Under the Skin

April 16, 2014

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Despite a very, very limited feature film career (three, actually, with the last one being 10 years ago), Jonathan Glazer can comfortably consider himself the most self-consciously Kubrickian auteur working today.  It’s not an easy style to go after, obviously, and it speaks to his talents that on the basis of, really, two films (Under the Skin and Birth, though I haven’t seen it since it came out I feel Sexy Beast is memorable for a performance rather than visuals) that this quality can be considered a positive rather than an affront.  It’s all the more impressive when you consider the tonal consistency of Under the Skin considering it’s essentially three different films cut into halves.  Read the rest of this entry »

Vulgar Auteurism

June 11, 2013

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As a Johnny-Come-Lately to such things, I thought I would weigh in on The Great Vulgar Auteurism Debate of 2013, which has blown up in recent weeks amongst cinephiles on social media and across the film blogging world, where everything has probably already been said on the subject.  This blow up was as inevitable as World War I, and as the Young Ottomans posted about the Resident Evil franchise, the Empires were bound to clash.  To extend the shaky metaphor, Calum Marsh’s piece in the Village Voice was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, and since then all hell has broken loose, just as long as we define “hell” as a few vicious subtweets, a pretty harsh article by Nick Pinkerton, and a number of even-handed, thoughtful comments and blog posts, not the least of which are from Peter Labuza and Girish Shambu.  This is, however, a problem of terminology more than anything, and though I shan’t redress that particular issue (as Will Young once titled a song, “Who Am I?”), I’d like to explain my thoughts.  Read the rest of this entry »

Please note that this post contains spoilers for Mad Men through Season 5, Episode 6, Girls Season 1, Episode 2, and Game of Thrones Season 2, Episode 4.

As someone who realizes that he has absolutely no place in writing about the topics of Feminism (I’m a male), Diversity (I’m white), or Privilege (I’m firmly middle class, despite what my bank account over the last 4 years might indicate), I know I shouldn’t weigh in on these topics, especially when there is a plethora of great (along with terrible) writing on these subjects by people who write for a living and have studied the issues for a very long time.  Regardless, I’m shouting down my better angels because these topics have, in some way or another, reached a fever pitch over the last few weeks due largely to the premiere of HBO’s Girls, which has seemed to – in one way or another – brought up some long-percolating discussions about Game of Thrones and AMC’s Mad Men.  I am not going to name the authors or commenters, as I have no interest in turning this into the opening salvo of a flame-war lob (like anybody will read it anyway, right?), nor do I think it’s particularly nice to call people out for annoying me, especially when their hearts tend to be in the right place.  Instead, I’d like to write a little more broadly about the approach certain people take to these programs, because I think there’s a disconnect between “what I think they should do” and “what the creators want to do”.  Now, I don’t mean to be hard on anyone because I want to defend shows I like, though certainly the enjoyment and intellectual engagement with the material creates some degree of bias.  Really, I find it irksome because I think that writers who look at popular media through the lens of feminism, race, and/or socio-economic circumstances are perhaps the most practically important set of cultural critics around.  It is absolutely no secret that Hollywood and American Television are overwhelmingly the domains of white, privileged males, and though I hasten to point out that those circumstances do not mean they cannot produce great, relevant art, but it also doesn’t encourage balance, especially when the output of most of them is so anemic and pandering.  There’s a half-truth about target markets and what sells – for instance, films starring black actors turns off white viewers who think it isn’t geared towards them, or that films that appeal to women won’t appeal to men as well – which have gone a long way in financially justifying and, thus, perpetuating the sexist, classist, and racist practices in the studios.  All of this is why I think it’s even more crucial for these cultural critics to get it right, especially when becoming too po-faced or vehemently anti-everything is a huge turn off to average readers and viewers, who are already half-wanting to write off this segment as crackpot “feminazi, anti-white, socialists” (a little extreme, but you get the idea).  Because of the relatively niche markets of the shows I’m discussing here, and the different financial models in which their respective networks operate, I should really spend time factoring those considerations in, but as this is an impromptu rant brought about by too much time on the internet as opposed to a long-gestating, extensively researched essay, I’m not going to give that element the time it deserves.

