24 February 2010

"Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on."

I spent last Sunday afternoon embedded in the warm cocoon of Film Forum. Before showing the restored print of Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes, they played previews of current and upcoming films, one of which was a the 40th anniversary re-release of Five Easy Pieces. It wasn't quite a natural fit. I wondered what the little girls in front of me thought about Jack Nicholson calling another man a "cracker asshole." Personally, I loved it - "cracker asshole" is one of those curse word combinations that has a natural poetic rhythm and rolls right off the tongue.

At the end of the trailer, there was a blurb accredited to Richard Schickel: "If you see nothing else this year, you must see this film." That shocked me, frankly, because I wouldn't even call it the best of the pre-Chinatown Jack Nicholsons. I would give that honor to The Last Detail. Ask yourself which one you prefer: the ennui-ridden, grown up Holden Caulfield-type, or the lifelong Navy man who enthusiastically demonstrates "yodeling in the canyon"? I know which one I'd rather have escort me to jail. After I got all worked up over the tendency for film critics to overpraise - after "brilliant" is reduced to having the same power as "mediocre," they will have to resort to "It will give you mind boners!" - I realized that the blurb was probably taken from Schickel's original 1970 review. After some research, I saw that it was, and in that year, it was praise more than merited - although looking back, let us not forget to also praise Patton, or God forbid, Kelly's Heroes.

So my longtime nemesis, Research, shot down my point and my planned way of opening with what I originally wanted to say about The Red Shoes: that though I am not given to hyperbole, the first word that comes to my mind to describe the new print is "miraculous." Released in 1948, The Red Shoes is a Technicolor wonder about a ballerina and composer who fall in love while creating a new ballet. The director is displeased and attempts to keep them apart. A simple enough story, told gorgeously and with great dancing. I imagine it looks as good as, if not better than, it did back then, and I encourage everyone to go and see it right now. I SAID NOW!

Like most external forms of stimuli, it got me a-thinkin': Did I enjoy it more because I saw it on the big screen? The obvious answer is yes, films just capture your attention better when you see them where they're meant to be seen. But I'd like to go beyond that knee jerk response and examine the issue a bit more, or maybe just waste your time. Why not? You're probably procrastinating anyway.

There are certain movies that I'll watch at home on DVD or off TCM, typically older ones, and though I will intellectually recognize why they are acclaimed, and will enjoy them on a certain level, I still have to struggle to avoid nodding off, usually around the middle section. Recently, films of this nature include Breathless (most Godard, actually), Woman in the Dunes, Au Hasard Balthazar, El Topo, and Gate of Hell. I'll be sitting there thinking "That's a nice shot" or "Oh, cool character moment," and then I will blink and feel like I've been asleep for hours, even though it was a snooze lasting a split second. I slap myself, adjust my position, sit awkwardly, rewind a bit, check the clock, and try to focus. This occurs several times. Toward the end I will break through and rally and, sometimes, make an emotional connection with what's happening onscreen. When the movie is over, I worry that our wacky modern life is killing my attention span, although to tell the truth, I've been pulling this sort of thing since college. I end up telling myself that I will enjoy it more whenever I watch it a second time and will be able to appreciate it beyond the turns of the plot. This conveniently ignores the reality of my likely not watching them a second time, at least not anytime soon, what with the massive backlog of movies I have yet to catch up on, plus all the movies I know I love waiting for me to view them again and again and again.

Again, on a certain level I enjoy these movies, and yet they don't manage to engage me enough to keep me awake the whole way through. When pondering why this happens, I come up with theories about my personal preferences that fall to pieces when examined. For example, I'll think, "Gee, maybe I'm just a story person; if I'm not caught up in a interesting plot, I drift away." But this doesn't explain my love of Amarcord, Fellini's slice of life movie that examines an Italian town over the course of a year in the 1930s. Or other character/life-focused films like My Neighbor Totoro, Taxi Driver, American Splendor, The Kid Stays in the Picture, or the Grand Daddy of them all, Citizen Kane. So then I think, "Well, maybe I'm a character person, then." This leaves out films I love with admittedly one-dimensional or stock characters I might hate in other contexts, works like Once Upon a Time in the West, Dead Alive, Hard Boiled, The General, and City Lights (really, most action flicks and comedies).

