Nostalgia for a past that never existed

Escape from New York film poster — Kilian Eng

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Despite our Ballardian present, the High-Rise film adaptation is a nostalgia piece

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  1. Our present is utterly Ballardian.
  2. Our present is so utterly Ballardian that our present is actually our (unevenly distributed) future.
  3. Like, what is the 2016 U.S. presidential election but a short story Ballard might have written in 1983 (and hopefully thrown in the trash)?
  4. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise is particularly concerned with this present-future condition: the phrase to come (as in a future to come) repeats throughout the novel, a key dissonant note.
  5. Near the end of the novel, Ballard’s free indirect style drifts into the mind of protagonist Robert Laing:

    ...he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.

  6. A version of this line shows up in the first minutes of director Ben Wheatley’s 2015 film adaptation of High-Rise.
  7. While Ballard’s satire evokes the post-future’s psychological (ir)reality, Wheatley’s film adaptation feels like a nostalgic period piece for a future that came and skedaddled. Perhaps he (and his fellow filmmakers—screenwriter Amy Jump, the editor, the set designers and costumers, etc.) found it impossible to do more than stylistically recapitulate the Modernist contours that Ballard transcended.
  8. Critic Tasha Robinson lays it out neatly in her proper review at The Verge:

    The retro cars, suits, and architecture all put High-Rise more in a quaint, remote past than a dystopian future. They also add to the sense of otherworldliness that hangs over the film.

    And so does the sense that High-Rise is driven more by Wheatley’s poster-ready striking images —€” a suicide falling from a high balcony in ultra slow motion, Laing expressionless and spattered with paint — than by any sort of human drives.

  9. (I modify “review” in the above with “proper” because Robinson wrote a real review; I’m not doing that here. I think her take on the film is far more detailed and broad than what I’m doing here, and certainly attends more to the, like, plot of the film—even as she acknowledges that the plot basically gets put on the back-burner for long stretches).
  10. So probably my biggest quibble with the High-Rise film adaptation is its nostalgia, its obsession with midcentury modernism and Brutalism and style—by which I mean the idea of style—over, like, ideas. 
  11. Those ideas: Ballard’s central critiques of capitalism, consumerism, and class do come through in the film, but Wheatley and his team resist giving them any air to breathe, let alone room to stretch their legs. (My god. Forgive me these metaphors, this terrible personification).
  12. There are very, very few scenes in the film where people exchange ideas.
  13. Instead, ideas are wedged in, often in snippets lifted directly from the book, crammed quickly into a frame that will surely veer back into the film’s main technique: Montage!
  14. The first chapter of Ballard’s novel is titled “Critical Mass.” As I pointed out in my review of the novel, “Ballard dispenses with any simmering in his tale of depraved debauchery,” and gets his pot boiling in a hurry.
  15. In contrast, Wheatley’s film gets a slower—but strong—start. (The first 50 or so minutes are actually pretty great).
  16. At its midway point though, the High-Rise film tries to pick up the pace—dramatically. The solution is montage after montage.
  17. Indeed, the final hour of the film slips into a state of near-constant montage. The big set piece scenes (y’know—dance parties and food riots and orgies and the like) dissolve into the film’s frenetic technique. It often feels as if Wheatley is more interested in making a bunch of cool music videos than a film. While this jumpy method might have been the filmmakers’ intention—y’know, to evoke paranoia, anxiety, exhaustion, claustrophobia, etc.—the result, at least for me, was a kind of paradoxical lethargy, a creeping dullness.
  18. Key moments, like the first encounter between Wilder and Royal for example, fly by in rushed blips. It’s as if Wheatley was afraid that if he let two people talk on-screen for more than 30 seconds the viewers would not, y’know, pick up on the fact that we are witnessing the thin veneer of society crack open revealing an abject tumult of sex and violence underneath.
  19. (Wilder—the Id man! Royal the Superego. So much of Ballard’s psychological stuff gets lost in the film, which foregrounds class hierarchy instead of synthesizing the two. But that’s a separate quibble).
  20. What were likely great performances (and much potential for humor) get lost in all the short cuts and montage.
  21. Still:  Sienna Miller is great as Charlotte Melville, and Tom Hiddleston is charming enough.
  22. But best in the film—at least for me—is Elizabeth Moss as Wilder’s pregnant wife Helen.
  23. Still, the filmmakers insist on mining her pregnancy for cheap nostalgic jokes—she’s always smoking, always finishing a drink or pouring a new one.
  24. Which brings me back to: Why a period piece? Why not update High-Rise—or, even better take it outside of time completely?
  25. (It will be interesting to look at the film in twenty years: Oh! These were the aesthetic obsessions of the 2010’s, these were the nostalgic totems of that silly decade).
  26. (And while I’m wedging points in parenthetically in a rush: The ending. I read the novel’s conclusion ironically—the high-rise is a phallic failure, and as its patriarchy devolves into chaos and death, a matriarchy arises (or maybe coalesces is the verb I want). But the film concludes more ambiguously—sure, it points to the idea of a matriarchy (or harem)—but it leaves Laing in the kind of alpha male position that the novel had sought to ironize).
  27. And, to return to point 24: Did the filmmakers underestimate the currency of Ballard’s satire? We live in an era of radical wealth inequality, where the richest in our society are rapidly establishing their own private greenzones away from the plebeians. High-Rise is more timely now than ever.
  28. (A short list of (non-)adaptations of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise: Pete Travis’s Dredd (2012), Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra (2008), and George Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005)).
  29. (And re: point 27 w/r/t adaptations—in a sense, Ballard adapted/revised the novel himself in his 2003 novel Millennium People).
  30. Reading back over this riff, briefly, I see that there’s so much I left out—on stuff the filmmakers left out (why change the key plot point of Laing’s sister?)—on stuff I should’ve praised more (great soundtrack; good cinematography)—but most of all, what doesn’t come through is my admiration that the filmmakers tried. And they tried hard, successfully evoking a Ballardian style. But while the High-Rise adaptation delivers Ballardian style, that Ballardian style only points at itself, and not at our Ballardian present, our Ballardian future.

