Wednesday, August 24, 2011

If At First You Don't Succeed: JUMP TOMORROW

(Note: I originally published this over at Mobius Home Video Forum in 2004, for a column I used to do there called An Incomplete Education, whose archive got wiped out in one of Mobius's transitions. It came up on Twitter recently, so I thought I'd dust off the column. If anyone cares, I might dig more of these out.)

Niagara Falls is the love capital of America, and it's also the suicide capital. It's a place where unlikely, extraordinary, banal, and horrible things happen. If a screenwriter wrote a climactic scene where the character jumped off of Niagara Falls, unaided, and lived, they'd be laughed out of the room when they presented the script. Except, of course, that it happened in real life. Extremes, implausibilities: these are the currency of Niagara Falls.

JUMP TOMORROW is a road trip movie to Niagara Falls, and fully embodies the spirit of its destination, in the deepest sense. I've read people who criticized the film - scathingly, even - for its failures in realism and over-the-top caricatures of characterization. No doubt, JUMP TOMORROW is replete with unlikely turns of plot based on coincidence and characters who so fully embody cultural stereotypes as to seem fully implausible.

But such a criticism misses the point. Yes, we do have a crazy Frenchman who falls in love at the drop of a hat, creates elaborate wedding proposals, and even has an Eiffel Tower statuette on his dashboard. Is this lazy characterization? Not to the end it's used: without giving anything away, the ending for this character is simultaneously happy and non-obvious. More pointedly, it's what happens when a man living in a myth must firmly, finally, deal reality. (Not unlike the shot, late in the film, where the characters drive by a seemingly abandoned amusement park, left to the elements.)

The themes of myths (and by this I mean contemporary romantic myths - see the frequent references to Telemundo in the film for other examples) hitting hard up against reality are the bread and butter of this film, in fact. An early central scene plays out in a "love hotel" of sorts, where every room is absurdly decked out with everything from vibrating beds to champagne-glass bubble baths. It's the sort of room where one's fantasies are supposed to play out.

What happens instead, of course, is simultaneously amusing and painfully accurate. Our fantasies never play out the way we imagine them, and while there's some cheap laughs extracted from the way they don't play out, the larger point shouldn't be missed, either. Magic is supposed to happen here, and it doesn't.

(The next two paragraphs give away the ending, albeit in vague terms, though a lot of this movie is about the quest rather than the destination, so you decide whether you want to deal with said SPOILER.) The jaded viewer, of course, will see this as an obvious and cheap feint towards an end where true, uncommercialized love comes to the fore. While it could be characterized that way, the ending is not what we'd really expect from such a story. At first, everything goes the way we expect it, and then we wait for what we know has to happen, how we're sure this movie will end, the true romantic catharsis. And then the movie ends, depriving us entirely of what we've come to expect.

Instead, personally, I got something more richer: I got something that felt real. The myth of love is that a film ends with a romantic embrace "happily ever after", and we imagine our couple in perpetual bliss forever. The reality is much less elegant. It's clumsy, and it's uncertain. It's difficult and messy and rarely truly successful, no matter how glorious and achingly romantic that kiss in front of Niagara Falls may have been, and if your eyes are open to the decay behind you, at first you may feel cognitive dissonance. But if you come to realize that that's the flip side of the coin, that you don't get the beautiful myth without the messy reality that goes with it, you're in better shape than most, and maybe that's why the superficially disappointing ending of this film leaves me happier and more optimistic than any number of soft-focus dissolves to "THE END" ever could. Or, for that matter, any plot twist we might see on Telemundo.

Monday, August 22, 2011

does Kevin Smith believe himself?

So Kevin Smith has launched his release plan for RED STATE. Perhaps of most note is that he plans to tour the country for the next two years, doing post-show Q-and-A's.

Which is cool. My feelings about Kevin Smith aside*, any filmmaker committed to making sure his fans have the option of a theatrical screening of his film has got my back, as far as that goes.