What does this have to do with The Red Shoes? I began to ponder whether it would have been one of the films I nodded off during had I watched it at home, or whether the secret ingredient to being thoroughly drawn into these films is the theater-going experience, the chance to be able to focus exclusively on the movie without outside distractions like mewling cats, honking horns, and groaning neighbors. (This is not taking into consideration the distractions of your fellow audience members, of course, but at Film Forum they were generally a quiet, well-behaved lot; there was nary a glowing cell phone screen during it or The White Ribbon, which I saw after.) BUT, once again, there have been plenty of films I was completely enthralled by while watching for the first time in the safety of my apartment: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death (which has possibly the greatest opening sequence ever), The Burmese Harp, and Children of Paradise. (Although, to be even more elemental about it, Moira Shearer had amazing gams I would have enjoyed equally on the big screen and small.)

My current theory is "Gee, maybe I need to be emotionally invested somehow." But what is that "somehow"? Most of the time we think of it as, again, liking or identifying with the characters. But I think it goes deeper than that. Great filmmaking, or, perhaps more accurately, filmmaking that speaks to us on a personal level, can move us emotionally. Even filmmakers who are normally thought of as cold and austere toward their characters, like Kubrick, the Coen Brothers, and Haneke, can get me wrapped up in their worlds and viewpoints through their sheer artistry and move me, story and characters be damned. At the same time, someone thought of as a warmer, more spiritual filmmaker, like Bresson, can leave me feeling nothing. I can clinically say "I understand why people love it," but I can't quite feel that way myself.

Ultimately, I suppose it comes down to something as simple as this: Some people dig some things, some people dig others; such is the way of art. And yet we allow this to mire us in redundant, meaningless arguments. Look at the way Richard Schickel (speak of the devil) recently bashed Robert Altman's work in an essay that basically boiled down to "I don't like the way he did things." The current fad of ripping into Scorsese contains a lot of that, as does this piece by Jeffrey Wells (which the Self-Styled Siren kicks in the nuts). While simultaneously pondering at this and digging into the reasons for our reactions, we need to respect, or at least understand, why certain people like things we can't get behind. We don't have to abandon criticism, or never tear apart something we hate or find offensive, but we have to have reasons that go beyond "Fuck long shots, that shit is wack." We have to be able to build up our own houses without tearing down those of our neighbors.

I suppose that doesn't start flame wars and get page views, though. Hell, I should join the game to get more peepers. How's this for a start?: Andrei Tarkovsky was a navel-gazing ass face who could turn a five minute blowjob from Marilyn Monroe into an agonizingly boring three hour experience full of mind numbing tripe. What do you have to say about that, Solaris lovers?

19 February 2010

A Trip to the Acme Film Preservation Emporium

Your humble narrator is currently participating in the For the Love of Film Blogathon, which aims to raise money for the National Film Preservation Foundation. (If you can, please donate generously here.) After reading posts by his fellow bloggers at the host sites, The Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films, he was staggered by the talent and knowledge on display, wishing he had more expertise to offer the project. Alas, the tide of work at his desk prevented him from delving into the field through such rigorous, time-consuming tactics as "research" and "actually watching movies," and so he settled on writing a more general post - until now. A trip through the Internet's looking glass led him to discover the existence of the Acme Film Preservation Emporium in the nearby city of Metropolis. He quickly arranged to visit the facility.

Senator Joseph Paine, who played an instrumental role in establishing the Emporium, greeted me at the front gate with a firm handshake. "It's a great pleasure to meet you," he said in an accent surprisingly tinged by England. "We receive precious few visitors these days, what with everyone always up in arms over the newest things. Old-timers like myself can't help but feel overlooked. Please step this way."

