Monthly Archives: January 2014

Lone Survivor (2013)

On June 27th in 2005, in the Pech District of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, near the border of Pakistan’s “tribal regions,” the United States Army and Navy conducted a joint operation against a local militia leader named named Ahmed Shah. The Taliban had essentially been defeated, and the “coalition” — the American occupation force — was now getting involved in nation buiding. Shah, who was closely associated with the anti-American warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was considered a threat to disrupt the Afghan National Parliamentary Elections scheduled to take place on September 18, 2005.

Operation Red Wings, as the mission was dubbed, ended in disaster after four elite Navy Seals, Michael P. Murphy, Danny P. Dietz, Matthew G. Axelson, and Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell — all of whom had been lowered by helicopter near Shah’s compound as an advance reconnaissance team — were discovered by local goatherds and ambushed by Shah’s militia. The Chinook helicopter sent to extract them was hit by an RPG. Murphy, Dietz, and Axelson were killed. Marcus Luttrell was badly wounded, but managed to make it to a Pashtun village hostile to Shah, where he was able to hide until he was picked up by U.S. forces from a nearby base in Asadabad.

“Lone Survivor,” directed by Peter Berg of “Friday Night Lights,” and based on Marcus Luttrell’s book, ghost written by Patrick Robinson, and also called “Lone Survivor,” is a semi-documentary, semi-fictional retelling of Operation Red Wings. There has been a good deal of critcism of the accuracy of both the book and the film, including by Lieutenant Murphy’s father. Luttrell is widely believed to have overestimated the number of Ahmed Shah’s men in involved in the ambush. More importantly, Ahmed Shah never ordered an attack on the village where Luttrell was hiding. It would have been politically foolish. The rescue of Marcus Luttrell, like the rescue of Jessica Lynch, did not involve a a firefight.

The gun fight at the end of Lone Survivor involves different issues from the media’s fictionalized account of Jessica Lynch’s rescue. Whether or not Lone Survivor is 100% accurate is less important than whether or not it works on its own terms. It’s still a Hollywood movie, after all. I think it does. I think it’s well-made, effective, and, for at least the first hour, entertaining right-wing propaganda. What’s more, Lone Survivor has been a hit in conservative America, having already grossed over 80 million dollars — it cost 40 million to make — even though it’s been in wide theatrical release for less than a month. It has gained powerful supporters among conservative intellectuals. Glenn Beck was so outraged by a harsh review by Amy Nicholson in the LA Weekly — she called Lone Survivor racist, jingoistic snuff porn — that he offered to pay her travel expenses in order that she could “read the review to Marcus Luttrell’s face.”

“Amy,” Beck said. “Marcus is a Texan. That’s different than an American … He listens and obeys his mother. He treats his wife and all women with respect … You’ll walk into the studio and Marcus will know who you are, and Marcus will hold the door open for you even though … that will drive you out of your mind. He will treat you with respect.”

Most big budget Hollywood films aim for the widest possible demographic. “The Hunger Games,” for example, can appeal to people on the left. It’s the dramatization of a revolution of the poor against the rich. But it can also appeal to people on the right. Hunger Games depicts the poor as heterosexual “real Americans” while the rich, the citizens of the Panen capitol, look like decadent homosexuals. Medium budget films, on the other hand, sometimes go after a more limited audience. I doubt, for example, that David O. Russell expects conservatives to buy tickets for American Hustle. An unabashed apology for American imperialism and militarism, Lone Survivor is one of those rare films that goes after a limited demographic and goes after it hard. While I don’t agree with Amy Nicholson that it’s necessarily racist (more on that later), I do think it’s “jingoistic snuff porn.” In fact, I agree with Steven Boone at Roger Ebert’s website that Lone Survivor is a lot like another classic of Hollywood “snuff porn,” one that not only became a hit in “Red America,” but a political dividing line, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Lone Survivor is The Passion of the Navy Seals, a drama about 3 men who died for the sins of liberal America, and one who rose from the dead. Indeed, while the real Marcus Luttrell was gravely wounded during Operation Red Wings and spent five hellish days waiting to be rescued, he was never in any fear for his life. Lone Survivor, on the other hand, begins with a dead man, the fictionalized Marcus Luttrell lying on a cot inside a medical tent, dead. He’s flat lined. As his doctors frantically try to resuscitate him, we flash back 3 days to Bagram Air Force Base (no mention of the fact that it was used for torture). There we find ourselves among a likeable group of fratboys. Matthew Axelson chats with his wife online. He wants to buy her an Arabian horse but doesn’t think he will have the money. Luttrell actually wears a fraternity shirt. A younger Navy Seal, played by Alexander Ludwig, is put through a hazing ritual.

A few hours after being lowered from a helicopter near Ahmed Shah’s compound, the four Seals are put to a test. Some local goat herds discover their position. There’s a good chance they’re loyal to Shah. Murphy, Dietz, Axelson, and Luttrell have two options. They can kill the goat herds, thus violating the “rules of engagement,” and, quite possibly, go to jail as war criminals. Or they can let the goatherds go, call off the mission, and try to escape a best they can. They decide on the latter. The main criticism that Michael P. Murphy’s father had of the book Lone Survivor, interestingly enough, is that his son would have never even allowed a debate on killing civilians, let alone a vote. He would have followed the rules of engagement to a fault.

“[Killing civilians] was the total antithesis of every bone in his body,” Lt. Murphy’s father, Dan, told the Daily News in 2007. In Luttrell’s book, Murphy’s main argument for letting them go was to prevent the U.S. liberal media from attacking them and seeing that they were charged with murder.

In any event, the goatherds are loyal to Shah, and the four Seals are ambushed. Over the next hour, they go through their passion play. As waves and waves of Taliban militia swarm their position, they’re shot up, beaten up. They fall down a steep ridge and crash repeatedly onto hard ground, their bodies and faces mangled by the sharp edges of rocks. Like Jim Caviezel’s Jesus, Murphy, Dietz, Axelson, and Luttrell seem to have an almost superhuman ability to absorb punishment. Lone Survivor is a long, extended meditation on the destruction of the bodies of  powerfully built young men. They are, in effect, crucified because of the rules of engagement against killing civilians. Even worse, the Chinook helicopter that flies in without Apache support to rescue Luttrell is hit by an RPG, and crashes against the side of the mountain in spectacular fashion, killing 15 more soldiers and Navy Seals.

Indeed, if Murphy, Dietz, Axelson, and Luttrell have any fault at all, it’s that they call in to ask for orders to kill the goat herders, and then, not able to contact their commanding officer, let them go. Murphy should have have taken that responsiblity on himself. He should have died for his buddies, not the sins of liberal, politically correct America. In other words, Lone Survivor is an apology for war crimes that are never committed. “Let the troops win,” Berg says. “Stop tying one hand behind their backs. Look at how these four, muscular young American Christs are dying for your sins.”

