Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Shit: The Wind Rises

I had dreams of writing a big defense of The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki's maybe-it's-real-this-time retirement film about the designer of the Zero fighter aircraft that Imperial Japan employed extensively throughout the Pacific War. I thought I would have the time to dedicate and the energy to follow through in a way that didn't end up coming off as an apology for Japanese imperialism. I don't have either. I'll try, to a certain extent, but the best takeaway I can give is this: The Wind Rises is one of Miyazaki's most gorgeous films, and is significantly more complicated and ambivalent than even its greatest defenders have given it credit for.

Here's the thing: it isn't untrue that The Wind Rises is ultimately difficult to disentangle from mainstream right wing rhetoric and political action in contemporary Japan. There is a reason that Miyazaki had to write an Op Ed decrying the prime minister (and many others) plans to revise Article 9, the piece of the Japanese Constitution that forbids the country from having a standing military. There's nothing directly in the movie that condemns the consequences of the actions of its hero. There is, in fact, a number of arguments made that are clearly attempts to dissociate those consequences from the story being told. Which, at least as long as we're here, I don't think is entirely unfair, given how many of the condemnations of the valorization of Jiro Horikoshi seem like they border on the sort of tactical ahistoricity that they are accusing the film of*. Horikoshi's actions contributed to many horrific things, but saying that the movie is bad because of that is ignoring the conditions that lead to the rise of Japanese Imperialism and allowed for his work in the first place. Which is all to say, I suppose, in a roundabout way: what has been completely absent from the various discourses around The Wind Rises is that Horikoshi couldn't have done what he did without the material conditions permitting it, and those material conditions were ascendant imperialism and military dominance in a then-recently industrialized nation that was undergoing all the social upheaval that goes with those things, and that this all happened at a historical moment coinciding with the rapid development of the technology of airflight. So Miyazaki's "he didn't really mean to/he was a genius used for evil" tack is bullshit because a "genius" for aircraft design is only recognized when the conditions are there for it to be used (and created).

The point, though, is that talking about the designer of these planes should allow us to talk about the conditions under which he designed them, whether or not the dialogue in the movie is amenable to that conversation. Perhaps especially if not. The Western conversation around Japanese Imperialism in the 20th century is still so nasty and useless; so much of it reads like a "but yes look over here," an implicit denial of white supremacy, yet another way to frame the nation as Weird Japan without doing so quite so explicitly. Any discussion of Japanese Imperialism without a discussion of the resistance to it is fetishizing.

And yeah, I think that means The Wind Rises is a fetishizing movie as well. The other evidence for that: the real big narrative about it was that Miyazaki was retiring after this one. It's hard to tell whether that's stuck, but there is a lot about the movie that makes it feel like it is meant to be a retirement film. Not the least of that is how much the narrative of Horikoshi is transformed into a "noble artist working in a compromised medium, but still forging ahead." It's hard not to see the parallel to the man who still insists on the hand drawn animation technique that has been dead or dying for decades in the industry which he leads. So much of the film is an elegy for artistry, and, as gross as that sounds, it can be incredibly touching. There are moments where it feels like Miyazaki knew he had to pull out all the stops, and others where it seems like he just always wanted an excuse to animate a particular thing, so he shoehorned it in to be able to. The meet-cute during an earthquake certainly reads this way to me, and it is easily one of the most effective moments of the film.

But then, that's also how I read the film's end, with the Zero planes ascending into the heavens. Others have taken this as evidence that Miyazaki is intentionally turning a blind eye to the real effects of imperialism, seeing it as a valedictory ascendance, a happy ending for the man who designed the deaths and enslavement of many. Maybe I simply remember it wrong, but I have trouble seeing that argument at all. From my memory, it was bittersweet at best; the final refusal of Horikoshi to come to grips with what he had had a hand in. It was a moment of the artist, final giving up the fight, cedes the meaning of his creation to history, knowing -- no matter how strongly he will deny it -- that the verdict will not be in his favor.

Which is what I mean, also, by saying that The Wind Rises is fetishizing. It is a catalogue of absences, a contorting of what's there into an object that can only ever represent what isn't. And it is beautiful, in a way that means something. Someday I will find the words to say what.

*I'm not including any criticism of the film from South Korea, for obvious reasons.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 in Shit: Snowpiercer

I kept thinking I might end up having shit to say about Snowpiercer. It turns out I hella don't, except that it's great, so I'll just spitball for a second and then let you go.

I was really, really hyped about Snowpiercer coming out, because it completed a weird personal trilogy. Last year saw the first English language releases of two of my favorite directors active right now; Park Chan-Wook's Stoker, and Kim Jee-Woon's The Last Stand. Kim's Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, The Bad, The Weird (and, in a more roundabout way, The Quiet Family) were all crucial to me in learning about film; Park's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is arguably the most important movie in my development. The fact that they both got to work for subtitle-averse audiences excited the shit out of me. With Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-Ho entered the field of incredible South Korean film directors that came out with an English language movie in this tiny time frame.

Bong's most famous for The Host, which is a really fantastic monster movie. Unlike Kim and Park, unfortunately, I don't have nearly as strong an attachment to Bong's work; I didn't see The Host early enough, and as much as I loved getting to see Mother in the theater it didn't happen to line up in such a way as to leave as serious an impression on me. These are all weird little things, accidences of biography, but there they are; I wasn't as excited to see what promised to be a train movie with Marxist overtones as I was to see a Schwarzenegger movie about a bordertown sherif. And, I mean, I turned out to be right, because The Last Stand was the best movie of last year, but that's not the point. Or maybe it sort of is; getting to see Snowpiercer for me was some weird mixture of riding the high off of Park and Kim's showings last year and mediated (but still strong) expectations based on my own personal history with watching Bong's films.

I suppose, had I had a different experience -- like, say, expecting Snowpiercer to be some brilliant Marxist polemic, rather than a film from a director I respected and was excited to see getting to work in a new environment -- I might have also been somewhat disappointed in it. I would also be a very different film viewer, and would not be bringing this wonderful series to you, all my lovely readers. Film as prepackaged polemic is hella boring and -- well, weird, I guess I've talked about this for, now, three days in a row -- tends toward the sort of reading practices that foreground the boring version of worldbuilding that privileges narrative coherence over all. As fun as it might have been to grouse about the incidental aspects of Snowpiercer's train-world, the need to systematize things like precisely how the described conditions of, for instance, the food supply, works is weak as fuck. It makes sense, I guess, if you really want the whole to conform to a Marxism (or whatever), but, as magical as it might sound, characters don't need to eat. And, on top of that, they aren't to be taken at their word. Even -- especially -- when they are infodumping in science fiction. It's a technique; just because it is one with a history of being employed without a hint of ambiguity doesn't mean it's devoid. Science Fiction as a whole would be so goddamn boring if you took statements like "this train has been running for seventeen years because we go through a tunnel once every 365 days" to be anything other than a claim by a character with an agenda.

That said, stakes defined; Snowpiercer was an incredibly pretty movie, in the way that elaborate set construction* and tight cinematography and the presence of Song Kang-Ho tend to lend themselves to. Another silly thing: that it was criticized for being videogamelike, which seems like the sort of criticism levelled by those for whom Film as Art is still somehow a proposition that must be adamantly defended. The whole thing goes like this: for the past two decades, on a large scale, videogame designers have cribbed from the language of cinema in order to drive their narrative elements towards respectability commensurate with their sales. This is mostly noted in terms of things like cutscenes in games, where player control is obviated to advance story, but is probably more important in how games (especially since becoming predominantly 3D) pace themselves in order to satisfy both the mechanical ("fun") demands as well as the more traditionally narrative demands. Ever since games started to actually be able to strike some semblance of balance between the two -- I would that this happened in 1998 when Metal Gear Solid, StarCraft, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time all came out, but I'd be open to dispute -- films have been accused of conforming to that semblance, largely because of having the things that games cribbed. When movies are like videogames its exciting. Snowpiercer was also exciting but for nothing remotely resembling that reason.

Spitballing doesn't often lead to my talking about the movie as such. Oops. So here's the thing: it's as gorgeous a movie, in terms of set design, as anything I've ever seen. It fucking works, to, by artificially isolating its environments in ways that the structure of cinema makes coherent. And it's a pleasure to watch, framed as it is on terms of class and environmental politics, which are developed on the terms of its spaces. And the whole movie seems mostly interested in making you despise the whiteboy lead, because he is a completely insufferable dick.

There, that's it really; if you haven't, do see it, and keep in mind that the movie is in no way in the corner of the whiteboy lead. He sucks and it knows it, and it shows you that. From the classroom scene's opening relentlessness to the questionable finale to the running of the torch during the tunnel fight scene, whiteboy sucks. It's the best.

*Here's yr worldbuilt marxist critique; the narrative level is a hole-y fabricated space, which is itself a function of a fabricated fragmented set-space. The materials create the condition of possibility. The absence of critique that captures the totality is a consequence of the material fragmentation. Movies aren't fucking magic, keep that Spielberg bullshit out of your mouth; they are real moments. Moments are not the whole, they don't matter, yr trend tracking is worthless, the train is powered by child labor and Ed Harris' performance here is literally identical to his performance in Pain & Gain because of that shit that circulates like M-M'.