It's his reasoning, however, I find a bit specious:

My long-term goal with the ever-evolving Red State experiment is to redefine the theatrical exhibition window: if I’m willing to accompany the flick somewhere in the country every other weekend for the next two years, I can probably do about $20 to $30k per night. That’s a big enough per-screen to land Red State a noticeable position on Variety’s weekly box office chart every other weekend. And if I can make sure Red State stays on that chart for the next few years, some kid who wants to make a movie but sees the system of the movie business as impenetrable might just find it a little easier to get his or her head around… and maybe give it a shot themselves.

I'm totally with this until the middle of the fourth sentence - and it's the idea that Kevin Smith puts forth here that captures something that's been a constantly recurring motif of the RED STATE release. The idea that somehow he's opening the doors for other young filmmakers to follow him.

But he has something none of them have. Well, lots of things. To name a few:

- a 15+ year, 10 film career of consistently high-profile films
- 1.85 million Twitter followers
- an almost unique status amongst contemporary directors as a raconteur - I've heard more than one person say that the best thing he's ever done is his AN EVENING WITH KEVIN SMITH DVD. The only other personality who comes to mind with a similar reputation is John Waters (and I doubt he could draw half the crowd Smith does, sadly)
- a film starring Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman, and many other familiar faces (Anna Gunn from BREAKING BAD and Stephen Root jump out to me)

In sum, Kevin Smith, with CLERKS, made a film that was inspirational to many because of its approach - no name actors, low production values, low budget, in sum, a model almost anybody could follow. Now, almost two decades later, he's trying to achieve the same sort of inspiration for distribution with an approach that virtually no one can follow.

Can they? Am I missing something? Or put differently: do I have any filmmaker friends out there who are finding inspiration in this?

*As a film that embodied the DIY aesthetic like no film I'd seen before it (which says more to what films I'd seen than film history as such, but anyway), CLERKS was in fact inspirational to me, as was CHASING AMY, which I got to see with Kevin Smith and producer Scott Mosier in attendance at a pre-release screening in Houston, prior to the days of these things being gigantic events. I asked him what he was working on next, and he talked about DOGMA, and how he had been nervous whether the studio would support it, to which Bob Weinstein replied, "we'll put that shit out on Good Friday!" (note: probably a paraphrase, given that this was 15 years ago). He invited everyone to meet up with him afterwards for a drink somewhere, but I was going to see a band - either Six Finger Satellite or Railroad Jerk, can't remember which - that night. Anyway. I also laughed my ass off at JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK and, more recently, found - yes - CLERKS II unexpectedly touching. There's other films I like less - some a lot less - and I don't think he's got much aesthetic sense as a director, but nonetheless, he's still made some entertaining flicks. Point being, I'm not a hater.

Friday, August 19, 2011

It's Our Fault.

In the last twenty-four hours, the Scott brothers have been in a race to one-up each other with outrage-inducing remake proposals - Ridley with BLADE RUNNER, and Tony with THE WILD BUNCH. (No word on Adam Scott's CASABLANCA remake yet.)

The venom has been swift and predictable, but is no less ironic for the fact that it comes all too shortly after so many have joined hands in praising a remake of a sequel (or, depending on your point of view, a reboot of a remake) as the best film of the summer (hi, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES!).

Personally, I think it's nothing new: my capacity for outrage at remakes was shattered many, many years ago, when the director of CASPER was hired to remake WINGS OF DESIRE with Nic Cage starring and the female lead role was transposed from trapeze artist to heart surgeon. (And what was left was bulldozed into microscopic pieces when PASSION OF MIND, the Demi Moore-starring remake of Kieslowski's DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE, unspooled shortly thereafter.) But if you do have a problem with it, maybe take a minute and ask yourself - where does that problem begin?

Remember, there is only one rule in capitalism: if you vote with your dollar, you will get what you vote for. And this chart of US box office to date in 2011 pretty much speaks for itself - but I'm going to speak about it anyway, because sometimes when something's all around you, you miss the obvious.

