Tuesday, December 28, 2010

ACIDEMIC TOP TEN 2010


2010 was the year that Facebook got its own movie and William Shatner starred in a TV show based on a book based on a twitter. Anyone could get rich and famous for any reason, viral mission possible: post-death POV was everywhere, towering psycho Texas lawmen were played by little fellas, up was down, and the psychedelic meltdown transhuman interdimensional shift perception took it to the whole other level of the game. you feel me, Swan-E? Beware the perspective where outdoors seems like in, for you are in the parent's basement trainset of infinity, where the purgatorial hungry ghosts zip around like the smell of burnt electricity. And among them, a Dude shall rise...

1. ENTER THE VOID (dir. Gaspar Noe)
Death never had it so good: sex, drugs, techno, wheel of fear and desire roulette afterlife, in which every drug dealer's worst nightmare is realized: he's narced out by the little shit son of his MILF lover, wasted by the cops, and then has to watch from on high while his hottie sister mixes it up with a sleazy Japanese strip club owner. That's the hanger, but the coat is a many-colored dream all its own. A panic attack for all seasons, with some dynamo Fantasia 2001-meets-Tron lightshows, it simultaneously makes religion and pornography obsolete. (read more here)

2. BLACK SWAN (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Natalie Portman looks in the mirror and we get our first sight of age lines on her beautiful face, and yesterday's Portman, Winona Ryder, still achingly beautiful but as far as fickle cinema's concerned, a shambling corpse, and Portman rages like Mickey Rourke in THE WRESTLER. We're given an actor forced to reckon in the split second of being onstage whether its better to burn out than fade away, and their decision isn't just refreshing in light of today's tedious safety first nanny state righteousness, it's downright modern, radical and brave, almost like we're finally getting back to genuine rebellion at the movies, to the 1920s-early 1930s's, when looking into the face of death wasn't just another empty pose, but the essential, soul-chilling baptism of the true artist. (Read more here).


3. TOY STORY 3 (dir.-Pixar) Watching Pixar is like allowing yourself to be entertained so many ways at once that your whole outlook on what you like and dislike starts to conform to match the CGI curtains. It's not just our complex relationship to plastics and childhood fantasizing, but our notions of perspective and even filmmaking are extended, warped, broken. There's no Randy Newman song along the lines of "When She needed Me" this time, but there's a brilliantly intense climax, involving the most spelled-out notion of divine extra-terrestrial soul harvesting near-death transcendental surrender since BRAINSTORM. Tom Hanks as Woody continues to annoy me... that flat-edged sincerity, that over-the-top amiableness where he talks to everyone like they're five years old and slightly retarded. In the end, this all may be too disturbing for adults, and okay for children, for whom last minute escapes are inevitably inevitable. Some of us can't help but consider happy endings with the chill of VERTGO as we wait to get melted down and remolded into Lady Gaga Barbies.


4. THE CRAZIES - Call it what you want but you can't argue that this film hits all the marks and keeps hitting. Plus Timothy Olyphant proves he has the right stuff to seem like Clint Eastwood's son, with all the well-tempered cool and Cali rich kid bro-hood such a sireship implies. I left this movie--the best horror remake since DAWN OF THE DEAD, earning it the right to rip off that film's Johnny Cash apocalypse opening-- with shaking palms and a giddy tingle in my scalp - and we need more movies with insane large scale riot meltdowns and nuclear bomb threats that--SPOILER ALERT-- for once, deliver on the threats.


5. GREENBERG - Noah Baumbach continues to take risks, and best of all he got the amazing Greta Gerwig to be the girlfriend. Gerwig plays a tall ungainly girl, a little lost (and underrepresented in the movies): she likes sex and booze and maybe uses them as crutches but has nowhere to walk anyway. She has the body of a drinker and the slur of a stoner, and for once this kind of halfway relationship/booty-call dysfunction seemed real in a film. It's every man's fantasy to find a girl who doesn't know how hot she is and is therefore grateful for every scrap of attention and affection she gets, and who likes to party and fool around with the same detachment as a guy. And yet finding such a woman just confronts us with our own free-floating insecurity and unrealistic expectations, showing us once more that real love is about letting go of the feeling you could always do better--even if you know you can--as much as it is about finding true companionship in a world that's as fucked as only Noah Baumbach can make it.


6. WINTER'S BONE - A new cool dude in the cool dude lexicon comes in the form of a meth-addict tough named Teardrop (John Hawkes, the other DEADWOOD guy). Jennifer Lawrence and a cast of fine actresses make this the best Dashiell Hammett film since BRICK. There's squirrel skinning, and a fine portrayal of the feminine/chthonic wilderness making uneasy truces with chainsaw phallic meth headed man as he corkscrews himself into oblivion. (read more here)


7. TRUE GRIT - Jeff Bridges steps into being the most interesting actor of his day, with a dilapidated but iron-tough Cogburn that compares solidly with the John Wayne original. Wayne was always Wayne, but Bridges manages to be several personae at once and still have that zonked hippy Jeff Bridges twinkle. I watched CUTTER'S WAY the other night and it was great to see Bridges act all like the young hunk pretty boy to John Heard's insane Vietnam vet cripple. Here Bridges is so grounded and tough and the poetic dialogue falls off so natural, it's like you're seeing a real American myth, like the iron spirit of Leadbelly, roaring up from the flaming underbrush. Every character is well-etched (Great to see Barry Pepper playing his brother Art Pepper). Even Josh Brolin's dumb outlaw, that it reminded me of all things, that 1933  TREASURE ISLAND starring Wallace Beery, where every character was an MGM-stable hoot and a holler and a story starring a child is allowed to be bloodcurdlingly violent without either hand-holding guilt or apathetic abstraction. Weak ending though, like the Coens couldn't quite do anything except trace a chalk line.