He led me inside, where we stepped onto a giant conveyor belt that whisked us past screens showing films saved by the Emporium. On one, Joseph Cotten was visiting Agnes Moorehead at a boarding house. On another, Clara Bow was punching out a man with a vicious left. I asked the Senator if we could pause the conveyor, but he shook his head. "Sorry, old boy, but once this thing gets started it's impossible to make it stop. We must take it to the very end."

The conveyor quickly approached two giant emerald doors that swung open as we neared. Beyond was a cavernous room, the floor covered by row upon row of drafting tables. At each sat a person clad in a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a black tie, a spattered smock, and a jeweler's loupe embedded in one eye. "Here is our main floor," the Senator announced. "Each man and woman is carefully fixing a single degraded frame of film." He stepped off the conveyor and beckoned me to follow. We moved closer to one of the desks, where a young woman was analyzing a frame that had severely deteriorated into a mass of nitric acid.

"We can salvage this one," she said, wiping away the acid with a Windex-soaked rag. This revealed a faded picture of an elderly man and woman in a shoddy apartment. She selected a black Sharpie from a jar at the top of her desk and expertly shaded in the darker tones. "That's the black part. Now for the white." She produced a bottle of Wite-Out and neatly dabbed the frame until all the parts were properly retouched. When finished, she blew on it to speed up the drying, then placed it into a plastic container which she sent flying into the tangled pneumatic tube system overhead. A few moments later, a new tube arrived, and she gingerly placed the next frame onto her desk. "Aw, this one is even worse!" she moaned, shaking her head and grabbing the rag.

As we made our way back to the conveyor belt, a worker passed us holding what looked like an oversize novelty check. "Pardon me," he said, and I saw that it was not a check, but a title card with a lined border and "Griffith" written in cursive at the top.

The conveyor took us through another set of doors and into a room crowded by a giant piece of industrial equipment, so large its top was lost in an unlit void overhead. "This is where all the frames go!" Senator Paine shouted over the machine's roar. "The Kuleshov 3000 sorts out which frames go where and then splices them all together." With a monochromatic hand he gestured to the end of the machine, where several workers were pulling out film stock like sausage links and threading them onto separate spools. "We can edit together up to eleven films per day with this."

We did not linger here, but moved on to the Emporium's final section, a room with waste-suited workers using hoses to spray bright paint onto whirring reels. "For preserving films made after the invention of color," Senator Paine said. "It's hard for young people these days to picture what the world was like before we had more than one hue. Sometimes I think we've become spoiled with all of our blues and reds and...oh, blast, what's that bright one? Yellow! I suppose I'm just showing my age..."

Just then, a humanoid whistle hooted steam into the air and, all at once, each worker took out sleeping masks and slipped them over their eyes. "They enjoy a mandatory ten minute break every hour," he explained. "Staring that closely at Technicolor for any longer gives them terrible headaches." In a far off corner, I saw a group of children scribbling over film stock with crayons. When I asked the Senator what they were doing, he turned away and muttered something I couldn't quite hear about colorization.

At the end of the line, we stepped off the conveyor and into an unstaffed gift shop. As Senator Paine escorted me to the exit while pressing a box of Acme Dehydrated Boulders into my hands, I spotted a door marked "John L. Sullivan Memorial Wing." When I attempted to move toward it, the Senator barred my path. "Oh, back there, that's nothing you want to see. Just some storage units." He was interrupted by another man who emerged from the shadows. He wore the uniform of French policeman and bore a strong resemblance to the Senator. "Why not let him see? We have nothing to hide." Against the Senator's protests, the policeman opened the door and I stepped through.

Before me were several booths divided by clear plastic glass, much like interrogation rooms. In the first, a distinguished gentleman was wearing a pair of headphones and speaking into a microphone. His gray pallor identified him as belonging to the same generation as the Senator and the policeman, who sidled up beside me. "Our studies have shown that people dislike silent films because they lack sound," he said. "So we correct them by adding in a voiceover narration - the audience tends to find this soothing - or we call in the actors and record dialogue to loop over the scene." The policeman knocked on the booth's window. "Everything alright in there, Charlie?" The distinguished gentleman inside glanced up and smiled with a curt wave.