Monday, December 29, 2014

2014 in Shit (Bonus): The Babadook

I saw The Babadook about a week ago, which is why I didn't include it in the projected reviews, and why I won't be able to claim that I barely remember any of it in this review. Luckily, I was incredibly tired when I did see it, so I was both a little sour on it and not able to focus as well as I ought to have, so I get to claim those which are effectively the same as not remembering. So good call on me for that.

Here's the thing about The Babadook: I can dig a The Aristocrats joke as much as the next white boy, but when it's told exclusively through masterful sound design and the punchline is that the monster chitters like the fucking Dilophosaurus from Jurassic Park it's all a bit much. Honestly rude, y'all.

No, okay, it was a fine movie. It was probably even pretty great. The monster was pretty fantastic, the sound design really was phenomenal and made the movie clip along with springy tension, the acting was suitably uncanny, and the appearances of the monster (excluding the last one where he's visible and has just come back from Jurassic Park for whatever reason) were exceptionally well done. There were also a number of smaller, gradual things, like how the slow shifting of the mother's perspective over the course of the film was reflected in the cinematography and how the non-central characters were realistically and gradually written out of the film through a series of sudden events, that I thought were pretty cool.

Just yesterday I was talking about the weirdness of being called to watch a movie with an eye towards things like its continuity in worldbuilding and how I both respected and resented it. I had a similar experience, bizarrely, with The Babadook, though this was largely because I was really tired, I think. The introduction of the monster is through a pop-up story book that the child asks to be read after he has had some trouble at school; his mom doesn't recognize it, but starts it anyway. Very early on, there's the monsters name as onomatopoeia; the page in question luckily turns out to be in the trailer, so here's a screencap of it.

You'll notice that it goes "ba BA-ba;" for whatever reason this started to bother me a lot. Particularly when, later in the movie, the mother receives a phone call that turns out to be from the Babadook, who does do the three Dooks but only does two Bas. It's like that through the bulk of the movie; ba BA-ba becomes BA-ba, but DOOK! DOOK! DOOK! stays just the same. It's a bizarre, pointless, nitpicky thing to be worried about, but there's something about how central the noises are to this movie, and how tired I was, that made that whole bit stick out to me. Which might also be the case for the dinosaur sounds, although honestly for everything the movie does right I thought that final confrontation was totally shitty.

There's also the fact that the kids in this movie all had weirdly stilted, adult dialog, but then I'm just kind of finding pleasure in articulating these little nitpicky things (which, to be fair, is at least partially honest to my experience of watching the movie, even if I didn't particularly like that I was doing it then and like it even less now). Anyway.

If there's one thing underlying everything, I suspect that it has something to do with how the movie is one of those horror films that seems unduly invested in its own narrative ambiguity; how this plays out is in the very familiar "the monster may exist but it may also just be some sort of projection/whatever by the characters." It's a thing that a lot of people are fond of praising movies for; it's also something that I find tiresome and defanging. It's the sort of ambiguity that is much more productively left in the hands of readers than of writers, if that's a binary that I'm allowed to invoke despite the bulk of my work being quietly dedicated to dismantling it. When, I guess another way to say it, the ambiguous presence of the monster is a directed subtext of the film, it becomes a discussion of inches; does this scene or that scene more accurately represent the film's reality, do we take her eyes having closed to mean that it was all a dream even if they didn't open until much later, that sort of thing. The existential question of the monster is one that is only really interesting as a structural question; how do we make this whole thing hold up -- not just the narrative, but the POV, the themes, the everything -- in the absence of this generic material? And even that, sometimes, is just a tedious act of debate for debates sake, but it can also be productive in ways that I've never seen the intentional ambiguity be. Or, more accurately, the existential question is at least a step in the right direction, while the subtextual inclusion just resolves into the sort of nitpicky bullshit that I ended up spending my time watching this movie doing.

So what I'm saying is that The Babadook, for all its outstanding elements, falls prey to a form of valorization that propagates what I consider to be bad reading practices, and so I disliked that part of it enough to take pleasure in wielding those against it. It is good though, on the whole. Just don't be one of those people who are like "this is so smart because the monster might just be all in her head" because I don't think that's very smart at all. Or do because who the fuck am I, come on, why would I even pretend like I want people to follow my advice there.

I just like reading a lot I guess. It's neat and I think about it a lot and do it even more and I would like more things to think about it and work on that. Especially things like weird breakout horror films, which is a genre that is basically entirely predicated on cultivating and exploiting intelligent reading practices. It's a good movie though, you'll probably dig it.

2014 in Shit: Noah

I wrote about Noah and authorship and money and pedagogy back in May, and I don't have much of anything to add to that post. You're welcome to (re)read it instead of a new one, though.

I actually forgot to include the other two things I reviewed elsewhen when I was putting together the roundup, so I'll dump those links here too.

At the beginning of the year, I read Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, and reviewed it for Strange Horizons. There was some neat stuff in there and I'd recommend it if it seems like it'd be your thing. Some of it I was pretty not fond of though.

I also read Fighting for Recognition and reviewed it (sort of, at least) for The New Inquiry. It's a book I wouldn't recommend, but that I hope leads to better things. Most of my review has to do with a mobile free to play card game called WWE SuperCard, which I found very interesting. I think I said some neat stuff there.

Is this a break? Has this whole thing been? Who knows.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 in Shit: Godzilla

Back in June, I had a conversation with my friend Aishwarya about Godzilla, which I have reproduced below, slightly altered to make me look like I type like a legible human being on the internet. There is more to her side, but I am starting where I jumped in because I can't find all of her tweets. Apologies in advance.
A: (Except when [Ken Watanabe] brandishes a watch that stopped in August 1945 and is like "Hiroshima," in case you-the-audience had missed this.)
B: That was maybe my favorite moment in the movie (for me, it was [Watanabe] saying Fuck You to the whole thing though).
A: Introducing deliberate cringe, you mean?
B: From the audience (both attentive and not so), from the General (or whatever he was), from himself (presumably).
A: Not sure if it's a sign of how low my expectations are that I was just relieved they didn't claim the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also America trying to kill Godzilla.
B: The bizarre multitude of explanations for Godzilla's existence definitely made me wary of that too (...which might have been another reason I was so into that scene, actually).
A: I can see that. It was the one non-terrible thing about that moment for me.
B: Yeah, can definitely see that. I was probably too generous with the movie because I got surprised Elizabeth Olsen was in it & I <3 her.
To give a little context; Aishwarya wasn't super high on Godzilla, for a lot of very good reasons. I was pretty into it, although probably a good amount of that was me convincing myself that I was. It's kind of what I do I guess.

There's also a good amount to unpack there. Instead of doing that up front, though, I think I'm going to start with just generalities, and let it unfold.

One of the weirdest things about watching Godzilla was that I ended up enjoying teasing at its narrative/worldbuilt limitations. I spent a chunk of the movie entertaining myself by thinking about why it was, exactly, that Godzilla didn't seem to eat the MUTOs when he killed them. There was some specific piece of dialogue speculating on the meaning of Godzilla that inspired these thoughts, although I can no longer remember what precisely it was. This is partially because of how long it has been since I saw the movie, but it is also partially because a lot of Godzilla is dedicated to folks speculating on what the hell Godzilla is or could be, what the presence of this thing means and how it will act. Which is about as good a thing as you can ask from a big budget Godzilla movie at this point, I think; one that is aware it has a lot of explaining to do and that that explaining will never remotely approach satisfactory. Dazzle 'em with (contradictory) exposition, in other words, or run the risk of allowing the overdetermined to wreak havoc.

Which isn't to say that Godzilla did anything remotely like successfully avoiding that ultimate fate. Charitably, it could be said to have embraced it. Really, really charitably, it could be said to be structured around it; everything from how incredibly white the film was to how Ken Watanabe's character or Elizabeth Olsen's character were portrayed in individual moments could be said to fall into a larger rubric of the impotence of a response to such a messy history by way of the response that all attempts are impotent. Something like that. Or Hollywood or whatever, I guess.

Despite the lackluster showing this year, this whole Year in Shit thing isn't about teaching you how to read films in boring ass ways. Or more specifically, the kind of charitable reading I prefer just doesn't happen to coincide with ideology critique, which that previous paragraph was trending dangerously close to. So, backing up.

The point is: Godzilla kind of suckered me. I found myself watching it in a way that I never watch movie, at least in part because I kind of hate it when I read about someone else's having watched a movie that way. I understand that there are pleasures in that kind of watching, and it does occasionally lead to something genuinely interesting, but I've rarely ever seen it do much than serve as a way to lock shit down. Whether that's alternative readings of a text (with the attendant stakes of differing priorities or methods of valorization) or potential audiences for it (Hi, every two star "As a physicist..." Amazon review), I don't tend to dig it. But Godzilla got me to engage with it, and for that I both respect and resent it.

It would have been pretty sweet if, after Godzilla blasted that one MUTO with his mouth laser through the throat, he started eating it, though. I mean, just in my opinion.

Aside from the way that the exposition in the film seemed to me to be in response to the overdetermination of the subject, what most grabbed me about the movie, as referenced above -- or, maybe more correctly, what most inclined me to be charitable towards it -- was that I was unaware that Elizabeth Olsen was going to be present, and her showing up semi-regularly made me pretty stoked. I've mentioned before that she might be my favorite actor working, and that her appearance in Silent House was what turned me on to her. Her part in Godzilla was, largely, bullshit. She was the upset wife of, uh, whoever that dude was. The main character. I literally have no recollection of who he was or what he did. He sucked.