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It seems that every year since the rise of the blogosphere, without fail, there are innumerable articles, posts, comments, and diatribes about how the Oscars don’t matter and the serious film lover/critic doesn’t care a jot about whom upon the philistine Academy deigns to bestow its golden statue of approval. These same people still watch, or at least pay attention, to the show and often write predictions and boo-hoo over the disappointing outcome. I think they’re right to not care and they’re right to pay attention, because I personally see it as both self-congratulatory nonsense that only occasionally celebrates anything truly great and as an important (to the film world) cultural touchstone. Rarely in its history has the Best Picture winner been the best picture of its given year, but we’ve all accepted that. My cynicism tells me that the most we can hope for is that it is at least a good film, and one that we can satisfactorily call “deserving”. My cynicism is wrong, though, because when I look at the best picture list from this year and last year I see not only some very good films, but a couple of the absolute best pictures of the year. The strange side-effect of expanding the category to ten nominations instead of five – a move designed to allow the inclusion of more popular fare to get the plebs interested – is that it has allowed the inclusion of some really great stuff. A Serious Man was among the top two or three films of its year, and though you’d never expect a small (granted, Coen bros.) movie featuring an unknown lead in a tale of co(s)mic farce in a tight-nit Jewish community to be recognized with a Best Picture nomination, there it was. It never had a chance in hell of winning, but its inclusion made for a much more…credible?…category than the year previous where the decidedly mediocre Slumdog Millionaire was the best of the bunch.
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“I don’t want you to be the guy in the PG-13 movie everyone’s *really* hoping makes it happen. I want you to be like the guy in the rated R movie, you know, the guy you’re not sure whether or not you like yet.”

–       Trent (Vince Vaughn) in Swingers

I am aware of how bad it seems to start anything off with a quote, but it is relevant to the conversation.  It’s an amusing line, but it seems predicated on some long lost notion of the R rating giving an adult edge to a film, especially such a fluffy, fantastical genre as the romantic comedy.  The hope is that without the restrictions of a PG-13 rating, a film might be more willing to deal with adult views, particularly on sex (which can be mentioned more freely) and its relation to love.  The two films considered here are rated R, but they make no attempt to deal with their subject on any level that can even remotely be considered ‘mature’.

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Antichrist

August 11, 2009

Beware:  Spoilers Abound

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I’m not sure how useful it is to try to determine the ‘point’ of every film, assuming films have a point at all.  The purpose of most films is, on the most basic level at least, to entertain.  It does not follow that every film’s purpose is to entertain, of course, but one would hope those films have a point to make by not being entertaining.  For a certain type of filmgoer, attempting to decipher said ‘point’ can often be as entertaining as the film isn’t, even if the process ends in tears and confusion.  Lars von Trier is a director whose name is well known amongst those types of filmgoers, and with good reason.  His films almost always garner controversy, whether it is due to the perceived politics on show or the acts he’s chosen to depict on screen.  As a teenager I was a fan of Breaking the Waves, and the Dogme 95 movement he started in the years after was a rich and exciting concept (filming techniques designed to bring out authenticity).  By Dancer in the Dark, however, I was beginning to question not only the man but also the reverence I held for his previous work.  His two films about America, Dogville and Manderlay solidified my dislike for Von Trier.  Lifting the set design (or lack thereof) of the play Our Town to create savage fables about the country’s attitude towards foreigners and minorities respectively, he made two horribly indulgent polemics that shed absolutely no light on the issues he chose to explore, instead electing to shock us into his way of thinking with gang-rapes and slavery.  There were complexities there, and interesting ideas, but they were always undone by both his heavy-handed approach and his overridingly simplistic viewpoint.

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As a completely scattered, off-the-top-of-my-head, and totally unresearched thought, I’m wondering if my abiding affection for rom-coms stems less from their idealized representation of the love-conquers-all world, or their generally light, comforting formulaic model, but rather the feeling that they’re the last holdover from a bygone Hollywood era.  They are produced and function like films from the days of old – assembly line, workmanlike, same but a little different…  Musicals are few and far between, the action genre has become a series of overblown blockbuster tentpole events, and melodramas have been largely relegated to telefilms or Oscar bait (take a bow, Crash).  The rom-com seems to be the most sustainable business model of the industry.  Fairly cheap to produce, driven by the Star System like no other genre, and a built-in audience (women, of course) that tends to be ignored by the studios who believe young men is where the money lies (though, in recent years, the thinking is finally starting to catch up with reality).  Dependable escapism is the order of the day, and the sheer simplicity of the pleasure is probably why I get more enthusiastic than I probably should for these films.  All that really means nothing when it comes to The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which on its own is in no way special or interesting.  In fact, most of it is flat-out bad.  But while it is most certainly not the film to spark off any discussion whatsoever on an entire genre, it does nicely establish a general middle area of quality expectation.  Far from the best, it is also not the worst of its kind.  It isn’t the breakout box office success of a Devil Wears Prada nor does it have the relentless charm of a Never Been Kissed, but it isn’t as completely unwatchable as Made of Honor.   Read the rest of this entry »