But then a strange thing happens, which is why, unlike Amy Nicholson, I don’t think the film is necessarily racist. We start to root for the Taliban. Sure there are some “good” Afghans who rescue Luttrell, but it doesn’t matter. As Murphy, Dietz, Axelson, and Luttrell die, as their four meaty Anglo Saxon bodies get pounded into meat, we start to root for Ahmed Shah’s militia. I’ve seen Berg accused of setting Lone Survivor up as a First Person shooter, and, indeed, that may have been his intention, but it’s not the effect, as least for me. On the contrary, as the movie bogs down in its long passion play, the Afghans, the Taliban, Shah’s militia, whatever you want to call them, are transformed into something that resembles an avenging ghost army. They move gracefully. They aren’t weighted down by heavy body armor. They carry simple, elegant, AK-47s and not pimped out American assault rifles. They are cold, ruthless, relentless. But they are cleansing their country of the American invader. If we want Marcus Luttrell to escape, it’s only because, like American imperialism, he’s a bloody mess who doesn’t belong there.

Orphans of the Storm (1921)

For this review we decided to try something a little different. The genesis of this blog came from spirited discussions and arguments Stan and I had about various films on Facebook, and I thought trying to capture some of the spirit of that would make for an interesting post. We both watched Orphans of the Storm, D.W. Griffith’s film about the French Revolution, at the same time and discussed it by chat afterward. This is an edited transcript of that chat.

Stanley Rogouski: Orphans of the Storm is Birth of a Nation without the racism. Both films have the same reactionary politics. If Orphans of the Storm doesn’t sentimentalize the aristocratic old order the way Birth of a Nation does, it expresses the same fear of democracy. Here, the vindictive lower classes of Paris replace the freed slaves, and lust for revenge replaces lust for white women, but the narrative is essentially the same. History is seen through the eyes of a vulnerable young woman. She is menaced by the demons let loose by revolution, and, in the end, has to be rescued by a strong resurgence of patriarchy, the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation, Danton in Orphans of the Storm.

Daniel Levine: That’s absolutely true, though what struck me about the film was how blatantly the film states it’s propaganda in favor of a certain agenda specific to its time period. Orphans displays all the characteristics endemic to the historical period film-it isn’t history, history to it is a malleable thing that only exists as  something to be allegorically twisted to represent the period in which the film  made. This trait puts the vast majority of historical period films into the position of being reactionary either intentionally or not because it has to assume history is repeating itself ad nauseum and has no room for anything as dynamic and teleological as Hegel let alone Marx.

Stanley Rogouski: Whether Griffith’s ludicrous history of the French Revolution comes from his lack of  formal education or an ideological commitment to the post- Wilson “red scare” in 1921 is an interesting question in and of itself, but there’s no question it has little to do with reality. There was no conflict between the “good liberal” Georges Danton and the “bad radical” Maximilien Robespierre. Danton didn’t restore democracy after the downfall of the Jacobins. He was guillotined. Robespierre was guillotined a few months later. And what about Napoleon? Griffith writes him out of history altogether. Obviously, as you point out, Orphans of the Storm has little to do with the French Revolution. Why not just call Robespierre“Lenin” and just call Danton “the United State of America?” But I don’t see Griffith making a historical drama. Rather, he’s making an aesthetic drama. Griffith, for all of his racism, was a genuine poet. “Good” in a D.W. Griffith film means “beautiful”and “evil” means “ugly.”  One thing I was struck by was the extraordinary beauty of Lilian Gish and Joseph Schildkraut on their way to the guillotine. There’s a  natural,” genetic order in Griffith’s universe. A happy ending means putting this natural order back in power. You’d might was well invoke the “great chain of being” that motivated Shakespeare.

Daniel Levine: I think the fact Griffith sees this need to reprocess historical events into easy, borderline Manichean dualities is interesting because that sets the tone for historical melodrama in almost everything that came after. McLuhan says in the first mini-essay of The Mechanical Bride that the newspaper is “our 1001 Arabian Nights”, pinpointing this need to digest events in simplistic, mythical expressions of eternal forces and questions. The cinema does a lot to reinforce this. How much more would the average moviegoer in 1921 actually know about the French Revolution than what was in this film? Griffith’s sense of history is one of recurrence and parallels, not of contrasts and distinctions. That’s implied with little subtlety in Orphans but his earlier film Intolerance is entirely built on this premise.

Stanley Rogouski: I’m not exactly sure how much the average (American) movie goer in 1921 would have known about the French Revolution. I’m assuming much less than he would have known about the United States Civil War. Parallels? Yes. There are parallels in Orphans of the Storm, but they are subordinated to the poetic ethic of good/beauty and evil/ugliness. Henriette, Lilian Gish, is of low birth. Louise, Dorothy Gish, Louise is the daughter of an aristocrat. The Chevalier de Vaudrey is an aristocrat. Pierre Frochard is a commoner. But they’re both good. When de Vaudrey’s family rejects his marriage to Henriette, we immediately think they’re nuts because, in the natural order of things, they belong together. I think you’re probably right about how American cinema sees history as melodrama. Even Spielberg’s Lincoln sees the Civil War as a struggle between “good and evil, even though in his case, it’s conducted within the democratic process. The war itself doesn’t seem to enter into it. In fact, he wants to keep his son out of the army to work on lobbying congress. Compare any American filmmaker to Sergei Eisenstein. Battleship Potemkin sees history as a process. There’s no final victory of good over evil. There’s the birth of a revolutionary consciousness. I’m also struck how few beautiful people there are in Eisenstein’s films compared to Griffith’s.

Daniel Levine: Without Lillian Gish I’m not sure any of Griffith’s films would work. In the final guillotine sequence it actually works to undercut the suspense because we know that if Griffith decapitated Lillian Gish he would’ve had angry mobs like the ones in Paris after him.

And how about that final 50 minutes or so, that’s some quality vintage riot porn. And notice when the people are dancing it immediately cuts to a shot of cheesecake, an early perpetuation of the American cinematic technique of Puritan disgust at sexuality expressed by wallowing in it.

Stylistically the film is fascinating because, without dialogue there’s no reason for shot-reverse shot sequences and none appear. The technique of expressing interiority and first person perspectives isn’t gotten by entering into the person’s literal field of vision like in Hitchcock but in intimate sensual portraiture; the soul is accessed through a visual reduction of the person to their eyes and lips. Especially Gish. And Gish’s character, Henriette, is the only character allowed throughout the action to respond to anything or have subtle feelings about the action.

Everyone else is shot in long shots, the set becomes a stage and the body language frequently verges on that of vaudeville. The shots of poverty and the androgyny of the emaciated early on were incredible though. Almost reminiscent of Walker Evans. He ruins it though by showing poverty as inherently just a problem of the rich being stingy. Classic reactionary understanding.

