Decades into Woody Allen’s mirror maze career of inward-looking, self-reflecting gazes and upper-class first-world problems, a “new” thesis from this particular director whose only theater is his own mind is not exactly a prospect anyone is likely to expect any time soon. That Allen only ever repeats himself is, at this point, of less concern than whether his variations on old themes are inspired on their own terms. Without exactly spoiling anything, Café Society is the platonic ideal of Allen hovering around in his middle-brow, middle-tier. Café Society is more or less how you contextualize it, a prism for refracting one’s personal tolerance for the octogenarian who has canonized himself almost as many times as years he’s lived. A slight, pleasurable uptick in his continued slide into irrelevance? Another totem to his conceited brand of self-loathing self-aggrandizement that long ago lost its luster or rabid-dog intelligence? Café Society is all of the above and not much else. Which is to say: your mileage may vary. Continue reading
Update 2018: JFK is such a wonderfully misunderstood film, and one that opens itself up so heroically to criticism. For instance, it would fit so well into Frederic Jameson’s analysis of post-modernism as the cultural logic of capitalism, where any semblance of truth, social fixity, or totalizing connection between layers of society is totally unmoored, leading to a dangerous relativism that occludes how capitalism reinforces its own social structures. In this criticism, post-modernism dreams a liberation from the social structures that bind us, a dream that dangerously inclines toward individualistic narratives where we all control our own futures, where no social structures confine us, where truth doesn’t constrain our options and is simply a ruse. The form of relativism JFK traffics in – nothing is true or fixed, everything is a lie, etc – veers toward a vision of uncertainty that would probably veer for Jameson toward hiding, rather than revealing, how capital and the oppression caused by capital is the truth which creates and limits possibility, which master-hands reality, which decides who wins and who loses, etc.
It’s easy to disown JFK along these lines. Except that JFK’s abiding well of skepticism for classical guarantees of legitimate truth are heavily tied to both its conscious critique of capitalism’s manipulation of fact and its visual and aural explosion of the capitalistic technologies and visual regimes – tv, film, media – which technologically and stylistically embody modernity and construct reality. Perhaps this makes it more of a modernist film – aware of social totality but skeptical of our ability to visualize it – than a post-modern destruction of any true social totality. But there’s something so conniving and devious about Stone’s vision that it seems to simply decompose the distinction between modernism and post-modernism altogether, as though suggesting that one can argue that truth exists and that truth doesn’t exist and that this is no contradiction. Or that it is a contradiction, and that the best films, Stone’s or otherwise, live within contradiction rather than beyond them.
Frederic Jamerson’s classic analysis of the “conspiracy” aesthetic also applies to JFK, at least on the surface – it’s easily one of the most infamous and infamously perturbed conspiracy films of its decade. Conspiracy stories fail, of course, for Jameson, because oppression isn’t a conspiracy masterminded by a select few autonomous higher-ups conscious of all their actions but a much knottier, more tangled social fabric. Media which can only imagine a conspiracy controlling us visualize the forms of oppression which shape society but can’t surpass the limited view that there are a handful of individuals to “blame” for this oppression.
Nominally, JFK also falls prey to this critique, but its relativistic mise-en-scene, heterogeneous, fragmented audio, and impossible sense of perspective all suggest, at a formal level, something far more perplexed, garbled, and impossible to pigeon-hole than the conspiracy that opiated-masterpiece Kevin Costner’s character divines out of his rattled brain. Playing with its own reality as much as ours, the film offers no incontestable position of mastery over its narrative environs, and it never treats its story as one inarguable truth replacing the one we thought we knew. It does not simply “give us” a conspiracy to explain the JFK assassination; rather, it effuses a skeptical energy, cultivates an inquisitive tendency, handing us a piecemeal truth that the form of the film is already actively questioning and contesting as it is being given to us. It asks us to question its own pessimistic conspiracy as much as we are meant to question the prior optimism of mid-century Americana that the JFK assassination itself dissolved into the ether. Antsy to the bone, Stone’s film seems to be wriggling away from us as it is being composed in the first place.
Twenty-five years later and it would take a flotilla of steamrollers to drive over the knotty indiscretions and lapses in logic that stitch (or don’t) Oliver Stone’s JFK into an argument, leading to the common critique of this much-maligned film that it accomplishes nothing so much as a conspiracy nut’s wet-dream power-point about the JFK assassination. That argument is airtight but misdirected, laboring under the assumption that film should only bear witness and testimony to reality, especially historical reality. As most pro-JFK critics have retorted, this is the part where I would say “it’s only a movie” and wipe the slate clean to judge Stone’s film as mere fiction, thus neutralizing the question of whether it is history in the first place, of what actually happened, and of the film’s relationship to historical investigation. Continue reading
A little old-timey cartoon before a feature for you all.