Olsen was good, though, in that way where she has a total bullshit role and just rides it out until she gets that one opportunity to turn up and she fucking hits it, and that's really all I get in terms of acting. Which brings us to Ken Watanabe.

What Aishwarya was talking about, prior to the parenthetical with which the quote at the top started, was how Watanabe's role was largely reduced to him (very expertly) grimacing at things throughout Godzilla, which I don't disagree with as an assessment of how he was used (or how he acquitted himself admirably, despite that use). Where we ended up differently was our interpretations of one of the only scenes in which he was given something else to do, and I suspect the disagreement stems from the sort of charitable and bizarre mood I felt stemming from those weird things detailed above. Which is one way of saying that I don't really attribute my reaction to the movie itself, but rather to my own temperament; I suspect Aishwarya's response is more accurate to the text as it presented itself, even as I will continue to defend my reading.

The particulars of that scene go like this: a US army general is being all hawkish about Godzilla, threatening, if I recall correctly, to nuke the monster before it can ravage New York City. He threatens this despite the fact that he knows such a course of action will leave the city in the range of the fallout, and all that. He's being a big dumb jerk, basically, as the military personnel ought to be in this kind of movie. Watanabe is in the room where this is being discussed, and is kind of sitting it out at the beginning, just being generally unhappy, and waiting for his turn to actually get involved in the proceedings. When he decides to take his turn, what he does is to show the general a watch in his possession. It's stopped at a certain time that, as he informs the general, happened in August 1945. That time, he then continues, is when fucking Hiroshima was bombed by that general's predecessor or whatever. It's a really strong fuck you that, again if I am remembering correctly, is kind of paid lip service with a fade out and then ignored because a new scene is shown. But in that moment, when Watanabe finally stops being sidelined, it's the best.

Or at least, I thought it was. Because it works to address so many different folks simultaneously, and in each of them there is a veiled fuck you; to the general, who he knows isn't just a hawkish shithead, but is so dull as to not piece together that the "August 1945" reference. To the audience, for whom the same might likely be said. To the movie itself, for elaborating so many different meanings of its monster without once taking into account how those meanings are culturally inflected, and for saddling him with a role of representing those inflections solely through his name and skin without letting him engage them. To all of the above for the aggressive ahistoricism, whether of the lack of need to due military power or to genre for its flattening systems or to the way that this Godzilla seems more interested in rebuking the issues with Emmerich's Godzilla than engaging with any of its other versions. And, in the moment, it even seems a bit of a fuck you to himself, to playing in a movie where he is forced to spell out that Hiroshima was a real thing that happened with consequences, that this world needed stakes that only tokenization could provide it, that everything, really.

I'd go so far as to say that Godzilla is worth seeing for that scene alone. I'm probably wrong about that though.

Other things of note about Godzilla include that Godzilla was pretty great, as a monster. The design was hella goofy though, in a mostly not great way. They did pretty good stuff with it, though. Also there was a weird meme going around that the movie was disappointing because of how little screen time Godzilla got, which I thought was weird and kind of indicative of people watching it who don't watch monster movies? Or whose only previous experience with monster movies was Emmerich's Godzilla, which was panned largely because it was just like two fucking hours of Godzilla stomping around and that shit is really boring? I guess what I mean is less that Godzilla was great in itself and more that it was used pretty well, at least visually, all things considered.

Also Elizabeth Olsen and Ken Watanabe were the shit.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014 in Shit: Maleficent

The strangest thing about Maleficent was that it ended up having the exact same issues with Benevolent Queeendom that made me sad about Wreck-It Ralph two years back. Maleficent ends with the least necessary coronation sequence since Ralph, and it's no less offputting then it was then. Except maybe it was a little more, because Ralph at least had things for me to geek out about. Maleficent just had the fact that it was a pretty great movie all told, with one or two really gratifying moments, and then a hot, dull mess for closure.

I remember being less impressed with Jolie in this movie than I'd expected to be, while also realizing how bizarre it was to have gone into a film with expectations of receiving an impression rather than of anything more specific. There's probably a fun spin to that statement but everything I can think of makes me feel like I'm a militant 14 year old with such opinions as 'society is bad' and 'all drugs should be legal' again* so I'll pass on those.

I also remember almost nothing about Sharlto Copley, except that I forgot it was him while I was watching the movie, which is just about the nicest thing I can imagine I'll ever say about the dude.

I also kinda remember geeking out a tiny bit at Jolie's horns, because at first I was like "why did they do her hair like that" and then I thought "wow those look incredibly artificial and shitty" and then the movie had been going for another hour and I was like "oh my god this was such a bizarre thing to commit to and I respect the fuck out of how weird and alienating on an incredibly small scale it has been even as it hasn't affected anything else about the movie for me" so I payed more attention to them than maybe I elsewise would have. Maybe that isn't quite geeking out.

There's a part of me that wonders if Maleficent isn't the purest work of detournement possible. The kind of thing that Debord would look at and smile at with a god damn you in his eyes. It's sort of a perfect movie in that way, even if the real Debord would've had no such reaction.

The big deal about Maleficent wasn't so much that it allowed a Disney villain the perspective of the film, but that it also followed through on that. It's been a long time since I've bothered with any of their famous animations, but it seems to me that the ways in which Maleficent tells her story is very much of a universe with how Aurora or White or Ariel tells hers. There was, if I remember correctly, some complaining about this critically; Maleficent telling her story in some ways made her character flatter, played boring sympathy cards heavy. A shout where a whisper would suffice sort of criticism. These sorts of moments are when the particularities of genre criticism become so useful; if you think of it not as a consequence of audience-pandering or stars or writers, and instead in relation to the rest of the Disney Animated (Princess) Universe, it becomes very easy to see how Maleficent's central argument is that everyone in the Disney Animated (Princess) Universe relies on a very rigid set of narrative tropes in order to justify to themselves why they have ended up where they have. Or, alternatively, that whoever is telling these stories from within the frame has this reliance.

I don't think I'm super down to go that much farther into that thread, though. I'll go back to memory.

I remember being super down with that final detournement, where Jolie's kiss is True Love's. I didn't think of it explicitly in terms of Situationism until just now, I guess, which makes it a lot weirder in retrospect. And I had a Benevolent Queendom to worry about then anyway.

Also, since we're back to that, it was especially offputting in that the initial characterization of the land Maleficent was from was encouragingly utopian. For whatever reason -- I guess maybe the reason is really obvious and tied to the observations about the Disney Animated (Princess) Universe above -- the happy medium between utopia and dystopia in this universe is a fucking monarchy? I don't know man. Videogames and fairies super don't need queens though.

I also remember being pretty into the first appearance of Angelina Jolie in the movie. From what I recall it was largely because it was clearly shot to be this euphoric moment of flight on film, and it wasn't bad at being that, but in a much sillier way than the cinematography seemed to intend. And then Jolie got her big close up on her face and it was also goofy (see: the horns, above). It was cool.

That's about it I guess. Disney Animated (Princess) Universe, narration, goofiness, socialism, detournement. Thanks for playing.

*Yeah okay I know.

Friday, December 26, 2014

2014 in Shit: Non-Stop

I legitimately don't remember anything about Non-Stop. I kind of thought I might end up trying to write a review of Red Eye and then just find and replace the name, because that seemed kind of funny. I'm not going to do that though.

The reason it would be funny is that they're both airplane thriller movies. It's not actually that funny. Liam Neeson was in Non-Stop. It's the first of the post Taken, Neeson-as-action-hero things I've seen. He did pretty well.

The whole movie sort of revolves around Neeson being framed for hijacking a plane, and the big reveal at the end is that the real hijackers are ex-military dudes who are framing him explicitly to cause an increase in security measures. It's kind of a good pairing with Escape Plan from last year; there's kind of this weird thread of action films in the last few years whose whole premise is that the villains are right wing extremists. Safe was kind of that way too. Non-Stop was definitely no Escape Plan but there's worse things to be than another Safe basically, so.

I suppose there's a reading of these movies that goes something like: even though the ultimate reveal of all of them is that right wing extremists are the villains, they are structured as mysteries in that regard and so the bulk of their time is spent actively making choices that render that villainy unthinkable. Which is cool I guess and I am not necessarily against the idea of categorically reading movies against their twist endings. But also they're way more fun to watch as fuck yous to Academi and cops and the military, so fuck that.

Non-Stop was a pretty cool movie I guess.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

2014 in Shit: Why Don't You Play in Hell?

I saw Why Don't You Play in Hell? because it was playing at the Japanese Film Festival of San Francisco, and because it was directed by Sion Sono. Sono's a director I've always meant to have seen more of, but his Suicide Club is all I've managed. I like that movie a lot; enough that I rewatched it prior to seeing this, and still really, really dug it. For whatever reason, rewatching it didn't prepare me for the most remarkable thing about Hell?, though: it's a fucking funny movie.