Stanley Rogouski: Is it Lillian Gish or the way Griffith films her? I think the point, at the end of Orphans of the Storm, is not so much “will she live or will she die” but the contrast between the nobility (as manifested by her physical beauty) of Henriette and de Vaudrey and the squalid desire for revenge of the Paris mob. Historically it’s absurd. Once again, the fall of the Jacobins didn’t lead to a restoration of democracy. It led to a military dictatorship under Napoleon. But does it work on an aesthetic level? Is a revolution betrayed by its politics or by its abandonment of ores and the embrace of Thanatos, whether Thanatos is defined as “blacks wanting to rape white women” or “French peasants wanting to behead good aristocrats.” Haven’t you met people with whom you largely agree on most issues politically but about whom you’ve thought “Jesus. If that guy ever got any real power we’d all be screwed?”

Her (2013)

Last month, in Oakland, a group of protesters smashed the window of a Google bus, one of the private shuttles that takes employees from their overpriced homes in San Francisco to their high paying jobs at Google’s Mountain View “campus” 40 miles away in Santa Clara County. While I appreciated the methods — there’s never a bad way to terrorize gentrifiers — I was sceptical of the goal. Trying to keep San Francisco open to the working class struck me as being an exercise in futility.

After seeing “Her,” the latest film by Spike Jonze, however, I’ve changed my mind. Not only must the Google bus protests go on, they need to become even more militant. Try to imagine a world where sex is a bit like masturbating to a TED talk. Then gather your rocks, buy some eggs, smash some windows, and slash as many tires as you can before you get arrested. The scum that rides the Google buses must being driven out of San Francisco by any means necessary.

Her shows us the world that the digital oligarchs at Google and Apple will create if they’re not stopped. Set in Los Angeles at an unnamed time — let’s use that old science fiction cliché “in not too distant future” — there is no working class. There are no poor people, and no ugly people. There aren’t a lot of particularly beautiful people either. There are, of course, quite a few good looking people, but nobody who glows with an excess of life, nobody with any real passion or fire. Even though Her is technically a love story, and even though it stars attractive, A-list actresses like Roony Mara and Amy Adams, the only thing that really inspires us is property, especially the exquisite skyline of Los Angeles, digitally altered to look a bit like Shanghai, and the hero’s apartment, which hangs over the glittering metropolis like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear.

The hero, a man named Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix may give us a hint as to where the working class went. Perhaps they all joined the meritocracy. A former writer at the LA Weekly, Twombly now works for a company called Beautiful Handwritten Letters Dot Com, where he gets paid to be a professional Cyrano, composing love notes for people who, we can assume, lack the requisite literary skill to do it themselves. Twombly is not a programmer or a digital guru, and the kind of writing he does stuck me as the kind of work they’d farm out to low paid freelancers at content mills like Demand Media rather than to high powered copywriters like Don Draper. But he lives in a beautiful condominium. He never lacks for money. He travels whenever he wants. All of his friends seem to be Ivy League professionals. His ex-wife has a PHD. His blind date went to Harvard, and the receptionist at Beautiful Handwritten Letters Dot Com is dating a lawyer. We are, in other words, deeply embedded in the American meritocracy. If anybody in Twombly’s world got anything less than a perfect score on their SATs, I’d be surprised.

Financial success notwithstanding, Twombly is an unhappy man. With his gift of gab and nice guy charm, he never lacks for female attention, but he’s still pining for his ex-wife, Roony Mara. A blind date with a woman played by Olivia Wilde goes bad after she reveals herself to be vindictive and emotionally needy. A newly divorced friend, a game designer played by Amy Adams, comes off like a potential soul mate, but there’s little or no sexual chemistry. Theodore Twombly seems destined to end up as a lonely, celibate old bachelor, his sex life confined to cyber sex and masturbation.

Whether or not Twombly, at any time, ever engages in anything more than cybersex and masturbation is the question Her poses. Her’s version of Los Angeles feels like a city that could actually exist. It’s been cleaned up a bit and whatever government they have has obviously spent quite a bit of money for public transportation — we never see anybody drive a car — but we can still imagine living there. Artificial Intelligence, on the other hand, has advanced to the point where an operating system can act like a human being. A new system, OS1, designed by a company named Element Software, can feel emotion, even evolve intellectually. After Twombly downloads OS1 onto his smart phone, and it reveals itself to be the voice and personality of Scarlett Johansson, he quickly falls in love. It’s fun to speculate what would have happened had Samantha, the name Twombly’s copy of OS1 gives to “her” self, had had the voice and personality of Bill Gates or Richard Stallman, but that’s another, and probably better movie.

Scarlett Johansson is a talented actress. Without a single visual, she establishes a coherent personality, intelligent yet sexy, gentle yet domineering. Part administrative assistant, part second wife, part nanny, she seduces Twombly with the tone of her voice, and, more importantly, with her words, turning the tables on the professional love letter writer, wrapping him around her little digital finger before he’s even validated the software online. Johansson is so good, in fact, that there are negative reviews of Her on the Internet by “intersectional” feminists complaining they made Samantha too beautiful and too “cisgender.” She’s a collection of bits and bytes you fools. Then again, perhaps the “intersectional” feminists are onto something.

Samantha never quite works for me as a machine. She seems a lot more like a woman on the other end of a cell phone. I interact with people all the time on the Internet I never plan to meet. It doesn’t make them machines. The concept isn’t even particularly novel. Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson had a friendship for decades, even though they never met. They wrote letters. Needless to say, Twomby and Samantha are no Emily Dickinson or Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Indeed, while we’re told, repeatedly, that Twombly is a great poet — Samantha collects a group of his best love letters and sends them into a publisher — he comes off more like a talented writer of Hallmark cards. Romantic dialog in Her is a collection of insipid platitudes. “You’re sweet” or “oh you’re amazing” is about the best we’re going to get. The banal language carries over into his “relationship” with Samantha. Phoenix is a decent physical actor. When he thinks Samantha has cut him off for good, he manages to bumble convincingly enough through the lobby of an office building to demonstrate that he’s upset. But don’t expect any real despair.

“Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living. You said I killed you–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” in the bland world of Her would probably just be labeled “inappropriate.”

Spike Jonze seems to have turned 30-year-olds into retirees, people who not only lack bodies, but who lack any desire for one. If the publisher Samantha sends the collection of Twombly’s love notes immediately decides to publish them as a book, then it has less to do with Twombly’s talent than the fact that the Los Angeles of Her has become so colorless and without passion that any man who can sling phrases like “you will always be my friend as well as my lover” is never going to want for admirers. Samantha is just as bland. Sure, we all know it’s Scarlett Johansson, but she comes off more like just another sexless denizen of the meritocracy. When she “evolves” beyond her “relationship” with Twombly — it has something to do with hanging out with other operating systems and reading Alan Watts — it feels perfectly natural. Samantha, like any soccer mom who has gotten the kids off to school, has decided that her pilates classes and her “spirituality” come before hopping into the sack with her husband, who’s probably at work anyway.

That is, perhaps, the point. Her is a dystopia, a gentle dystopia along the lines of Brave New World rather than a savage surveillance and torture state like the Oceania of 1984, but a dystopia nonetheless. There may be no poverty in the Los Angeles of the future — either that or they just manage to keep the Bangladeshis who make the clothes and the Chinese workers at Foxconn who make the smartphones well hidden — but it’s still a horrifying reality. Element software has designed an operating system that can charm any man out of his shorts right down into a masturbatory passivity. Whatever happened to the debate about the NSA and the fourth amendment? There may be no “big brother,” no malevolent machines running the matrix. There may be no Agent Smith or Skynet, but there’s no Winston Smith, no Julia, no Neo, no Trinity, let alone a Cathy or a Heathcliff, either.