8. VALHALLA RISING - L'Chifre with tattoos and lots of on location wind make this a stealth bomb stunner set in glacial slow motion for all eternity. Kurbick by Conan! Aguirre, lost in the final minutes of Col. Kurz's dying fantasy; the second best movie this year about a feral kid following a fearless one-eyed warrior into the primordial chaos of purgatory. It seems like a high school art film made by lunatic vikings on fly agaric mushrooms in the 16th century, and that's my exact favorite genre. I don't even want to read about its origins and artists, as I prefer to think it emerged, full-grown, from the wilderness... on shrooms.


9. TWILIGHT: ECLIPSE-  Never forget that in the days of King Arthur, the oldest person was about 25. Merlin was ancient at 43. I'll never read the books, or be a 14-year old girl, so the fact that I can still enjoy these movies testifies to their effectiveness, and the holding power of the leads, and the way the realization of modern myth requires teenagers to resonate properly. These kids with their Goth attire and trendy dance moves--like a high school production of a Weimar-era avant garde cabaret--are what the movies need more than ever, genuinely strange in that pre-sexual sexual glaze you get when you're 14 and reading adult fiction. Like the other films that came before in the series, ECLIPSE makes excellent use of mopey music, stretching out romantic looks on post-rock glaciers, reaching the held-through-time cobra stares of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD.

Considering the sexist neo-conservative consumerism-product placed orgasm-oriented flicks that predominate so-called 'women's pictures' or rom-coms, TWILIGHT alone understands the supernatural power that can be had in rejecting bland hand-me-down values. The pro-virginity aspect is the 21st century Antigone move, the way not being a virgin was in the 1920s. I know how a woman you haven't had sex with can inspire like no other muse, and the way a 100-year old stalker in a teen idol's body can wreak merry havoc on pouty-lipped teenager brainstems, and I know these things to be true, and that as an artist or writer, that kind of inspiration should always trump the pitiful and misleading call of the proprietary orgrasm. (read more here)


10. GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO - A bit much in the rape department, but that Goth chick, Noomi Rapace (even her name has rape in it) sure brings her A-game. I'd like to see her in a fight with the Twilight crowd, she could probably fuck them all up. It's the most atmospheric and disturbing thriller I've seen in awhile, though no amount of vengeance can get the slimy taste out of your mouth, and the reporter dude is a wuss ass. (Read more here).

SPECIAL ACIDEMIC AWARD FOR WORST CASTING:
Casey Affleck in THE KILLER INSIDE ME

How about Freddie Bartholomew as Rhett Butler? Orlando Bloom as the crazy drill Sgt. in FULL METAL JACKET? And no disrespect to the producers who probably felt they needed someone with box office recognition, but this strikes me as the worst casting choice since Mad About You's Helen Hunt as a 1920s gold digger in A GOOD WOMAN.

I bring it up mainly to point out that the ideal of the masculine is almost completely lost in film today, the dudes listed above in the top ten being the exceptions. Let me tell you something, size matters. You don't sent Charlie Ruggles to do a Gary Cooper job. If he's short, better hope he's Kirk Douglas, or James Cagney, not a sweet, doe-eyed ectomorph like Affleck. No offense to this fine actor, I'm sure if you haven't read the book he's awesome. I applaud his fearlessness in accepting such ambiguous quagmire-sinking roles. I don't deny his skill, charm, or effectiveness; the fault is squarely in the casting. Anyone can tell the farthest Casey's going to get on a Texas police force is as a Barney Fife-style sidekick (ala Bob Ford). If I could go back in time, and not read the book, I would. And isn't that what 2010 was all about? This is Erich Kuersten, signing off from Tempe, Arizona, where I'm stuck waiting for the airports to re-open.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Acidemic Xmas Special: Santa Vs. Lacan



Ho Ho Ho! And Merry Xmas. Via Lacan's tenet of the objet petit a, Erich in claymation explains why no present can compete with its wrapped potential, for desire's fulfillment is never the energy equivalent of its unfulfilled state. So give up seeking gratification and find fulfilment in the spirit of Xmas, and booze!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ms. Icarus Risen


Kiss Me Deadly (1957) happened to be on TCM as I was suiting up to go see Black Swan at the Brooklyn Academy of Music today, and something I hadn't noticed before caught my attention: the "Swan Lake"-ish classical background in the scene where Ralph Meeker rummages through Chloris Leachman's boarding house room. Coincidence?

Then I got home, The Eye remake starring Jessica Alba was on Lifetime: Jessica Alba looking in the mirror and seeing someone looking back who, while a lot like her--hot, damaged and mildly Mexican--is not her. Coincidence tambien?

There was a moment in the crowded matinee BAM theater when the black swan Portman looked down at me with malevolent intensity (I sat in the fourth row center) and her eyes were like two white opals, her eyes they were like two white opals, coming together in a shaman bouquet and I thought of how weird I'd felt all last week while sick and hallucinating and possessed with a medicine-spiked serenity, focus, stillness and the ability to listen to Patti Smith's "Birdland" on endless repeat. The black swan of Birdland possessed me through the miracle of fever dreams, down on that New England farm.