1 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
- sequel to the 7th in a series, remade from books.
2 Transformers: Dark of the Moon
- 2nd sequel to a remake of a toy adaptation.
3 The Hangover Part II
- sequel to an R-rated comedy - right now, one of only two places that Hollywood has room for "originality", although the format is very circumscribed.*
4 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
- 3rd sequel to an amusement-park ride adaptation.
5 Fast Five
- 4th sequel to a remake
6 Cars 2
- sequel to a mega-studio kid's animation, the only other place where original property derives from.
7 Thor
- Marvel comic adaptation; building block in AVENGERS franchise.
8 Bridesmaids
- R-rated comedy, Apatow brand. Considered to be "risky" because it stars women. Facepalm.
9 Kung Fu Panda 2
- sequel to a mega-studio kid's animation.
10 Captain America: The First Avenger
- Marvel comic adaptation; building block in AVENGERS franchise.
11 X-Men: First Class
- Marvel comic adaptation; prequel to a sequel to a sequel.
12 Rio
- mega-studio kid's animation; connected to ludicrously successful Angry Birds video game in way I don't comprehend.
13 Super 8
- one of two "gambles" on this list, if by "gamble" you mean directed by JJ Abrams, produced by Steven Spielberg, and marketed as a known quantity (i.e. throwback to THE GOONIES and 80's kid's entertainment)
14 Rango
- the other "gamble", if by gamble you mean this year's INCEPTION - i.e. a personal project permitted by earning shitloads of money for Hollywood. Also, this "original" project is entirely built on CHINATOWN, Sergio Leone movies, Johnny Depp, etc. Nonetheless, this is, in this list, the paragon of "original risk-taking".
15 Rise of the Planet of the Apes
- as noted, I can't even figure out if this is a reboot of a reboot, a prequel to a reboot, a remake of a sequel, or what.
16 Green Lantern
- DC Comics adaptation.
17 Horrible Bosses
- R-rated comedy.
18 The Smurfs
- adaptation of TV series inspired by children's toys.
19 Hop
- mega-studio kid's animation.
20 Just Go With It
- Adam Sandler branded comedy. Edited to add: per a note from Mike D'Angelo, it's also a remake of CACTUS FLOWER, a 1969 Walter Matthau comedy.

And there you have it: the top 20 highest-grossing movies. Which is not identical to the most successful movies, but close enough for the purposes at hand.

And that purpose is to remind people: if you want to change things, vote with your dollar. **

And if you don't, please, don't be shocked when Hollywood does exactly what it has been doing.

* As an example of what I mean about "originality being circumscribed" - one of the genre requirements, so to speak, of BRIDESMAIDS was adding the wedding dress/vomitorium scene. Gotta have those gross-out scenes to make it commercially viable!

** In the interest of disclosure, I've seen three of these films: FAST FIVE, BRIDESMAIDS, RANGO, and RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. I had a pre-paid ticket to burn for the first one, spent my own money for the other three. I actually enjoyed all of them. But I've spent at least 20x as much money this year on movies that don't fit those categories. That's a ratio that roughly represents my view of what I'd like to see at theatres as programming options, although by necessity most of that spending has had to come at film festivals.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

a horse is a horse.

One week after the end of the festival, THE TURIN HORSE keeps chasing me. Twice today: first in Steve Garden's excellent appraisal for the Lumiere Reader, and now, I have, via a friend, a block-mounted print-out still from the film, of a woman walking to a well to get water.

For those who have no idea what I'm talking about: THE TURIN HORSE is a film by Hungarian director Bela Tarr, known for his use of black and white, long flowing takes, and dour sensibility. It's loosely inspired by the true story of Friedrich Nietzsche, who had a breakdown after seeing a horse beaten on the streets of Turin, and starts by asking a seemingly simple question: what happened to the horse? The horse's fate recedes more and more as the movie continues, however, into the grinding desperation of two characters, waiting on a farm for a windstorm to stop ravaging the land.

I feel that I am spoiling nothing to tell you that the ending, along with the film itself, could not be characterized as "happy". I am also spoiling nothing by telling you that, of the 30-some films I saw at the NZFF, it was by far the most masterful film I saw: one of the most masterful films I've seen in my life.

And yet, when I went to make my top 5 list for the festival, I didn't include it.

(It was a strong contender for the fifth spot, which was taken by THE INNKEEPERS [choices are in alphabetical order on the site], but so, too, was HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN.)

Why? I suppose because the list was less about the objective quality of the films than the overall experience. As a critical writer, I can find no fault in THE TURIN HORSE. Yes, it is grindingly slow - the key plot elements of the film, such as they are, could be covered in a half hour. (Danny Boyle could probably do it in five minutes.) But a film like this is not about the plot: it is about the experience, and the feeling, as communicated by cinematic tools.