What happens at the end? Well, we really don’t care. Theodore Twombly is a slave who never shows any sign that he wants to be anything more than a slave. Her is at least an hour too long. It’s a clever setup, but it has nowhere to go. After awhile, it feels like sitting on a Google bus. I kept hoping some dirty hippies would break one of the windows with a rock. I stayed with Her to the end just to see if Spike Jonze figures out a way to blow it all up, or, at the very least, to give us a satisfying resolution, but he doesn’t. The narrative isn’t resolved so much as it peters out. Jonze can’t quite figure out how to end it so he bores us to death, trying to put us in a state of mind where we’re too afraid of not “getting it” to speak up. Would I recommend Her? Sure. Go see what all the fuss is about. Would I watch it again? Oh hell no.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Halfway through the Coen Brother’s latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn Davis, a folk singer played by Oscar Issac, travels to Chicago to meet with an music producer named Bud Grossman. As he strums out The Death of Queen Jane on his guitar, and as Grossman looks on without expression, we realize what the stakes are. Grossman can make or break Llewyn Davis’s career. We also realize that there’s something very familiar about the actor who plays Bud Grossman. It’s F. Murray Abram, Antonio Salieri himself, the iconic character from Milos Foreman’s classic film Amadeus.

Llewyn Davis is no Mozart, but he’s no Salieri either. Rather, he’s a combination of the worst qualities of both. Like Salieri, he’s a competent, if uninspired musician. Like Mozart, he’s an obnoxious social misfit. This makes him that most unhappy of mortals, a man with no real artistic talent, no inherited money, and yet, in spite of it all, a man with a genuine artistic calling. Llewyn Davis drifts through Greenwich Village sleeping on friends couches, borrowing money, picking up a few dollars here and there with an “open hat” gig at the Gaslight Cafe, and periodically toying with the idea of going back to sea as a merchant seaman. He’s a loser, and he knows it.

But is Llewyn Davis a fake? Is he a sincere artist who simply lacks talent, or is he a genuine loser using an artistic calling to justify his laziness and lack of direction? You can make the case either way.

On the side of “genuine loser using an artistic calling to justify his laziness and lack of direction,” you can argue that he has no real enthusiasm for folk music, an art form that, unlike Jazz, has a low barrier to entry. All you really need is a guitar, three or four chords, and a few sincere ideas. Davis has three or four cords, and he can hold a tune, but he seems to be without politics or any desire to uplift the world around him. When Bud Grossman rejects him as a lead singer, he’s easily discouraged and decides to give up the profession altogether. That’s not what a real artist does. Music, for a real folk singer, wouldn’t be an end in and of itself. It would be a way of expressing an idea. A real artist wouldn’t care what a Bud Grossman thought.

Sadly, however, Llewyn Davis isn’t a fake. That would make it too easy. He could play the guitar for awhile, take advantage of some no strings attached sex, then get a real job and work his way into the middle-class. Davis does, in fact, have one sincere idea, the idea of himself as an artist. He has no idea what he wants to say, but he wants to say something, and he wants to say it now, or tomorrow, or whenever he can figure it out. He’s damned to the hell of an unsuccessful music career, which he cannot escape, however hard he tries. However abrasive he becomes, his friends always forgive him. He can always find a couch to sleep on. He loses his temper at The Gaslight Cafe, heckles another performer, gets tossed out onto the sidewalk by the bouncer, but, a few days later, the owner welcomes him back with open arms. Even Bud Grossman, as discouraging as he is, still offers him a job as a backup singer for another act. And then there’s the cat.

Ulysses the cat, the orange tabby who belongs to Davis’s friend Mitch Gorfein, a Columbia professor who lets him sleep on the couch in his apartment on the upper west side, is arguably the star of Inside Llewyn Davis. If Davis has a spirit animal, it’s Ulysses. He’s dependent on the kindness of his friends, yet an uncontrollable free spirit. He periodically runs away, yet always comes back. He’s that annoying presence Davis constantly feels compelled to chase down and protect, the symbol of his artistic calling, the one thing that humanizes him.

Llewyn Davis is the artist as house cat. Jean, another folk singer played by the bitter, and almost unrecognizably American Carey Mulligan, has had an affair with Davis. She’s pregnant and needs the money for an abortion. She spends so much time verbally abusing Davis, the abortion also serving as a metaphor for his artistic sterility, that we begin to wonder why she ever slept with this aimless loser in the first place. But then Davis spies Ulysses, who had escaped from Jean’s downtown apartment the previous day. Davis takes off after him, scooping him up off the sidewalk, and bringing him back inside the Greenwich Village cafe where the pair had been fighting. Jean’s features soften. Running after Ulysses was an act of spontaneity that makes it impossible for her to continue to abuse Llewyn Davis. We begin to understand why, perhaps, she may have slept with him after all.

It is, in fact, Davis’s temper, his spontaneity, his inner, selfish, petulant grumpy house cat that redeems him. He may be thoroughly intimidated by Bud Grossman, devastated by the powerful man’s rejection, but, after Grossman throws him a bone, offers him the job as backup singer, he has enough character to turn it down. When Mitch Gorfein’s wife, the source of an occasional free meal, patronizingly demands that Davis sing on demand, Davis loses his temper and insults them both, thus giving up the free meals and the place to crash. After Pappi Corsicato, the owner of the Gaslight Cafe, lewdly suggests that he made Jean sleep with him in order to secure the privilege of singing at their open-mic shows, Davis explodes in a jealous rage and makes a spectacle of himself.

Inside Llweyn Davis is bracketed by two, almost identical scenes. Davis is performing in the Gaslight Cafe. Pappi Corsicato informs him that a “well dressed man” is waiting outside. Davis goes outside to see what it’s all about. The well-dressed man punches him in the face, kicks him in the stomach, throws him to the ground, then gets into a taxi cab and drives away. We realize that if Ulysses is the undaunted artistic drive that keeps Llweyn Davis playing his guitar, singing in tiny venues, and sleeping on friends couches, then the “well-dressed man” is the spirit of rejection, of self-doubt, of criticism, of all the forces in the world trying to shut him down and silence him. After Davis goes out the second time to meet the “well-dressed man,” we know that somehow, he’ll find the strength to continue. Somehow his friends will always forgive him. For some reason, he’s never going to quit playing music. He’ll work through the pain and pay the price. Whether or not that’s a good thing, whether he’ll eventually triumph or stay inside his constantly broke, couch surfing hell we can only guess at. More likely than not it will be the latter. Yet we applaud him anyway.

