Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Film: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

I've disliked Neveldine/Taylor since I walked out of Gamer feeling like it was so desperately close to interesting, so infuriatingly fucking near something really worth watching, and straight into Steve Shaviro's essay about it. I already took exception to Shaviro because of his terrible essay about Southland Tales, that unmitigated boring trainwreck of a movie, but the fact that neither Neveldine/Taylor nor Shaviro seemed even remotely interested in exploring the particularity of games, instead just assuming they could be abstracted into some bullshit about the Modern Condition or the social Real or whatever really kind of inordinately pissed me off. Plus I've never seen the Crank movies and am not very good at watching action films anyway so they didn't really have any leeway for me there.

The original Ghost Rider movie, though, I liked quite a lot; and luckily for me, I didn't realize Neveldine/Taylor had directed Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance before I went in to see it. Plus, they didn't write the script, so that was a blessing.

Credit where it is due, though; there were some good directorial choices here. Little moments like seeing Idris Elba frantically putting on his motorcycle gloves in the opening sequence when he goes to chase Danny and Nadya, certain jerky camera moves and pans during the chase scenes, and a general decision to continually remind the viewers that Ghost Rider isn't even so much an "antihero" as a purely nihilistic force were all very welcome. And, of course, letting Cage do his thing is always a good decision. The only part of the movie that really drags is the sequence with the monks toward the end, where they take Danny for safeguarding and Blaze to exorcise his demon, and even that bit has the fucking wonderful scene with Blaze and the Rider splitting ways, and with Blackout mummifying the monks. Both of those moments, along with when the Rider pisses fire and when he spins around floating for no discernible reason after a grenade goes off sort of near him, are an absolute joy to watch in 3D, too. Not only that, but they are significantly less interesting to watch in 2D, which I think is interesting in itself; that the use of 3D isn’t purely ornamental is saying something neat about this movie, I think, and its ability to engage with its own visual economy.

Which, basically, is the one thing that Neveldine/Taylor are good at. They have a very strong sense of the screen as a space of managed scarcity, which is why they tend to be accused of excess; there is, of course, a lot going on onscreen in their films, but the sense of excess is much more tied to the way that they distribute the visual resources of the screen in a way roughly opposite to, say, John Carpenter in Halloween. Where Carpenter innovated by turning the blank spots of the frame into sites of focus by drawing the viewer’s attention to the dark corners with anticipation, Neveldine/Taylor do everything in their power to impart a hyperkinetic garishness to a visual landscape which is almost always some shade of grey. In this way they occupy the space of the ordinary (or "Symbolic" if you want to play Lacanian about it, as it is the accepted language of the form) while curating the viewer’s gaze in the direction of the apparent irruptions (the "Real," y’all) which generally take the form of the absolutely excessive. Which I guess is just to say that Neveldine/Taylor do as directors is more or less identical to what Cage does as an actor, and while I admire Cage and think that the fact that they paired up for this film is pretty brilliant, I still think Shaviro’s basically dead wrong. Enough sniping though.

The critical reaction to Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was more or less identical to the reaction to Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, albeit with slightly less rancor; unfortunately, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance hasn’t got shit for materialism, even the fantastical variety, about it, so I’m not really going to try to argue its merits on the same terms. Maybe that’s a good thing; maybe you’re bored of me harping on about that shit already. Probably not though.

There were two moments in the film that, when I first watched it, struck me politically as wonderful. The first was in one of the animated infodump moments, in which Johnny Blaze informs the audience that the devil is weak when he walks the earth. He tells us that the devil needs “emissaries” on earth to do his bidding, and that the devil’s most powerful tool is “the deal.” The second is when, just after the Rider is returned to Blaze, he rears up and whips out and slaughters a bunch of robed folks who were described as “politicians, murderers, men of influence,” -- a fairly clear bit of revenge fantasy on “the 1%,” I thought at the time.

The second point is cheap, of course, and not really worth lingering on. It is wonderful to watch though. The first one, on the other hand, is worth taking a moment on, I think. This movie is very, very insistent on playing up the angle of the Faustian bargain, which is one bit of Ghost Rider which generally gets left to the backstory in favor of exploring some sort of variation on his being an allegorical struggle with inner demons. But from the very early voiceover where Blaze (speaking to the audience) mocks himself for being the guy who made a deal with the devil, to the at least half dozen flashbacks to the deal being made that are peppered throughout the movie, to the way that any time the plot advances in an even insignificant way Blaze grabs his palm that is scarred from the bottle he smashed to be able to sign the deal, the contract is obviously not just an incidental thing here. So when the movie not only says that the devil makes nasty deals, but that deals are the devil’s most powerful tool, the slippage seems to indicate that the Faustian bits are not so much played as a way of characterizing the devil as they are forming an incipient ethical position against contracts.

Of course, even Goethe’s Faust tends to be read along the lines of claims of authenticity, with Faust himself seeking, in the first book at least, what we might call (because fuck “enough sniping,” I guess) unmitigated access to the Real. His contract with the devil is less about personal demons than attempting to slice through the social forces that dominate in his time. Faust comes to terms with this in Scene I, Act I of Part II, with the lines:
The rainbow’s arch of colour, bending brightly,
Is clearly marked, and then dissolved in air,
Around it the cool showers, falling lightly.
There the efforts of mankind they mirror.
Reflect on it, you’ll understand precisely:
We live our life amongst refracted colour.
By Scene IV of Act I, we have this:
‘To whom it concerns, may you all know,
This paper’s worth a thousand crowns, or so.
As a secure pledge, it will underwrite,
All buried treasure, our Emperor’s right.
Now, as soon as the treasure’s excavated,
It’s taken care of, and well compensated.’
Which is to say, the introduction of paper money. And so the the mediation goes round and round, moving inexorably between the universal and the particular.

To say that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance’s focus on the contractual even makes the same move is overstating things a bit, of course, but there is a resonance there that is well worth acknowledging. And to say that there are strong parallels between Goethe’s Faust Part I and Part II, and Ghost Rider and its sequel, well that would just be stretching, wouldn’t it; totally beyond the ambit of something so lowly as a review on a stupid blog.

It isn’t the act of comparative criticism that matters nearly as much as it is its consequences, and the way that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance takes a more Faust Part II approach to its working through mediation by way of economic forms means that its thematic economy (Faustian Bargain), its visual economy (Neveldine/Taylor’s direction), and its performance economy (Cage) all collapse nicely into each other.

The narrative economy, of course, is nowhere to be seen here, and thus the critics begin to snarl: without the proper establishment of motivation for characters, without the plot’s advancing properly, without arcs and structured acts, how is the viewer to be immersed? How are they to change their slip of paper for the coinage they were promised, when the exchange rate to which we’ve agreed is nowhere in sight?

Of course, the production of value occurs outside of the narrative economy as well. But it looks suspiciously more like reproduction, and we all know that’s no good. It’s derivative or tired or lazy; it’s histrionic or melodramatic or ironic; it’s, well, just not worth your time.

But then, in the relationship between the critic and the reader, only one member actually needs to understand viewing a film as a straightforward exchange of labor time for wages, and it obviously isn’t the reader. The reader obviously isn’t “outside” of capital, but neither are they implicated in the most obvious labor relationship with what they watch. In fact, the reader of reviews who watches a film is much more likely to view it analogously to the reproduction of labor than productive labor (which, in a literal sense, as recreation time, it is).