I've already called The Tale of Princess Kaguya my favorite movie I saw in 2014, and I stand by that. I'll give Why Don't You Play in Hell? my strongest recommendation, though. See this movie. If none of the rest of these convince you to see their subject, and you're looking for something to watch, just see this one. It's so great.

Hell? is about how making films leads to fighting cops. It's about how attractive stardom is, and how that attraction gets played out in ways that are mediated by gender. It's as romantic a take on filmmaking as Miyazaki's The Wind Rises with the critical edge significantly closer to the foreground. It's all the cleverness of The Midnight After without the reprehensible bullshit. It's about how going out in a blaze of glory doesn't make you any less of a fucking loser than you always were, and it's about that lovingly. It's about how films are spaces for the social, and how a big screen is only a space for secular reverence because we've fucked up and made it that way. It's about the tension between genre and realism and how this cuts through questions of content and form to technique and principles and funding. It's about earworm advertisements and organized crime and yeah I just really liked this movie a lot.

Hell? is definitely one of those movies I could talk about a lot, but not really in the sort of way that I write here. Which isn't to say that it couldn't be talked about in that way, by any stretch of the imagination; only that I don't really want to right now. I kinda just want people to watch it. So maybe do! I think it's neat.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014 in Shit: Under the Skin

Most of what I remember about Under the Skin is that it didn't quite do it for me. That and the profusion of Scarlett Johansson sci fi movies thinkpieces this year. I didn't see Lucy, though, so I'm not really qualified to get into it any more than that.

I also remember, on walking out of the theater, saying something to the folks with whom I saw it to the effect of "I wish they had done/intensified/whatever this one thing, which would have made the movie work a lot better, I think, to me." I have no recollection of what that thing was.

So yeah. Under the Skin was a movie where Scarlett Johansson is some sort of alien and/or robot who harvests men. I vaguely recall something about the film utilizing hidden cameras, so that certain scenes (presumably where Johansson rides around in a van) are footage of non-actors walking around. There might have been an article somewhere about how it was exemplary of the surveillance society or something?

There's a strangeness to thinking of that vérité style of shooting, in retrospect, being associated with Under the Skin, which is very much a movie interested in cinematic abstraction. The 'harvesting' scenes take place in an aggressively liminal space; Johansson leads the men into a building, which suddenly becomes an infinitely wide black space. She strips while walking away, they strip while following, then they fall into more darkness, where they appear to float. At one point two men are trapped in this darkness together; they touch hands, and one is suddenly torn away and implodes into a sac of skin. There is no direct visual cause for these things (though the audio pop when the implosion happens is worth mentioning for how perfect it is), which I suppose is why I say cinematic abstraction. Though, despite its being a parenthetical there, the sound design plays into this a lot as well. As best I can remember, the early, more vérité style shots are mostly incidental sound, while the later bits include more non-diegetic music, even though most of it is rumbly, industrial style. I could be wrong about that. But those scenes of 'harvesting' are played to music -- a sort of light jazz, if I'm remembering correctly -- in a way that enhances their disconnect from the rest of the film. And that does so in a way that plays up both the constitutive dissonance of jazz while still tapping into the muzak feeling of being at work, which is neat.

My understanding, again from a friend with whom I saw it, is that the novel that Under the Skin is based on takes a much more explicit interest in the scenario and its attendant questions of class. If that is true then there is probably a really interesting essay (and about a hundred really shitty essays) out there, somewhere, about how the film translates those two categories into aesthetics and gender. Unfortunately, this isn't that essay.

The question of aesthetics is, I suspect, at the center of my ambivalence about the movie, though I don't quite know how. My suspicion is that, were I to rewatch it, I would end up reading it as a movie primarily concerned with Aesthetics, which would not be a flattering look. Not just in how that concern might interface poorly with, say, readings of the movie that position it in relation to gender, but in how it itself conflates the concepts of aesthetics and of form.

I don't know that I have a way to cleanly delineate the two concepts, of course. The tools I use to think and talk about film might be predicated on this very conflation. The silent third term, if I'm following myself, is technique. That will stay silent though.

It's a particularly dull kind of criticism that sees its tools translated into its object and uses that translation as a means to valorize that object, though. Which is to say: I don't really care much for movies that do what I like claiming movies do. Silence.

None of this is to say that Under the Skin doesn't do what it's trying (in my understanding) to do, or that it doesn't do it well. Just that what I suspect it is trying to do is something I might have a problem with if I went back to it and actually confirmed that. A very strong critique, I know.

To elaborate a little even if only to demonstrate that I'm not even really talking about what I'm gesturing toward. There are a lot of weird reasons I'm very fond of movies like, say, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, and one of them is even relevant here. I would go so far as to say that it does the sort of thing a movie like Under the Skin is apparently trying to do better than Skin itself; where Skin is content with a sort of formal exposition -- thinking specifically here of the opening abstract shots, of the 'harvesting' scenes, of the move from cinéma vérité to the more elaborate artifice of the later scenes -- as an expression of aesthetics as having narrative substance, Revelation is happy to use the narrative content itself -- thinking of the weirdly overdetermined and understated moments of videogame visual terminology or the bizarre kiss or the entirety of the content of the performances of Carrie Anne-Moss and Malcolm McDowell -- as a piece of the aesthetic whole. This is, I suppose, what I mean when I say that Under the Skin conflates aesthetics with form; the way a movie looks and feels is compositional, sure, but there are exciting things to be done with the composition of content that Skin seems to consider beneath it.

I suppose this is easily read as a sort of general fuck off to the art film genre. I suppose that wouldn't be unfair, although I don't really feel that way. Before this gets too close to an apologetics for my own (lack of) tastes, though.

None of this, of course, is to say that there aren't moments of genuinely affective content in Under the Skin; aside from the 'harvesting' scenes (and the dude who popped with its sound design), the moments where Johansson is sitting on the beach watching a family drown, where she is sexually assaulted, and where she removes her skin all stand out. The way these moments stand out though (or at least most of them) is, I think, more to do with their being crystallizations of the formal arguments (and moments of intensity of content) than any sort of contribution to the aesthetics themselves.

I don't know. I'm probably just running in circles here with speculative criticism. This seems plenty.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014 in Shit: I, Frankenstein

Here's a weird thing; including this one, I've reviewed a goofy, apparently-gritty reimagining of a classic story. In 2012 it was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I talked about as a toychest; last year it was Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which I talked about in terms of its cool moves. This year it's I, Frankenstein, which I'm not really going to talk about much at all.

The thing that probably should have been the throughline, and that would have justified running this for one more year, would have been a review of a Hunger Games movie. I didn't see the first part of Catching Fire this year though (I suppose it could still happen?), even though I said from the first movie that I was most excited to see what they would do with the third book. It wasn't the best book, but it certainly had a lot of things going for it that I would have liked to see translated into film.

It's too bad this year sucked.

I, Frankenstein was a movie about how a hot Frankenstein's Monster wandered the earth until he was drafted into the war of good vs evil, or, more accurately, angels vs gargoyles. He's on the side of the angels.

I feel like there's a genealogy to this movie that exists just outside of my knowledge and taste, and that using it would be the only way I could get a foothold into the movie. I suspect it is something like the Blade films and Blade Runner. Except that I've never seen the former and don't give the remotest shit about the latter. But maybe someone could use that.

The continuity from Lincoln to Gretel to Frankenstein isn't really enough to dig into, at least this far removed from having actually seen it. Aside, I guess, from the use of punctuation in the titles, which is kind of cute I guess.

So yeah. Frankenstein's Monster is a badass who murders gargoyles with ulaks (I think that's what they were). They explode all Angels-from-Evangelion style and shit. I vaguely remember there being some Spiderman type architectural-exteriors-as-floors shit as well? I guess you could say parkour but Spiderman is a better referent. There was probably also a love story that definitely sucked if it existed too. I remember having a pleasant enough time with it.

Monday, December 22, 2014

2014 in Shit: Short Peace

I mostly wanted to see Short Peace because I want to play the videogame associated with it. It was written by Suda51. I still haven't played it.

The big hook about Short Peace, an anthology of four anime short films, was that the director of Akira was involved. I thought Akira was pretty cool when I saw it, but it wasn't ever the anime for me in the way it is for a lot of people.

Otomo's contribution to the anthology, Combustible, is a short about firefighters in ancient Japan. It's a weird love story thing with class resentment undertones, and it's very pretty. It ended up relying really heavily on that love story, though, and ultimately paying it off in a kind of boring way. At least I think that was how I felt about it.

I saw Short Peace while it was playing at the Japanese Film Festival of San Francisco, where I also saw Crows : Explode and Why Don't You Play In Hell? The festival is tied to the J-Pop Summit, which I found out about last year when Anne Boyer was visiting and mentioned it. I ended up going last year because there was a Hello Kitty Kawaii Town booth and I thought that would be a funny thing to go to. When it came around this year I found out about the festival and got excited. Since the 2013 summit, every Sanrio store in San Francisco has closed. At Hello Kitty Con, the chairman of Sanrio Inc and Sanrio GmbH, the US & European subsidiaries of Sanrio, was asked about those closures; his response was basically that the company was trying to get a foothold in Wal-Mart and Target stores and that closing their own stores was somehow tied up in this.

