Tag Archives: Metatextual Madness

Brain Waves: Barton Fink


If the Coens had fiction and the intellectual dents of the anarchic human brain on the mind with Miller’s
Crossing, they doubled-down with Barton Fink. Probably the Coens’ strangest and most esoteric piece, Barton Fink is both a wry exploration of the “troubled artist” trope and a purposefully artificial construct to throw a kvetch Hollywood’s way. It’s a formalist’s dream, but it uses formalism to shoot formalism in the kneecaps and poke the wound a few hundred times. It’s no Sunset Blvd, but it’s one of the few Hollywood parables with the chutzpah to dive into the cynical stew of a Wilder and never come up for breath.

We’ve all heard this sort of story before, because Hollywood loves to self-aggrandize even in the negative. Barton Fink (John Turturro), an NY playwright, goes to LA to break into screenwriting. In the midst of seemingly trying his hardest to do everything but that, he meets Charlie (John Goodman), a neighbor whose local haunt happens to be Barton’s room. Along the way, Charlie teaches Barton a little about Hollywood living (namely that it ain’t). But the fact that we’ve all heard this story before is exactly what the Coens’ are preying on, for if we’ve heard it before, we’ve never heard it from a two-headed soothsayer.

Barton Fink begins with Barton Fink, and what the two authors who’ve created him want to do to abuse him. He’s one of the Coens’ finest characters, a fascinatingly neurotic loner ably played by consistent Coen Brothers collaborator John Turturro (by 1991 knee-deep on his way to becoming a stand-in Coen Brothers version of Alvy Singer, albeit more sniveling). However, there’s a key difference: here, the filmmakers don’t have sympathy for their lead character. They only find pity. He rants and raves about his writer’s block and the difficulties he has selling a story to the immolating, hollow, bogus Hollywood machine, but the film subtly undercuts his character by rendering him almost inconsequential, nothing short of a phony himself, an eternal victim without the backbone of the true New York underdog he claims as an identity. Ultimately, he is as artificial as the Hollywood cronies he has to deal with, or the famous Faulkner-esque writer he, and the Coens, admire, who is here rendered deranged fool. If the Coens are the most literate director-writers working in America today, they aren’t above tearing so-called literate Hollywood sell-outs a new one, and implicating themselves in the process. Continue reading

Brain Waves: Miller’s Crossing

So I decided to continue my ’80s series into the ’90s. Whaddaya want, to fight about it? More reviews for me, more reviews for you. Everybody’s happy! Plus the ’80s didn’t necessarily end with the ’80s, if you know what I mean. The spirit of the ’80s was transformed, sure, but we see the influence of the decade’s films today. In the first few years, for instance, we see the emergence of a true cinematic two-headed giant, taking the genre-riffery that so populated the late ’80s and elevating it to more rigorous art with an analytic bent, combining the best of late ’80s playfulness with ’90s indie intellectualism. After all, someone had to pave the way for the soon-diluted hellish quirk fest that would be the late ’90s and early 2000s. After all, even the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

When Miller’s Crossing was released, the Coen Brothers were an unknown quantity still frolicking about in their wild years. They’d released one pitch-black neo-noir thriller and a second film its polar opposite, a light, frothy screwball comedy. The only thing the two films shared, their directors’ sure-hands aside, was a love for and desire to explore the heart of classic cinema. This same dogged spirit permeates Miller’s Crossing, their third film, and perhaps the one that best captures the spirit of what the Coens’ would become. Certainly, it’s the one that would pave the way most directly for Fargo, still probably their most famous film, if not their best. It is snarky, playful, inebriated yet sharp as a tack, smarmy, deconstructed and reconstructed, loopy, acute, and heady in the most amusing possible way. Calling it a comedy feels weird, but it’s undeniably funny; likewise, while it isn’t a “drama,” it deals with serious themes and finds itself in the company of their most textured films. The only sure thing you could call it – a gangster picture (and by god, this is not a movie, or a film, but a picture) – doesn’t even hold up under close analysis. It’s an unclassifiable beast of a project, an art film in genre clothing, but it wears its weight like air.

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Old Wave: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

They say that Terry Gilliam was truly angry post-getting absolutely royally screwed over by a distributor that had no interest in his mind-melting glam rock  drunken rant on the internal contradictions of the literature dealing with totalitarian government (not to mention the contradictions in the US of 1985 that loved to thump their copies of Orwell at the Soviet Union and conveniently pass by the same arguments, and Orwell’s democratic socialism, when the oppressions of the US came to the conversation).