The policeman took my arm and guided me toward the second booth. "You see, what's the point of restoring these movies if no one is going to watch them? We're merely trying to give the audience what they want. People toil long and hard all day, and when they return home, they shouldn't have to work to relax. They're just looking for some light entertainment." I began to sputter about remaining true to an artist's vision, but he cut me off. "We're not ruining these films. Really, we're improving them. We're making them more enjoyable for a wider audience. What could possibly be wrong about that? The filmmakers should be thanking us."

He stopped me at the second booth. Resisting the urge to run, I instead leaned forward to look inside. There, I saw a box of kittens mewling on a table while workers painted them with various shades of gray. "Have you ever watched a movie where the characters weren't quite good or bad? Don't you hate it? How are you supposed to know who to support? That's where these kittens come in. When we restored The Lost Weekend, for example, no one was sure whether Ray Milland was a hero or a villain. So we put in a scene of him feeding a kitten. And then the audience knows: Ah, yes, he may have his troubles, but he is an exemplary fellow at heart."

With a sinking feeling, I turned to the last booth. It was entirely occupied by a tube-shaped chamber, ominous smoke emitting from the tightly shut door. From somewhere inside, I could hear a steady percussive beat. "This," the policeman darkly intoned, "is the Rapping Grandma Generator."

My feet acted on their own accord. I fled the room as swiftly as possible, slamming the door shut behind me to block out the policeman's mocking farewell laughter. Senator Paine was still in the gift shop, standing beside a display of Acme Giant Rubber Bands. "We tried to make a go of it, you see. But the funds we received from the government weren't enough. And when we asked for donations, those weren't enough either. And then the Acme Corporation offered us a deal and...well, we would have been foolish to turn it down. They were perfectly in the right to request certain actions be taken that would, as they saw it, increase the films' profitability. They do need to earn money, after all, as do we all."

"I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine," I said. "You think us cinephiles are licked. Well, we're not licked. We're going to fight for this lost cause. Even if the Acmes and all their corporate spreadsheets come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to us." Senator Paine paled at these words. He turned on his heel and hurried into the Sullivan Wing. A moment later, a gunshot rang out. I rushed in to find the policeman wrestling a pistol away from the Senator, who shouted, "Let go! I'm not fit to be a senator! I'm not fit to live!"

There was nothing left to see. The tour was over. I departed the Acme Film Preservation Emporium, determined to help other film preservation organizations in any way possible. If you're out there, reading this, I ask you to join our cause. Donate and support the work of actual, non-fanciful film preservationists who have dedicated their lives to saving our nation's art and history. Before it's too late.

17 February 2010

For the Love of Film

Did you know that Orson Welles made a film before Citizen Kane high-lariously entitled Too Much Johnson? I just discovered that while doing some light, lazy Wikipedia research for this blog post, and now I intend to introduce it in every conversation I have this week. I want to stand on the rooftops and shout "Orson Welles made a film called Too Much Johnson!" When someone appears distraught or confused, I will ask "Too Much Johnson?" When the subway is crowded and cluttered and beset by panhandling musicians, I will shake my head and grumble, "Too Much Johnson." And when introducing myself, I will say,"My name is Justin, but you can call me Too Much Johnson."

Enragingly, I cannot actually watch the film. Welles stopped editing it when legal and technical complications stalled his plan to screen it as bridging segments in a theater production, and when he rediscovered the footage years later, it was incinerated in a fire at his home. That's right, folks: The fire destroyed Too Much Johnson. Sadly, this kind of story is far too common, and frequently lacks easy juvenile puns with which to alleviate the loss. Like anything else in this world, films die - whether they are burned up, misplaced, intentionally destroyed, or naturally deteriorate - and when they go, we lose them forever. We will never be able to witness most of the work of film pioneer Georges Méliès, for example, because many of his films became boot heels for the French army during World War I. It's a horrifyingly poetic image - all that fantasy and magic trodden by thousands of soldiers to reach the killing fields at the front, now buried and mouldering with them in mass graves.