Mission to Moscow (1943)

I grew up during the last phase of the Cold War in the 1980s, and I’m beginning to feel old, if only because it’s so difficult to explain to younger people just how all pervasive the anti-communist ideology was, how thoroughly Americans were brainwashed into thinking the Soviet Union was not just a rival great power, but an existential threat, and, indeed, the very embodiment of evil. In junior high school we would be assigned Readers Digest articles about food lines in Moscow. There were highbrow films like the cinematic version of George Orwell’s 1984. There was sentimental schlock like Moscow on the Hudson with Robin Williams. There were out and out fascist war cries like Red Dawn or Rocky IV. There were politicized TV commercials like the Wendy’s Fashion Show and ridiculous TV sitcoms like the now very comically dated episode of Night Court where a Soviet émigré played by Yakov Smirnoff is confidently reassured that the United States government doesn’t torture. I think it reached its zenith during the 1984, Los Angeles Olympics. I even remember Robin Thicke’s father Alan, a late night talk show host, ranting about the Soviet Union. “Russian women are dogs,” he bellowed as he tossed a photo of a Soviet athlete into a garbage pail. “Communism makes people ugly.”

In other words, “we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”

At the same time, however, I studied history in high school, and I knew all about the American alliance with the Soviet Union during the Second World War. It wasn’t emphasized, of course. We never really talked about Stalingrad or Kursk, and I grew up believing that the “greatest generation” beat the Nazis on the beaches of Normandy along with Tom Hanks and Matt Damon. But it was difficult to deny when you looked at the maps showing us “The Axis” and “The Allies” that at one time Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin were on the same side. There were even pictures of them sitting together at Yalta. By the time I got to college, I began to meet people who considered themselves communists. Oliver Stone’s film Salvador told us that “both sides do it.” We all laughed at Ronald Reagan when he told us that Nicaragua was a threat to the United States. We supported Communist Party USA front organizations like CISPES. We read the Communist Manifesto, if only to demonstrate our intellectual superiority to the boobs in flyover country. At some point, the Cold War became a bit like the “war on terror.” It was all a show for the rubes. Nobody with any brains took it seriously. When street vendors on St. Marks Place started selling little pins with Lenin and shirts with the image of Che Guevara you pretty much knew it was all over. The Soviet Union was now safe enough to market to hipsters, or whatever you called hipsters back then (I don’t remember).

Nothing prepared me, however, for the shock I felt last night when I got around to watching the 1943, pro-Soviet, fictionalized documentary Mission to Moscow, the film version of the book of the same name by Joseph Davies, a former American Ambassador to the Soviet Union. I had expected something along the lines of “we have to support the brave Russian people in their struggle against fascism.” At the very most I thought it would be a movie by a left-wing fellow traveler, one that supported communism, but glossed over the uglier reality of the KGB and the purge trials. But no. Mission to Moscow is an out and out love letter to Joseph Stalin and a full throated defense of the purge trials. Bukharin, in fact, is one of the film’s villains. We even see him arrange a “secret meeting” with Nazi Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop. The film’s director, Michael Curtiz (more on him shortly) even stages the purge trials, giving us a long line of fifth columnists who confess, one after the other, to conspiring with Leon Trotsky to conduct terrorist attacks against Soviet Industry. As ludicrous as they seem, we’re supposed to take the confessions seriously.

So have we always been at war with Eurasia?

It’s true, of course, that Mission to Moscow was not a hit at the box office, and was widely panned by film critics in the United States. A film designed to push the United States into the war against fascism in 1943 was pretty much beside the point. The United States was already at war with fascism. But it’s also worth noting that Joseph E. Davies was no crank. In fact, he was the highest paid corporate lawyer of the 1920s and 1930s, a confidant of Franklin Roosevelt, and the husband of Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the richest women in the world. The book Mission to Moscow sold 700,000 copies, and, in fact, Franklin Roosevelt himself commissioned the film version as part of the war effort.

It’s easy to see why Mission to Moscow failed at the box office. It’s not that it’s blatant, laughable pro-Stalinist propaganda. It’s that it’s dull, horribly, crushingly, unbearably dull. 45 minutes into it, I was ready to confess to conspiring with Trotsky and the Nazis to disrupt the latest 5 year plan. Please, I was ready to say. Take me to the gulag. Yet I was stuck with it, mainly for two reasons, the charismatic performance of Walter Huston — father of John Huston — as Joseph E. Davies and the cinematography. Mission to Moscow may be dull, totalitarian propaganda, but it’s beautiful, an ode to Soviet power, each and every frame looking like an image from Margaret Bourke White’s industrial photography in the 1930s. Michael Curtiz, who also directed Casablanca, may have lost his mind before signing onto Mission to Moscow, but if he lost his mind, he also knew how to do it with a certain kind of grandeur. Everything about the cinematography of this film conjures up the aesthetics of the 1930s. The sexy Russian female paratroopers, the massive steel plant, the gigantic military parade through Red Square, the grand, brutalist architecture, the look of Mission to Moscow is totalitarian propaganda I can believe in.

In fact, I came away with a sense of lost potential. Why couldn’t Michael Curtiz have made the sequel to Casablanca, a genuinely liberal, genuinely anti-fascist movie with a taut, exciting script? Why did he give in to the demands of Joseph E. Davies, a bizarrely pro-Soviet member of the 1% who wanted his dull, Stalinist propaganda filmed almost word for word instead of letting the creative geniuses in Hollywood work their magic? Indeed, the screenplay of Mission to Moscow may be Stalinist propaganda, but the visuals are American propaganda. Oh for the days when American men on the left were forthright, square-jawed crusaders against fascism like Walter Huston. We see Joseph Davies at the film’s opening, a plain-looking little man who mumbles his words. Was this guy really the highest paid corporate lawyer in the 1920s and 1930s? In Huston’s portrayal, however, he’s transformed. No longer the balding little man in the introduction, Davies is now a silver-haired knight in shining armor. He shoots down America Firsters in Congress in rapid fire succession. He shames a Nazi economist in Berlin by the very majesty of his presence. After an aid warns him that the American embassy in Moscow is probably bugged, he boldly declares that he says nothing in private he wouldn’t say right to Stalin’s face. Joseph E. Davies, as portrayed by Walter Huston is a handsome distinguished Ivy League WASP, fully committed, not to “fuck you money” and trust funds for his kids, but to democracy and to the struggle against fascism. In other words, he’s the personification of the New Deal.

It’s just too bad he wasn’t in a better movie.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

In the very early morning hours of January 1, 2009, a few weeks before Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first black President of the United States, a young black man named Oscar Grant, his fiancee Sophina Mesa, and their friends were returning to Oakland from San Francisco on the BART. As the train pulled into Fruitvale Station in West Oakland, a fight broke out in the lead car. The police stopped the train, pulled off anyone they believed had been involved in the brawl, or, to be more accurate, pulled off all the young, black men they believed had been involved in the brawl, and lined them up outside on the platform. One of the men they detained was Oscar Grant.