Interestingly, the con happened about five months after Sanrio's stock had taken a quick dive based on wonky information from a Goldman Sachs analyst. The analyst claimed that Sanrio's IR presentation suggested the company was moving away from licensing and toward making their store operation central to their business. Despite being obviously bogus, investors jumped ship. Not for very long, of course, but I imagine that experience is now taken into account at any point that the question of operating a store is brought up.

Shuhei Morita's Possessions is a film about hostile objects. A traveler takes refuge from a storm in a hut where the things revolt against his presence. The space itself reorganizes to confound him. I really hated the animation though. The same could probably be said of Hiroaki Ando's Gambo, but that did have a pretty cool fight between like a polar bear and a demon, I think. In terms of how all four pieces functioned as complete short films, Gambo was probably the best. It's all kinda gross-looking CGI though so I dunno.

The final movie in the anthology, which I think was translated as A Farewell to Weapons, for some reason sidestepping the Hemingway reference?, was a bit stickier. Not that I particularly loved it, but I remember walking out thinking that if I gave much of a shit about the whole drone thing as a locus of the political that I might be a lot more interested in it. Which isn't to say that I don't think the conversation about drones isn't an important one; just that I have trouble staying interested when that seems to be the primary lens through which folks talk about the state of politics or the world or whatever. Kind of like how I get it when people talk about videogames as this magical site of new practices or whatever. Even when I am convinced by their point and glad they found a way to make it, there's a weird triumphalism to the whole thing that just puts me off.

I guess it's also kind of funny that Weapons' director worked on a number of the Gundam series, and that he had a hand in designing the mechs for the most obtuse fighting game I've ever played, Virtual On. Getting it on Dreamcast like six years late without knowing anything about it certainly didn't help but goddamn if it wasn't a game that militated against your engaging with it. Really I should be waiting to post about this movie until I another thing I'm working on goes out (if it does), since that's all about Suda51 and mechs, but this whole project this year has been such a goddamn mess and I saw so few movies and cared about such a small fraction of them it's kind of hard to get it together to do that.

Weapons is about a team in a desert/city environment being sent in to disable or destroy some sort of rogue automatic tank thing. It's also CGI I think? but it looks better. Drone stuff maybe. I dunno. The whole anthology was kind of a let down.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

2014 in Shit: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is one of those Murakami books that, despite being in the style of his that I prefer less -- assuming, of course, that you buy the argument that he has two primary styles, which (in my mind at least) are differentiated by, for lack of a better word, realism, and which might be exemplified by Norwegian Wood against Kafka on the Shore -- makes me want to read or reread the whole of his oeuvre. It is, despite feeling somewhat slight, the sort of book that suggests that how you read it is reflective of some fundamental assumptions you have about the author. And it is, in some bizarre way, for me at least, closer to Stephen King's Joyland, from last year, than any other Murakami novel. Colorless is, that is all to say, a motherfucker of a book.

Colorless is about a thirty six year old name Tsukuru Tazaki, who tries to determine why his extraordinarily close group of high school friends suddenly and totally cut him out of their lives in his sophomore year of college. He is dating a woman, and works as a railroad station engineer in Tokyo. His being cut off still registers as a trauma in his life, and the woman recognizes this. So he returns to Nagoya, where he grew up, and takes a trip to Finland, where one of his friends has moved, to find out what happened.

What he finds out is that one of the women, who was murdered six years prior to his search, accused him of rape. It slowly comes out that none of his friends really believed her, but that they felt the need to protect her all the same. They all open up to him, though they have fallen apart, and he ends the novel with some measure of absolution and a determination to propose to his girlfriend.

No, not really. Like Norwegian Wood, Colorless may fall on the realistic end of the spectrum for Murakami, but it's still Murakami. There are dreams that seem to possess some causal relationship with waking life, and a strictly limited third person perspective. There's a central character, a man who is a bit of a cipher, who cooks clean food and never worries much about money. If there is a second Murakami novel to compare Colorless with, I would reach for Sputnik Sweetheart. Both blur the lines between Murakami's realist vs magical realist split, Sweetheart the more of the two. Both, also, thematize certain concerns about sexuality that, while present in (I think) all of Murakami's work, are rarely worked through at any length.

To reach for another comparison, as I flounder to talk about this motherfucker of a novel: there is something peculiarly Tolstoyan about Colorless, in a way that I do not recall any other of his books being. There are the obvious things: Tazaki's occupation and passion, train stations, sees him spending portions of the novel in one train station or another. When I say Tolstoyan, of course, I mean Anna Karenina. There is no spa in Finland, unfortunately, but the analogue seems unavoidable. The thematization of sex -- and, specifically, how it, as an act, both structures and disrupts the social -- plays into this as well, as does the way in which the social is always written in such a way to suggest that it possesses the seeds of a socialist form of life, without ever quite saying as much.

Murakami writes about sex and socialism.

To pause, briefly; a reading of Colorless, which I cannot in suggest is in any real way repudiated by the book: Colorless is a book about a rapist working through the trauma of having had to face the (social) consequences of his actions. Maybe it is merely a consequence of Gabriel's less than stellar translation, but I found nothing in the novel that, taking Murakami's other books into account, can so much as be used as a coherent counterargument to this. There's some weird sense in which this book read to me (as mentioned obliquely above) like my review of Joyland brought to life. I don't know that Murakami has, before, written a protagonist for whom the reader's untempered lack of sympathy is perhaps the most reasonable reaction. Many of them are awful, of course, and perhaps it is just a sign of better reading practices, but they mostly seem to have been awful as a consequence. More later, but: unpausing.

(I hate writing about Murakami. Everything I've read about him has been garbage. Everything I write feels the same. I wish I could do some justice to his work. I cannot.)

These seeds are, I think, also where an alternate, and important, reading of the novel can be found. There is a sociality to Murakami's novels that is always pushed, relentlessly, off screen. Norwegian Wood, with its background of student unrest, exemplifies this; 1Q84, with the cult, seemed as though it was, finally, his attempt at addressing it in the text. He didn't, of course. Colorless seems, from that perspective, to be a building on 1Q84; he comes another half-step closer to addressing, directly, the ways in which the social determines (or influences) the personal. Where in the past he has elided money altogether, for instance, in this novel he gives all of his speaking characters jobs. Most of them, of course, are high paying, or, at the very least, comfortable, and none have to be delved into very far. But they are there -- and, more importantly, they suggest the possibility of a world.

The metaphor of seeds is, perhaps imprecise; the very premise of the novel, about a man who was stripped, apparently arbitrarily, of a true sense of social being -- one that, while remembered by him as being just short of utopian, was, by his own account, just as subject to internal formalization and external pressure as any real configuration would be -- provides the basis of any attempt to read Colorless as a novel of social importance. The jobs themselves are, like everything else, a consequence of how this configuration develops into the external structures of society.

Which brings up the real comparison in Murakami's oeuvre to which Colorless lends itself: Dance Dance Dance. Throw the others out the window; now we might be able to at least point in a direction that could get us somewhere.

Dance Dance Dance is Murakami's novel about architecture, which is to say it is his novel about economy. It is suffused with numeric significances; the numbered floors of the hotel, most obviously, but also its fixedness in time (a specific year). Its narrator displays an ambivalent cynicism about progress, couched in gripings about capitalism. These things are all readable as a sort of atypical set dressing for a typical Murakami journey-inward through external trappings.

The first hint that Colorless picks up where Dance Dance Dance left off should have been Tazaki's occupation; he's an engineer, sure, but he's also an architect. He works with blueprints, and, while his dream was to construct train stations, what he actually does is to conceptualize and implement modernization projects on them in order to keep them safe. The overwhelming sense of the novel is that the stations are, for him, ciphers of humanity (a trait he feels he shares), where the breadth of human life can be seen in passing through, with order and safety as abstractions through which to organize this massiveness. It is the inversion of the transition from the Dolphin Hotel to l'Hôtel Dauphin, where gaudy surfaces fail to obscure sinister undertones. There is also, of course, the dead woman, whose death is tied to an obscured action; Tazaki's dreams, Gotanda's fractured memory.

Is it clear yet that I have, for years, struggled to get a grasp on this particular element of Murakami's fiction, and consistently found myself falling short? I think it probably is.

And, too, like Dance Dance Dance, the particularities of Colorless tend to fade, at least for me, very quickly. Which isn't to say that they aren't powerful, or striking.

Proceeding, if only briefly, from there; if the roots of Colorless are Dance Dance Dance, then my suspicion that it is a novel that requires our disidentification with the protagonist seems even more relevant. Where Boku, down to his name, works as a sort of distanced self through which the reader engages the world, Tazaki is a refusal. Whether this stems from his own trauma, or from trauma he has enacted, it is important that while throughout the book he describes himself in terms of a cipher, an empty container, a temporary refuge, he is consistently described by his former friends as a bedrock; he is chosen to be cut off from the group, according to the one who did it, in part because he seems to be the only one who could handle such excommunication, and he is described by the living woman as having always been conventionally handsome. He is the only member whose dreams stay consistent; the jock works at a Lexus dealership, the nerd spouts aphorisms to retrain middle managers, and the aspiring novelist is now a potter. Where they have adapted, he has willed and worked. And they, too, confirm to Tazaki that their excommunicating him was ultimately an act of weakness on their part, followed by more. This is where the "falsely accused rapist achieves some measure of absolution" narrative comes from. I still think it's bullshit.