Today, we read that and are stunned. "How could they?" we think. No one back then knew the value of film, which wasn't always looked upon as an art. We don't know what things we take for granted today will go on to become heralded in the future - I'm hoping that our children's children will be complaining about their Brilliant in Context required reading in their Vulgarity classes - and so while it's easy (and fun!) to be judgmental toward our ancestors, even today, we still allow our own treasured works and memories to wither and die because we never realize their true value.

Unlike people, however, we have the means to preserve films without the ensuing grisliness of the zombification process. Institutions like the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) rescue pieces of art and history before they get trashed in the dustbins of time. They can only do this, of course, with money, and so I am writing this meandering emotional appeal as part of the For the Love of Film blogathon, which is raising funds for the NFPF. Please go to this link and donate whatever you can.

What film is worth preserving? All of it, from your father's home movies of Christmas morning to the biggest piles of crap Hollywood is capable of excreting. And that's one of the aspects of the NFPF that I particularly enjoy - they go beyond traditional films and grasp something deeper. Whereas an organization like the Library of Congress generally sticks with mainstream or feature films like Casablanca and On the Waterfront when selecting works to preserve (and they only preserve 25 films per year), the NFPF is more free range, working with a variety of institutions.

In addition to the usual suspects, they've helped save footage of Marian Anderson's 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial, commercials for long-gone restaurants, political ads for forgotten issues, a staged screen test created by a filmmaking class, images of the destruction caused by the 1964 Alaska earthquake, the trailer for a lost film, ancient city guides, and a ridiculously meta Mutt and Jeff cartoon that feels like the ur-Duck Amuck. (As a proper Michigan lad, one of my favorite finds on the NFPF's website is this 1919 animated short from the Ford Motor Company warning its workers against unions. "Bolshivists are the rats of civilization," Uncle Sam says, providing ample evidence of how little political discourse has changed.) We need to do more than just preserve your City Lights, your Cool Hand Lukes, and your Dickson Experimental Sound Films. We need to hold onto these other works that exist outside of the mainstream notions of FILM.

I think of it like this: In life there are things that most people know about as fairly common knowledge - celebrities' love lives, presidents' speeches, natural disasters - whatever makes the nightly news. These things become a part of HISTORY. But then there are those happenings, events, and people that don't enter the popular consciousness - that is, the vast majority of existence - and they don't typically end up in HISTORY. They don't make it into the textbooks, they aren't examples of heroes your mother uses to make you eat your peas, they don't become posters slapped up on dorm room walls. But they are even more important in helping us understand and imagine the world as it exists for most people, and what remains of them - those brief moments captured on film - is rapidly disappearing.

These films give us a tactile sense for the past and how it was actually lived on a day-to-day basis. In a very real sense, this is how films, photographs, and recordings intimately connect us to what was, so that we may better understand where we came from, who we are now, and where we're going. They serve as portals to our ancestors, allowing us to better imagine what their lives may have been like. So please support the NFPF. Because one day, when you're dead and gone, there won't be anything left of you either but what was captured by a camera's lens.

You can read other entries in the For the Love of Film blogathon by visiting one of the host blogs (Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren). The other writers who have donated their time and talent are universally more smarter and talenteder than me, so I urge you to check them out. And once again, please donate generously here.

08 February 2010

Bloody Red Murder on Superbowl Sunday!

I am one of those insufferable people who boast about not watching the Superbowl. Whenever it comes up in conversation, I hail myself as a master intellectual who does not have time to waste on mere sporting events. In fact, I tell all within earshot, I make it a point to go to the movies every year to take advantage of the thin crowds. Now, aren't you very impressed by my refusal to kowtow to the popular culture and the advertisers who run it?

Er...except for the movie advertisers, I guess...shit...