Movie audiences these days drive me nuts with nonstop blue lights of cell phones and people whispering loudly but I can hear every word, this time I merely hissed, like a swan might at a tourist going for his eggs, and let it go. They may have yelled the whole time I wouldn't have noticed after that. I felt the liberation and the intensity of the swan! My insane rage at their uncouth bourgeois unconsciousness brought me closer to the Blanche Dubois-meets-Ms. 45 gonesville of Portman! Portman! Bravissima


I could go off in multi-hued directions about Black Swan in comparison with Aronofsky's last film, The Wrestler (see "Mess with the Horns"): together they are the his and her fictional artist career capstones. Oscarbait elegies to artists caught in amber at that pivotal acrobat swing from the arms of Ben Vereen to Jessica Lange's in All that Jazz (1979). They are Icarus, amber-frozen in the Led Zeppelin Swan Song label instant, the war-face grin of true freedom and anticipation affixed, dissolving the final mylar shield between the priceless comic book and the greasy thumbs of the collector's ten year-old child, transcending and blinding the screen in front of you, the seats below you and the Exit sign behind you; even the blue cellphone glow and whispers of the annoying latecomers incorporating beautifully into the complex aural soundscape of scratching black swan wings fluttering like the rain of pine cones on ANTICHRIST's tin roof. The whoosh of feathers and clatter of feet on floors, the horsefeather hoofs of two opal-white blondes with nice legged ponies and blonde boy haircuts--one dead, one missing-- boggles Mike Hammer's sadistic mind in KISS ME DEADLY, the beating of its hideous heart-monitor and the applause of the crowd.


Is Aronofsky the Patti Smith of his generation, going fearless into the two white opals whiteness of credits with nary a pause of regret or doubt? I burst into slow applause a few seconds as wild applause rang out on screen, and the people around me started to applaud by reflex, and then caught themselves--shot me waves of accusation in their gun-like glances. Why do we applaud in movies that aren't premieres, i.e when cast and crew are there? Are we applauding ourselves for 'getting' the morbid black comic gut punch of it all? Are we applauding because our moms would hate it? No, we're applauding because we've forgotten we're watching a movie. We applaud because those around us are, but in this case, at first, they're not - unless we're in the movie, too. That's how Aronofsky tricks us, and it's the best of tricks, the trick of only the greatest art, where it bleeds out of the screen and all over your lap.


As I walked out of the BAM, then and headed up towards Park Slope again I felt free, the reality behind the screen, the audience of the world in rapt aww looking up at me, and me swimming through a thin walkway past the godawful under-construction Barclay Center, feeling safe in coat and iPod against onrushing lights and tires up Flatbush avenue past desperate storefront Xmas lights, the diva swan sculpture chrysalis-talizing into Sofia Coppola twirling the ribbon in Spike Jonze's acrobatics video for that Chemical Brothers song whoisthisdoin'thissynthetictype-a-alpha-beta psychedelicfunkin? - Coppola's trophy case the same as that Buffy the Vampire episode with the cheerleader mom witch getting trapped, a la bruja en ámbar... in her own trophy!  Sophia Coppola going on to direct a film about suicidal virgins - "Cecilia was the first to go."  Trip Fontaine reaching through the suffocating lather of Catholicism that binds them; Sinead O'Connor ripping her papal way to freedom on SNL; Tyra Banks looking through light blue eyes back out the TV at the pictures of her contestants behind you on the wall; Annie Hayworth's sockets hidden by picket fences in THE BIRDS; Marlene Dietrich covered in ink black feathers slashing the screen open with her swan talons, letting the rotten corpse fruit come sagging out.


In SWAN, Natalie Portman plays the ideal mix of perspiration and inspiration; a life of rigid discipline and striving for perfection, necessarily without freedom or any experience of decadence--no outlets for passion and vice or even an orgasm--living with a crazy mom and no bedroom or bathroom door locks, finally released from bondage into supernovae level ecstasy because she's required to, finally, for the very pinnacle of her art. But the freedom of ecstatic release is a Pandora's Box moment, the good and the bad, the naked, rotting corpse exposed to the angel's eyes at last--and all pain and fear and work only ever a veil obscuring it.

And if death not ends it, why bother continuing or even starting? As Oscar Jaffe said, the sorrows of life are the joys of art, which gives us a way of preserving those sorrowful joys in celluloid amber, letting our artsy life fade and wither like an en verso Dorian Gray: Winona Ryder, Barbara Hershey, and now Mila Kunis - a single line of children, middle aged girls, and suicidal old corpses, but first the bloom. If her name wasn't so reminiscent of Milan Kundera I'd like Mila more, but it is, and so I think of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and 20 years ago in Seattle trying to watch it on VHS with my platonic girlfriend Beth when I  was still too young to realize that one can't not masturbate or have sex or any kind of orgasm forever and not get sullen and irritable when living in close quarters with a beautiful intelligent blonde woman and no locks on the doors, watching some European art film rank with perfume ad sex and cocksman swaggery... I wouldn't mention all that, except that it fits the BLACK SWAN to rushing, headlong, screaming "It is Accomplished" Tee.


But when the eye is for art and not for pornography, when 'I' stands for love and not for base desire, when a heart yearns for naught but is complete just to watch movies and pound Raniers and Red Hooks then Milan Kundera can go to hell. I've always been one to appreciate the purity of a chaste love... but it's so hard to find free time to take care of yourself when you're living in a commune, or with Barbara Hershey, or Isabelle Huppert's mother in THE PIANO TEACHER or Lux's parents in VIRGIN SUICIDES, or Piper Laurie in CARRIE or Natlie's stage mom psycho in BLACK SWAN. If you're feeling like you need to invade Iraq, or give up on your dreams in a fit of whiny depression, instead try Seroquell or see your Lexus Dealer...I'd like to teach the world to masturbate, but it's too personal a thing for the religious types. So we all must find out own way, our own moment, to break free even if only for a second.  Psychedelics could save the world and art could save your life but only death shows the true color of the light behind the curtain and it alone is unavoidable. They can't arrest people for successfully dying, much as they'd like to. Some of us peak behind the curtain, but most are content to wait for the curtain to come to them; it hangs like a heartbeat blu-ray vibrator, all for you Damien!