William Gaddis: “The problem of writing with a message”

From Washington University’s marvelous Modern Literature Collection YouTube channel.

The Death of Zhora — Chris Thornley

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The Coen Brothers’ film Hail, Caesar! adds up to less than the sum of its parts

 

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Hail, Caesar! film poster by Chuck Sperry
In her cameo in the Coen brothers’ newest film, Hail, Caesar!,  Frances McDormand gets her scarf stuck in her editing machine. It nearly chokes her (or, I should write, her character, film editor C.C. Calhoun) before Josh Brolin’s studio head/fixer Eddie Mannix hits “Reverse,” saving her life.

Like so many of the scenes in Hail, Caesar!, the editing scene is funny, well-acted, impeccably filmed, and ultimately superfluous. It’s a throwaway, a wonderful scrap, one of many scraps that the Coens seem to toss to their audience, goading, Hey, you put all of this together.

The McDormand scene is ultimately just another way for the Coens to highlight the artificiality of their medium. Hail, Caesar! is of course a film about film, a film that aims to satirize how the metaphorical sausage is made. As such, Hail, Caesar! is self-satirizing, meta-metaphorical. It’s the Coens pointing out the flawed seams or imperfect varnish before the product is even finished. McDormand’s editor getting caught in the machine is some kind of clumsy synecdoche then.

These metatextual gestures only helped to heighten my own awareness of Hail, Caesar’s! flawed seams. This is a film brimming with wonderful, energetic set pieces—synchronized swimming with Scarlett Johannsson! — Channing Tatum tap-dancing on a bar! — Alden Ehrenreich (not so famous, yet) stunting on horses!—that add up to almost nothing. The end result would almost be fascinating were it not so dull.

Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie Doyle is not dull, and every time he’s on the screen Hail, Caesarthreatens to become interesting. “Called up” to be in more, eh, prestigious fare than the cowboy pictures he’s been doing so well in, young Hobie’s plot has the slightest (just the slightest) tinge of Mulholland Drive — “This is the girl.” (Or, eh, “This is the boy. The cowboy”).