And that experience, that feeling, was grueling, enervating, and felt like being dragged down by a lead vest. I use the phrase "transcendental" freely and often, even in relation to camera moves I've seen in other Tarr films (and I've only seen DAMNATION and part of WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES, so I'm no expert here). I use it to describe that sensation where my skin tingles, my heart races, where I feel I'm part of something larger I can only dimly connect to but have, in that moment, gotten closer. It's the feeling I had at the lip of the Grand Canyon for the first time, or on my most satisfying scuba dives. It's a feeling that some would equate to a religious experience, or to knowing God.

I say this to try to explain what I mean by THE TURIN HORSE being resolutely, arduously anti-transcendental. If you feel it at all, you may feel it in the staggering opening shot, a tracking shot of the titular horse travelling to the farm, but even then, the sick knowledge of this horse's recent past weighs down, and the extended nature of the take produces a split effect; an acknowledgement of awe on a technical level, and a gut sense of horror in re: the horse's continued efforts in the face of abuse.

If I were to chart "happiness" in this film, this scene would probably be the peak. Not that I believe Tarr gives a shit about happiness. Not that there's anything wrong with that. There's plenty of other things to talk about, and if you can gel with the slow pulse of the film, you'll find plenty of it. To quote Garden's review:

… what of the film itself? What about the stunning choreography of those hypnotic long takes, the alternating viewpoints, perspectives, implications and perceptions, of painting with light, the breathtaking chiaroscuro, richly detailed, textural, evocative, lovely combinations of grey and black, perfectly suited to the depiction of the protagonist’s lives and Tarr’s starkly philosophic themes, the crucial use of repetition, the incessant score, empathetic but detached, expressing pity and regret but also consequence, coarse violins, violas, cellos and organ, the musical structure of the film (movements, thematic variations, a bridge and a coda), the music of the wind, the punishment of the wind, the heaviness of existence, the sense of impending apocalypse, the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, particularly the latter’s The Potato Eaters, the near-feral aspects of human nature, the paired down aesthetic, the conviction to eschew mainstream demands for easy to digest, easy to dismiss, comforting, pacifying, diverting, fundamentally dishonest crowd-pleasers, and what about compassion and empathy, the near-confessional admission of shared culpability, the responsibility of creating politically and philosophically vital works of art, the neighbour’s rant about centuries of unabated plunder, the perpetual subjugation of the disenfranchised by the powerful, the gypsies and the well, the rich who never pay, the poor who bear the burden, the anti-bible, the withdrawal of God, of packing up and leaving only to realise that despair is everywhere, of preferring to die at home, the well running dry, the global economic collapse, the failure of the lamp, the failure of systems and technology, peak oil, losing the motivation to eat and to speak and to look each other in the eye, a silent scream of immutable despair, an urgent plea, the dimming of the light, and fading to black? What of the film indeed.

Well, when you put it like that, I feel like a real dick for thinking of putting HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN in its place in a top five list, and actually putting THE INNKEEPERS there.

Except I kind of don't.


Here's the thing. There's critics, and then there's cinephiles. They can overlap, but for me, the crucial distinction is this: the critic has an abiding set of principles for cinema that dictate how they evaluate it, where as the cinephile is unstrung, bound only by love and feeling. A critic, faced with a hole in their logic, should be able to discern, with pinpoint accuracy, what distinguishes a praiseworthy moment in a film they like from a similar moment in a film they don't. It's an analysis that I've seen done, many a time amongst critics that I follow.

(And, I should make it clear, I value the work of said critics. I do not bring this up as a cudgel.)

But it doesn't really work for me. At the end of it, I can analyze cinema, but much of it is trying to justify a gut reaction. I've said many times recently variations of a phrase that boils down to "loving a movie is faith over reason": this is why. And the more I think about it, the more I value those gut reactions as the true signifiers of value to me (which should NOT be confused with value as a piece of cinema). The only true transcendent moment of the festival for me happened during AITA, and that's something I value, so I merit its inclusion. (Would it have been transcendent if I knew it was coming? Maybe not.) But I would be very, very hard pressed to argue critically that AITA is actually a better film than THE TURIN HORSE on any level.