Over the next few days, a video began circulating on the Internet. Officer Johannes Mehserle, a two year veteran of the BART police is leaning over Grant, who had been wrestled to the ground. Whether or not Grant was already handcuffed has been the subject of some dispute, but there is no dispute about what happened next. Mehserle shot Grant in the back, and Oscar Grant would never see his 23rd birthday. He died 7 hours later at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Protests followed, then riots. Mehserle was arrested, charged with murder, plead not-guilty, and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. According to Wikipedia, the jury also found him guilty of a gun enhancement charge that “could have made him ineligible for probation,” but it was overturned by the judge at his sentencing hearing, and he was released after spending only 11 months in prison.

Fruitvale Station, starring Michael Jordan as Oscar Grant and Melonie Diaz as Sophina Mesa is such a well-made little movie, the script by recent USC graduate Ryan Coogler such an effective portrayal of Grant as a sympathetic every man that I came away wondering how anybody could have a reaction other than “fuck the police.” I even started looking at newspaper comments, those notorious cesspools of authoritarianism and racism, if only to see if anybody had managed to pry loose the evidence of any flaws. The only two negative reviews I could find were in the New York Post, of course, and Forbes. Since both reviews concentrated on nitpicking minor details, pointing out that Fruitvale station was a fictionalized drama, not a documentary, rather than attack the quality of the film itself, let’s take that as evidence that Fruitvale Station, while containing a bit of poetic license, succeeds beyond what one would expect from a 27-year-old first time director working with a largely unknown cast.

Michael Jordan is a bit like a black version of James Franco. He was an easygoing charm. If it doesn’t cover up his troubled past and lack of direction, it occasionally allows him to get away with it. Grant, who served 17 months in prison for a minor drug and weapons charge, is no saint. He lies to his girlfriend. He cheats on her. Occasionally, he loses his temper and makes threats. He gets fired at a local supermarket for being chronically late. After he goes back into work to beg for his job back, however, and winds up helping a confused white gentrifier do her shopping, we can also see that he had probably been a natural at customer service. The women in his life, mainly his mother and girlfriend, see Oscar exactly the way we do. They grow increasingly impatient with his repeated attempts to charm his way out of responsibility for his poor choices, but wind up taking him back every time he asks. Oscar, who has a little girl, is a loving father in spite of his youth. During a quietly intense flashback to his time in prison, his mother walks out of the visiting room after he gets into a shouting match with a hulking white prisoner who attempts to bully him, but we can see that his bluster is a necessary survival mechanism inside the prison industrial complex.

The gender politics of Fruitvale station reveal an unexpected depth to the reality of the black working class in America. Melonie Diaz portrays Sophina Mesa alternately as a ball buster and as a woman vulnerable to male charm. The transformation she goes through, from a woman impatient with a fiancee who’s less than a prize catch to a sense of devastating loss after he’s murdered is an accomplished feat of acting that I would have given a nomination for best actress. Oscar’s mother and grandmother are equally three dimensional. About halfway through Fruitvale Station, Oscar goes to his mother’s birthday party, where he see a group of middle-aged black men, the only ones we see in the film. They’re slim, polite, masculine, but thoroughly domesticated, and we realize that the women in Oscar Grant’s world have to maintain a fine balancing act. They want their husbands and sons to be masculine, to be men, but they also realize that being black, and masculine in Oakland in 2009 is potentially fatal. Success means keeping them alive, but it also means stripping them of their manhood, crippling the drive and self-control that would enable them to succeed under capitalism. Oscar is the confused product of those difficult choices, feminine vulnerability coexisting with masculine bluster, easy charm coexisting with bursts of aggression.

Early in the film, when Oscar stops for gas, and witnesses a stray pit bull killed by a hit and run driver, we get a sense of foreboding. Here, Coogler is heavy handed. The pit bull obviously symbolizes black masculinity, but Oscar’s reality is heavy handed. Black men, like pit bulls, are often treated with irrational cruelty, brutalized by the police, incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses, precisely because, like pit bulls, they are often irrationally feared. The way Coogler stages Oscar Grant’s murder, while it may have the same effect as good agitprop — and I came out of this film hating the police — is anything but agitprop. The film even accepts Mehserle’s contention that he only handcuffed Grant after he shot him in the back. It’s a complex, nuanced, three dimensional scene that manages to convey every shade of what happened that night in Oakland. The gigantic white policeman who pulls Oscar out of the BART is brutal and one dimensional, a hard, vicious man without a trace of feminine softness, but Mehserle himself looks young and vulnerable, his blond hair falling down over his forehead giving him the appearance of a grown up preppy Lacrosse player.

When Oscar is murdered, when Mehserle shoots him in the back — and the film backs off taking a position on whether he thought he was reaching for his taser or not — it feels as if a little piece of our world just died. Oscar, as young and inadequate as he was, really is the center of this film, and of the world of both women who loved him as much as they found him exasperating. As the life ebbs out of his body as he pleads that he’s a father with a little girl, as the police who murdered him go from being contemptuous and domineering to being panicked and wracked with guilt, we realize how wrapped up in Oscar’s mind we had been for the previous hour, how skilfully Coogler made us see the world from his point of view. That point of view is no more. A life was snuffed out, and for no reason other than how our class system needs a brutal militarized police force to maintain its dominance, a blunt instrument, a juggernaut that occasionally crushes a universe inside a vulnerable human being without even stopping to notice. Indeed, what response can you have to this film other than “fuck the police.” Coogler has, without trying to produce agitprop, produced the best possible agitprop, a layered, nuanced portrait of a fundamentally unjust reality that needs to be abolished.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

Dave Van Ronk, folk revival legend and at least partial inspiration for the most recent Coen brothers film, used to come in to the book store I work at. His visits were frequent and fondly remembered. This was many years ago when Lena Spencer was still alive and running Caffe Lena, and if Van Ronk, unlike his cinematic doppelganger, ever did claim a permanent address it was likely “Caffe Lena, Couch, c/o Lena Spencer.” The owner of the store remembers Van Ronk, unlike his cinematic doppelganger a devout socialist, even if he never took it onstage with him, complaining “Those Leninists and the Trotskyites are still bitching at each other in the park all the time.”

Llewyn Davis however, never seems to take on any sort of political stance. Sure, he’s disdainful toward a fellow folk singer who happens to be in the National Guard, but the Coen’s can only come to an understanding of his disdain for the soldier as a sort of aesthetic disgust at the grotesque blandness of his person, the loud way he eats cereal and his dumb eyes, the dumb eyes of a wild animal wandering at the edges of the free way. The Coens, if they have a political side, have never adequately expressed it; my suspicion is that they haven’t one.

And besides, the connection to Van Ronk is tenuous at best, because in Llewyn Davis we have just another archetypal Coen cypher meant to wander about a shifting landscape of grotesques. One might as well call him Llewyn Davis-Fink-Lebowski. This is standard operating procedure in Coen brothers films, and if you like them as many people seem to, then you’ll love this. If like me, you aren’t especially impressed by a general hatred of everything redeemed only by a dry sense of humor and some indication of a specter of anxiety at being a failed artist, then you’ll likely be mildly entertained, mildly impressed at the same confident control of the medium they’ve always had, but walk away thinking “Ok, so what was the point?” Which is exactly what I did.