When I lived in Metro Detroit, my Movies on Superbowl tradition made perfect sense. Everyone and their dog in that city is an avid sports fan, so on that day, the suburban cineplexes lay desolate and dormant, ripe for a cinephile to luxuriate in quiet theaters and open aisles. This plan doesn't work as well in New York, however, because this city is awash in hipster masses of all types, from the young'uns just finishing their multimedia thesis at NYU to the middle-aged guys still wearing Buddy Holly glasses and elbow-patched sport coats to the old people trying to fit in as many foreign language flicks as possible before they pass. And let's not forget the loner weirdos (like me!).

Nevertheless, this year I was undaunted, taking up perhaps my greatest Superbowl Sunday challenge: a five-and-half-hour viewathon of the complete Red Riding, a trilogy of films produced for English television based on a quartet of noir novels set in the Yorkshire region. In summation, it was very good, maybe even excellent. You can read about it from any number of reviews (Slant's spoilerific analysis is the one I agree with most). Many of them compare the series to my main motherfucker James Ellroy (clearly a major influence here), "The Wire," or Zodiac. All apt. But I'd like to bring up another point of comparison that fits better with how I personally experienced the trilogy: Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (aka The Yakuza Papers), which tells the story of Hiroshima's post-war yakuza struggles from 1945 to the early '70s.

The booklet the IFC Center produced for the "Special Roadshow Edition" describes Red Riding as "truly an example of the sum being greater than its parts." And David Thomson takes a similar tack in his sometimes insightful, sometimes unbearable essay at the front of the booklet:
RED RIDING is not to be grasped, followed, or understood--that's why you need to see it. This is not a veiled charge against [series screenwriter] Tony Grisoni and the others involved for not telling the story plainly. There are many internal elements subverting "organization" or authorship: three films; the adherence to muttered Yorkshire dialects that leave a good deal unheard; and an absolute refusal to let the story be tidy or finished. ... RED RIDING is not just hard to follow--it believes in a culture and a narrative where things no longer click together. You never know the whole story or the larger purposes because the world is no longer run on those pious timetables.
Basically, if you go in expecting to be told a story with a beginning, middle, and end, with all the different plot threads tied up in a neat little ribbon, you will be disappointed. What the films do exceptionally well is create a world and immerse you in it. It's not a happy world to be in, filled as it is with corruption and murder, but it feels truthful in a dark way, confirming our deepest suspicions as to how things actually operate. It's the sort of work that illustrates the chaos at the foundations of life, a chaos that mocks even the conspiracies attempting to take advantage of it (Underworld U.S.A., anyone?).

But I'm neglecting Mr. Fukasaku. To bring it back where I started: I kept thinking of the five part Battles Without Honor and Humanity series while watching Red Riding as it also has some substantial plot confusion embedded within its style and themes.

I didn't find the story too confusing in Red Riding, but many things do remain unexplained at the edges. With Battles, good fucking luck. Betrayals and alliances come at a breakneck pace, with the characters following (or, more accurately, neglecting to follow) the arcane codes that dictate their society. Fukasaku further stirs the pot even when the film is trying to help the audience along: Each major character is introduced with superimposed titles over a freeze frame of their face, but Fukasaku deliberately stops the action when a character is in motion, resulting in a blurry image. At the beginning of the films, these titles often come in a rapid clip, doing little to aid us in figuring out who is who. Let us also not forget that Fukasaku frequently uses the same actors to portray different characters in different films, giving a sense that these are souls constantly reincarnating but damned to keep making the same mistakes over and over.

In watching any of the films, I can't claim to feeling fulfilled in the traditional "story-well-told" sense, but they also create a world I love to linger in, one with enough madness and violence and criminal activity to feel like real life (or what we read of it in the news). It's a cumulative effect, with each film increasing the reach of the yakuza and the subsequent destruction they cause and, in turn, our compulsion to watch. Yet the films always frequently tie the gangster's doings to whatever political events were occurring in the era, reminding us that their evil deeds are only mimicking those of the world's governments. The first film opens with a black and white still of the atomic bomb blast that obliterated Hiroshima, the title Battles Without Honor and Humanity scrawled across in a bloody smear. By the time of the fifth film, which opens with the yakuza marching in a memorial parade for the bomb's victims, an entire culture of corruption has been built, and we can only watch in horror as men who commit violence as a part of doing business dishonor the dead by claiming to support peace.

