Charlie Chaplin was one of Hollywood’s earliest and largest stars, a filmmaking polymath who performed, directed, composed, produced, and wrote all of his films, a one-man brand who in Modern Times subjects himself to a possibly fatal question: whether he can escape being branded by the hot iron of capital. A British socialist who grew increasingly frustrated with American capitalism and Hollywood business practices throughout his career, he eventually left Hollywood and returned to his native England. Like many silent filmmakers, many of his earlier films explore questions of new technology and skeptically arouse the possibilities of modernization, thinking-through the relationship between new technological forms – both industrial and cinematic – and asking how one navigates modernity. Of course, many of his anxieties about industrial technology were also motivated by his own issues and frustrations with the rapidly growing Hollywood industry, exposing parallels between industry on-screen and industry in Hollywood that seem more prevalent in Modern Times than in any Chaplin film before or since. This is the film in which the personal will displayed in The Kid – where his Tramp character strategically manipulated capitalist products for new purposes with his mental ingenuity – seems to have been finally overpowered by capitalism’s singular ability to manipulate his body as the ultimate tool to its own ends.
Chaplin’s most famous character – the Tramp – was easily identifiable to most Americans, brandishing his top-hat and cane and what would be called the Chaplin mustache. The style of his earlier films tended to emphasize the homeless Tramp as an unmoored figure who had no place in society and had to creatively adapt to survive, refashioning everyday objects from their normal purposes in the swirling, fluctuating world of modern capitalism where, as Karl Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air”. His most famous silent comic rival Buster Keaton tended to fashion his films as linear trajectories, placing his character on train-tracks, moving forward on the way to modernity – locomotives shooting into a technological future – depicting characters who struggled to control these modern-day technologies. Keaton fashioned comic parodies of success narratives in the American tradition, mocking the idea of individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Chaplin’s Tramp, comparatively, has no bootstraps, and as an iconic vision of working-class resourcefulness, did not traverse space linearly or pull himself up; his comic movement was much more unstable, much more slippery, much more uncertain. He fashions capitalism as something which requires comic creativity to survive. This is why Chaplin’s definitive visual symbol is the circle, his characters frequently forced to run around and around with no end, suggesting that capitalism was not a pathway toward future opportunity but a centrifugal and chaotic uncertainty. Continue reading
Green Book is almost refreshingly tone-deaf in its mid-century liberalism. Which, apparently, is still late 2010s liberalism, if writers Peter Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga (son of the protagonist) have anything to say about it. And, if for no other reason than to remind us that this variant of faux-egalitarian genteel liberal cinema undetained by questions of power and politics still exists this deep into the 21st century, I suppose I have to thank Green Book for taking my breath away. With Moonlight, Sorry to Bother You, and Us, I’d hoped we’d moved on. But here I am about to claim anything especially positive about late ‘10s American cinema on the subject of race, and Green Book has kindly arrived to keep me on my guard. Would that the film had any interest in exploring what its African-American deuteragonist has to do to keep himself on guard.
Instead of what it does do, which is – to the surprise of no one – subsume Shirley’s personal and physical crises to the role of a reflective mirror for a white protagonist. The two characters I write of are classical pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali), about to depart for a two-month concert trip through the Jim Crow South in roughly November and December of 1962, and Italian-American (the film is very interested in us knowing that he is Italian-American) working-stiff Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), hired to serve as Dr. Shirley’s chauffer and all-purpose bodyguard. The conceit of the narrative, then, rests on our awareness that a black man in the South in the ‘60s will, as Tony informs us, cause “trouble”. But that trouble is more important for us, meaning white America, than for Shirley, at least in the film’s mind. The film’s perspective is almost exclusively hewn to Tony’s, the script exhibiting a clear favoritism for his moral awakening compared with Shirley’s plight, let alone the collective suffering of African-Americans in the South (or North), all of whom are meaningful in the film only as background.