The film ends with a scene of meaningless repetition underscoring the meaningless repetition of the protagonist’s life; he’s trapped in a floating existence. In some circles this could pass for meaning something. The early 1960s folk revival, interesting for other reasons, mostly involving race politics and class privilege, is here merely a convenient backdrop and a set-piece to inspire subtle visual gags. A running one involving Davis taking care of two cats and carrying them around with him everywhere scores periodically, though it eventually becomes another way to underline the theme; though he’s killed one cat with his car, Davis, upon returning to New York after a failed sojourn to Chicago, encounters the first cat again. The folk cafe where he was playing in the beginning of the film takes him back after he fails to get work on a merchant marine. The cycle repeats finally shot for shot. We get it.

I will give the Coens credit for their location shooting; New York City looks like New York City, when people go from one place to another they do so in a time frame that makes sense given the distance between the two locations, and the characters have a relationship to each space that suggests they live in the city and are familiar with it. Perpetually broke people’s apartments are in buildings that look like they’re buildings where people would live if they were perpetually broke, and they pass the Don McKellar test-the couch is against the wall. Woody Allen would do well to take note of this.

Shout-out to earlier blog supporter and fan Yvonne Davenport! She gave us our first nudge to embark on this endeavor. All the best.

Broken Blossoms (1919)

Most people remember D.W. Griffith, if they remember him at all, as the director of the film that helped give rise to the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. The, vile racist depiction of blacks in Birth of a Nation is still shocking. Julius Streicher, the publisher of Der Sturmer, was hanged at Nuremberg for inciting German Christians to kill Jews. Griffith deserved no less. A successful communist revolution in the United States in 1917 would have rightfully left D.W. Griffith dangling at the end of a rope.

Yet there was another side to the first great American cinematic artist. While it’s probably a stretch to call D.W. Griffith a “feminist,” it’s impossible to ignore that Griffith hated the oppression of women. Even in the loathsome birth of a Nation, Griffith put the problem of rape at the center of the narrative. These days, the liberal standup comedian Louis C.K. is considered an enlightened male feminist for arguing that the most dangerous thing in the world for a woman is to go on a date with a man. Griffith may not have been particularly liberal or particularly enlightened, but he probably believed the same thing.

Broken Blossoms, made 4 years after Birth of a Nation, isn’t a lost or forgotten movie. It’s on Youtube in its entirety. You should go watch it now. But its racial attitudes are such a dramatic departure from Birth of a Nation its difficult to believe the two films were made by the same director. Try to imagine the ministry of Nazi propaganda putting out a film about a North American Indian trying to rescue a German girl from her brutish, blue-eyed, Aryan father and you’ll get the idea. Astonishingly, the director of Birth of a Nation also made the first important interracial romance in the history of American cinema.

Broken Blossoms is, of course, problematic. The Asian hero is played by a white actor. California’s anti-miscegenation laws would have made casting a Chinese actor impossible anyway. The relationship is chaste and platonic. The doomed quality of their romance has been copied in many subsequent films, and is anything but progressive. But still, Broken Blossoms gives us an Asian hero and a white villain, the “yellow man” taking the place of Birth of a Nation’s chivalrous klansmen, and the English “Battling Burrows” replacing the mulatto Gus as the menace to delicate femininity. Indeed, the idea of an Asian hero trying, and failing, to save a 15 year old white girl from being raped and murdered by her father might even indicate that Griffith believed European civilization had grown “incestuous,” and needed an infusion of “new blood.”

Even in its faded, yellowed film stock, Broken Blossoms is still an aesthetic marvel, the 23-year-old Lilian Gish’s portrayal of “the girl” one of the great performances in silent film. As the movie opens, we are in an unnamed Chinese City, probably Shanghai. The “yellow man,” a Buddhist monk played by Richard Bartlemess is tall, gentle, handsome, the perfect romantic hero. After witnessing a brawl by some British sailors, he decides to go to the west to “introduce the brutish Anglo Saxon to the ways of the Buddha.” A few years later, the “yellow man” is a shopkeeper in Limehouse, a dark, seedy neighborhood on the east end of London. His youthful dreams are gone, the title card informs us.

While Shanghai was portrayed as lively and colorful, Limehouse is a vision of hell, Blake’s dark satanic city. “The Girl”  is a Blakean innocent, a little lamb among the tigers, and we know, as soon as we see her, that her life is going to be a short one. Too beautiful for the world she lives in, she spends her days slaving away for her brutish father, a bare knuckled prize fighter named “Battling Burrows.” One day, after undergoing a horrific beating, she runs into the street, eventually finding  herself in the yellow man’s shop, where she passes out on the floor. The yellow man immediately sees that this is why he came to the west, that this poor abused girl is the poetic ideal he has been seeking all his life. He nurses her back to health, and, over the course of the film, introduces her to “civilization,” to an ancient culture that values her yearnings for beauty and gentleness.

The ending of Broken Blossoms is brutal and heart wrenching. A friend of Battling Burrows rats “the girl” out to her father. He bursts into the yellow man’s shop, and, while her protector is out, drags her home, and he whips her to death in a jealous, spasm of racist anger. A “chink” had defiled his daughter. The hero, the yellow man, sick with grief, manages to pull himself together long enough to shoot the murderer dead, the hail of bullets he pumps into the savage, brutish, almost subhuman white man the only orgasmic release possible. He then builds a Buddhist shrine to his dead Platonic lover before slitting his own throat.

I would guess the transformation of D.W. Griffith’s racial attitudes have a lot to do with the First World War. Birth of a Nation was filmed in 1915. Broken Blossoms was filmed in 1919, shortly after European civilization had slit its own throat on the bed of The Somme and the Battle of Verdun. A war more horrible than the United States Civil War had turned all of old Europe into the killing fields of Northern Virginia. China, by contrast, was far off, a Buddhist version of the old south, an ancient, hierarchical civilization that remained outside of the brutish industrial civilization that had given the United States Gettysburg and Cold Harbor, and France Ypres and Paschendale. If there could be no poetry after the 20 million dead in the trenches of Western Europe, a few lovely blossoms remained, perhaps, in Shanghai and Beijing, in the Forbidden City and at the White Horse Temple.

The Chinese man in Broken Blossoms has about as much to do with real Asians as the rapist blacks in Birth of a Nation with real black people. Both were projections of Griffith’s  sense of his own duality onto  the idea of race, the blacks the “dark” side he wanted to restrain, the “yellow man” the civilized restraint he wanted to cultivate. Indeed, while Richard Barthelmess, the white actor who plays “the yellow man,” is a white man with the coarser side of his masculinity refined away, Battling Burrows is the Anglo Saxon at his most brutish, the thinning hairline, the thick brows, the heavy jaw, and the bulging eyes, almost a parody of Caucasian ugliness. Is this the way a Japanese or Chinese aristocrat would have seen an Englishman in the year 1900? In any event, the beefy, red meat eating Burrows is a far cry from the heroic “Little Colonel” of Birth of a Nation. Working class whites, for Griffith, are barely any better than blacks. If women are vulnerable children, men, without the restraints of birth and class, are no better than animals.