Let us also not forget to praise the cinematography and music. Visually, the images are always striking - if I had an apartment big enough to hold a party, I'd put on a DVD for background ambiance. Musically, I admit that the series soundtrack is on the playlist of songs that air naturally in my head whenever I'm walking around the city.

And so it is with Red Riding. Both series present, in compelling visuals and sound editing/scores, a decaying society led by men who are looking out for themselves to a sadistic extent. In each, the individual moments take precedence over the encompassing plot in order to evoke moods and atmosphere. If you're lost while viewing them, that's no big deal. You can at least instinctively grasp the gist of what's going on - which usually puts you far ahead of the characters.

03 February 2010

"Here's another explosion for your movie, kid."

So I finally got around to seeing Avatar. I don't intend to review it here - for one, everything anyone could possibly say about the film has pretty much been covered by the entire Internet, a medium so inundated with every asshole's opinion (hello!) that all films are simultaneously overrated and underrated; for two, I fear James Cameron will dispense his hired goons to my apartment to carefully break my legs in ways averse to healing. But there is one aspect of the criticism about it that I would like to address.

In discussing the film with friends and colleagues, I've heard a couple of people praise the action sequences. They generally use lines like "I could see everything that was happening," "I knew where all the characters were in relation to each other and the environment," and "The editing was well-paced and clear." I agree with this assessment - James Cameron is a good action director and knows how to stage and shoot a thrilling set piece. And this is also praise I've heard (and have directed myself) toward other recent action movies. I understand where it comes from completely.

At the same time, it fills me with despair. Has our action cinema so completely degenerated into incoherence that it's become necessary to single out "I could see what was happening" for praise? THAT'S WHAT DIRECTORS ARE SUPPOSED TO FUCKING DO! That's their job - to tell the audience a coherent visual story. And if they deliberately disorient the audience, then they better have a good reason for doing so, not just because it looks cool. (By the way, attempting to approximate the mindset of Jason Bourne is not a good reason, because Jason Bourne is the one character who would know exactly where everyone is and what they're doing - that's why he's so good at kicking their ass. Also, he's not spastic, so stop shaking the camera so goddamn much.)

(By the Way Part II: While looking for links for that last parenthetical sentence, I came across a David Bordwell piece that essentially says everything I wanted to say, not just about the Bourne movies but action cinema in general. He does it with vastly more insight and expertise than I could ever muster, so I highly recommend reading it. If you'd like to stick around for my amateur hour, I would be grateful.)

When I was in college, we studied Hong Kong action cinema, usually in comparison to how Hollywood practiced the genre. (Speak of the devil, David Bordwell's essential Planet Hong Kong was our guiding text, and most of my observations in this paragraph are drawn from my memories of it.) One thing the professors noted was that modern Hollywood typically gives viewers the impression that action is occurring without it actually happening - for example, shaking the camera to make it seem like a car was going fast when it wasn't - whereas Hong Kong actually staged the events occurring in the film - if someone got hit by a car, they got hit by a damn car. Hong Kong also practiced a pause-burst-pause rhythm in both editing and staging so that, no matter how frenetic the fighting became, viewers could still follow the action, while Hollywood chopped things up into incoherence.

I bring this up because Hong Kong cinema, like most worldwide cinema, was influenced by Hollywood to a certain degree, and stands as evidence that back in the pre-1990 Dark Ages, Hollywood knew how to stage and shoot action. Even in the dumbest of '80s action films (the glorious age of fun stupidity), there was a sense of geography so we could easily follow the events. Hong Kong studied Hollywood's lessons and combined them with its own existing culture and tricks to create something new (and awesome).

But Hollywood lost its way, with the Michael Bay school of "Shoot and Blend" becoming the dominant mode of action expression. Instead of looking at action cinema itself for influence and guidance, Hollywood has stolen the "You Are There" shaky cam aesthetic so unfortunately predominant in "gritty" films. Rather than being influenced in turn by Hong Kong's more concrete filmmaking innovations, it has instead co-opted only its relatively shallow surface traits (gun fu, martial arts) in the hopes that they will bring power and excitement to sloppy hackwork.

