JJ Abrams probably needs to be stopped. He’s managed the Ford production line for the prepackaged cinematic spirit of the times more abominably than any of his fellow new-school blockbuster savants, and like most of them, he’s a genius marketer in a mostly soulless filmmaker’s body. The albatross of his films is also their raison d’ etre: their desperate, unquenchable desire to be answered. He’s turned the Christopher Nolan puzzle-box A-to-B-to-C filmmaking style, distressingly linear and devoid of personality, into a cottage industry, propping up mostly serviceable but unexceptional films devoid of personality with marketing constructs that obfuscate and ossify his products around and within layers of carefully calibrated, ultimately pointless mystery. Continue reading
The Bitter Tea of General Yen
Arguments for Frank Capra as “Capra-corn” are redoubtably rebutted by his first Best Picture winner It Happened One Night, a work of fastidious detail and mercurial flickers of effervescent energy escaping from the pores of a socially constrained world. It is true that Capra predominantly favored individualist visions of human energy remaining untrammeled by the iron boot of society, but his brand of humanism was deceptively collective when it called for it – It Happened One Night is, at heart, a portrait of individual consciousnesses tapping into each others’ radiating energies for joy and refreshment in a dark world. Capra’s great secret was his unmitigated enthusiasm for and formal mastery of the free-floating, incandescent, nervous energy of the individual, a humanist ideal that only in its most reductive views (the views expressed by many of Capra’s later films) would suffocate itself on cloying Americana. Continue reading
Oliver Stone’s cinema is always at its best when it is most explicitly akin to the art form it most closely mimics: propaganda. That’s not a put-down; all cinema is subjective, and while most films strive for the diaphanous lie of objectivity, a live-wire polemical of spitfire bias isn’t something to shun. Objectivity, anyway, is often a pacifying gesture for films without an authorial personality or a humbling vision of their own camera’s perspective – a clinical, balanced approach only squares off the edges of the audience-camera dialectic and hides the essence of all cinema as a perspective, a vision, an embodiment of an idea or a view. Objectivity is nothing more than a cemetery where films without a pulse, without an identity of their own, go to lay their heads down to rest.
Stone’s style isn’t unique, but it is a boldface and brio-filled reflection of a cocaine-addled decade that boldly foregrounds the instability of its own aesthetic, one equal parts Pontecorvo indignation and Peckinpah insolence. Released in the same year as Stone’s career-making in-the-trenches Platoon, the grotto of Salvador is a superior film through and through. While Platoon slightly pacified its deranged anger with baroque visual gestures out of a byzantine opera more than the heart of darkness swamps of Southeast Asia, Salvador keeps things low-to-the-ground. If Platoon was equal parts Aerosmith-grit and Boston-histrionics, Salvador is the snarling Iggy-Pop-fronting-Stooges of war pictures. Continue reading
Jean-Luc Godard, a filmmaker as prone to hyperbole in his own way as our current subject, once intoned on the merits of cinema up to the point of his own game-changing chicanery. Writing that “there was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir)”, he implied a stoppage – a modernization of cinema to its own fully-emerged, blossoming self – with his godfather Nicholas Ray, one of the most brash American filmmakers in existence and a director whose expressionist-tinged monstrosities of American life desperately beg for a rediscovery today. Continue reading
Filmmaking maverick Hal Ashby was an elder statesman of the New Wave, more akin to the literary largesse-and-trepidation cocktails of Robert Altman than the fiery brimstone of the younger hooligans of the era weened on Godard and his fellow travelers. Martin Scorsese he was not, but he did stake out his own claim as a chronicler of the decade that quietly fell in love with him, at least for a film here or there. Although none of his features would meet the vociferous acclaim of his debut work Harold and Maude, Ashby would evolve as a journeyman filmmaker whose comic visions of life belied their exploration of the just-past-due, still lingering, now haunted fantasia that was the death spasm of the 1960s.