Don't listen to a word of it. There are no words to Swan Lake, nor sex, just violins reflected in the inky blackness of its surface, and inky feathers in the sprockets overheating the projector until the bulb explodes in a shower of black swan Bergman's PERSONA blood: You can live to be a hundred and never dance or you can blaze out by nineteen and never stop. But you must first get drunk to ever know true sobriety; you must become besotted to ever be bereft, must first know MONSTER ugliness to be Oscar beautiful; must first know fame before becoming eclipsed by your own empty spotlight, like Moira Shearer in the Lermontov ballet, like Lazarus risen from the dead, like Mike Hammer risen from the dead, the corpse of Chloris Leachman at his feet. Mikey! Brrrrrm! Pow! Swan-eee how I love ya how I love ya, I love you Natalie. Nat? Nat, pour me another.... and.. suddenly--just like that--you're old.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Die like an Eagle: ENTER THE VOID (2009)


ENTER THE VOID is the first drug movie of the 22nd century, so far ahead of its time it's behind it. Centuries from now humans will look at it and laugh: how little we knew of the afterlife, of the fourth through ninth dimensions! Gaspar Noé's warper is the first receding light in the void of what we don't yet know about death. A little over two hours, it's five hours too long. It renders all pornography obsolete, dicing and slicing at fear and desire until nothing is left and everything is revealed. I imagine this film in a room with the films of Americans of similar ballsy-mindedness, like Vincent Gallo, David Lynch, Larry Clark, and Darren Aronofsky--all of whom have a similar push me-pull you thing going with drugged-out sex workers and heartbeat/rapid breath-synched sound walls--and I imagine them all getting jealous and competitive like it's James Dean on planetarium day.  If they were all playing chicken, only Gaspar would have the guts to sail off the cliff.. laughing all the way. Whose car are you going to ride along in, even if it is kind of battered and has those fuzzy day-glo dice? Sometimes day-glo is enough, and guts all over the windshield, and roller coasters, MILFs, MDMA, DMT, GHB, music box Bach, urns, car crashes... No, no, Noé, you had me at goodbye!

The term 'liberation' means different things to different nations, and people, but in every sense of the word there's something liberating about the traumatizing violence in VOID (I'm glad to say there's no brutal rape scene--at least in the cut I saw--so sensitive poetic males like me and the mentally challenged janitor at the end of LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN can rest easy). That's not to say there's no trauma, but it's a productive kind- the kind you feel at the bottom of a K-hole, or after a day of dry-heaving through the bottom of a four week bender, a feeling it can't get no lower, a feeling you've reached your AA bottom and will be telling of this day for anniversary meetings in the years to come and even though no seaweed mermaid mom taxi will come to take you away down the comode pipes it hardly matters, since absolutely nothing worse can happen to you. It's the blacksmith on the Pequod showing off his epidermis: "I am past scorching; not easily can'st thou scorch a scar." Now you're free of scorching! It's what enables MARATHON MAN to throw a fortune in diamonds at Laurence Olivier. Away, away, into the selfsame sewer sea. And it's Ahab, beckoning you follow those diamonds down. Now that you're free, Tokyo.


Aronofsky reaches for the scars, the diamond-tossing in the heart monitor undertow of THE WRESTLER and the eye-rape editing of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and the collapsing tent of Marion Crane identity in THE BLACK SWAN, but he's still too American not to flinch or sync his key lights. If he could let all that go, America might finally have as much sex and vacation as France. Instead we get a hungry ghost monkey on our back screeching "show us your tits" at random intervals, chasing all our opportunities away. The fraternité thing enables the French to embrace the surrender, the weening, the realization that chasing your little death down the red light district alleyway, or racing through the airport to give a proper goodbye kiss to your departing Aniston, isn't going to postpone facing the Black Swan demon in the mirror.

The French get the joke, because they know the sting of occupation.  America has not yet admitted complete defeat, while France has done the 12 steps, from Vichy to la Resistance. In World War Two France forked over its lunch money rather than getting its beautiful hair sullied in the pissoir and so they saved Paris from being bombed. Americans fought and died for French freedom, from afar, and read Sartre. "We were never freer than under German occupation," wrote Sartre. He was right. America has never been occupied, so it can only get jealous, cocky, dopey, demonizing, and deny that Sartre's brand of Leopold jackboot Sacher Masoch freedom is worth a damn. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity, that's step one of AA. America's still down to party, why, you got a bottle? We don't have a prollem! YOU godda prollem!


I imagine America staggering like a slow-witted kid trying to find his way out of a candy store, and clearly so does Noé -- otherwise why was it so important the lead characters in ENTER THE VOID be Americans?  And why Tokyo, a land who got its ass kicked in the war, worse than any other, and so learned a few things about not going into the militaristic jingo light blindly just because its pretty like a mushroom (psilocybe, cloud, or shitake --it's all the same in the end).  The Japanese are a people fond of flash and Tokyo under Noé's floating spirit camera becomes a land of pulsing red light district fornications, abortions, drugs, and ratty little snitches who should go kill themselves and do us all a favor. On a double bill with LOST IN TRANSLATION, the meaning of being Bill Murray becomes clear. He's the closest thing our current cinema has to a Bogart, staring into the void of death with a wry smile.