Tazaki has only one friend in college, after the crew dumps him; a young man named Haida, who he meets at the pool, and who shares stories and a love of music with Tazaki. Haida is a loose thread in his narrative; at one point, Tazaki acknowledges that he cannot complete his journey without reconnecting with Haida as well. Instead, he settles for seeing someone who looks like Haida in passing, and lets the whole thing slide.

There is a tendency, at least for me, to let this go as simply a tendency of Murakami's; more than many authors, it seems to me, Murakami is happy to remember that his characters, as well drawn as they sometimes are, never extend beyond their existence as words on a page. Because of this, they can be easily metonymized, some aspect of their characterization revived in a way that is as meaningful as their full return. I'd go so far as to suggest that this is one of Murakami's greatest strengths. But it also requires the reader to have a certain level of identification with (or at least sympathy towards) the narrator, if it is to be used in an argument supporting his work holistically; that tactic, it would go, corresponds to a psychological aspect of the narrator. In the case of Tazaki, it would perhaps be a consequence of his desire to find patterns which can be immediately obscured, a sort of inverse conspiracism stemming from his being the only member of his group (the source of his trauma) without a color to his name. Even as a purely craft argument, I think, some degree of this sympathy is still operative; the obvious rejoinder, the "unreliable narrator" (with its history of being shorthand for "asshole"), doesn't quite get it.

To put some wretched semblance of a bow on this bundle of loose threads, if only to motivate myself to end this at some point: What the comparison with Dance Dance Dance allows, I think, is the bones of an argument for reading the obscured social out of Colorless. The point of the focus, in the previous few paragraphs, on Tazaki and his "acts" -- scarequoted both because of their ambivalence within the fiction and with respect to the identification of Murakami's consistent tendency to play with the category of character precisely in this way -- is that the only way to grasp the socialist threads that poke out of the novel is to first find out what has been obscured, and how.

From Boku's grousing against progress to the background of student unrest in Norwegian Wood (brought up again, notably, here, in Haida's story about his father) to the utopian leftist cult in 1Q84 (regarding which is a whole other essay), these threads aren't new to Murakami's work. Neither are they valorized, by either the author or his audience. I don't know that I would suggest they should be, at least in the sense of regarding them positively; I only know (or suspect, depending) that they are there, and that they are a large part of why I continue to return to Murakami's writing, and that I would like to find out more about them.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

2014 in Shit: Hercules

I don't really have shit to say about Hercules, the movie I only saw for The Rock. And this time I can't even blame it on the lag in time since I saw it; I distinctly remember walking out of the theater like "well that was fine and nothing else."

The Rock was good in it, though it was definitely a step down from his barnburner last year. I still remember the days before The Island and Transformers, when Ratner was Aspiring Cinephile Enemy Number 1 (with McG a close second) instead of Michael Bay. So seeing one of his movies seems weird.

Did this have a scene where The Rock killed a bunch of dogs? I'm probably misremembering that. I think he fought a bunch of dogs in a kinda neat set and it was shot pretty well, as far as those things go. I remember being like, well that was a weird thing to be the highlight of a film.

Also I think The Rock back body dropped a horse? It might've been a belly to belly suplex. Good stuff. The whole movie wasn't The Rock fighting animals though. I promise.

Friday, December 19, 2014

2014 in Shit: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

The Tale of Princess Kaguya was my favorite movie this year. So now that that's out of the way.

You probably heard about Princess Kaguya because it was originally slated to be released as a double feature with Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, the first time since the two directors released My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies together that this would have been done. Production issues happened, or something like that, and Princess Kaguya got pushed back. Both did end up coming out (in the USA at least) this year, though on either side of it. I had long forgotten that Takahata's film was still slated to be released, and only happened to run across it as a trailer for Birdman. Even then, the film looked interesting if not amazing; the clearly ukiyo-e inspired art style was something I wasn't sure would work on the scale of a feature length film (though I very much wanted it to) and the very light premise (as described in the trailer) made it seem that much less likely. And while I'm still within the realm of the confessional, I might as well say it; I'm not the biggest fan of Grave of the Fireflies in the world. It's a gorgeous movie with a strong narrative, but it never grabbed me in the way it did so many others I know. It is also the only other Takahata film I have seen; Pom Poko and My Neighbor the Yamadas never crossed my path.

That all said, Princess Kaguya did for me what I suspect Fireflies did for many others. The story was, in fact, spare, and the art style took some acclimating to -- if only to properly read the flow of action, which is a language that Ghibli's usual style doesn't get enough credit for its fluency in (see: Totoro's Catbus for the perfect example) -- but it also happily accounted for this. There isn't much that happens in Princess Kaguya, but the opening sequences are especially slow; a bamboo cutter finds a tiny princess in a stalk, and brings her home, where she turns into a baby. The peasant couple raises the rapidly-growing, heavenly baby as their own, while taking the hint that she is divinely ordained to become a noble in her time on Earth.

As the movie goes on, the couple succeeds at introducing her into high society, and do so well that she ends up with multiple high society suitors. She retains her working class roots, and isn't super pleased about any of this, though she also reacts like a human being; sometimes her only recourse is to do exactly what is expected of her, other times she forgets her principled opposition to the situation and enjoys herself, and she even, occasionally, gets so overwhelmed she just outright bails on the whole deal. She is, just generally, a really great character.

That isn't exactly the sort of thing that sells me on a movie, though. Luckily, Princess Kaguya knows that having really great characters is just a means to the end of doing cool weird formal shit. Or at least that's how I watch things.

Before getting into the heavier stuff, I would like to say that Princess Kaguya's greatest strength is something that I really don't know how to talk about. I would call it pacing, but that is a little too caught up in the language of narrative to be entirely useful. The other way to frame it would be to say that Princess Kaguya has an incredible pedagogical strategy, to which every aspect of the film -- from cinematography to character development to animation -- is yoked without being subservient. So maybe I do know how to say it, but of particular importance is the way in which it unfolds over time. That is a thing for which I have little language, because I never really thought I would need it. Princess Kaguya makes me wish I had more.

The best I can do in terms of talking about the pacing is to point to two specific moments in the film, both of which involve exceptional use of animation.

The first moment comes when Kaguya abandons the pillowed chamber in which she has spent three days as she is being inducted into the nobility. Outside is a party, where people celebrate her being accepted, that she herself cannot attend. Once she is finally fed up, she tears through the silks separating her from the fray, and bolts. She runs from the chamber, out of the house, out of the city, through the fields along the dirt road that brought her to her new life. Eventually she slows, stumbles, but keeps going.*

The animation of Kaguya running is, first and foremost, stunning. It is very much the kind of thing that could be picked out and worked through on its own merits, whether as an argument for the development of a unique artistic style that can respond to the needs of the story or for the simple lesson of how to draw someone running. Placed within its context, however -- from a standpoint of what I'll just decide now to call pacing, even if I mean something closer to pedagogy -- it is even more powerful.

The fact that the movie taught me how to read its non-traditional animation style is important. The referent I had, as I mentioned above, was the ukiyo-e, or woodblock paintings, based on the beginning of the film and its trailer, so more than anything else Princess Kaguya had to teach me how to watch it move. As mentioned above, it does this beautifully, letting the early scenes linger, giving the viewer ample time to learn to see the hinges and then to see past them well enough to forget they are there. This is all craft stemming from creative decisions; or at least it feels that way. Until the running scene.

Replaced in its context, a scene that could have been remarkable for its stunning visuals becomes at once a joyous realization and a cause for reflection. At some point during the sequence, it strikes you that what Princess Kaguya has taught you up to this point isn't the sum of the potentials of its art style, but only what it wanted you to know. But also that it has given you the tools to appreciate what would regardless be a beautiful sequence in a wholly new way. For lack of better terms, Princess Kaguya has paced itself in such a way as to transform what could very well have been a purely aesthetic, if character-grounded, sequence into something that is truly, expressively climactic. Which isn't to say that it is the peak of anything narratively, but instead that it opens a whole new capacity, in just a few short minutes, to appreciate the style of movement -- which is another way of saying animation as such -- that the movie has developed over the course of something like an hour prior to this. It's fucking unbelievable.

Lingering on this moment for just a bit, before moving on to the next; toward the end of the film, there is a similar sequence, in which Kaguya flies around with the country boy with whom she fell in love from her home town after something like a decade and change apart. It is her joyous farewell, to be followed by her mournful one, and it, too, is striking and beautiful. It lacks that epiphanic quality, though -- or did, at least, for me -- that the running sequence had. It is gorgeous in many other ways, not least among them for letting the characters breathe in a way that is both believable and exquisite, but it is also an acknowledgment that the movie has taught us all it has to teach, as viewers, and that all that is left is to provide some closure on the lives that it has portrayed. In this way, if in no other, the flight sequence reminds me more of Grave of the Fireflies than anything else about Princess Kaguya, and I will say again that if that movie is important to you in a way that it isn't to me, then Princess Kaguya is still incredibly worth watching.

The second moment involves Kaguya being fitted for a dress. Or something like that; I can't very well remember the exact scene, or where it fell in the movie. So we'll just assume "fitting sequence" is a fine shorthand, and get on with it, if that sounds okay with everyone (if it doesn't please close the tab and go watch the movie).