As – to be honest – is Tony. While I’ve already made the obvious point – that Shirley only exists in this film to validate Tony’s crisis of conscience – the truth is that Green Book has an almost exclusively functionalist relationship to all of its characters (but especially Shirley). It treats them each as a collection of qualities and features that never come into play except in moments where the plot finds them instrumental or where they can be expressly thematized. Thus, Dr. Shirley’s homosexuality is “useful” for the film in one scene, and briefly in a second, and evaporated from the film’s conscious at all other times. And to any dubious claims that this serves some sort of “humanist” purpose – to ask us not to over-emphasize any identitarian features in order to treat Donald as a “person” first and foremost (rather than a black person, a gay person, etc) – the film submits not one ounce of stray human energy to suggest that it actually ever cares about these characters as people in the first place. No internal desires or personal uncertainties seep out of the tight confines of film narrative. There’s no room for any personal excess – for the characters to exhibit traits or features which the film doesn’t know what to do with, which it can’t immediately schematize and instrumentalize toward a kind of dialectic synthesis designed to harmonize the two main characters into a friendship. (The film does, admittedly, make the somewhat bold decision to give Tony a character trait that I don’t know what to do with, namely that he is the type of person who enjoys folding an entire pizza in half and eating it at once). Continue reading
After the sturdy filmmaking economy of Hotel Artemis, it’s rather depressing to witness the belabored post-modernism and needlessly hip temporal machinations of Bad Times at the El Royale, not the worst kind of cinematic “cunning,” but close to it. Finally returning after directing Cabin in the Woods – and his mostly indifferent, mildly pleasurable screenplay for The Martian – Drew Goddard’s Bad Times is a vital compendium of many of the worst tendencies of mainstream “intellectual” storytelling. Goddard’s screenplay traverses an astonishingly circuitous route toward a largely banal resolution, superficially name-checking a variety of late ‘60s thematic signifiers – racism, classism, post-hippie fallout, cultish masculinity, the miasma of the oncoming ‘70s, a zeitgeist-y inability to trust in leaders – tepidly and arbitrarily. It expends all of its energy quite overtly ticking boxes on the path toward a moral parable that, at best, has little to do with any of the above, and at worst, actively avoids them to get from point A to point B, pulling themes out of a hat and getting bitten by the rabbit when the carrot at the end of the stick turns out to be a phony. Continue reading
The directorial debut of Iron Man 3 co-writer Drew Pearce, Hotel Artemis displays all of the style of that earlier film’s director Shane Black, and none of his sometimes cloying cleverness. Hotel Artemis is a blessedly simple, brutally elegant creature, a cinematic bottle-episode in the life of The Nurse (Jodie Foster), an elderly woman who’s clearly seen far too much in her life to exhibit anything more than pragmatic indifference about anything that comes her way. A temperature which is true of the film’s titular location, and, by way of approximation, the film itself. Written and directed by Pearce with a sense of suggestion and screenwriting economy unheard of for a summer genre film in the era of 2 ½ blockbusters, this is an abnormally – dare I say heroically? – straightforward production.
And a defiantly un-visionary one, exclusively dedicated to workaday problems and everyday struggles in the lives of criminals in Los Angeles, only ever-so-slightly refracted by a “15 minutes into the future” aesthetic that is much more thoughtfully quotidian and less obnoxiously conceptual than Black Mirror. Hotel Artemis introduces us to two career criminals, brothers played by Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry, the latter of whom is shot, prompting both to go to the titular Hotel, a kind of no-questions-asked medical bay for criminals who have memberships. Run by Foster’s Nurse and her towering assistant Everest, played by Dave Bautista as a tragic-comic fanatic who worships the hotel’s rules with a devotional fervor, the Hotel admits the brothers, but they are far from the only visitors that night Continue reading
The protagonists of the 2018 version of the oft-adapted A Star is Born may be the rugged, ragged country singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and the younger rising pop star Ally (Lady Gaga). But the film’s voice undeniably belongs to another character, Jackson’s older half-brother, played with a typically phenomenal mixture of world weary cynicism and weathered wit by Sam Elliot. Essentially the film’s viewpoint, Elliot’s character rebukes criticisms about its remake status by explicitly and perhaps charitably thematizing the value of playing within formulas and dusting off older routines in an early line of dialogue. As if the film is commenting on itself, this travelling soul seems to know, more than his younger brother who still believes in a more singular notion of originality, that there are limits to self-fashioning, and that all selves are cobbled together piecemeal out of influences far and wide. Elliot’s itinerant would-be cowboy reiterates what prior American wanderers Whitman and Emerson understood as the tragic possibility of realizing that you live in a world where all you can truly do is quote creatively.