This irascible little Disney wartime devil is almost absurdly superior to that most fell semi-remake by the same company in 2005 (their first, and by far worst, CG feature film). Recasting the ignorance of youthful Chicken Little as the conscious social disruption of a fox who utilizes propaganda to convince everyone that the sky is falling, Chicken Little is a scabrous wartime cartoon about the dangers of Nazi (and Communist) propaganda that, implicitly, critiques its own vessel. The fox eventually sending all the none-the-wiser chickens to a cave (a bomb shelter, basically), all the better to eat them with, the film explores its own construction. With an inter-title at one point informing us that everything ends up okay in the end, the film concludes by pausing itself for a second to critique its own ending, with the narrator wondering aloud how the prior inter-title could lie to us; the Fox – mordantly laying chicken bones in graves like tombstones – informs the narrator and us not to believe everything we read. Continue reading
Defanging the shroud of mystical primitivism cast over African-Americans while also recasting black America as the spiritual center of American modernity, The Negro Soldier is simultaneously mildly hat-tip-able and deeply troubling in its propagandistic ideological concoction of egalitarian American opportunity for even the darkest and most neglected among us. Of the Frank Capra school of not-untroubled but always plausible American possibility, The Negro Soldier is one of the more documented “Why We Fight”-adjacent films even seventy years later, and also among the more inescapably despicable in its morally compromising sanding-over of racially-fraught American history in the name of the kind of hermetically-sealed war-time inclusiveness that only exists … well, it only exist in the motion pictures, as they say. This is the American road to freedom, with no pothole large or oppressive enough for Capra not to blanket over in warmth and saccharine sweetness (of course, a blanket isn’t going to stop you from falling into the American nightmare of racism if you get a little too close to reality for Capra’s comfort). One wonders what hell the devil John Huston would have wrought for one of his wartime propaganda films… Continue reading
Rough-hewn and reticent, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special might inspire expected memories of Steven Spielberg’s and John Carpenter’s late ‘70s, early ‘80s science fiction films, but only if they were caught on the branches of a David Gordon Green feature. Evoking rustic pastoralism and never erring from Nichols’ customary Southern expanses, the feints toward the supernatural hardly suggest genre sell-out for a director who continues to mutate and evolve his perennial cinematic acts of high-tailing from urban (and suburban) civilization. Exploring the out-of-the-way places Nichols calls home, Midnight Special’s variant of “alien civilization” isn’t found in outer-space or the far-flung future but right in American backyards. If you know where you’re looking of course, and, say what you will about Nichols, but he not only knows the spots, but he’s got an eye on him. Continue reading
Deeply, unremittingly accepting John Huston’s blithely woozy, boozed-out vibe in full flourish, the strung-out, rampaging The Night of the Iguana is probably a little farcical in its over-heatedness. But then, this is Tennessee Williams. At least we’re in the presence of a full-throated, deviant, near-hallucinogenic dive into haughty, drunken melodrama, much more synonymous with the post-Faulkner Southern-modernist Williams spirit than most other Williams adaptations, usually quasi-heated chamber pieces vaguely tied to false-naturalism. In comparison, Iguana is unapologetic and viciously lacking in timidity, rejecting the half-hearted naturalistic ticks of most Williams adaptations for a merry expression of demented, licentious, sinful goodwill. Unlike, say, the good but overrated A Streetcar Named Desire, where the Method acting bug (as it often did) turned performance into a calculated private experiment rather than a vocally external art, The Night of the Iguana isn’t afraid to be to-the-rafters cinema. Baldly, even oppressively cinematic, it treats the brambles of melodrama as a wellspring of possibility to wrap itself in rather than as a shopworn, past-its-prime memory of Old Hollywood to skirt around. Continue reading
With The Little Prince on Netflix these days and Kubo and the Two Strings out soon enough, stop motion is making a comeback. You know what that means.
If we’re on the subject of stop motion, especially pre-Laika stop motion, the little hamlet company of Aardman Animations, bearing all that classic British handcraft and roguish charm, is really the go-to golden child. Chicken Run, their earliest feature-length film and their first dalliance with Hollywood, doesn’t forsake their homebrewed British scruffiness and the plasticine but soul-bearing charm. A cauldron of whimsy and old fashioned cinematic know-how, Chicken Run is a lovingly makeshift ode to the long forgotten wonder of genre that faded from the cinematic present long ago. Continue reading