The fitting sequence is much more wrapped up in the use of form to communicate things like social consequences and character traits and affect projections than the running sequence was, but it shares with it above all else an epiphanic joy in the possibilities of the art style.

The particular use of animation in the fitting sequence is something I would probably call inversion, even though there is likely a technical term for it. I say this because I don't think that it is some technical innovation, but it is a technique put to good use. And because I frankly don't know shit about how animation works. What this sequence inverts is the general technique used to differentiate the background from the foreground, or to accentuate activity in a form which generally has a very low frame rate as compared to other types of animation. This is done by retracing a background (and, importantly, secondary characters in the scene) more or less as is, in order to draw the eye to the active character despite their low rate of actual change.** One way to think about this might be in terms of the much-mocked sequences in Dragonball Z where, say, Goku is charging a Spirit Bomb. Because the activity of the foregrounded character is reduced, the relative stasis of the whole thing is exemplified.

In the fitting sequence, however, the terms aren't brought closer together, but are swapped; here, the heroine, who takes up (with the inclusion of her dress) a sizeable portion of the frame is retraced with almost no alterations, while the ancillary characters -- those working on the dress, fitting it or whatever -- move busily. It isn't immediately obvious that this is what is happening (or at least it wasn't to me), so there is a slight transformation of how you view the scene over the course of it; Kaguya's stillness goes from ordinary to uncanny in whatever split second you happen to notice that it is movement altogether that has abandoned her.

Among the things that can be extrapolated from this sequence: at the level of character, it shows how disaffected Kaguya once again is with the whole process of abandoning her working class upbringing for the trappings of nobility. While this theme is pushed throughout the film, specifically in Kaguya's arguments with the tutor her parents have hired, this simple act of retracing rather than minimally animating her is a poignant reminder. It helps, too, that her initial reaction to the dresses she will get to wear is so jubilant; once Kaguya's family has relocated the first thing that takes her out of the funk leaving her friends induced was the wardrobe she was presented with. This is shown, of course, through movement; she sprints around and through the dresses, feeling their fabric kinetically. Now that it is no longer a potential, however, she freezes.

This lends itself to the more sociological reading of the consequences of this move: Princess Kaguya, like Grave of the Fireflies, holds its politics more in its premise than in any individual moment, but the freezing of Kaguya here has obvious implications. This isn't an aimless petulance, or even a disaffection based on a lack of knowledge about the world as it is; Kaguya's freezing up (again, very literally in terms of the animation) in the process of being made proper in the terms of the nobility of the time says as much, if not more, than her various vocal refusals (or subversive embraces) of the feminine norms of the period. This is in part because of that dichotomy; Kaguya is established as presenting her resistance in one of two modes, both of which are characterized by enthusiasm. Either she refuses to blacken her teeth because she likes to smile with her mouth open, or she blackens her teeth in the middle of a long sequence of her abiding by the rules so strictly as to read as mocking them. Here, though, her reaction is not expressed through her actions or reactions as they are established by (and establish) her character, but through the very terms on which she exists in the world. If character, as a category, is a way of providing an epistemological frame through which to view the persistence of certain aspects of a narrative through time, then this sequence is nothing less than the claim that that frame bleeds into the ontological.

Another way of saying this is to replace epistemology with content and ontology with form, I suppose. But those terms lack the sense that what is known, and how it is known, is being confronted with what is, and how it is. Because Kaguya is very much just a drawing, but we know her through the way that drawing can be manipulated through time to represent actions which are characterized by consistency and difference. And the point of this knowing is to obscure that being, so that we are not simply sitting in a darkened room watching lines transform in pure abstractions. But with the fitting sequence, that being is represented directly, after the knowing has been well established, both as a reminder that it is real and as a way of enhancing the depth of that knowing. It is frankly fucking incredible.

At a broader level, and in vaguer terms, Princess Kaguya is a movie that works. I worry, here, that my disinclination to talk about things like character or narrative on textual terms might be misinterpreted as a tacitly claiming that they aren't up to snuff, that the only pleasure to be gained from this movie is in seeing it with a particular set of eyes on. And, to be honest, that is often true of how I write about films, because it is how I most enjoy them and how I most enjoy to write about them. But for Princess Kaguya I think it's worth stating that it is maybe the most human, and affecting, film, whether from start to finish or in almost any particular moment, I have seen in a very long time.

*[Trigger Warning] There are certain things about this scene which lend themselves to a reading that seem to lend themselves to reading it as an episode of disassociation during or following a sexual assault or rape; immediately prior the movie shows a drunken reveler demanding to see her, and it is closed by Kaguya waking up with a piece of broken pottery next to her. This is used to signal that the "dream" wasn't entirely, at least, unreal. I really don't have anything to say about that other than it seems fair to warn people and that it is one of the decisions the movie made that I'm less than enthusiastic about.

**From what I understand, Princess Kaguya is actually a digitally animated film, and so the actual technique used is not the same. Its digital animation is, however, meant very clearly to evoke brushes, and to mimic the form of anime. So take the crafty shit as metaphorical.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

2014 in Shit: Joe

I saw Joe in spite of the fact that it was made by the dude who directed Pineapple Express. I say this not because I have seen that movie, but because I didn't know anything else about David Gordon Green prior to the film. And because what convinced me to see it -- the film's synopsis reads like a fanfiction premise for the unique place in the culture Nic Cage has come to inhabit, and of which I am very appreciative, that somehow actually managed to get made with Nic Cage attached -- seems, in retrospect, like something I would now instinctively avoid. Wacky explosive Nic Cage is great, particularly in Wild at Heart, but nothing is ever going to touch Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Nothing.

That said, Joe turned out to be a pretty fucking good movie, and one I would recommend. It avoids an enormous amount of pitfalls that it sets for itself; it is, for lack of a better word, a neorealist film. Aside from Cage (and the kid, Tye Sheridan, whose work I am not familiar with), all of the actors (I think?) were non-professionals. And it is very much a movie about working class lives and misery. Cage plays an alcoholic struggling with anger issues who becomes a sort of surrogate dad for Sheridan, whose real father, played (often incredibly) by Gary Poulter, is a drifter and a drunk. There's a scene where Poulter murders another homeless man for a bottle of liquor, but that's one of the only moments where Joe becomes the sort of movie that you might expect it would be.

The rest of the time, Cage is playing up his internal tension in a way that is perfectly Cagey but never gives in to the spectacle of his casting. Maybe that part where he shoots a dog? But even bits like that, or when he punches out a rookie cop (holy shit that bit is so good) aren't a "not the bees" moment. I dunno, really, but it's all great. Nic Cage is great.

Joe's a weird movie to talk about, and not only because I saw it almost a full year ago at this point. It's quiet and respectful in ways that a synopsis or review (by me) can't really get at. It's the sort of movie that is as interested in its landscapes as it is what drives it. There's a lot of dirt and mud in the movie, and it's shot as respectfully as any moment of Cage burning up inside or Poulter unexpectedly popping and locking is. The premise, as a sort of independent film, is so in line with so much American Literature that even though I don't know that I've seen many movies like it (or even that much fiction like it, really) but it still feels kind of unimaginative. Working dads with nothing but drink and a potential for violence left after decades of labor. Rural America where industry is both unavailable and ever encroaching.

Cage employs a group of folks, including eventually Sheridan and occasionally Poulter, at spraying trees with poison that will slowly kill them. There's no direct utility to his work, and it is probably actually illegal, but he is laying the groundwork for some timber company to be allowed to get in on the ground once the devastation is done. There aren't really moral dilemmas here; it is a place of poverty and disillusion. Yeah. I swear it's good though.

I remember standing outside the theater talking about the movie after it was over. I'm sure I said some things about the small moments that carried through, changing ever so slightly the tone of later bits. About standout moments that hit hard and had depth. There was a scene that was an argument between Poulter and (I believe?) a senior worker, the kind of thing that you really could believe was a take that spiralled out of control so perfectly as to be left in. Those kind of things. Cage punching out a cop. But I really don't remember much. Maybe we'll watch it together some day. I think that'd be cool.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

2014 in Shit: Birdman

The mean way to say it is that Birdman is Synecdoche, New York for adults. Both struck me, while watching, as little more than a proof of concept, blown all the way up. Both also -- and I would include Inception in this category -- left me feeling a kind of muted, hollow happiness upon walking out of the theater that I couldn't really account for, and that didn't persist, and that -- if I'm being honest -- might as easily been a consequence of "going to the movie theater" as it was anything to do with the film just watched. I didn't exactly love any of the movies -- that might be a slight fabrication for Synecdoche, whatever -- but I do hate some of the editorializing around them.

If there's a big difference between Birdman and Synecdoche, it is one of degree rather than kind; where Synecdoche was a proof of content, Birdman was a proof of form. Which is cool, I guess, even though that proof was done famously by Sokurov and recently in Silent House. And honestly, I'd put Silent House in the genealogy of Sokurov and Hitchcock('s Rope) ahead of Birdman, but you know. I like bad things. And have bad opinions. That are badly written. Let's go!

Birdman's a movie shot in a falsified single shot that is basically an extended joke, in which an aging actor, famous for playing a superhero twenty years ago, puts on a stage play to get some of his credibility back. He also has some level of telekinetic powers and Edward Norton ends up having sex with his daughter.

