (including me) have questioned the coherence of Nolan's vision or at least of his editing and directing skills, I admit that on the level of production design and with respect to the overall look, feel, and tone of the world he evokes, his Batman trilogy is the most effective (if not affective) iteration of a "serious" (or, as Scott calls it, pretentious) superhero saga.* Nolan gets the broad-strokes, big picture stuff right.

In my original introductory post to the EW list, I described The Dark Knight as "as zeitgeist-y as it gets" and "surely culturally significant" but also noted that it is a technically and structurally pedestrian, even sloppy movie. I stand by that assessment. I think the film's two biggest weaknesses -- aside from its right-wing ideology** -- are:

(1) the technical failings, mainly the shittily staged, edited, and filmed fight sequences. I noticed that Nolan doesn't know how to stage satisfying fight scenes back in Batman Begins, where the shooting and editing of Batman's inaugural battle at the docks is completely visually incomprehensible. The weird thing is, Nolan and co. actually got worse at producing these kind of sequences in The Dark Knight. The police convoy sequence has been eviscerated elsewhere by wiser critics than me, but I also nominate the final battle with Batman vs. the Joker and his dogs as being one of the lousiest, hardest to follow "action" sequences I have ever seen. Fuck that shitty sequence, except the part at the very end with the Joker hanging upside down, which is memorable and cool.

When I teach about chaos cinema to college undergraduates, students always ask "Couldn't this chaotic, fast-cutting, close-up-heavy aesthetic be intentional?" and surely it most likely is. The Begins dockside battle may be deliberately shrouding Batman in mystery, taking a subjective or expressionistic approach to the action, purposely never really letting us see him. I am theoretically okay with that, and appreciate it when, say, Kathryn Bigelow uses these subjective, incoherent techniques more sparingly in The Hurt Locker, but it feels out of place and disappointing in The Dark Knight. I want that convoy chase sequence to feel exciting and and look cool, but it's mainly a headache-producing hot mess. I want to see Batman, a superhero known for his martial arts prowess, fight. The climactic Dark Knight interior battle is so badly lit and incoherently staged and edited that I simply cannot tell what's going on at most points during that sequence. I hate that. To me, that's not expressively evocative, that's just bad filmmaking.

(2) the film's lack of pathos or humanity, its lack of emotional resonance. This is director Nolan's biggest Achilles' Heel, one that can be seen across his whole movie career. The Dark Knight tells a (mostly) well-crafted story -- except that inexplicable part when Batman goes out the window after Rachel, leaving the Joker behind in a room full of defenseless rich people, a scene the film never resolves nor explains. Beyond that, the film's deeper ideas are usually interesting, even when, or perhaps especially when, they seem contradictory. For example, the Joker claims to be an agent of chaos and Alfred calls him a man who "just wants to watch the world burn" but in fact his plans are incredibly intricate, precision-timed, and depend upon several amazingly lucky coincidences to boot (such as figuring out the exact route the police convoy would take or, once imprisoned, knowing how to time his two bombs beforehand without knowing when he would be interrogated). Yet these contradictions remain cerebral concepts, stuff other people (like Alfred and Bruce) talk about but don't really emote anything about. The Dark Knight never gets me to feel much of anything about any of these people, except the Joker and possibly Alfred. As Lethem reports of his Dark Knight viewing experience, "after the tide of contradictions had receded behind me I wasn’t stirred to any feeling richer than an exhausted shrug." Same here.

Of course, most every critic, positive or negative, agrees about the excellence of Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker. Ledger's performance stands out so strongly in The Dark Knight not only because he was a world-class actor (see his moving performance in Brokeback Mountain if you don't believe me) fully committing to an interesting and entertaining interpretation of an iconic character. Unfortunately, it also stands out because so little of what happens in this film outside of the Joker carries any real emotional stakes. For example, we're supposed to accept that Bruce/Batman really loves Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), but there's no real passion or romance there, just two characters reading letters in voice-over and insisting they love each other despite their lack of onscreen chemistry. (This was true when Katie Holmes assayed the role of Rachel in Batman Begins, too, though Bale and Holmes seemed to click a little better than Bale and Gyllenhaal do).