Elliot’s character thus not only provides Cooper his voice but gifts his movie its thesis, not to mention its point of view. And, of course, its mildly self-congratulatory excuse as well, the film’s way of avoiding the challenge of more overt experimentation while committing to the belief that all experimentation is itself a similar form of play within existing structures. Of course, the film is correct in suggesting that creativity really is just skillful reconsideration of forebears. But that doesn’t necessarily let the film off the hook for, well, not doing much in the way of genuine reconsideration.
Elliot’s voice is the film’s in a second sense as well: Cooper’s protagonist sounds like Sam Elliot looks, and the gravelly hoarseness of both performances is also part of its relative fascination, as well as its thematic commentary. Another line of dialogue seems to acknowledge that Cooper’s character chose to model his voice off of Elliot to achieve some simulacrum of “authenticity,” suggesting that Maine’s swaggering machismo is a performance, a kind of costume meant to articulate an American creed. The film suggests that no one is really born a rambling man; through a combination of social circumstance and personal will, they become one, even at the expense of other, perhaps more humane and generous, versions of self. Continue reading
Perhaps the most consistently banalized of all prestige genres, the “Oscarbait biopic” has recently emerged as an idiom for self-complicating narrative cinema. But the Oscarbait biopic can take many forms. For name-conscious auteurs seeking to problematize the individualist Oscarbait formula, with its focus on personal growth and salvation at the expense of wider social or material realities, this kind of film typically allows filmmakers to produce popularly legible dramas while paying attention (and often, frankly, lip service) to social issues. For other, often more artistically inspired filmmakers who frequently nonetheless run the risk of drowning in their personal myopic, biopics tend to center characters who are facsimiles for the creators of the films themselves. It was impossible to miss director Damien Chazelle in the main character of the decidedly agitated Whiplash or in either of the protagonists of La La Land. Neither film had any itch to explore a world outside the nearly hermetic glory of personal creation, each suggesting a kind of laudable final artistic transcendence that, in the first case, might mean the loss of a character’s soul, and in the second, the loss of a companion.
First Man’s Neil Armstrong, in contrast, is essayed as a kind of blank canvas and evacuated man by Ryan Gosling. He also, I suspect, really isn’t meant to be Neil Armstrong. I’m not sure how much Chazelle sees of himself in Armstrong, but it doesn’t really matter. Although this new film misses some opportunities, and its central character’s steadfast determination and essential dismissal of anything resembling a personal life may be read as further proxies for Chazelle, it is testament to First Man – indeed, it may be why the film is meaningful at all – that it is the first of this director’s films where the protagonist isn’t a myopic recreation of personal psychology so much as a Rosetta Stone for a culture, a time-period, and an ethos. And, at times beautifully, for the film’s own self-conscious limits in exploring that time-period. Continue reading
Far be it from me to dictate the direction of writer-director David Gordon Green’s artistic career, but if you had told me circa 2000 that the hot young thing in the American independent scene, brandishing an aesthetic equal parts Malickian-impressionism and Cassavetean-pragmatism, would, in less than two decades, be shepherding forth a 21st century model of the series that spawned the slasher sub-genre…well, I would have asked who David Gordon Green was. I would also have been 8, so I might not have been the ideal audience for any of David Gordon Green’s films, except maybe Pineapple Express (which itself capably mobilized Green’s leisurely, slow-drip, transcendental filmmaking sensibilities toward a very different kind of transcendental human experience).
In the last decade, however, determining whether Green has taken his projects out of a desire to test himself, out of a genuinely idiosyncratic directorial sense, or simply because he had too much pineapple express, has become something of a cinephile ritual every time he releases a new film. Recently, in 2017’s Stronger, he settled into a more conventional version of the low-and-slow dramas which birthed his career and, in 2015’s Our Brand is Crisis, attempted an uneasy, intermittent triangulation of those earlier films with the strange, side-trip pot comedies he so famously stumbled into at the end of his first decade as a filmmaker. Those two recent films are perhaps Green’s safest films yet: far from the sublime, scrappy elegance of his early ‘00s films but certainly hemmed in from the truly despicable lows of, say, 2011’s awful Your Highness. One might have assumed Green had settled into sturdy, indifferent middle-age, cinema as his day-job, not his life-calling. Continue reading