Also, before I get any farther: Naomi Watts is incredible. She's the best. How is she so wonderful. Also Emma Stone is fantastic and Zach Galifianakis is weird and I like him and Edward Norton is pretty cool too. Acting is weird and I don't get it but god fucking dammit Naomi Watts is amazing.

Anyway. Synecdoche, New York was always a movie about signs, about the gulf between the signifier and the signified, as represented through the Grand Boring Theme of mortality or whatever. It has mostly stuck with me because it was one of those movies I saw, and was like, I get it, okay, sure. But also I still liked it. Because it did, at least in some ways, push hard enough that even though it never quite got beyond that it was just an idea turned into a movie, there was enough movie there to enjoy. Birdman, on the other hand, has the immediate benefit of being an idea for a camera turned into a movie, that also happens to have enough movie there to enjoy. At least after the first, like, forty minutes of the movie that come after the first twenty, or something along those lines. After the excitement of trying to figure which particular configuration the limited set of rules afforded by the decision to film with no visible edits will be operative -- that is, after the first twenty minutes or so -- the movie quickly settles into a relentlessly sluggish pace. That this is, in the end, justified -- which is to say that the movie as a whole is well paced, even if the act of watching it in time might not appear to be at certain moments -- is cool, I guess, and allows Birdman to swell and climax in ways that would not seem to be readily available to it were the pacing not quite so stilted.

Do I seem to have disliked Birdman yet? It's weird. I often feel like I do, even though I didn't. This isn't the place to talk about the association of criticality with negativity -- because it never is because that argument can go fuck itself -- but there is a certain tenor to how I have thought and talked (and now written) about Birdman that gives off that impression, even to myself. Sorry. I'll stop talking about Charlie Kaufman now, at least.

There are some neat things about Birdman that -- despite the near-universal praise for it -- I haven't seen mentioned much. The decision not to equate the fabricated single shot with real time is one of them; a few times, throughout the movie, the camera will come to rest and the shot will go all time lapse photography. That is cool and an interesting way of dealing with the constraints of the narrative on the formal decision.

Another neat thing is that this is a goddamn science fiction film. That's weird. Should I talk about that? It's kind of, like, my wheelhouse, I guess.

I don't know much of anything about Alexander González Iñárritu -- or, for that matter, about Emmanual Lubezki, the cinematographer whose work this movie was widely recommended on the strength of -- but, as I blathered about last year, I have some reservations about the use of the term magical realism, especially when used in reference to authors from south of the United States of America. I feel conflicted, now, about my own thoughts; the more it gets formulated, the more I suspect I sound like the kind of whiteboy who decides the best way to talk about the art of artists of color. Which is to say, at least in part, that my issues could be divorced of real concerns, including the development of a language which allows for an appreciation of work on both critical and financial terms which might otherwise be refused it. Which is all just to say that my calling Birdman science fiction is a political argument, and one with which I am not entirely confident of its foundation. But here it is.

So. Keaton's role in the early 90s Batman films is here transmuted into a movie called Birdman, for which he is equally (un)renowned. His telekinetic powers are established fairly early, when he claims he caused a stage light to fall on one of the actors in his adaptation of Carver's head. There are a couple other scattered sequences, mostly involving small object manipulation, until he throws a fit and breaks a bunch of stuff with it. There is also a voiceover that occasionally intrudes into the film, apparently emanating from a framed Birdman poster in his dressing room. The movie doesn't go full sf until Keaton is considering suicide; a sequence in which he flies around the city is followed by him standing on top of a building as if preparing to jump; he eventually does, only to fly around more. There are regular hints that the whole thing might be in his head; it largely happens when he is alone, and otherwise there are little things to tip it off, like when Keaton glides down to the sidewalk in front of the theater, only to be pursued by an angry taxi cab driver demanding he pay his fare.

Here's the thing about these sorts of moments of disavowal; it is, I would argue, entirely possible to read them as systemic rather than generic. That is, they might usually be used to distance a text from a particular genre, but this isn't in any way a necessary reading of their inclusion. And if the difference between, say, science fiction and magical realism is a difference in systematization, where the latter includes it only as an organizing principle while the treats it as a goal or an end in itself, then the question of how it is read is a question of what genre it belongs to. If that sounds a bit too much like a divorce of genre from history, well, remember that it's all about getting paid.

The most obvious way to think about these disavowals as systemic is to extend the "magic use forbidden around non-magical beings" rules of a Harry Potter. This, at least, is a window; obviously that series mostly uses it to establish scenarios for its breaking. What I'm suggesting is something like that which is not a rule in the fiction, but of it.

Framing a discussion of Birdman in this way allows a potential reading of the film's central verbal conflict to appear; throughout, the question of Hollywood vs the Theater is raised and fought and dropped. I don't know that I would call it the central conflict as such, but there's an argument to be made there; the film's hook (Michael Keaton as functionally himself directing for the stage) certainly relies on it, and it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that the technique (false single shot) is addressed primarily through that lens.

Actually, come to think of it, I haven't seen anyone talk about the fairly straightforward observation that the use of the no (apparent) cuts camera style is a way of bringing the experience of movie theatergoing closer to the experience of stage play theatergoing. Which then offers itself as an explanation for why the passages of time are done in the way they are -- when the set changes, the audience stays watching, much like the time lapse shots of the sun. See, framing things through genre makes neat observations possible.

Looked at in this way, the film seems significantly more ambivalent about its stance on the Hollywood vs Broadway argument than it first appears to be. Despite being a film, it puts both the strongest arguments and the strength of conviction primarily in its advocates of theater, and does little to dissuade the viewer from taking the position that Keaton is kind of a washed up boor. Without reading the structure of the film as aspirational toward theater, you have then only the marketing and reception of the film to fall back on, which seem very geared toward the assumption that Birdman is by and for people with little or no regard for the filmgoing audience at large or the productions they enjoy. The very simple fact that it was largely marketed as a superhero film with a twist, rather than on its own merits (at least as far as I can tell), and that this assumption has bled into the reception of the film as its detractors are characterized as ignorant plebs, is remarkably telling.

Well, hell. I certainly didn't expect this to be the direction I took.

Reading Birdman as a film that is not just an attempt at a technical feat of filmmaking as such, but one which is meant to evoke the experience of the theater which it portrays, would seem to only underscore its position on the thematic argument. But by embedding that argument in the structure of the film, the question of genre (Hollywood vs Broadway, again, which is a slightly different use of the term than I usually prefer but which I think is nevertheless apt) is less something declaimed upon and more constitutive. And I do like thinking about genre, especially as a constitutive factor.

All of this, in turn, reflects on the question of Keaton's telekinesis, and whether it is the typical sort of flight of fancy that filmmakers sometimes employ because they can or is a fundamental aspect of the world or is a way of signalling a sort of predisposition toward a systematic realization of a deliberately hermetic world.

There's the danger, in getting into this, of coming off like the sort of IMDb forums posters who just argue minutiae. I'll try to avoid that.

Here's the thing; reading Birdman as being ambivalent about its own genre through its particular formal decision then makes its ambivalence to commit to a position on its more fantastical elements deeper, if not less apparently annoying. And, in the interest of fairness, this doesn't change the fact that while Birdman as a whole reveals itself to be deliberately paced in such a way as to hold up remarkably well as a cohesive text, this is done in such a way as to leave parts of the film, in their moment to moment experience, incredibly dull. This isn't a crime, obviously; it's perfectly valid to pace a film in the service of its being remembered. I even praised Silent House for it. The difference, though, is that if the no cuts technique is in fact an aspiration toward film-as-play (and I only demure because I am attempting to acknowledge the limits of my own memory here and the way in which this is a constructed on the fly argument given the nature of this project; I myself, now, am quite convinced) then the medium in which that takes place is firmly experiential, giving that aspect a weight that the pacing doesn't seem to acknowledge.

All this is relevant because, regardless of where it ultimately falls, the experience of the fantastic in Birdman is intimately tied up to its pacing. It is introduced early and sparsely used, until Keaton flies around and fucking punches an alien or something (I honestly don't remember) at the film's climax. It also, in a way, bookends the film proper, with the only two sequences not part of the single long take being short sequences, quickly cut, depicting some sort of comet or something (I also don't remember those very well), suggesting a scope beyond the personal life of Keaton's character that ties into it. If the film is paced in such a way as to be remembered, then this isn't as much the case; the real standout scene there is when Keaton gets locked out of the theater and has to run around the block in his underwear. As the best individual sequence in the movie, this bit is characterized by its lack of fantastical elements; dude can fly and all. But as a sequence of images that exist in time, it is the elements of the fantastic that are its anchors.

And those anchors -- to return to Charlie Kaufman, if only to wrap this thing up, because holy hell how did it get this long -- lack the ambivalent valorization that reading Birdman through genre would seem to require of them. To be sure, the intentional refusal to allow the viewer to accept the fantastic as objectively true within the world of the fiction can be called a sort of ambivalence, but it is only one which suggests a recourse to the psychological being the primary motivator of the film's aesthetic choices. Which is a fine reading and all, I suppose, though it ultimately turns Birdman into little more than, well. The mean way to say it is that it turns Birdman into Synecdoche, New York for adults. The nice way? I'm not so sure about that. But it has something going for it.

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