It's reached a point where I become excited when drama directors take on action films in the hopes that they will invest some classical cinema into the shoot 'em up moments. I'm often wrong to get my hopes up (3:10 to Yuma, Quantum of Solace). I wish I could say that the center cannot hold and that eventually Hollywood will find its way, but audiences still throw their cash at whatever the insurmountable marketing divisions tell them they enjoy.

Sure, sure, there are still directors who know what they're doing - I keep thinking back to the brutally wonderful mayhem of No Country for Old Men, and anyone influenced by Sergio Leone can craft an expert bit of the old ultraviolence. But these master craftsman are far too rare, so I'm afraid we're stuck for the time being, giving our praise to directors who are only doing their job in, you know, showing us what the fuck is going on.

02 February 2010

Handlebar: Steering Toward Disaster

Excellent news, folks: My filmmaking brothers in Michigan have an official premiere date for their groundbreaking new comedy feature, Handlebar. You can see it on Sunday, February 21st, at 7:00 pm at the Celebration Cinema in Lansing. If you can't make that, then you're in luck, because it will also be playing on the 22nd, 23rd, 26th, 27th, and 28th at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm each day. That's eleven shows for you to make! Frankly, if you're in Michigan, you don't have an excuse. Everyone should be there. EVERYONE!

If you're the type who needs to know the plot before seeing a movie (jeez, how demanding), then read this article, fan them on Facebook, or watch the trailer:

See? Like all the best movies, it has violence and comedy. What more could you possibly want? How about my personal Seal of Approval? Boom. Done. Has it. I've seen a portion of the first edit, and I was absolutely tickled by it. Tickled in an extremely manly way, of course. Speaking (relatively) seriously, the performances here are all top-notch, with Michael McCallum and Shane Hagedorn going balls out to make themselves as ridiculous as humanly possible. Just look at that punim:
Of course, if you are not in Michigan but still want to watch a great movie while supporting the truly independent arts, then the Handlebar store is open for business. You can individually purchase the DVD, the soundtrack, or the simply awesome poster with art by Dennis Preston, or you can get them all in one handy dandy bundle for $30.00. Cheap!

Some of you - probably my mother - are likely asking yourselves, "Say, Justin. Are you in this movie?" Sadly, the film lacks my devastating good looks, but based on my acting abilities that's probably for the best. I was a very minor player in dreaming up the story, however, and in telling you that tale, I help to illustrate just what a lengthy struggle creating any movie really is, particularly if you're out there on your own without a major studio to funnel you its illicit funds and cocaine.

Way back in...I'm going to say 2003, but it might have been 2004...Mike and I met up in an East Lansing restaurant then known as "Burger King." I dined on the 99 cent tacos, a menu item that was too perfect for this world - the restaurant did not sell them for very long, and so I stopped patronizing the establishment. No doubt this contributed to its current decline. We battered around story ideas, and came up with the initial beginnings of what would eventually become Handlebar. It was to be a short film about criminals who kidnap a spoiled rich boy for their boss, with everyone a complete incompetent.

We kept trading ideas for it around for another few years, and almost filmed it in...oh, I guess it was late 2005 or early 2006. My old age has made my memory spotty, and I don't have my OCD daily record calendars around to solidify my estimates. No matter. During this stage, we had a couple of setbacks, and the only thing of note that came out of it was the title. Friends, I do very much mean to boast when I tell you that I came up with that gem, perhaps the only thing of worth I have ever created. It came from the magnificent handlebar 'stache that Mike grew for the film, and from then on it stuck.

After I moved to New York, they grabbed hold of the story and completely turned it around. They made it better than it was before. Better, stronger, faster. They changed and expanded the characters and plot, made it funnier, more exciting, more entertaining.

The final result? Well, you can see that later this month. Buy your tickets now!