When things actually die though, the French notice. When you surrender, lose your lunch, and lick the boot nice... and clean... then you feel the pain, because you are involved in mankind. You know the bell tolls for thee. You're not afraid to meet the eyes of babes. You can dance if you want to... even leave your friends behind, and use the pole without being stoned as a slut by your peers.

stripper, hold the 's'
Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), our dead free-floating POV in the film is not only a dumb American, but a flatliner, a depressed monotonal zombie hipster. Oscar's stripper sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) is, however, terribly cute, though she seemed blurry and far away in the film, a condition understandable in the wake of a terrible car crash that took away their parents at a very young age, but inexcusable in the post-modern wake-up world of ecstasy-addled po-mo Nippon. My question then, is this: what kind of dead parents are Oscar's, that they don't come get their son at the pearly gates station when he floats down/up? This film may take place in Tokyo but it's the most searing indictment of American small town hypocrisy since DOGVILLE. Even beyond the grave, parents are self-serving deadbeats.


I knew VOID was something I had to see and review here, but I was dreading Noé's intensity, his glee in exploiting the helpless masochistic gaze, i.e. watching Monica Bellucci get raped and beaten in IRREVERSIBLE. But at least he understands that the film lover's gaze is a ghost, longing to permeate the silver screen and be re/born into the simulacrum via their favorite movie starlet's womb. Aren't we, when dead or watching horror films, forced to watch helplessly as our future mother is killed or sexually mistreated and all we can do is beat on the glass screen door and scream? But though VOID is drenched in fuzzy sex, I found it more sad than sleazy, like both sexes were just biding their time, exploiting each other--enslaved to the sparkling dollar store bardo like UGETSU or EYES WIDE SHUT. Oscar's sister can handle herself fairly well in the trade; it's Oscar's POV that has the issues. Drifting around Tokyo's pinku parlors, orbiting the copulations and floating into light bulbs like Hitchcock's camera might have if it didn't find its way out of the black tunnel connecting the drain with Janet Leigh's pupil in PSYCHO, we never know what his free-floating POV is thinking. We just see what he (or rather his third eye lens) sees. Drawn to the gravity of the flaming sexual heat where reincarnation can occur and he can get back in the game again, he drifts towards any old giant sun egg in which to be reborn, the way we used to walk around outside the Dead shows when we didn't have that miracle ticket, looking for that unlocked fence, that lax security guard... that one shot. Doses... doses.



This essay was really long, but I edited it down, and down, and down. Let me just say that as your doctor I recommend this movie very highly, but if you have panic attacks, epilepsy or nervous disorders, make sure your fully and properly medicated in a legit Rx fashion before entering.  And just remember, wombs may look nice and relaxing from the outside when your ephemeral, but once the placenta busts and the crying starts, it's the same old Hell... I mean heaven! Heaven... sorry god, Christ, and sponsor.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Beards of Bleak: THE ROAD (2009) and WINTER'S BONE (2010)


Look at these two fine, bearded gentlemen above: Viggo Mortenson (left), billed only as 'the man' -- a grizzled survivor of an unspecified global holocaust, traveling with his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in John Hilcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD; John Hawkes (right) as 'Teardrop'--a grizzled meth head slightly of a mind to protect his niece (Jennifer Lawrence) in Debra Granik's WINTER'S BONE. The two films have much in common: ravaged rural starkness, fatherly anxiety, and man-oh-manly beards pointing and twisting under straight noses. Teardrop and the Man are the cinema's 2009-10 beard combo (1), the best such combo since Moss and Plainview in 2007's THERE WILL BE BLOOD and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (another Cormac adaptation), and this time, there's fewer words in the titles, even fewer in the scripts.

There's an awful responsibility that overtakes us, cinema do declare, when raising kids in a land rife with scorched earthiness, meth availability, limb-hacking, and squirrel skinning. Kids in horror and sci fi used to be possessed by demons. In the 1980s it was boys and long-fingered alien pedophiles. Now kids have fallen from their endangered pedestal as darling beacons of Spielbergian light and become luggage, screaming cargo that must be protected from the C.H.U.D.S, hillbilly paranoids, cannibalistic pedophile priests, and zombies. All one really wants to do is shoot, smoke, sniff, and sail away from life's burdens, but they have kids.


BONE is the sleeper indie award winner this year, though first glances might make you sigh a BASTARD OUT OF GEORGIA RULE HOUNDDOG'S SWING BLADE RURAL JUROR poetic realism on the cheap kind of 'here we go again, faux-Faulkner' rote harmonicas and steel guitar indie sigh. But, as I explained to my sentimentalism-wary lady friend when we watched it, even if all the signposts are the same that don't mean it's the same road. That's the mistake that made so many film scholars overlook Douglas Sirk! Underneath all that soap was a very dirty boy. 


I'm sure by now you don't need me to tell you that WINTER'S BONE is beautifully photographed. Every image a full color version of those lovely dust bowl portraits by Dorothea Lange, but in color and thrift shop winter couture, rainspouts, horses, eerie drones and impeccable foley periphery shrub rustling. The story itself is interesting, proving as did in DOMINO and JACKIE BROWN that bail bondsmanship is a fertile, relatively under-explored film subject. Dee (Lawence) has to forfeit her house if her meth cooker dad doesn't show in court so down the trail she treads, to ask tough questions of her hostile, whacked-out kinsfolk. As she's met by slammed doors and threats Dee begins to resemble the Phillip Marlowe of Tobacco Road, bravely digging where no one wants her to dig, taking a beating without flinching, hallucinating under quality pain killers, relentlessly traversing a mise en scene of desolate winter landscapes and druggy evasiveness. The men hide behind smoke and yellowed curtains, guns at the ready, hallucinating police cars in the thumbprints on the windows. Where male detectives in 40s noir found Venus flytrap allure waiting to confuse their senses, Lawrence finds tough, inscrutable men, all relatives to some degree or other, their brains half-fried, violent tempers, coiled postures. If they have information to share, she must suss it out but that takes time and their wives are listening in the next room with a shotgun under their aprons. Her knight errant eventually emerges from Teardrop's twitchy shell, kinda... but drug users are notoriously slippery when it comes to metamorphoses.