Anyway, all that said, if The Dark Knight possesses greatness, it is not only due to Ledger, though he is mainly responsible for making the film watchable. No, director Christopher Nolan deserves credit for committing to a vision for the world and character of Batman and then really delivering on that central premise, albeit at times clunkily. And if nothing else, The Dark Knight looks really good, and the opening bank heist sequence is just terrific, probably the best part of the whole movie.

I should add that I saw The Dark Knight three, maybe four times during its theatrical run in late summer 2008. Part of that is that the film was a major part of the cultural zeitgeist of that summer and fall -- it seemed to me like nearly everyone I knew (who were, admittedly, mainly English graduate students and Dungeons and Dragons nerds) saw and avidly talked about that movie then. It became a touchstone for discussing the meaning of 9/11 and the War on Terror, the fearful ramifications of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Bush Administration's dumbfounding invasion of Iraq, and the lies Bush & co. told to provoke it.

I also saw The Dark Knight that many times because it maddened me, it bedeviled me, it bothered and unnerved me in ways I couldn't quite put my finger on. Despite my repeat viewings, I couldn't really figure out (until I analyzed it from a point of greater critical distance) what the film was actually saying about the War on Terror, the ethics of public surveillance, the role of torture in post-Abu Ghraib America, etc. I was puzzled. As Lethem says, "a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway."

But maybe "morbid incoherence" is an appropriate tone to set for depicting Bush's America in 2008. Maybe in the end I do not object to The Dark Knight going on a list of "Most Culturally Significant" or at least "Most Culturally Revealing" films of all time. But on a "Best" or "Top" 100 films list like EW's? Probably not.

Director Christopher Nolan on the set of The Dark Knight

* In a 2015 interview Nolan explains his Batman concept this way: "you had Superman in 1978, but they never did the sort of 1978 Batman, where you see the origin story, where the world is pretty much the world we live in but there’s this extraordinary figure there, which is what worked so well in Dick Donner’s Superman film." Actually it makes me like Nolan more that he gives props to the 1978 Donner Superman film, still one of the best superhero blockbusters ever.
** That said, don't get me started on the total failed pile of crap that was The Dark Knight Rises (2012). You owe me those two hours and forty five minutes back, Nolan!

UPDATE 3/26/2016: Check out Lee Weston Sabo's brilliant analysis of The Dark Knight Rises, in which he accurately notes that the Nolan Batman trilogy's
lessons in Bush era heroism are apparent: it is all right to lie to the public if it is for their own good (and as long as you feel sort of bad about it later); true heroes are willing to let everyone hate them if it means they do not have to suffer any consequences for their illegal actions; and faking self-sacrifice is as good as actual self-sacrifice, especially when it means you get to be loved as a martyr and live a life of unburdened luxury.
Indeed so! And if you want to read an even more nuts-and-bolts take on what's wrong with Rises, focused primarily on its shitty-assed writing and (lack of) story structure, check out this excellent review.
*** See also my forthcoming post on the sinister ideological meanings of The Dark Knight. The short version: the movie is ultimately pro-War on Terror and pro-fascist.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Alternate Top 100: 12 Angry Men (1957)

A few years ago, in 2011, the Criterion Collection released a new DVD edition of Sidney Lumet's classic 12 Angry Men. During a recent online Criterion Flash Sale, I bought said DVD and, once it arrived, joyfully re-watched this amazing film.

Courtroom dramas hold a special place in the American cinema. One of my college buddies, who went on to become a lawyer, was always particularly obsessed with Inherit the Wind (1960), Stanley Kramer's dramatization of the 1925 Scopes trial. Many folks consider the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) to be one of the best such dramas ever made. Other key entries in this category include Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Judgment at Nuremburg (1961), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), A Few Good Men (1992), and Lumet's own The Verdict (1982) starring Paul Newman.* On the comedy side both Adam's Rib (1949) and My Cousin Vinny (1992) are standout courtroom movies.