Of course, this is all just me footworking around saying fuck critics, and not saying much of anything at all about the movie. Which I’m okay with, although on the other hand I also kind of totally adored Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and would like to talk about it specifically too. So I’ll try to do that, to wrap this whole thing up. And what better place to end a review of Ghost Rider than with burning vehicles?

I mean, come on, the fucking crane sequence. What an absolute beauty of visual filmmaking, of pure awesome excess, of fidelity to character by stretching the limits of believability, of fucking film. Better even than the burning trestle of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the Rider’s flaming crane isn’t just any old toy, it’s the whole chest. From the Rider’s maniacal glee in operating it to the car that gets launched into space, from the bunker busters pointed at it to the fucking bizarre decision to actually view the paramedics cleaning it up afterward, that sequence alone is more than worth your fucking time, no matter what economic rubric you privilege. And just like the other peaks of the movie, from the Rider’s initial defeat to his triumphant slaughtering of the ruling class and that glorious final pun, it collapses its own filmic economies so elegantly, with such beautiful disregard for narrative, that you’ll feel like you’ve been offered a slip of paper for a fortune you could never imagine. And if any libertarian fucks try to tell you that it isn’t worth anything because it isn’t properly backed, let them know that they’re stupid assholes who can politely fuck off.

Oh, and if anyone ever tries to talk shit on Nic Cage or Idris Elba (especially Idris Elba), that goes double.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012 in Film: The Secret of Arrietty

I'll just go ahead and apologize for this one from the start; I haven't got anything to say about Studio Ghibli's movie from this year. The absolute best I can come up with is lazy shit like "the animation was good but the design, I felt, was a bit lacking," or "a solid story, and well enough told, but lacking something indefinable."

Arrietty was good but not great, and so on and so on. I don't know though. I have always had a weird relationship to Ghibli films; Ponyo didn't really do it for me, and I never quite got how Spirited Away was a masterpiece, though I do love it. But I fucking lived and breathed Totoro growing up, and Mononoke was like a kick in the head for me in the best possible way. Even those, though, don't have any nostalgic power; I just think that Totoro is still a wonderful movie that I associate with my childhood only in the most abstract fashion, and I've never even bothered rewatching Mononoke.

I can say that there is a lot to recommend in the premise of Arrietty, with its promise to defamiliarize the space that I am, probably above all others, invested in theoretically -- the house, by way of presenting it at a radically changed scale. And I vaguely recall that there was at least one scene that seemed to do that. But then, I don't know, almost a year on I have a hard time thinking back to whether there was any real impact there.

Ghibli films are, to really blithely overreach, almost always about some sort of break within the family, I think, the consequences of which play out within the frame, and the resolution of which is rarely their reconstitution into a nice nuclear whole, which I do like. I can’t quite remember if Shawn’s impending death was ever referred to explicitly, or whether they backed away from it at the end, but it seemed to me to be obvious that the film was very much about the death of a kid.

Which is, I suppose, maybe the core of my lack of enthusiasm for this movie. There did seem to be something that everything was "about," a broad thematic towards which each moment of the film seemed to be referring. Which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing, necessarily, just not one that I find particularly compelling. Especially when those themes roughly corresponded to abstractions of friendship and personal responsibility.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012 in Film: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

There is something to be said about a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter when the critical consensus seems to have been, roughly, “it wasn’t ironic enough.” For a film that should have been one massive winking shitfest, and a profoundly racist one at that, what we got instead was just a racist shitfest with some killer style (and good lord to I hate to say that about a movie to which Tim Burton’s name is attached) and a couple of moments of honest-to-god awe at the toys that it had to put in front of you.

There really is nothing for the contemporary vampire film to do but to recognize that it is nothing but a toybox for the viewer to enjoy, and in its best moments Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is the best movie I’ve ever seen at doing this. Better even, in its way, than Let The Right One In was about its Coen Brothers action figures, or Let Me In was about its Hitchcock doll. The beautiful shamelessness with which the pocket watch got punched into Adam, or the awkward reverence of the longshot of the burning trestle, or the deadly earnest with which Abe wielded his stupid, silly weapon; or even the gooey, dripping melodrama of the scenes between Abe and Mary Todd or when Willy dies, or the sociopathic glee with which the film depicts the death of Barts. There is, in all these moments, the gleeful greediness of rifling through a just-opened toychest, the pleasure of being able to snatch up and discard in quick succession whole generations worth of entertainment, and I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you if the fact that it isn’t grinning in your face the entire time it does this somehow pisses you off.

It’s probably worth noting, too, that, at least based on what I’ve heard of the other one, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter managed to be the less racist of the two movies about Lincoln that came out this year. Given that, y’know, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter at least acknowledged that black people did things, and didn’t just stand politely offscreen while the white saviour got down to business. Which isn’t to say that this movie didn’t do the same goddamn thing, only that it at least didn’t do it as bad as a Spielberg movie did, allegedly. So congratulations on that one, y’all.

But honestly, honestly, why am I trying to do this, when all there is to say is my god, the toys. The fucking toys. The scene on the trestle is such a masterpiece in its incredibly limited way, so deeply in love with its ability to show off just how to play with a toy it has never seen before, so good at knowing that the pretenses it contrived to get us there can be joyfully suspended for the duration without anyone giving the slightest fuck. And then, when they have exhausted the playful bit, they contrive a plot point that reinforces the fact that what you just watched had no bearing on the plot whatsoever; the silver wasn’t even on the train to begin with, it was just a ploy for a neat fight scene, and nothing whatsoever hangs in the balance.

I’ve been sort of agonizing over the fact that I don’t have enough to say about this movie, wanting to be able to better defend it, to offer a way of reading it that cuts through the shit, that acknowledges the problems with all their weight along with the shit that’s done right, and to do so with aplomb. But fuck it; you open the toychest or you don’t. It’s not like its fucking locked.

Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 in Film: The Cabin in the Woods

The ambivalence that I felt when I first heard of Cabin in the Woods, or when I think about it as a sum of aspects like its premise, its director, its alleged reason for existing, and so on, is approaching ontological. On paper, I cannot imagine anything in the world that would inspire more fierce ambivalence in me than a Whedonian sci fi horror film that thinks “torture porn” is bad.

The movie itself, on the other hand, I was pretty okay with. Which isn’t something I’ve been able to say about a Whedon property since Buffy probably, which I haven’t seen an episode of since I was like 12. So congratulations on that friend, and I hope Firefly fucks right off the face of the earth.

Let’s take a little trip to Wikipedia real quick, shall we?
Whedon described the film as an attempt to revitalize the horror genre which he, along with director/co-writer Goddard, felt had "devolved" with the introduction of "torture porn". He called it a "loving hate letter" to the genre, continuing:
On another level it's a serious critique of what we love and what we don't about horror movies. I love being scared. I love that mixture of thrill, of horror, that objectification/identification thing of wanting definitely for the people to be all right but at the same time hoping they’ll go somewhere dark and face something awful. The things that I don't like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had swung a little too far in that direction.
Now, aside from the fact that I remain unconvinced that there is such a genre as “torture porn,” especially given the fact that Hostel is basically a really shitty action movie and I barely remember any violence in it at all, and that’s supposed to be the ur-text of the genre from what I understand. And it’s exactly the sort of moralistic bullshit that’s that shit I don’t like.