Indeed, Ashby’s films were among the first to grapple explicitly with the faded fallout of an era that a few years before hand whispered its own eternal existence to the believers of its mantra. In 1971, Harold and Maude winsomely lamented the passing of an era while wishfully ensnaring midnight audiences in a vision of angelic, optimistic psychedelia fighting against the dying of the light. Flawed and overly programmatic, Ashby’s debut nonetheless escapes its own awkwardness by the jejune skin of its romantic teeth. Continue reading
Carl Dreyer’s unerring spiritualism hangs over Ordet like a ghostly pallor, but it does not – as many critics fail to realize – define the film’s essence, at least insofar as the ascetic way many scholars interpret the word “spiritual”. Much like Tarkovsky, who arguably took over the reigns for Dreyer as he was exiting the world himself, Dreyer’s spiritualism was not a nebulous, free-floating nexus of dogma and soul-searching but a physical, tangible expression of living, being, and breathing. Thus, while so many scholars reduce Dreyer to his otherworldly austerity, they fail to glimpse the glimmers and flickers of confrontational, even primal human emotion and active experience radiating within, out of, and beyond the cramped walls of his human locals. Continue reading
In her underutilized essay “Against Interpretation”, Susan Sontag serves up a paean to experiential, perceptual art for its own sake, denouncing the sausage-making fest of cinematic interpretation, and implicitly the governing body of most film theory, in the process. Poison pen in hand, she writes “in most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.” In another life, the films of the Vietnam War might have been her primary target, and they are also in the sights of writer-director Oliver Stone with his 1986 cinematic reckoning act Platoon. Continue reading
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, often considered the apotheosis of mid-’70s social conscience filmmaking, is never less than a successfully biting and acidic hot-box of social discontent measured in a battle-ground of tone that veers within single scenes from malarial ennui to self-righteous anger to social carnival mania. Milos Forman’s film suffers more in relatives than absolutes, however. Successful though it may be, it arrived in a decade of thick-on-the-ground masterpieces of both more vociferous filmic invention and more studied social insight. Even eschewing many of the other “greatest hits” efforts from the decade, Cuckoo’s Next achieves nothing not advanced with more success by a clutch of “deep cuts” – the thorny Jack Nicholson vehicle Five Easy Pieces, the stunning Elaine May grotto Mikey and Nicky, a half-dozen underappreciated Robert Altman films people flip over when championing the merits of MASH. Continue reading
The passing of ace cinematographer Haskell Wexler earlier in 2016 reminds one that the most notable visuals in a film are not always those which buttress already stellar offerings, but those which almost singlehandedly lift entombed, waxy screenplays up from the dregs in the first place. Case in point, his influential, remarkably punchy, wonderfully filthy work enlivening In the Heat of the Night, where he saves a film from an enervating screenplay precisely by suggesting enervating Southern oppression in the way a parade of declamatory verbiage never could.
Now, Wexler’s cinematography doesn’t quite elucidate the stuffy, hotheaded Southern summer the diegesis suggests, but the noirish grotto of the film’s mise-en-scene creates a satisfyingly pungent texture unmoored from the stultifying cleanliness of most earlier ’60s films from the Hollywood machine. In the Heat of the Night’s progenitors are thankfully not the programmatic, squeaky-clean message pictures of old, circa Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement. Wexler borrows instead from the more grisly, cinema verite style that would flower in the early ’70s. It lends the otherwise dreary, preprogrammed screenplay an air of sinewy, Southern dread and pre-’70s malarial ennui that cuts through the message movie politics with vituperative veracity and a scathing instability that mimics black Philadelphia Detective Virgil Tibbs’ (Sidney Poitier) discomfiting unease in the time-warped Southern white cotton fields and the even more pallid, fleshy, pudgy white men who domineer over them. Continue reading
The icy death grip of the classical Hollywood era was not unapparent to the producers of the late 1950s, when worldly art cinema and the more pulpy, vigorous American independents were all the rage and rising like a tide of acid-water ready to wash away the nostalgia and romance of the classical Hollywood way. Much like the inflection point of the late ’70s, when the New Hollywood breathed its last gasps and curdled into the more audience-friendly realms of ’80s entertainment, the producers of the late ’50s and early ’60s reacted the only way they knew how: doubling down on the moment, creating films of sensual pleasures that could bowel over any formal concerns about filmmaking. Continue reading