Perhaps Griffith, in the end, is more snob than racist, a pioneer creating the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, but also a romantic reactionary looking backward with nostalgia at the world that died in 1865 and then again in 1917. Hollywood would eventually improve on the concept. The feisty Scarlet O’Hara would replace the fragile “girl.” But the concept would remain the same. Women are our better angels. They have to be protected against masculine desire lest we all fall into barbarism and animal sexuality, the edifice of civilization gone with the wind.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

Recently in some sort of misguided attempt to reconnect with the larger culture, and, I’ll admit it, fill in checks in various film canons, deserving and otherwise, which I’ve been attempting to work my way through, I’ve been watching a large number of more recent American films I never bothered with because they looked boring and awful.

For the most part I’ve been vindicated in my assumptions. L.A. Confidential, a film that for whatever reasons has been a critical darling for some time now, is a visually boring film salvaged partially by a number of decent performances. The 1990s were the commercial peak of the “shocking” twist ending film and many films were possessed of little else of merit (if a “twist” ending can even really be considered inherently a merit and not a discredit). I don’t need to name these, I’m sure you’ve all seen them and know them.

LA Confidential is such a film, and like a surprisingly large number of such films, it features Kevin Spacey. It shows us that, golly, them police officers in the 50s sure were racist and that police work they did could get gosh darned violent and messy and stuff. Wow. What a revelation. I sure needed the movies to tell me that. It falls in the trend of films revising the supposed untruths of earlier cinematic grammar, in this case of the noir genre particularly, by replacing it with something even more stilted and artificial. In the running subplot of the hookers made to look like film stars of the period it even has a layered commentary on its own artifice. And that’s like, deep man. Like, meta. And stuff.

The visual grammar of the film makes most episodes of How I Met Your Mother look like daring leaps into the experimental abyss. When someone shoots someone you might get a brief respite from the interminable shot-reverse shot, shot-reverse shot, shoot me already stylistics.  And don’t get too excited because even the shoot outs fall into shot reverse shot.

Hardboiled dialogue several photocopies removed from the pulpy mediocrities that inspired it is not good writing. Visual style so obvious you wonder if it might not be the director’s contempt for the audience’s intelligence but an actual deficiency in his own comprehension doesn’t really justify the existence of the cinema. And my great regret is that this film never veers off to the level of incompetence where these things can be truly interesting (expect a post justifying the critical study of early B-movies sometime in the future.)

Also, the first half, whether or not it’s seemingly redeemed in a “ooh! It was the evil senior officer and the supposedly black shooters were really framed” twist at the end, was basically framed like a white supremacist’s wet dream. Perfectly coiffed white guys in really nice suits that seem to have always just been ironed shooting unarmed black guys with giant shotguns like they were hunting them. Your characters being racist doesn’t excuse you uncritically entering their perspective Mr. Hanson. Though maybe your cinematic incompetence does…

What is the Purpose of Criticism?

What is the purpose of film criticism? Or literary criticism? Or art criticism? What is the purpose of criticism in general?

A short time ago, I was participating in a discussion on Facebook about the film The Dark Knight Rises. I’m continually appalled by how much attention otherwise intelligent people pay to this 250 million dollar piece of dreck. I don’t mean teenage kids. I don’t mean frat boys and sorority girls on dates. I mean people in their 20s and 30s, serious intellectuals with degrees from Ivy League universities and PHDs. I remarked that I thought the film unworthy of criticism, that it was a product, not a work of art, that the advertising campaign around The Dark Knight Rises is more interesting than the Dark Knight Rises itself. The idea that The Dark Knight Rises is a right-wing, anti Occupy Wall Street movie, I argued, is part of that marketing campaign. Left wing intellectuals who debate its “politics” are, in reality help selling the film. They’re unintentional, unpaid interns for Chris Nolan.

My argument was not well received. Lots of grownups seem peculiarly dedicated to comic books and superheroes. There are, of course, well made superhero films and well-made comic books, but I refuse to believe that the Dark Knight Rises is anything more than a clunky excuse to spend 250 million dollars, a paycheck for some otherwise good actors, one facet of a multi-faceted marketing juggernaut. For me, the only “criticism” that The Dark Knight Rises is worthy of is what Mark Twain did to James Fenimore Cooper or what Cervantes did to chivalric romances. The critic should aim high. He should have the intention of changing the frame of the debate, of making it impossible for anyone ever again to make a Batman film. The purpose of criticizing The Dark Knight Rises should be to destroy The Dark Knight Rises.

“The Batman franchise is over if you want it.”

I believe John Lennon said that, although it’s a fairly loose paraphrase.

I started thinking. Why are so many otherwise intelligent people determined to talk about bad mass culture, The Dark Knight Rises, or mediocre mass culture, Madmen or Breaking Bad, when there’s such a rich, extraordinary tradition of American cinema. Why in God’s name should anyone spend 30 seconds on a Batman film when the collected works of John Ford still exist? Why do so many serious intellectuals spend so much time writing about so much trash? How many words over the summer were written about Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines?” Yeah, it’s a rotten song, but its really not particularly dangerous. I doubt even one woman was raped or sexually assaulted because some frat boy spent the summer listening to it.

I think it comes down to what we want out of criticism.

  1. Some people want to define a (universal) canon. What films should be preserved? What films (or books) should be taught in universities.

  1. Other people want to define an (alternative) canon. There are films with limited appeal. I don’t think Godard’s Maoist phase is ever going to attract a mass audience, but these films are worth discussing.

  1. There are people who want to explore history by building a canon of forgotten or suppressed classics. The Communist film Salt of the Earth, for example, was buried in the McCarthyite hysteria of the 1950s. But it’s an important historical document. If if just one or two of the dozens of articles dedicates to the TV show Girls were dedicated to the the powerful 1930s documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains, it might start us on the way to an intelligent discussion of climate change.

  1. There are critics who see themselves as evangelists for low budget student films, obscure novels, and alternative music. There was, for example, a whole genre of music criticism that came out of college radio in the 1980s. Yes children, back then, serious intellectuals didn’t waste time talking about Miley Cyrus’s ass. Well, maybe they discussed Madonna or Michael Jackson, but only in the context of promoting something better.

  1. Sadly, I think most criticism, at least online, accepts the idea that there is no alternative to the production of corporate mass culture, that the cultural “struggle” should center on “interpreting” corporate mass culture, not replacing it. That’s why rotten crap like “Blurred Lines” isn’t simply ignored, or, if written about, only written about in the context of its production and marketing. Feminist intellectuals think it’s important to give it their own spin. Paradoxically, now that cheap, high quality video cameras are available, people don’t make their own TV shows. They struggle over the ideological framing of TV shows produced by HBO. The result, in the end, is over interpretation, elaborate edifices built on inadequate foundations.

You are free, of course, to add your own reasons. My list is far from complete. But I do think the more we can stay away from category 5 the better.