That quote does describe pretty precisely why I can’t stand Whedon and would have seriously preferred not to enjoy the directorial debut of the Cloverfield writer. Just looking at the penultimate sentence quoted from Whedon; that three part list is atrocious. Aside from my already stated skepticism regarding torture porn, the things that Whedon lists as being awful about the horror genre are exactly what people complained about in what Whedon is claiming to be the Golden Age or whatever, and what Cabin in the Woods chooses as its template; early 80s slasher films. And even more than that, what he ends up doing is sucking any interesting critique right out of that format, replacing the oftentimes interesting female characters (if you choose to read them in a counterintuitive way) that these movies smuggle in with characters who have nothing even vaguely resembling interesting stories. It is, as I’ve said, shitty moralizing, and Whedon’s cod-feminism has been mocked elsewhere and basically fuck him, etc etc.

Once again, though, the monsters basically saved this film. Not the ones that pursue the characters for the bulk of the film, but the ones in the orgy at the end; redneck zombies is really really fucking unfunny. But movie monsters murdering security guards who are dressed up like the SWAT team fucking rules. And the supremely low regard I have for anything bearing Whedon’s brand made the nihilism of the ending a wonderful little surprise for me at least.

This is maybe the first movie that I find myself not minding that I am describing it in much more negative terms than I feel like I should be. Which seems to've been the case with basically every movie I've reviewed in the last week or so. The Cabin in the Woods is just so fucking clever, so fucking meaningful, which aren't bad things at all, in fact I often like them and get annoyed when people deny that they have affective power that goes beyond flattening, but at the same time, I mean fuck. Whedon you piece of shit.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 in Film: The Hunger Games

I am going to probably not have a whole lot to say about The Hunger Games. Which is sort of a shame since I figure probably would have had plenty to say if I wrote this when it first came out. But I didn't, and I don't really have time to revisit these movies given the schedule I've set myself; and anyway it feels now as though it has been ages since I read the trilogy, even though I read it all in about two days maybe a week before the film came out.

I do remember coming out of the theater and wanting to know if the movie felt claustrophobic for people who hadn't read the books. The ones I saw it with didn't have any problems with the pacing at all, but the whole time through I noticed myself thinking the movie seemed incredibly packed with information. Which was primarily me reading the contents of the book, as fresh as they were in my mind, into the direction of the film.

The movie was, if nothing else, an object lesson in why you don't let people who aren't deeply and weirdly in love with monsters design or work on your monsters. Especially when those people are administrative types. What was basically the best moment in the book, when all the threads about brutality and audience and biopolitics and competition were transmuted into really fantastic, if overwrought, body horror, was a complete fucking joke in the movie. And knowing, as someone who read the book would, what was supposed to be going on at that moment made it that much more risible.

There were other moments like this of course -- Peeta's rock makeup was pretty inexplicable in the film, for instance -- but or the most part the movie did a fairly good job of anticipating the viewer's familiarity without requiring it. The biggest problem was the one that couldn't have possibly been avoided. Where the novel was, if not necessarily incredibly sophisticated, at least capable of generating interesting reflections on the tension between the public and private in consciousness, and if not lodge critiques then at least develop characters for whom the tension is more than just an academic question. The film, on the other hand, had to embed any of those thematic elements in ways that are significantly more indirect, and so less capable of generating the reflection. I am, to derail slightly, probably the only person who is actually more excited to see the third book turned into a film than I was this one, since the books as a whole can probably fairly easily be read as a weird retelling of the American Revolution and the part where there is actually a revolution seems, along with the fact that the celebrity theme is more or less reduced to agonizing over the use of the image versus the use of the person, altogether much more amenable to film.

This movie though was fairly toothless, and the controversy over the character of Rue was a pretty perfect encapsulation of that. The only conceivable way for a movie to become controversial for being insufficiently whitewashed is for it to be as innocuous as possible. It is cool that they didn't whitewash it though, even if it is ultimately the case that it then proceeds to sprint right into another shitty racist media narrative.

But again I find myself describing a film toward which I felt positively in fairly mean terms. The movie was good, and I was glad to see it; I suppose it was highly coloured by the fact that I had just devoured the books, which I had enjoyed even with their problems. Because of that a lot of my experience inside the film was spent trying to tease out the ways that the adaptation of a novel could potentially be read in ways that go beyond the simple “the book was better than the movie” stereotypical reaction – especially in how the foreknowledge of the characters’, but in particular the protagonist’s, interiority, can be a powerful way of overdetermining their actions. Unfortunately it has been a while since I saw the movie and a lot of those thoughts are totally gone at this point. So, well, sorry.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 in Film: Wreck-It Ralph

So I suppose that my initial "review" of Wreck-It Ralph could use some elaboration, and I could write more about other stuff in it generally. So let's go ahead and do that.

So first, the link between Wreck-It Ralph and the Eminem song. I came out of the film kind of enamoured of the idea that, since the movie is framed by "Bad Anon" meetings, one coherent way of reading the film would be essentially as a binge/relapse. The thing that has always struck me about the video for When I'm Gone is how, at the end, as the (A/N)A frame closes, there is a sort of insane, almost frightening narcissism in the way that the other members respond. They clap as though they are fans, not participants; it is the kind of round of applause one receives for a performance, not a sharing. Which, given the content of the song - particularly the line attributed to Hailey, "take another pill, yeah I bet you will; you rap about it, word, k-keep it real" (which has always seemed like a moment of devastating honesty to me given who we are dealing with, but that is beside the point I guess) - speaks to the ways that the interpolation of the personal by the performative, and the freedom of signs from things, can and must be in the end an extraordinarily painful process. It is also a very pedestrian, ordinary process, one that everyone goes through, no matter that it is presented as being a symptom of celebrity, which is the point of the Anonymous meetings, and is at the heart of the idealizing/domesticating dialectic of celebrity (finding its ultimate unresolved realization in the "celebrity crush").

The point being, though, that this is a sort of buried thematic of Wreck-It Ralph as well, although it tends to be smokescreened by the way the movie tries to present itself as a "learning to come to terms with yourself" narrative. Of course, Ralph is less interested in mapping the labyrinth than he is in playing a different role within it. The movie is actually structured more like High Fantasy than anything else, with the ultimate thrust being that the world is fucked up, although no one really knows that, because the rightful rulers aren't sitting on their rightful thrones. Even the main villain, who you don't know is a player at all until the end, is basically the bad guy because he's a cosmopolitan who upsets the landed aristocracy from their rightful positions, and it is only by defeating this menace who dares to do other than what he was "programmed for" that the proper balance can be restored to the world. Add to this the fact that if you close your eyes you might think that you've accidentally stumbled into Talladega Nights 2 featuring Sarah Silverman and I can kind of see how you might want to give this one a pass, maybe.

But of course, on the other hand, I dug this movie. Not fiercely, but not tepidly either, and it is worth saying that the biggest complaint that it leaves you with is that it doesn't do more, that the Games Hub isn't quite cool enough, that there weren't enough game worlds represented. Because what they did do they did well enough with that one assumes if they had made more they would have done well by it, too.