'The Man' in THE ROAD, meanwhile, never doubts his princeliness, but he sure doubts the world's. He saves his last bullet to use on his son if they should ever fall into cannibal hands. Several times the kid has the gun pressed up against his head while danger looms, and one can't help but think of John Ford's STAGECOACH climax, with John Carradine's last shot aimed at the 'lady' as the Apaches draw closer. Fear for the virginity of your young 'uns and maidens can make you brave or make you weak and in the final bullet moment it's impossible to tell which is which. It's one thing to be courageous for yourself, another to be courageous with the life of a charge, a child. Viggo refuses to let his son risk his life in order to make friends, thus dragging the 'helicopter parent' principle into the post-apocalypse wasteland.

The main difference between Teardrop and the Man seems to lie in this approach. Still like a cobra, eyes cast low in a thousand yard stare, Teardrop's superiority lies in the cool uncle position. When he finds a stray strand of nurturing in his soul's muddy weave and a banjo is introduced you practically cry to see this man finally engage in something that's not potentially deadly or destructive. At that moment, you know Howard Hawks would have loved him.

So, without a reliable social order in place in either dirty outdoors film, the thematic question seems to be, when is life 'safe' for little children to frolic? Dee proves it never is, so fuck it, frolic anyhow. The Man thinks it will be safe 'later' - so 'the boy' gets carried hither and yon, like America getting the paranoid treatment from a stand-down military, like the boy is George Bush and Viggo is Dick Cheney, creating all sorts of problems with his paranoia and access to the inner ear of power. 


As trends in fathering in our modern society make clear, dads don't often feel the need to stick around. What makes Teardrop, in his deep sympathy with the shadows and evils of the world, a better dad than 'the Man'? Teardrop knows how to come at a room full of meth-addled hick gangsters; he knows when to shrink into the shadows and when to refuse to step out the car and put his hands on the hood. He's not afraid of dying and that's what enables him to better help out. Like most of the men in either film he can't wrap his head around a woman un-cowed by the threat of death and physical violence. He has no choice but to be impressed. Viggo's problem is that he doesn't respect bravery, since he has none, and so his son's fearlessness or his wife's (Theron, below, looking straight out of BONE), is dismissed by him as foolhardiness, while he cowers in the shrubs.


I know I'm not alone in being grateful that WINTER'S BONE chooses to forgo the threat of sexual assault that seems to dominate most other hillbilly franchises. We don't get much of it in THE ROAD either, but the threat is always there (along with OS screaming), putting an uneasy Kung Fu grip on your throat. A similar heavy threat hangs all over BONE, but the whole sexual assault as worse than death thing doesn't factor, and I'm glad. As I've written on BL, I think we're reaching an ugly saturation point in that regard: it's become cheap shorthand to get the audience deeply disturbed and emotionally involved, but at what cost?


Another thing I'm glad BONE forgoes is sentimentalizing childhood innocence. Funny how the two things go hand in hand, as if innocence itself was a side effect of corruption rather than vice versa.  Both films examine the nature of emotional involvement, and of parenting and responsibility, and while both films tug at issues of bare life survival vs. the sweet joy of giving up, only BONE knows how to harness the beard, the wild man energy of the masculine.  THE ROAD paves the way, perhaps, in subtextually condemning the conservative 'my family uber alles' ethos, but only BONE takes that message all the way to the bottom of the family swamp, where the wild man lies, and dredges that deep man up.

As Robert Bly once wrote in IRON JOHN:
But going down through the water to touch the wild man at the bottom of the pond is quite a different matter. The being who stands up is frightening, and he seems even more so now, when corporations do so much work to produce the sanitized, hairless shallow man (2)
That's poor Viggo in THE ROAD, a sanitized man, re-bearded, trying to be wild in a wild land, learning the role of the deep, dark masculine and getting it incorrect. No reflection on Viggo, of course, who showed he can bring that shit hardcore in the RINGS and the VIOLENCE. It's more I think the head-on craftsmanshippy approach to the McCarthy novel --it gets it too right, maybe, to work. Teardrop on the other hand is the truly untamed wild man, the kind of guy that creeps you out at first but then somewhere along the way, not sure when, you start to admire him. Isn't that so much better, children, than the other way around? 

NOTES
1. Yeah, THE ROAD came out in 2009, but I didn't see it til last week, so what?
2. Vintage Books, NY, 1990 - Page 6

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Sullivan's Jet Travels: Rich Kid Cinema


A recent post by the unique and sensational Cinetrix, pulling the otherwise unstoppable Dan Callahan in The House Next Door to the curb over a piece about 'rich girl cinema' reminded me I had this semi-self-righteous rant tucked away in my 'drafts' file.  Too snobby and self-righteous? You decide!

I'm not prejudiced against rich kids, they're some of my best friends! But if they've never been slumming for a substantially Sullivan-ish length of time, or bummed around Europe for a summer, or whatever, it becomes pretty obvious when they go to make a film about 'real life' that they've no idea what it is!

Being rich gives kids like J.L. Godard, Sofia and Roman Coppola, Wes Anderson, M. Night Shamylan, Alex Payne, and Jason Reitman a strange obsession with the non-jet set, and a vague hand-that-feeds-them biting self-loathing disguised as knowledge of 'common people' and their 'real' problems. What was it William Shatner 'sang' about 'common people?'