If “they” are right about Gilliam’s rage, it had clearly subsided in the three year interim before his next film. Or, if they hadn’t, Gilliam had at least developed an ability to poke fun at himself while mocking the censors in the process. This work, 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, passed by the censors with much less eyebrow raising. And it’s easy to see while: although it is, in its own genial way, as radical as Brazil, it is much less obsessively difficult and intentionally obtuse, and it is less proud and open-faced about shouting its own radicalism right in the faces of the censors and rubbing their noses in it. Continue reading

Genre Riff New Wave Episode III, The Return of the Storybook: The Princess Bride

By this point, it would seem apparent that if ’80s popular cinema was at an all-time low in larger-scale narrative creativity and form, at least ’80s genre cinema often knew it was as chintzy and fake as all hell and tried its damnedest to use this as an asset rather than a detriment. By 1987 we find this trend at its absolute apex with one of the few true unambiguous comedies to seek to re-energize tired genre filmmaking: Rob Reiner’s arch-fantasy parody The Princess Bride. And like most of the best films to come out of this trend, it approaches its chosen poison-pen love letter topic, fantasy, from a place of love rather than the smug self-superiority that would engulf and cloud any such genre riff post-1995. For this reason, more than any other, it attains the sort of genial fluffiness and ebullient effervescence most fantasy films can’t even dream about.
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Film Favorites: My Winnipeg and You, the Living


After noticing all my “Film Favorites” pieces were from decidedly older films, I decided to incorporate a few new ones to the mix for balance, starting with a couple under-seen modern films from the most recent year I don’t cover in my “newer films” section, 2007. Both of these films are desperately under-seen and subversive masterpieces of modern cinema in wholly different ways.

My Winnipeg

Guy Maddin has made a career out of recreating early silent and sound cinema. His films approach us as documents of a long-lost time, alien products of our own making. They feign documentaries, but they test the line with a sort of fragmented operatic grandiosity. However, if My Winnipeg is a document, it’s hard to say to what, or in what form. Is it a reflection of the ’20s as it was lived, or as films from that period depicted it? It’s both, in fact, and much more, bleeding together art and life with rambling, rambunctious, disharmonious, elliptical force and playing around with cinema and its relation to life in some of the most unexpected of ways.
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Review: Birdman

Edited

Birdman’s story is awards season catnip, a foolproof middle-brow example of Oscarbait if ever there was one. It’s all right out of the playbook. Let’s check the boxes, shall we? An aging, past-his-prime central performer in a showy role? Check. Said performer playing a loose-version of himself in real life? Check. A talented cast of supporting players doing some of their best work in smaller roles? Check. Commentary on aging and performance? Check. The theater? Check. Monologues? Double Check. Add in some long takes and you’ve got Birdman, right?

Well, kind of, except director and co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu decided to wholly and absolutely decimate the film’s middle-brow core with a blast of pure lightning in a bottle. His chief delivery mechanism: Emmanuel Lubezki long takes. Or, long take might be more appropriate, for the film unfolds as if through one movie-length single-take . Of course, there’s trickery afoot,  but the seems are noticeable only because those who pay attention to showy long takes know a quick, hectic camera movement usually means a cut lies hidden within.  Continue reading

Film Favorites: In a Lonely Place

in-a-lonely-placeIt is the unfortunate burden of Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place that it is almost never treated separately from two other films released in the same year with similar subject matters: Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve. Both films, of course, are Hollywood royalty. This is perhaps ironic considering they both deal with Hollywood royalty, although one is nominally about Broadway to create, perhaps, thinly-guised distance from the hand that feeds. Like those films, In a Lonely Place deals almost entirely in brittle cynicisms and barely contained self-deprecating snark, aimed squarely at mommy dearest: Hollywood. It’s astounding that three of Hollywood’s most disturbing and grandly disparaging self-mutilations came out within 12 months of each other. Perhaps something was in the water (more on this later). Strangely, while those two films  now bump shoulders with the likes of Citizen Kane of Casablanca, In a Lonely Place has been somewhat demoted to “lesser classic” status. That’s a shame, as it’s a true dark horse masterpiece of self-hating, jaundiced malaise that expends its dying breath clinging to any tatters of hope it can find illuminated amidst the dense chiaroscuro of Ray’s irrepressible visuals  .
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