For me, the original 12 Angry Men (I haven't seen the 1997 remake) stands as the greatest fiction film about the American legal system of which I am aware. It also stands as one of my favorite movies in any genre. I hereby nominate it for inclusion in my "Alternative Top 100," a list of films meant to be added to or swapped into the Entertainment Weekly Top 100 Films list to correct some of its oversights and errors.**

It's pretty much impossible to go wrong with the talented and consistent Lumet's directorial efforts. Indeed, there are other, later Sidney Lumet movies that are at least as good as 12 Angry Men including The Pawnbroker (1964), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), and The Verdict (1982). But like Duel does for Steven Spielberg and Mean Streets does for Martin Scorsese, 12 Angry Men gives us Lumet at his most stripped-down and lean. The film performs the amazing feat of taking a concept that could be boring and then executing it so brilliantly that it turns out to be a gripping, poignant, all-time masterpiece of the American cinema.

From the outset, Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) stands apart from the others -- that's him at the far right of frame, looking out the window. 

The premise: twelve jurors spend the whole film sequestered in a jury room debating the verdict in a trial the viewer never sees. They stay in that one room and mostly talk. Sounds confining, even dull, yes? It isn't.

For one thing, Lumet and his cinematographer Boris Kaufman frame shots beautifully and keep the camera moving in lots of interesting ways. For example, one of my favorite shots is when one juror unexpectedly changes his vote. The camera tracks along the whole table at a high angle until it finally tilts down for a close-up of the guy who says he's changing sides.

Or there's the long take in which Juror 10 (Ed Begley) is ostracized for making inflammatory, bigoted comments. As he talks, most of the other jurors leave the table one by one and then stand around silently, facing away from him. Lumet and Kaufman shoot the scene mostly in wide shot -- in fact, the camera slowly tracks backward as Juror 10 rants, then tracks back toward the table after he leaves it. Having the crestfallen bigot walk into the foreground while the rest of the jurors stay behind, facing away, makes an extremely powerful visual statement without feeling unnatural in the jury room's confined space. Lumet is a master of staging and blocking.

In fact, Lumet's just flat-out great with actors in general. These jurors mostly just talk and argue with each other, yet the dialogue feels very real and natural and all the key players give compelling, moving performances.

Then there's cinematographer Boris Kaufman, the youngest brother of legendary Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Kaufman not only keeps the camera moving in enlivening ways, but also brings a distinct and provocative visual style to 12 Angry Men.

Let's start with the four-plus minute high-angle long take that backs the opening credits and begins the film proper. The shot is a bravura display of both Lumet's ability to block and pace a wordless sequence, and Kaufman's knack for finding the perfect camera placement, shooting from behind an electric fan at one extreme end of the room.

Furthermore, the close-ups and two-shots in 12 Angry Men are unusual, eschewing what cinematographer John Bailey calls the "compressed perspective" of typical Hollywood cinematography of the 1950s. Using wide-angle lenses for his close-ups, Kaufman deemphasizes the background and makes the foregrounded person's face stand out strikingly. As Bailey puts it quite accurately, in 12 Angry Men Kaufman's close-up work "walks that razor edge between it [on the one hand] being arresting and making you feel very present with the shot and [on the other hand] putting you off." ***

Bailey argues that whereas Lumet came from television and large 3-camera studio setups, former documentarian Kaufman was used to shooting close-up to actors, having shown a penchant for tight close-ups in his work with Jean Vigo in the '30s. Therefore much of the film's visual style may be rightfully attributed to Kaufman's contributions.

Nevertheless it is Lumet's amazing facility with actors and his penchant for liberal political advocacy that are most on display here. 12 Angry Men documents more that just a jury room proceeding -- it is a dramatization of the perilous place of hegemonic white masculinity just before the onset of the 1960s. In the 1957 of the film, the women's liberation movements and civil rights movements haven't yet begun in earnest, but the jurors know that their traditional, patriarchal way of life is being threatened.

For example, when Juror 10 goes on his racist tirade, subsequently to retreat into the foreground all alone, his rambling lines "I mean, what's happening in here? I speak my piece and you . . . listen to me. This kid on trial here, his type -- well, don't you know about them? There's a danger here. These people are dangerous" echo the thoughts of a generation who doesn't yet understand that the times are a-changin'. He genuinely expects everyone else to think as he does, to support him, and he is quietly devastated when he realizes his racist beliefs are not shared by anyone else, not when articulated so bluntly.