Hail, Caesar! can’t commit fully to Hobie for its hero, alas. Instead the film, after an initial bout of goodwill-building (including an especially funny early scene in which religious leaders are invited to critique Hail, Caesar!, the film-within-a-film here)—instead the film (the Coens’ Hail, Casear!, that is) plods along a few not-quite-intersecting tracks, introducing the occasional grotesque for a cameo that serves no real plot point.

Look, I get it. Having a character’s fate expositioned away via clumsy dialogue at the end of the film is like, meta, right? It’s the Coens way of grinning at the corny clumsy past of their chosen medium, hey? It’s like, purposefully, self-reflexively bad, a piss-take on an audience’s willed suspension of disbelief, hm?

Suspension of disbelief—faith. Does Hail, Caser! aim to take on faith? It certainly dabbles, exploring (“exploring” is not the right verb—but I already used “dabbles”) political faith, economic faith, religious faith. Faith in the aesthetic power of film, which again and again Hail, Caesar! attempts to embody via kinetic spectacle before puncturing said aesthetic transcendence with ironc winking (or technical failure).

The signal moment in the film’s ironic treatment of faith is delivered in its penultimate scene. George Clooney’s character Baird Whitlock’s character (a Roman soldier whose name I can’t recall, but, hey, note the layering, man) deilvers a monologue. The speech is meant to be this kinda sorta Road-to-Damascus epiphanic transcendence deaile, and the aesthetic power of Clooney’s Whitlock’s delivery is confirmed internally on set by the various film people  (grips and script folk, etc.) offering up admiring Brady nods—only Whitlock stumbles over the last word of the speech—which last word, of course, was faith.  Charlie Kaufman did the same thing much better in the funeral monologue near the end of his film Synecdoche, New York. In Hail, Caesar!, the moment feels like a glib trick played on the audience

It’s entirely likely that there’s a much finer design to Hail, Caesar! than I’ve credited the Coens here. Maybe on a second viewing, I won’t be bogged down so hard looking for a thread to follow. (Shagginess is hardly a sin though, yes Lebowski?). And I’ve failed to point out some of the fine performances here—Josh Brolin anchors the film admirably (although half the time he was on the screen, I kept hoping the film would turn into Inherent Vice). Hail, Caesar! has plenty of great moments, and those moments, like I said, might cohere into something sharper upon a second screening. But right now there’s nothing that compels me toward a second screening any time soon.

Another trailer for that High-Rise film

Not sure about this one…but I love the Ballard novel, so…

Film poster for Malick’s The Thin Red Line — Tomer Hanuka

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Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

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I don’t like films where nothing good happens, my wife told me years ago. I can’t remember the film that occasioned this remark, and I don’t find myself beholden to her rubric, but I still find myself applying it to films now and then. Especially after watching Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

(This is not the right question to ask about a film, but—).

This question isn’t the same as, say, Is any part of The Hateful Eight good?—because so many of the elements are good—excellent even—Ennio Morricone’s score, Robert Richardson’s cinematography, Yohei Taneda’s set design.

And the acting is great, or sorta great, or it’s hard to tell, maybe. Let’s say the performances are great. I mean, it’s Tarantino, so the acting is always at least one level removed from reality—even in Sam Jackson, the realest dude, the dude who carries the film as former Union officer, Major Marquis Warren. Sam Jackson is Tarantino’s main man, his star of hyperreality, and his performance is electric here.

But for hyperreality, it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who stands out in The Hateful Eight. Her portrayal of prisoner Daisy Domergue is refined Looney Tunes slapstick. Cartoon soul. Watching Walton Goggins (vile racist ex-Confederate marauder Chris Mannix) or Kurt Russell (bounty hunter John Ruth)—both of whom get lots and lots of lines and screen time—one can’t help but realize one is seeing an actor acting—or, more Tarantinoesque—a character acting.