I have no problem with Wes Anderson as he deliberately avoids 'real life' - preferring the eccentric rich (like the respectful objectification of the brothers in DARJEELING UNLIMITED,  j'adore). And Sophia Coppola is exquisite at capturing first-class Tokyo hotel ennui with Harrison Ford while Spike was off with Cameron Diaz, so the story behind LOST IN TRANSLATION goes.  There's also a stretch of 20 minutes or so in VIRGIN SUICIDES that's totally awesome, you know the stretch I mean... but then Sofia thinks she can pull off MARIE ANTOINETTE just by gathering some of her friends together in a big castle with fancy wigs and her favorite 1980s music on the soundtrack. America recognized a boondoggle when they saw one.

No offense to him personally, but Jason Reitman to me is the worst of the lot (I hear he's a lovely fella in person). I've not been able to wade more than a reel or two into either UP IN THE AIR or JUNO, and I love Ellen Page and Vera Farmiga. Reitman seems to me to be a director who hasn't flown coach in his entire life, who's never had to wait in line for a bagel, or change a light bulb --you can just tell in the abstract dialogue, even the movements of the characters through their lives, it all feels wrong.

As a recovering alcoholic for example, I can tell when the actor portraying an alcoholic onscreen doesn't know shit about what being alcoholic is like. Similarly, when an inexperienced rich kid makes a film that tries to tag a happy ending onto a film 'about real life' you feel like you're being taught sex techniques by a virgin.

Anecdote Time:

When anti-Apartheid campaigning was all the rage in the late 1980s, I remember being at an anti-Apartheid rally at the outdoor theater up in Syracuse that was run by this beautiful blonde girl, Christena (not her real name), a rich, blonde, pampered Single White Female type from Connecticut who proceeded to lecture a largely black, Rastafarian male audience about what it was like to be non-white in South Africa ("Imagine.. row after row of shanty towns."). I don't know if the rows upon rows of Rastafari felt as embarrassed for her as I did, but it was kind of emblematic... of something.  And then a band came on after her and the bassist was 100 x better than I was, and my band was next... and I freaked out and ran home to take an 1/8 of mushrooms on the off chance it would make me 'play' music better. It didn't work, and that's why I blame society, and Jason Reitman.


Hey - does anyone remember that movie CQ (2001, above, and top)?  Roman Coppola directed it, and man oh man, is it excruciating. And yet, it's so almost good it hurts, kind of like BARBARELLA, a film CQ clearly apes around the edges; and as a director he has all the worst qualities of Roger Vadim. Roman's cousin Jason Schwarzman is hilarious as a faux Jean Rollin, but the protagonist is a horrifically pretentious dullard played by hand-talker Jeremy Davies. Rather than blow our minds with a De Laurentis-ish sci fi sex epic, Davies wants to make a tedious documentary of his cliche'd ex-pat Paris life, in grainy black and white, so we can all bask in the mundanity of his spoiled film student existence. Jean Eustache should be rolling over in his untimely grave!

Tout va Bien - (1972)
The main offender in all this--to my mind the classic example--is Godard, who comes from a silver spoon Swiss family, a source of income he's returned to throughout his career when he needs 'help' to finish a film (one presumes). Meanwhile, what are his films about? The evils of capitalism!  I love, love, love Godard, don't get me wrong. And he's brilliant enough that he didn't let his 70s commie phase derail his comically detourned deadpan absurd comic genius, but I do question the motivations behind his attacks on consumerism, especially as film costs money, honey. Has a member of the proletariat ever watched a Godard film if they weren't in it? Then again, America never did have a Guy Debord or Brecht to call its own (unless they fled here to escape the Nazis). Maybe that's why we're so stuck when it comes to unpacking the difference between sweet satire and glum sermonizing.

Another anecdote:
For around a year or so I knew a quintessential Park Slope co-op kind of guy who freaked out if his roommate set the heater above 65 degrees in winter, or used the AC at all in summer, no matter how hot it got -- he'd bicycle every day across the Manhattan bridge to school, even in the rain, all the better to lecture everyone who'd listen about greenhouse gasses. He'd drone on about organic food at the Park Slope co-op, the evils of money and the NWO, and then, once a month, he'd go home to his super wealthy upper crust WASP family to get his allowance. Hilarious!

When being a film analyst it's important to keep all that in mind, as it illuminates the underpinnings of trust-fund Marxism. Do they care about 'the people' or are they like Sturges' Sullivan, merely idealizing the poor out of guilt (the urge to 'give something back to the poor unwashed) or in order to piss off his parents (or parent corporation)? I mean, it's fine to do that, just be aware of the glaring irony. The blue collar guys ain't gonna see yer pitcher. They think you're artsy sermons are bullshit. They want to see cartoons.

I recall this quote from Sullivan's butler:
You see, sir, rich people and theorists - who are usually rich people - think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches - as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned
In short, my rich kid cinema critique isn't mean to champion the working class, or the unemployed, homeless, etc., in fact I hate them. I hate the characters of directors like Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and John Sayles, all successful filmmakers that try and 'justify' their use of film funds by patronizing the proletariat with that 'Barton Fink feeling.' Also, just because they can afford to keep meddling producers at bay, ensuring the true stamp of auteur (rather than the committee second-guessing that comes with too many producers), doesn't mean they don't need script doctors. It seems to me that since they didn't 'earn' their wealth, they have this need to retroactively prove themselves worthy of it, and cinema is a hard thing to fool. We can deconstruct a blazing hole right through the curtains of any auteur's motivations --they wouldn't be auteurs otherwise. We'd know you were a rich kid filmmaker even if you signed your name 'R. Mutt' or Alan Smithee.