The anger the film's title alludes to may be superficially about the length of the jury's deliberations, a missed baseball game, or even the kinds of deep personal secrets that emerge over the course of the film. But the jurors' collective anger is really about their being forced to face a changing world in which people of color, like the defendant whose fate they will decide, must be accepted as their peer in a system which still unduly favors white men. The film is, in sum, about structural racism and classism in the American justice system -- a very timely topic indeed.

Lumet scholar Frank Cunningham calls 12 Angry Men "one of [Lumet's] most thematically rich and cinematically evocative films" and writes of the director more generally that
Lumet's union of cinematic technique with literary and thematic moral meaning precisely defines his directorial significance. Lumet may not always move the camera in ways that call immediate attention to his technique, yet his frame is rarely static but usually full, busy with life's detail and flow. Though the camera work is seldom spectacular, its controlled movement is subtle and filled with the movement of human event.†
Indeed, that is the best way to describe it: Lumet's films feel vibrant and alive and urgent in a way that relatively few films do. There is an intelligence and moral purpose behind them, yet they almost never come off as preachy or pedantic. They are tightly crafted, cleverly scripted, and loaded with tension and pathos. They are, in short, gripping films for thinking adults -- the kind of films Hollywood can and should make more often.

As Cunningham concludes,
Lumet refuses to make films that as a group fall easily into categories. Of course, facile categories and theories make headlines, and so the Godards gain more fame than the Frankenheimers, even though work without such theoretical embellishment may possess the greater excellence.††  
I don't entirely agree with Cunningham's pooh-poohing of Godard -- or, by extension, of other directors whose work is genre-based and/or "theoretically embellished" by which I assume he means more self-reflexive and/or formally experimental. That said, I take his point that many critics and cinephiles lavish more attention and praise upon the work of filmmakers with flashier, more easily detectable directorial flourishes. Ultimately, I am in total accord with Cunningham in wanting to laud the work of directors like Lumet -- ones like William Wyler, Michael Curtiz, and Hal Ashby -- who are more subtle in their filmmaking craft and therefore trickier to pin down.

Al Pacino gives a career-topping performance as Sonny in Lumet's 
electrifying thriller Dog Day Afternoon (1975).

Bonus Afterthought: Cunningham places 12 Angry Men alongside Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), Fail Safe (1964), and The Pawnbroker, calling these Lumet efforts "four of the culture's most distinguished films." (p. 1). I agree with him about Pawnbroker, however, for me, the other Lumet essentials beyond 12 Angry Men also include Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), and The Verdict (1982). Of those, I think Dog Day Afternoon is the single most essential and best -- it is a great thriller, driven forward by incredible performances by Al Pacino and John Cazale.

Lumet films I want to see but haven't include his final film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), and The Fugitive Kind (1960), an overlooked gem starring Marlon Brando discussed at length by John Bailey in the documentary featurette I cited earlier.

Regarding the aforementioned 1997 remake of 12 Angry Men, I've never seen it. It may be very good indeed for all I know. But I seriously doubt it is as technically and dramatically marvelous as Lumet's lean-and-mean rendition.

* Of course in Mr. Smith the title character is a senator, not a lawyer, and the drama takes place on the senate floor, yet the film's structure and the content of its pivotal scenes aligns it with the courtroom drama.
** I am not engaging upon this "Alternative Top 100" project in a particularly methodical or organized fashion. I am not (so far) generating my own alternative list nor am I numbering the entries. I am simply naming some films that I think should be on any legitimate list of this kind. See my second footnote here if you want an idea about which titles I would cut from EW's list to make room for my alternative selections.
*** Bailey's remarks about Kaufman's contributions to 12 Angry Men can be found on Disc Two of the Criterion Collection edition of the film, in a documentary featurette called "On Boris Kaufman." His comments on 12 Angry Men's cinematography start around the twenty minute mark of that feature.
† Cunningham, Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision (Second Ed.) (U. Press of Kentucky, 2001), pp. 109, 119.
†† Cunningham pp. 120-1.