But Jennifer Jason Leigh, remanded to a punching bag for much of the film—or even stranger, a chained work-wife to Kurt Russell’s John Wayne parody (via Kurt Russell’s John Wayne parody as Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little Trouble)—JJL imbues her Daisy Domergue with a wily pathos that surpasses both the script she’s made to read and her Seussian name.

Not that JJL’s Daisy Domergue’s isn’t vile, nasty, deeply racist, and hateful…but her hatefulness points towards something, I dunno, complex. Real. True. (I should mention now Laura Bogart’s essay “Hipster Misogyny: The Betrayal of The Hateful Eight,” which I think offers an intriguing read on the film. Bogart seems to argue that JJL’s DD is not complex enough, or not given enough complexity, which, hey, okay, fair enough—but I think also that Bogart was disturbed by the film’s conclusion—which I was too, disturbed). 

But: Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

What do I mean here by good? Should I just admit I don’t know “good,” but rather feel “good”? Okay. I don’t know good through definition, but rather by example. Fuzzy precis. Good: Perhaps a moment of redemption, but like, say, an earned one, a real one, one not forced through a Hollywood formula. Good might be kernel of hope—a real moment of hope, not just an up established for a foreshadowed down. Or maybe by good I just mean something aesthetically true.

Tarantino’s best films—the Kill Bill films, Pulp FictionJackie Brown, and Reservoir Dogs—point to something good in their conclusions—and by conclusions I mean both literal endings and thesis statements. I’m not sure if I find this same “goodness” evident in the conclusion of The Hateful Eight, or, if it is there, it’s awfully ambiguous.

The conclusion of The Hateful Eight is the not-exact opposite of the end of my favorite Tarantino conclusion, the end of Kill Bill 2:

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And The Hateful Eight’s conclusion is the not-exact opposite of the ending of Jackie Brown’s bittersweet take on redemption, loss, and escape—American lives that earn second acts.

And The Hateful Eight’s conclusion is the not-exact opposite of the ending Pulp Fiction, a film that resurrects Vincent Vega and sees Sam Jackson’s Jules Winnfield suspend wrathful violence and judgment on Tim Roth’s Ringo (or Pumpkin. Or whatever his name was).

And what about those films that didn’t make my silly little list of “Best Tarantino” — Inglorious Basterds (which is one of my faves, actually, just to watch for like, pure entertainment), Django Unchained, and Death Proof (which actually belongs on that best-of list, maybe, or at least the final sequence)? Shoshanna Dreyfus using film as weapon to end the Nazis? Django’s righteous rampage against slavery? Or the ecstatic violence of “the girls” destroying serial killer Stuntman Mike?

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What most of QT’s conclusions share in common is that they somehow mediate the relationship between revenge and justice, and do so in a way that’s aesthetically convincing. The Hateful Eight also seeks to be a film about the relationship between revenge and justice. Its final moments attempt to aesthetically recapitulate much of American history into a morbid sequence of violence.

[Fair warning: There’s a discussion of the conclusion of The Hateful Eight coming up, including what some folks might call spoilers].

Continue reading “Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?”

The Coen Brothers talk with Guillermo del Toro about Inside Llewyn Davis

A beautiful/bloody scene from Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance

Thirty-point riff on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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  1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun entertainment that achieves its goals, one of which is not to transcend the confines of its brand-mythos.
  2. SW: TFA takes Star Wars itself (as brand-mythos) as its central subject. The film is “about” Star Wars.
  3. To this end, SW: TFA is basically a remake of A New Hope. My saying this is not insightful and cannot be insightful.
  4. In the first Star Wars film, A New Hope (aka Episode IV, aka simply Star Wars), George Lucas synthesized Flash Gordon and Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell and WWII serials into a cultural product that was simultaneously new and old, hokey and profound, campy and heroic.
  5. SW: TFA is not a synthesis (and does not seek to be a synthesis); rather it is a transcription, repetition, and  replication of the previous Star Wars films—particularly the so-called “original trilogy” (Episodes IV, V, and VI).
  6. Hence, SW: TFA often feels like a greatest hits collection, its sequences and visuals (engaging and visually spectacular) cribbed from the previous films. I could spend the rest of the riff outlining the correspondences—major and minor—but why? The correspondences are intentionally obvious to anyone who has seen the film; furthermore, they are not allusions, but the formal structure of the film.
  7. And this formal technique, this replication—it’s all very enjoyable and often warm and unexpectedly humorous and at times awfully sad even.
  8. And I liked the new characters very much, which I was of course supposed to. They are all in some ways replications of previously existing characters, just as the set pieces and sequences they act in/out/upon are replications.
  9. Let’s consider Rey, the heroine of The Force Awakens really quickly: She is, in some ways, a synthesis, but only a synthesis of the principals of the Star Wars brand-mythos: She is at once Han, Luke, and Leia: A figuration in the foreground: A childhood fantasy.
  10. A childhood fantasy: Watching SW: TFA feels like watching a Star Wars film—which is the film’s intention, obviously.
  11. But not obviously and really quickly and not a gripe: Isn’t there a part of us, by which us I mean me, that wants something more than the feeling of (the feeling of) a Star Wars film? That wants something transcendent—something beyond which we have felt and can name? Something that we don’t know that we want because we haven’t felt it before?
  12. Re: Point 11: I already made an (awfully) oblique argument at some length almost three years ago about franchise films in general and Star Wars films in particular, arguing (maybe arguing) for, say, Wong Kar Wai to direct the next Star Wars film.
  13. In that riff I wrote that, “J.J. Abrams is a safe bet. I can more or less already imagine the movie he’ll make.” That prediction was incorrect only in that I enjoyed the product that he made more than I thought I would. That prediction was wholly correct in that I could imagine the product Abrams made. It was easy to imagine. I’d already seen the film dozens of times before he even made it.
  14. So, to return to point 11, the “not a gripe” point: Is the argument then that film as an art form allows us (the illusion of) a transcendent perspective? That film at its best, at its strongest and strangest, offers us a new way of seeing?
  15. (Yes).
  16. The Force Awakens is strong but not strange. Its major advancement (by which I mean break from previous films) evinces in its casting choices—but these reflect the progress of our own era, not the brand-mythos of Star Wars itself, which was of course always diverse.
  17. The Force Awakens is fun. Entertaining. Like I wrote in point 1.
  18. And, to repeat point 2 after repeating point 1: SW: TFA is “about” Star Wars.
  19. So what do I mean by this? Consider for a minute what the other Star Wars films are “about.”
  20. A New Hope is about escape and rescue, both in the literal, romantic, and metatextual sense.
  21. The Empire Strikes Back is about Oedipal anxieties and Oedipal violence, family entanglements, friendships and loyalties.
  22. Return of the Jedi is about restoration and redemption, a film about the genius of ecology over mechanization.
  23. And while the (so-called) prequels are generally reviled, I like them: They are “about” something.
  24. For example, Revenge of the Sith is about democracy and fascism, community and ego—and more of that Oedipal violence.
  25. Indeed the entire series is Oedipally structured—which The Force Awakens replicates and continues.
  26. Yet Abrams’s reverence for Star Wars bears no clear trace (at least on my first viewing) of Oedipal anxiety towards Lucas. No attempt to transcend or surpass—as such a move would entail a kind of critical (if metaphorical) violence directed at Lucas’s vision. (Notably, many of the criticisms of the so-called prequels rest on the way those films look beyond their predecessors (in a way that Abrams’s film doesn’t)).
  27. “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie,” said Jean-Luc Goddard.
  28. And Harold Bloom: “Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety…There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry.”
  29. Abrams’s goal was not to criticize Star Wars or poetically engage it; his goal was to praise it—to praise it as stasis, to replicate its comforts, to avow and vindicate its forms and tropes. And he succeeded.
  30. And of course the biggest success of the film: I want to watch it again.

Goldie Han, a Star Wars illustration by Tomer Hanuka

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William S. Burroughs and his friends

Join us at the High-Rise

Holiday film recommendations from John Waters

Blade Runner film poster by Krzysztof Domaradzki

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