As I say I love films by rich folks about rich folks, except maybe the preppie wankery of Whit Stillman. In general I'd much rather roll with the rich kids in cool parties like the ones in Bertolucci's STEALING BEAUTY than mope around somebody's idea of working class Bristol. And besides, to get films finished you need money: cinema has a respect for finished films and without a fall-back income source, budding auteurs can get slammed into the dirt by budget issues, even inches from the finish line, having to crawl into bed with litigious distributors who tie up the DVD rights for centuries just because they can.

 Not all rich kid auteurs are bad: there's a purity of voice in Wes Anderson, for example, a unity of taste and mood, that you can't get in a film that's leveraged to the hilt with a dozen different film company backers; Noah Baumbach brings strong doses of scathingly honest bitchiness and bravely hilarious moral ambivalence to his loosely autobiographical skewerings; Alexander Payne is one of Middle America's true Swiftians, and if he has low income protags, he'd rather dump them into a sea of embarrassment than romanticize their mundane squalor.

Darjeeling Limited (2007)
But then there's M. Night Shyamalan, whose parents funded his early films, like TO SLEEP WITH ANGER, and now that he's surely lost most of his SIXTH SENSE and SIGNS money with his string of bombs I wonder if they're helping him again. Alas, Hollywood is very forgiving when a name reaches the public's lips. You can recoil from Shyamalan's AmEx commercial which posits him as the coolest purveyor of spookiness since Rod Serling or you can just guffaw at his amok ego, either way, there's no doubt he's got no life experience outside of the luck of a good script with just the right 'twist!'

The thing is, ultimately, if an auteur has enough money + is a recognized name, he can easily surround himself with sycophants for whom is every lame idea is brilliant. The results? THE HAPPENING and THE LADY IN THE WATER (below).


I call attention to this not to blame these kids for silver spoons, but on the other hand to point out these kids might benefit from some time out on the real bread line, ala SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS. Let John Sayles get conked on the head and do time in the chain gangs, so he can realize that the average 'worker' is a boorish  thug; and Reitman needs one of those Michael Douglas-type THE GAME experiences, or a serious iboga trip. Let David Fincher, a real auteur who understands humanity darn well, have him for a couple of weeks. Send Roman Coppola to the ayahuasca communities of the rain forest in San Paolo. Most of all, make these punters realize that what they think of as 'normal' is to us as rarefied as a bird with crystal lite plumage. Would we try and teach them how to party at Ibiza? Or how to ask their parents for money? Then they shouldn't try and teach us how to suffer and yearn for self-expression as they fly around the world in their first class haze. Then again, people seem to love Jason Reitman... so maybe I'm the rich yob after all. Hmmm?

CQ (2001)
Yeah, that might be it. As long as your pampered innocence doesn't result in the kind of black and white self-indulgent wankery that Jeremy Davies makes in CQ, who am I to judge? As the great Woody Guthrie once sang, "It takes a worried man / to sing a worried song." And sometimes even then, who wants to hear it? Not the worried, that's certain. You know what I want to hear? Kathryn Bigelow singing about bomb disposal in Iraq; Darren Aronofsky singing about the madness of the performance that truly makes it; PT Anderson singing about the dawn of big oil. Sing, in short, of subject matter and stories that fascinate and impel you..  not what you think you 'owe' to the little people your grandfather swindled so you could have a $25K a month trust fund. Being true to yourself doesn't mean filming a mirror. Such things, for all their shiny luster, do distort, and warp, and drown all meaning in a sea of empty gestures.

Somewhere (2010)

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Acid's Greatest Shorts: THE SUNSHINE MAKERS (1935)



"We're happy when we're / sad"
"We're always feeling / bad"
-- "How are ya?" / "Terrible!" / "That's fine."

"We're happy when we're / sad"
According to Annetesmusic on youtube comments, they used to play this between sets at the Filmore in 1969, with 'sunshine' being a common euphemism for acid. I believe it!

I have no memory of seeing this at 'the Filmore' or ever going there at all, but I did see it a lot around the age of 13-16, when I'd fill out the ends of my VHS tapes with old cartoons culled from TV shows like 'Matinee at the Bijou.' So The Sunshine Makers was on at the end of a tape I watched almost constantly - NIGHTHAWKS (starring Rutger Hauer!) followed by THE THING (1951) followed by CAT PEOPLE (1942)... a perfect flow. I still remember all the words to the "Hail his majesty the sun" song, and the "Happy when we're / sad song." My brother and I would sing it to each other for laughs.

Of course my brother and I rooted for the Sad people, who, after all, have a clearer understanding of morality and Lacanian objet petit a... i.e. the more miserable you pretend to be, the more happy you really are, vs. the terrible 'command to enjoy' perpetrated by the Sunshine makers. It's a chilling lesson, the reason everyone acted so miserable behind the iron curtain, and yet drank more vodka and had more fun than the rest of us, once the curtains were drawn. It's sci fi dystopia imagining along the lines of WILD IN THE STREETS and GASS-S-S, wherein acid-soaked hippie youth culture becomes the new jackboot conformity... and of course, you can read the hook noses and dark, vaguely ethnic clothing of the sad people as an anti-semitic signifier set if you so choose... but I'd rather just dig the row of bog of stench-bummer sprayers who get bombed with sunshine and start dancing like goofy little doofuses, and think of the recent footage of North Korean military displays and wonder if, at this advanced age, as the wind whips the trees outside my office window, the USA will ever get its 'true' sunshine on again. The consumerist command to enjoy is suffocating us... when all the time we were happier when / we were / sad.

So enjoy... and remember, it's brought you by Borden's!!! MMM-hmmm Borden's.

(Editors Note - The day of Lou Reed's death I found GET CRAZY on youtube, which is loosely based on the director's experience as a Filmore stage manager, and they do show this very cartoon during a brief stage meltdown!.)