There is also something to be said about a movie inspired by video games that doesn't overwhelm the viewer. It seems as though most cinematic understandings of video games are incapable of dealing with any aspect of the medium except the visual, which is probably unsurprising. But divorcing the visual from the interactive elements of video games leads to hilariously stilted representations. When you hold a controller the neon assault of a video game isn't overwhelming at all, because you aren't trying to see the whole picture. You necessarily focus narrowly on what you are controlling and where you are trying to get it. The idea that video games are all bright visual assaults only makes sense in cinema (or by people watching you play the game, perhaps); all the visual noise is actually designed around the fact that the ordinary player isn't seeing it for the most part. So while Wreck-It Ralph does offer gaudy, sugary, borderline self-parodic designs, it does so in a way that is actually much more like playing a video game than watching one, which is an achievement I don't think I've encountered in film representations of video games before.

I do wish the arcade shooter had been better done though. It was easily the most boring bit of the film, at least as far as I remember. Well that and the denouement. Marriage and Benelovent Queendoms (even, and especially, when they masquerade as democratic) are boring as fuck.

There is something especially difficult, I think, in attempting to offer an incisive or totalizing argument about this film. Maybe that's just because I enjoyed it well enough and don't think it is particularly interesting to claim that the overarching theme of a Hollywood film is basically heteronormative and assimilationist. Or that its themes are about self-realization in a way that means you realize that you just needed to be happier with your lot in life and the structures that exist might be flawed but are ultimately good. Because no shit.

But there is something there about the Anon frame. Something unnecessary, something that presses up uncomfortably close to the themes, like a calculated bungle, at least as awkward as the "it was all a dream" frame but without nearly as much baggage. "It was all a binge. I learned that the system is good, and it works, and all I had to do was relapse" has something toothsome there, I think.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

2012 in Film: Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians is a movie whose protagonist and antagonist are both so phenomenally unengaging, so devoid of anything even remotely compelling, so miserably caught up in their stultifying Peter Pan desparation to be believed in that they are bordering on radically inhuman. Even Peter Pan recognized that the point of the belief is not that it is there, but how it functions as an analogue for trust and the desire to be given autonomy over one's own life at a point when your entire life and identity is structured by its denial. Rise of the Guardians blithely ignores that slippage, instead taking belief in an exclusively theological register. It is less the epilogue to The Tempest, more Pokemon crying over Ash's corpse after Mewtwo kills him.*

Jackman's Easter Bunny and Baldwin's Santa and Fisher's Tooth Fairy are all pretty flat too, expressions of one character trait that grates pretty quickly. Antagony & Ecstasy covers this pretty succinctly in the fourth paragraph of his review here (the one paragraph in the whole thing which is entirely a parenthetical), so I don't really have much to say other than what I already have. Honestly that whole review is pretty spot on, in my mind at least, and this one is very informed by it. Antagony & Ecstasy is probably the only reviewer I give a shit about at this point, largely because I think we share a lot of fundamental assumptions and I tend to totally disagree with his conclusions most of the time, which as far as I am concerned is the best thing about critical writing. Anyway, back to the movie.

The overwhelming sense I got from this movie was that it was going to ram 3D down your fucking throat and you were going to like it. Every action sequence seemed designed exclusively to fucking pop out at you. And given that I think the best 3D I saw in a movie this year was for a movie that critical consensus seems to agree should have been a direct-to-DVD sequel, it is maybe not that important that I was not especially impressed. Which isn't the whole of it really; there is something to be said about the way that the 3D in Guardians managed to come off as technical and not gaudy, especially given how in your face it was. But then, on the other hand, who cares.

I am finding that this review might cause a bit of cognitive dissonance given how negative it seems, since the way I am describing it is on grounds that I usually reserve for hyperbolic praise. Which is to say: isn't strong environmental design, especially when it flies in the face of characterization, basically exactly what the fuck I'm all about? And the answer is yes, complicatedly but no less straightforwardly. So what is the problem?

Well. It is kind of difficult to say. The movie isn't unenjoyable, and there are things about it that I think would be worth looking at more closely; I am just not sure that I have the right ideas to do so. The review is coming off a lot more negative than I anticipated, actually, although I think that has a lot to do with the fact that criticisms I am putting forward tend to be not so much points made in passing, as I think of them, as ways to condemn a movie wholesale, and reading back makes it unclear that that distinction is in place.

For the most part I think my disappointment in the movie was largely a product of two things; its focus on the technical and its use of certain framing techniques. The technical issue is, as I have said, possibly something that can be taken as a positive, with regards to the 3D at least. But because every bit of the movie seems engineered towards technical proficiency in that specific way that technique gets used to describe something artificial that "feels" natural, all of the interesting frisson is ultimately smoothed over by the movie's technical achievement. If Silent Hill: Revelation 3D had the most interesting 3D effects I saw in theaters this year, it isn't unrelated to the fact that it does seem very much like it "should" have been a direct-to-DVD project; one of the precursors to that movie, in my mind, and one of my favorite films of all time, is Pulse 3, which was in fact direct-to-DVD. And the main reason it is so amazing has to do with how the technical aspects of the movie are so hamstrung that half the movie is very clearly shot in front of a green screen, which given that the movie is premised on a post-apocalyptic world where ghosts have come out of the Internet, is actually so poetically perfect that the failure of the technical is actually to the absolute benefit of the film as a whole. I doubt anyone agrees with me though; but the point is that Guardians is a bit too sprezzatura for my tastes.

Now for the more complicated point, in that I don't quite believe I will be able to do it justice even to myself, about frames. I touched on this briefly with the allusion to Peter Pan; Antagony & Ecstasy touched on it as well with the offhand joke about jRPGs. It is more the way that the character frame (amnesiac protagonist surrounded by NPCs...) gets fitted within the narrative frame (...fights Ultimate Evil who is a symbolic reflection of himself...) which is in turn fitted into the conceptual frame (...on an epic, mythological or theological scale...) and ultimately the thematic frame ( Save The Children, and Find Himself). In practice, though, the conceptual frame -- which is also literally the only reason anyone is interested in this movie at all -- doesn't even remotely fit with the rest. It isn't that it can't -- I already mentioned Eternal Sonata in another review, which isn't a particularly close fit but is nevertheless an instructive one -- but that it just doesn't. And it works well enough on its own, as do most of the other bits, and it even seems to fit, smoothed over as it is by the technical aspects. But there remains something about it which just doesn't ever work. And perhaps worst of all, that technical flair right where I find most interesting only serves to obscure how it doesn't work, and to make it impossible to enjoy the friction that would be there in any other movie.

A conclusion, then, I suppose. A phenomenally well done movie whose craft is the only thing keeping it from being truly interesting.

Now my charms are all overthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.


Monday, December 24, 2012

2012 in Film: Norwegian Wood

Although Norwegian Wood falls within the group of Murakami's novels that I am perhaps least fond of, those being the ones which could be broadly & misleadingly categorized as straightforward realism; & though the film tended to highlight all those bits of the novel which were the most unappealing to me; & though it has been nearly a full year since I saw this one, I am going to go ahead and give this movie a "positive review," or whatever.