I can only argue that I fell in love with it.

Those feelings of love, at a time when I've made my own film and feel increasingly familiar with the tricks of cinema, are rarer and rarer things, and so I cherish them dearly, out of proportion, even. I love leaving my own head, its logical strictures and analytical meanderings, and I find it harder and harder to do, the more I watch. Not that I would know, but it is like what I understand some drugs to be: it's harder and harder to replicate that first hit, but you keep chasing it, even as it becomes more and more of a shadow.

THE LAST CIRCUS consistently delighted me, surprised me, shocked me, and finally, broke my heart. THE INNKEEPERS let me know I could still be genuinely scared by a movie. TABLOID combined my love of philosophical inquiries about the nature of identity with one of the most riotously funny stories ever told on film. AITA, as mentioned before, provided my only moment of complete transcendence. And SLEEPING BEAUTY hit me hard, very deep inside, with its lacerating portrait of contemporary loneliness.

And then, there's THE TURIN HORSE. I didn't love it. Not like that.

It's only a goddamn masterpiece, that's all.

Why isn't that enough?


Recently, there has been a great deal of debate about films that are critically acclaimed but difficult to like, for which Dan Kois coined the term cultural vegetables. The original piece is worth reading, kind of, I guess, as a sign of the times, even though it makes me nauseous, as it uses two films I genuinely love, SOLARIS and MEEK'S CUTOFF, as starting points for implicitly bashing anybody who likes such films as a poseur of sorts.

As far as the debate goes: I find myself torn in my usual ways. To say "I love what I love" is not particularly far removed from Kois's "my taste stubbornly remains my taste" bon mot, which makes me feel that deep-seated need to question my beliefs that can only be triggered by sharing them with somebody whose ideology you find repellent. And I find myself cringing a bit when I hear people say "well, what you like is what you like, and you don't have to defend it". To me, it's a slippery slope from that to "critics are elitist because they don't like TRANSFORMERS 3/ZOOKEEPER/etc". And that statement causes me great personal pain, because I don't believe having standards is a bad thing, and I do believe there are such things as objectively bad movies. (And some of them are movies I love dearly, like TROLL 2 and DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS. Thankfully, unlike ZOOKEEPER fans, it would never occur to me to berate a critic for accurately identifying them as terrible.)

I don't just love bad movies, though: I also love great ones. And while (unlike Kois) I have no professional duty to engage with the most challenging and important works cinema has to offer, I feel the calling to, regardless. And it's not a matter of eating my cultural vegetables (though it took a great deal of self-restraint to avoid calling this entry "Eat Your Potatoes"). There's cinephilic joy, and beauty, and that sense of reward that comes with grappling with something difficult. It's interesting to note how many movie-goers will get excited about this kind of grappling in the form of an INCEPTION or MEMENTO, but very little of that enthusiasm extends to CERTIFIED COPY or THE TURIN HORSE.

But how can I judge said movie-goer? In my own personal information diet, I find myself, increasingly, veering away from the challenging and towards comfort food. I spoke to a friend tonight who's been reading Shakespeare and Schopenhauer; my reading has tended towards George Saunders and Jim Thompson. I listen to less classical, jazz, and avant-garde than I used to, and more straight-up comfort music. I don't know the Rembrandt and Van Gogh references that Garden makes in his article. I barely scan news sites, but have ten different film sites in my RSS reader. I don't feel good about these things, but I no longer have the energy to feel bad about these things, either.

Perhaps if I was engaged more with these things on a day-to-day basis, on a level of cultural sophistication above that I currently partake in, different senses would be more responsive, and other things might seem shallow in comparison to THE TURIN HORSE.

All of which is a long way of saying that I can't really judge anyone who doesn't want to sit through something as resolutely devoid of typical entertainment value as THE TURIN HORSE, just as I hope I am neither judged in a Kois-esque manner as a poseur for liking it at all, nor looked down upon for disrespecting it by not including it in a top five list. But people judge: it's what they do, rightly or wrongly, and I should stop pretending otherwise. And, at the end of the day, I suppose it's what I did in the first place, by making a goddamn list.

But here we are. And we must continue. While we can.