Murakami tends to shine brightest, for me at least, when the alienation and sadness of his characters is more refracted than expressed or symbolically deployed. Especially when those moments of magical realism or explosive violence don't comfortably fit into any explanatory frame (or at least when they manage to evade the ones that I attempt to apply), with the prime example being the rain of leeches from Kafka on the Shore. With a close second being the assault from Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Norwegian Wood has none of these moments, instead off(er)ing characters whose reactions tend toward the extreme but whose psychological makeup is fairly easily ascertained. And it is very much within these extremes that the characters of the film operate, placing their reactions at the emotional and dramatic center. The scene in which the main character stands on a rock screaming and crying being only the most obvious and unfortunate instance.

By choosing to do what it does, though, and sticking to it faithfully, it succeeds on its own terms. Given that it is the story of a set of varyingly solipsistic youth and their attempt to connect to each other, the cinematography which is often so pretty it verges on cloying fits very well, even and especially that it flirts with kitsch in a way that I think I have only ever seen Antichrist do; the woods around the psychiatric retreat in particular are shot with an almost alienating reverence that I still remember very vividly today. Unfortunately, the score isn't really up to par, at least in my memory, and the short shrift given to the roommate and the school friend is really disappointing.

The absolute best thing about the movie, however, is the way that it doesn't forget its sociohistorical moment, or try to shoehorn its relevance. When, in the beginning, we see masked-up student radicals rushing across the background of the scenes, we are given the tools by which to situate the film.

Murakami's fiction can be broadly read in two ways; as universal or as particular. It has moments in support of both, but it is only at its best when read through its particularity. He deals with broad themes, of course, but to fail to acknowledge them as acting through very specific subsets defangs them, makes them into boring paeans on Modernity and Loneliness and so on. It is in particular in his more realistic fiction that the impulse to read this way is present, and it is why I tend to find it boring.

The inclusion of those students, racing across the background of the frame, seemed to me a wonderful acknowledgement of that fact. We are not here to experience the lives of those who seek to change the world. But they exist, and obliquely inform, the lives we do experience. And, like the song from which the title is taken, we find ourselves experiencing that particular story of impossible, painful intimacy that tends to crop up only when absolutely everything in the world around us is broken, and we are too wrapped up in the pains of our particular moment to notice the trend.

Just as Rubber Soul marked the break between the early Beatles and the late, this film indexes a vary particular instance of the moment that the popular was forced to reckon with the political. And just as Norwegian Wood (this bird has flown) opened a space for non-Anglophonic instrumentation within pop music, finally taking a tentative step away from the purely insular and at least nominally creating a space for dialogue (see: "world music," and all its problems), this film is an act of translation in a wonderful sense, albeit one whose impact has not, and almost certainly will never, be felt. It translates the moment of its production, of its content, and of the moment that it title takes from, and returns them to the Anglophonic sphere, mutated through all these transformations that register only in brief flashes in the background. And it does this, when it manages not to fail, by speaking through the particular, which is not to say the individual.

It's own particularity is that it manages to index without abstracting; we see these characters, and they are not us, and they do not live near us, and we do not become them, but we might live with them in their cinematographically advanced world for a moment. In its best moments of the film, it manages to not reduce the characters (it keeps) to depression-type and angst-type and turmoil-type without whispering to you that there is a reason for this, but they cannot see it so you cannot either, unless you choose to look; but even if you do, do not forget that you are the intruder here.

Of course, what we watch when we see this film is a particularly well-done form of kitsch, and it is not unimportant to note how this is reinforced by the melodrama of the narrative, in which nothing really happens except that everyone fucking dies. So it isn't so much that the characters react unrealistically to how shitty everything is as that the world itself is an adjunct to their solipsism. Which is why when the student radicals appear, their passing leaves such a strong impression; even if this whole world is a solipsistic nightmare where all your friends kill themselves and sex is even more traumatic and alienated than everything else and the only way out is a desperate search for love with someone who will only be immediately codependent on without anything changing, at least this isn't the only possibility for everyone, even if it is for who we see.

But again, this is all deeply embedded into the fabric of the film; the melodrama that constitutes the film's narrative never touches it. It is relentless, and that is only useful as a backdrop, not a moral, because the second it becomes the center it adopts the frame of love which is always then reduced. The love story at the center of the film is The Love Story, of course, and ultimately who really cares. It is that The Love Story is framed subtly in this way that matters.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

2012 in Film: Men In Black 3

As far as time travel movies from this year go, I think I would recommend MIIIB over Looper, at the end of the day. That's maybe just a symptom of me having a wretched track record of recommending movies to people, though. And the fact that the last time I was interested in time travel as a fictional conceit was when I used to get high and watch Primer over and over in high school. I dunno.

Maybe the strangest thing about Looper was that it wasn't adapted from a novel. That would have gone a long way towards explaining why it seems to so relentlessly disavow anything filmic about itself. MIIIB doesn't have this shortcoming. Compare the two modes of time travel; one is a little capsule, the other a watch that you press after jumping off a building. To claim either is more "realistic" is to play into the hands of boring rule-based criticism; to claim that one works way better in the cinematic medium is pretty fucking undeniable.

So, the film. Basically we get the story of how Will Smith's dad was actually really cool all along. So that's cool.

I didn't realize it at the time, but there's something of a highly sanitized Cthulhu Mythos feel to the aliens in the lab, and the movie itself could maybe be read as an attempt to translate unspeakable horrors from beyond the stars into hilarity instead of terror. It isn't quite Monsters, Inc about it either; there is something that remains of the genuinely weird in the aliens here. They are comprehensible without being totally domesticated, and many of the most famous comedy moments could very well have been played for horror without much alteration.

The biggest disappointment I had with the movie, I think, was how seriously it took itself. That maybe sounds weird to say about a movie in which Andy Warhol is an undercover agent for a secret governmental organization that polices aliens, and is a comedy, but there is something indefinable, except maybe in the moralizing ending, about the movie that made me think that it wasn't nearly as interested in being of itself than it was of being, well, serious. Maybe it's the lack of a new Smith rap song. Possibly it was how the most absurd alien of all happened to be the main villain and his actions were for some unknowable reason treated as if they had dramatic effects. I can't really remember, honestly. Pretty sure it was there, though.

What this film does do is to treat itself as a film, which is to say that it builds its world and narrative with a sense of the visual at least as much as the thematic. For that alone it beats Looper hands down, though who out there exists that needs to hear me compare the two I don't know. But just for good measure, the opening subway scene outpaces anything in Looper by miles, so fuck it. Also that fucking dog wasn't in this one I don't think? or maybe only really briefly? which is great.

I (probably totally spuriously) attribute the original Men In Black movie with an inordinate amount of importance in shaping, or at least predicting, much of what I would end up being fascinated with in my teenage years. I didn't watch a lot of films growing up; I was one of those book nerds who would hide in my room and read when the rest of the family was watching television or a movie. But one of the earliest birthday parties I ever had -- probably in fourth grade, because that was when I finally first made some friends -- was to go see Men In Black in theaters. I then spent a few formative years, during high school, basically a recluse reading conspiracy theory bullshit about September 11th a few years after the fact. I also wore around multiple pentacles -- a necklace and a ring, primarily -- along with other magickal objects. I can't say that I ever much believed in any of these things, but they held my interest for a long time in a way that wasn't really academic or whatever so much as just, well, interest, and was only tangentially at best a way of creating an image for myself.

What Men In Black had to do with that is hard to pinpoint, exactly, and I am not especially proud of that moment, but there is something there, I believe. Because unlike the X-Files with "the truth is out there," or Lovecraft's cod-philosophizing, one of the most important things about the Men In Black movies is that they do not attempt any sort of extrapolation. They simply present a very vibrant world, which draws on certain mythologies of our own, without ever needing to claim that it impacts our understanding of reality. The series doesn't have a pedagogy; meanings get thrown off them, many of them unsavory, and there is obviously an assumed subject to some extent, but unlike the milieu out of which it rises, and which it lovingly mocks, there is no directed program on how to teach you to see the world better. There is only the sights themselves, for you to make of them what you will. And that is wonderful; and it is also why MIIIB's seriousness can almost terminally wound it.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

2012 in Film: The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man finally gave us an accurate version of the shittiest of all super heroes. Batman, especially after Frank Miller got his hands on him, might be a fascist or whatever, but he doesn't hold a candle to the nasty geek wish-fulfilment and entitled prickishness known to the world as Peter Parker. And finally, free of the curse of Toby Maguire's charisma and Sam Raimi's kitsch sentimentality, the reboot unveils the kid in his full glory.

Everything about this movie screams wish-fulfilment for a specific set of those entitled self-proclaimed victims known as white dudes who were "bullied." Not just the high-flying heroism and getting the girl, not just the fact that the webslinging is back to its bootstrapsish origin; not even just the Uncomplicated Moral Righteousness. More than anything Spidey is the wet dream of the self-identified nerd who loves to imagine lunchroom encounters with jocks where his debate skills debilitate their underdeveloped brains, with a nice little helping of ultraviolence to cap off the encounter with their "oppressor."

Obviously this fantasy is bullshit down to its very premise. But then, the film itself is informed by it down to its very structure, so. And much better to have the fantasy shown for how it would actually play out, with the fantasist coming off as a snarky, entitled prick, than to mask it with cheap sentimental hooks. Because even when the movie isn't letting Parker spout grating one-liners, it is fetishizing technology (occasionally masked as science) at the level of both plot -- it being the only thing that can actually impact anything, for good or ill -- and form -- the fucking 3D, man, my god.

Which isn't to say that the 3D is any good, of course. Both Silent Hill and Ghost Rider did it way better this year, which was kind of a dissappointment given that Spidey is probably the single most 3D friendly film character who ever was born. But it not being particularly well utilized doesn't stop it from being fetishized just like every other technology in and of the film, presented with all the mystical reverence that nerds show for their toys. In fact it even ends up being more apt for its incompetence, expecting you to coo at it just because it is so clearly cooing at itself; a better description of this movie I cannot imagine, and sort of charming in its infuriating, loathsome way.

The fact that all of this is perfectly internally consistent is kind of marvellous, ultimately. Every thread collapses in on itself, each apparent misstep an even more accurate portrayal of itself than a more technically accomplished or politically or psychologically robust alternative could have possibly been. The barks of laughter that came from the audience when Stan Lee showed up were such a perfect response I was floored; it was the opposite of the Hitchock self-insert, whose pleasure is for the quiet collector or self-described cinephile. Lee instead parades himself as a librarian listening to classical music as Spidey and Lizard smash up his library, while he is totally oblivious. There is nothing to be said about this. Every single aspect is so self-aggrandizing, so narcissistic, so utterly fucking thrilled with its own vapid power that the only possible reaction is to laugh.

And, y'know, laughing can be fun.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Thursday, December 20, 2012

2012 in Film: Safe

Safe is basically a movie about fuck cops and #nodads. It also is a movie about some really cool action sequences, a self-consciously thin plot, and some unselfconsciously shitty racial stereotypes. I assume it was generally disliked by critics because the racism wasn't quite strong enough, in the final calculations, to counterbalance the fact that it didn't worship cops.

So Statham is a cage fighter who used to work as a semi-official assassin for the police, but got kicked out for ratting on his coworkers. Then THE RUSSIANS killed his wife and made his life a living hell because he failed to throw a fight. Then he tries to kill himself but sees a little Chinese girl running from THE RUSSIANS so he saves her & it turns out she has a Super Secret Number memorized because she's (you guessed it) a math genius, and then he protects her as THE RUSSIANS, THE CHINESE, and the crooked cops try to get her. He kills a bunch of dudes and then finds out the safe that the numbers unlock has like hella cash and something like The Entire Collected Knowledge Of The DHS, In Convenient Disk Form. Then the mayor's aide & gay lover fights a bunch of dudes & goes to fight Statham but Mei shoots him so Statham wins, and is like hey kid I'd be a shitty dad and she's like yeah fuck having a dad and hes like alright cool lets go to Seattle.

Honestly I don't really know what to say beyond that. Until I reread the plot synopsis I remembered literally nothing about this movie -- less even than I remembered about John Carter. I am not particularly well versed in action films, and I can't think of any other Statham movies I have ever seen. Was he in District B-13 or whatever that was called? I don't remember anything about that one either.

I am really out of my element here. I'm not even sure why I am trying to write this. I think the only genre I am less familiar with is comedy, because comedy is awful. Oh god the Men in Black 3 review is going to be such a disaster.

The cops in this movie are pretty unrelentigly shitty. Also one of them is stuffed into a trunk for the last like half hour of the film. The mayor almost gets stuffed in there too but they chickened out, which was really unfortunate, but he does get knocked out. The way the plot advanced seemed actively funny to me while I was watching it, in a pleasant way, especially the scene where Statham cracks the cipher effortlessly in the Hotel room while he is like fortifying it or whatever. The whole thing just deeply did not give a fuck about you and that was kind of wonderful. I literally don't remember anything about the cinematography, or the sets, or anything. Jesus man narrative analysis is so fucking boring how do people write this shit.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2012 in Film: John Carter

So, in case you were worried these would all be long rambling screeds, I will today review a movie which left roughly no impression on me whatsoever: John Carter, of Mars, or so they say.

What I do remember: the movie was hella racist. But you know, its Disney, and they weren't natives, they were aliens, so it was totally okay. Also that it was really just remarkably shitty on gender. But see previous.

The only bit of the movie I remember at all, really, was the scene where Carter goes all White Rage and slaughters a ton of aliens who, if memory serves, were pretty civil to his annoying ass prior to that moment. But as spectacle it worked surprisingly well, quite nearly managing to obscure the fucking despicable politics of the moment beneath its visual strength. Except not quite, because unfortunately for us white people these histories don't actually tend to disappear.

There was also that weird bit at the end, where Carter goes all Bond or Odysseus or whatever, and out-cunnings the godlike race of aliens by like, only pretending to be dead and buried in the mausoleum or whatever? That was pretty terrible too I guess.

I suppose there is something to be said, too, about the sheer implacable wall of boredom that this movie was. Which was, in its way, and as Keishi pointed out to me, its strongest aspect. Every single aspect of the film, from its scale to its content to its production, screamed that it was going to bore the hell out of you, and I can happily report back that the mission was accomplished. Even the aforementioned fight wasn't good in the sense that it rose above the boredom -- boredom is not something to be risen above, but is worthy of exploring in its own right -- as that it brought the spectacle fully down to its own level in a successful interpolation of the action sequence not as immersive excitement but as alienating boredom. Without diminishing the degree to which this is based on a pervasive racist logic, the flattened affect of boredom, which is not only experienced in relation to the narrative and visuals and music -- that is, the diegetic aspects of the film -- but is always also a self-conscious, meta reaction to both the film as experience and even to itself, produces a kind of awesome disharmony in the face of a glut of generic signposts that demand to be read as kinetic, immanent, and intense.

Which then leads me to want to rant on a bit about irony and how things like "post-irony" fail to acknowledge that the way that irony works isn't hegemonizing or even multiplying but splitting & doubling, creating concurrent extremes, and that New Sincere bullshit is just a way of sacralizing immediacy in a way that is not so much honest as itself a homogenizing mode of discourse. But I intended to keep this one short. And anyway, that would be boring.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

2012 in Film: Looper

I left Looper feeling weirdly similar to how I felt when I left the theater after Inception; vaguely better than when I had gone in, but in a way that didn't seem at all to correlate to the film I had just watched, which just seemed to have sort of been there. There have been other similarities noticed between the two, although for me the most important thing is one difference; that Looper never comes across as a fucking Allegory For Cinema. That's what made me go from a sort of pleasant nonchalance about Inception to an active dislike; I get the impression that pleasant nonchalance is where I will stay with regards to Looper. And I say "pleasant nonchalance" because it seems like the right nonsense mixture of words to convey the non-feeling it doesn't really correspond to.

I think the reason this film was so talked about is in a lot of ways attributable to how little there really is to say. Genevieve Valentine hit the nail on the head here, although even that doesn't manage to convey just how much this appears in the film. Other than the psychosexual issues, it is tightly plotted (I suppose), well acted (if that is even a thing), visually impressive (what does that mean), and has a fairly interesting premise (even though it has flaws or whatever what the fuck is even going on do people actually care about any of these things).

I think the most interesting thoughts I had about the film were actually thought in reaction to this review over at Strange Horizons. And that largely because I disagreed with it. Specifically the last couple paragraphs, which mix a variety of arguments from authority – the rules of genre fiction, of personal experience, and of the "real world" and mature, adult understandings thereof – which ultimately to me seem made to justify the final claim that "while the film has a point, it’s not one that needs a science-fictional telling." Which is all well and good, I suppose, and I think on its own terms the argument works well enough, is properly supported and so on; but the idea itself seems fairly suspect to me.

Because I don't think the film has much of a point, really. And I mean that in a good way – Inception sucks because it "has a point," and so each moment of it becomes an overdetermined mess of Significance, and the whole thing ultimately allegorizes itself all the way to being an insulting piece of shit in the exact way that, say, Shutter Island manages to palpably barely avoid throughout. To take Looper as "having a point" makes it at best a really awkwardly bad Coen Brothers movie at best, and I say that as someone who really really hates the Coen Brothers.

But the argument which stresses rules is one which seems to me both obsolete and actually more obstructionist than useful, as it makes any fictional property into a boring feedback system in which rules are posited and then obeyed, and flattens all texts to this possibility. So something like the Extended Universe of Star Wars can be praised on the grounds of how it adheres to the rules that were laid out in prior texts, instead of being engaged on multiple levels regarding their craftsmanship, their content, and their place within the genre, and so on.

Specifically to that review, the focus on the rules leads to an understanding of the movie which forecloses any political possibility that doesn't conform to a very narrow understanding of politics. What are presented as "real world" understandings are more symptoms of exactly the type of cynical "realism" with which political thought is pervaded, and rely on a view of reality which is nothing more than the "rules" of genre writ large, such that they cover the whole world. The claim, for instance, that the links between the government of the film's present and the government of the film's future are not immediately graspable only makes sense if one assumes that a state hews closely to the progressive idea of the state; that there could have been some sort of fascist irruption doesn't even cross the reviewer's mind, precisely because the framework under which they are reviewing the movie doesn't allow for that. It wouldn't be playing by the rules.

There is even a suggestion of this within the film itself, in the form of the TK characters. The rules-based interpretation of the movie sees them and, because it necessarily operates on the meta-level as well as the diegetic, thinks "Get your Children of the Corn out of my time travel adventure!" What it doesn't see is the possibility that what is being described is not just an awkwardly shoehorned trope into a Proper Genre, but an element of the frame which suggests the relatively unseen social structure that informs it is thoroughly different, and getting rapidly stranger. Time travel itself is almost a retro concept within science fiction at this point, especially when it involves a machine, functioning more as one of those things you list when you are mocking your friend who likes science fiction – so what, you read about space ships and time travel and alien abductions all the time? – than something that is encountered in the literature very much. Which is just to say that the movie, from the beginning, seems to be working with a certain idea of genre as such, rather than within any genre; and because of that, it is both boring (as it doesn't ultimately enter dialogue with anything) and not particularly well-described by a genre-specific interpretation.

So uh, ultimately I suppose what I have to say about Looper itself is that it was fine or whatever, I guess.

Monday, December 17, 2012

2012 in Film: Silent House

Silent House is certainly a horror film through and through, right down to its embarrassing psychologizing explanation at the end. At the same time, though, it presents itself in a way that begs for a reading against the usual modes of valuing a film, so I totally fell into its trap.

The film, shot in such a way as to convey the sense that it is in "real time," is at least as much a riff on Russian Ark as it is on Paranormal Activity, even if the technical achievement is really just a fabrication. And instead of the awesome technical spectacle that Russian Ark provides, we have what is more or less High Tension with less Halloween worship and more formal spectacle. Elizabeth Olsen's acting is pretty fantastic -- and I say this as someone who has no capacity to judge acting ability whatsoever, in addition to having terrible taste & not being able to recommend things to save my life -- but overall, to say the movie drags is sort of a terrible understatement.

But then, there is that one sequence. And god, is it good. When the genre busts right the fuck out of the editorial constraints and stains the walls and the camera and everything, for just a couple minutes, is a delirium of bleeding structures and visually unlocked trauma and just a giant fuck you to the rule-obsessed cretins who appoint themselves gatekeepers of genre.

Unfortunately, it then slinks back, asking their permission for inclusion, with a finale that is well done, for what it is, but betrays the possibility of that sequence in favor of The Motivating Power of Past Rapes and the safe Strong Female Character. Hooray.

What I think is worth preserving about this movie is the way that for it to work requires a mode of reading that is both counterfactual and past-tense; there is not really any critical attempt, at least that I am aware of, that tries to make sense of what having seen a movie achieves, as opposed to actively seeing or going to (in the future) see, barring the way that they pile up on one another in lists of influence. Because of the way the film presents itself as being in a sort of covert dialogue with other films -- the decision to "hide" the cuts cannot possibly be seen outside of the cultural dialogue which would have you believe that movies like Transformers, with their rapid-fire editing (allegedly; I haven't actually seen any of those either) are the latest and truest manifestation of the Death of Cinema -- in conjunction with how, well, boring this film itself really is, for the large majority of its running time, encourages a sense of the film as a thing that had been watched, as opposed to a Viewing Experience. Thematically, that this film's narrative is structured around trauma and how its intrasubjective shattering plays out then makes at least a little more sense, even if it isn't especially well handled. It is basically psychoanalytic in this sense, figuring trauma as not so much an event as a locus, a post ex facto origin story which collapses both development and motivation into a singular symbolic inscription, and which will be symbolically reenacted until the individual makes an appointment to sit on the Magical Ahistorical Couch to work it out from the stranglehold of the Imaginary into the Symbolic & thus be able to sort of purge it.

Uhm, anyway. All these things combined seem to me to suggest, again, that where the film works is not so much in its experience as in how it lingers, and what about it does. So the fact that I now think, however many months later, about that fantastical sequence in terms that don't rely whatsoever on the way it works in relation to the whole, where whole is generally understood as the experiential aspect of the formal, leaves me with the sense that there is something lingeringly worthwhile about the film, even if it isn't good in the way we tend to value these things.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

2012 in Film: Silent Hill: Revelation 3D

Okay, so it is maybe a bit unfair to lead off with this one. Particularly because I just had a review of it published over at Strange Horizons. But, it being my favorite movie that I saw this year, and since it seems to be in an accidental intimate dialogue with most of the things that fascinate me these days, I am going to suggest that those of you who are interested take the time to read that review, because what I am going to try to do here is draw out some of the stuff I found interesting about the film that I didn't talk about there.

So to begin, the stuff about video games. Specifically how games themselves are structured to absent the protagonist. There are obvious echoes here with my concept of Fantastical Materialism, and the way in which MiƩville treats his generic creations with a materialism generally absent even from things like "hard sci fi" and how it then results in an absence of interiority in his characters. An easy reading of this would then be to say that all video games are therefore Fantastical Materialist, and then (hopefully) to throw the idea out altogether, given how video games actually act (both formally and culturally; either way one doesn't tend to see much materialism (except maybe in the moralistic sense) therein). There are other consonances; video games tend to be difficult, if not impossible, to allegorize -- even games like Eternal Sonata, whose premise boils down to "yr anime chopin" (also it is a wonderful game) or Bioshock, with its preachy boring anti-Randian premise saturated through its whole structure, aren't in practice reducible to these meanings -- as well as tending to require, for reasons both formal and of perceived consumer prejudice, much more clearly defined internal worlds & therefore fidelity to what occurs within them. They also almost never indulge in the "it was all a dream!" frame, which, despite being almost exclusively thought of as a form of lazy writing, is basically a way of conflating content to form by breaking the frame. Because the dream-frame is predicated on the idea that the text is a product of a specific interiority, and video game protagonists must be stripped of their interiority, the frame doesn't fit; the few counterexamples I know of, where a game does do this, perform it for much more material purposes than it gets used for in film, as in the end of Super Mario Bros. 2, where the game itself was a reskinned version of a non-Mario game and as such had almost nothing to do with the previous game, even in terms of mechanics, and so the dream-frame presented in the credits offered more of an excuse/apology to the player, a "get out of canon free" card, than a way of pretending that Mario is well-developed enough as a character to have a subconscious. That Silent Hill provides one of the only other examples is also telling, given that it is one of the only video games that engages with interiority whatsoever.

Of course, what these consonances achieve in video games is basically the opposite of what they achieve in MiƩville's novels; instead of reconfiguring the ideological base of the form in which they act, they serve to lubricate the transferance that gamers like to call "immersion," which is itself the primary ideological vehicle of the form. The player doesn't need to have an objective interiority structured for him; this is the primary material difference between a player and a reader. The gamer is immersed exactly to the degree that her subjectivity can be made to fill the void that the character/protagonist creates; where the reader identifies, the gamer inhabits. Both are implicated in the production & reification of bourgeois subjectivity, because of the difference of form.

I should note here that I am using too broad a category for the thing I am describing. This obviously breaks down in a lot of places; for our purposes, though, I suppose I am using "video games" as shorthand for the "narrative component of character-driven video games."

All of this, of course, is an extrapolation on my claim that what Silent Hill: Revelation 3D does is to invert this relationship, in the same way that the Silent Hill games do. Which is to say that instead of operating in a form in which idealism & bourgeois subjectivity are predicated on the creation of a central character as void to be occupied, it operates in a form in which the central character produces these same ideological effects by presenting to us a subjectivity which is in the process of being constructed, and uses our and their visuality to short circuit the viewer into identification. By basically not having any characters, and by treating the plot as a paranoid conspiracy/mythological structure become material, it recreates the sensation of estrangement from form that makes the games as effective as they are.

Also, I don't really know where this fits but the video game-y stuff in the movie is so good, Heather checking her inventory in the motel room especially, oh my god that made me real happy.

Now that I have said something that makes this seem like a review or whatever, lets telescope back out and talk briefly about how this lack of characterization intersects with the fact that this is a movie in which the both the protagonist and antagonist are not only women, but the same woman; the villain is also a woman; the main infodump is given by a woman; and the men are either dudes in distress (Harry), totally ineffectual afterthoughts (Vincent), creepy stalkerish detectives (that dude who was a creepy stalkerish detective), or dumb fucking monsters (Leonard, Pyramid Head). Like how the romance arc ends with Vincent awkwardly kissing a really distracted and at best vaguely interested Heather, who isn't necessarily repulsed by him but is a bit busy living out her recurring nightmare, and even the way the scene is shot seems to be aware that this is more them enacting certain social assumptions than True Love.

The question, to which I have no answer, is how treating a film which is ostensibly in the horror genre and which is stacked with female characters as a shining example of an approach toward genre that moves away from the centrality of characters, might create apace for that wretched form of academic misogyny that hides behind interpretive frames to perpetuate male supremacy. Because Heather does spend an inordinate amount of time yelling "dad" into the haunted corridors of the town, and the climactic fight scene does involve a dude (albeit a monstrous one) stepping up to protect a woman from another woman (albeit a monstrous one) & ultimately decapitating her. So while there isn't so much of the shitty moralism of a slasher film, the problem is still very much there, and I worry that claiming the actors aren't characters as such could be used to justify them.

That the film simultaneously reifies & (possibly) subverts social roles, then, is an argument that is not so much in its favor -- even those moralizing slasher films often do the same thing, and whether we take this as a horror or weird film, the sexual politics of the genre provide a legacy which requires much more critical engagement.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

2012 in Film

I am going to try something that I haven't ever really done on this blog before: regularly scheduled updates. Every day for the next sixteen days I hope to post a review of one of the films I saw in theaters this year. Some of them will be very, very short; others will probably be of about medium length. I doubt any will be particularly long. What follows is a list of all the films I saw & will review, in order of their release date according to Wikipedia.

  • Norwegian Wood
  • Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
  • The Secret World of Arrietty
  • John Carter
  • Silent House
  • 21 Jump Street
  • The Hunger Games
  • The Cabin in the Woods
  • Safe
  • Men in Black 3
  • Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
  • The Amazing Spider-Man
  • Looper
  • Silent Hill: Revelation 3D
  • Wreck-It Ralph
  • Rise of the Guardians

I will begin tomorrow with Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, and hop around the list from there. Some of these movies were absolutely wonderful, others wretched. As someone who has impeccably shitty taste & a total inability to recommend things well, these reviews will almost certainly tend more toward the analytic/critical than the normal recommendation-based model. There really is no particular reason for me to do this, no grand critique to be made through themes or whatever. I just kind of want to.

Quickly, I would like to mention that I will not be reviewing those stupid movies that everyone seems to have wanted to have a go at; The Dark Knight Rises and Cloud Atlas and The Avengers. I didn't see them, first of all; and second, who cares. I think the fact that I avoided these films contributed as much to my enjoying my year of theater-going as much as anything else. So if you want to read about how Batman's a plutocrat or zombies are proles are whatever, feel free to look elsewhere.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

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