All posts by DanLevine

Her (2013): Dan’s Review

The thing that immediately came to mind after I finished watching this film was that it’s the flipside of the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back”.* In the episode a woman’s husband is killed unexpectedly in a car accident. She finds out there’s a service where she can get a nearly exact replica of him, composite based on a complex analysis of all his online activity. She eventually becomes frustrated with the ways in which this replica isn’t like her dead husband and he ironically simply becomes a reminder she can never actually get her husband back. After some screaming and crying she leaves the replica in the attic most of the time the way I imagine most people discarded their Furbies.

In Her, director Spike Jonze has a much warmer though perhaps even more sinister vision of technology as a form of/replacement for social engagement. Charlie Brooker’s vision in “Be Right Back” is dystopic; the product fails to function and can’t fulfill it’s promise, the dark underbelly of what Morozov calls “solutionism”. Jonze poses the opposite question-what if the technology actually worked? What if AI could produce the woman of your dreams, perfect in every way except that she doesn’t have a body? What if the lack of a body was the appeal?

As in every science fiction film dealing with technological reproductions of people, issues of what defines humanity and of transmigration come up; while the film seems to be about technology it’s wary of giving the same warnings endemic to most parables regarding the emotional attachment to and pshychological or physical anthropomorphizing of one’s toys, and what comes out instead is something oddly tender and as such even more intensely disturbing than the sort of heavy handed moralizing usually employed by such works. Jonze learned the negative lesson of his colleague Charlie Kaufman’s work and it shows in his script for this, correcting many of the problems that mar Kaufman’s work before Synechdoche NY. While the ephemeral details of the world are uniformly clever they aren’t made clever simply to produce a sense of disorientation. The film settles on only taking on the subjectivity of Joaquin Phoenix’s character directly (granting him flashbacks and especially when he goes on the blind date and the behavior/tone of his date changes so rapidly and unexpectedly). Jonze understands images should contribute toward the development of themes even if he has no responsibility as the artist to resolve these themes.

The use of flashbacks in the film are a revelation; they aren’t systematized or dramatized in the way such things were in utter drek like Inception or misguided experiments like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

A veritable postmodernist’s picnic, we’re surrounded at every turn in Her by surrogates, supplements, surrogates of surrogates, supplements of supplements, the only consistent reality the possibility of abandonment, the abandonment effective even when the thing or person doing the abandoning might be questionably so. Phoenix’s collection of love letters written for strangers is the film wryly commenting on itself; it’s accepted to accolades as capturing the sense of a feeling even if the circumstances are false.

The best film of 2013 I’ve seen so far.

*Black Mirror is probably the best thing currently on television and I plan on doing episode by episode reviews here at some point in the near future.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

This is the best film the Coens have made, mostly because of their choice of source material. Cormac McCarthy’s prose, with its starkly pared-down language and sharp reduction of scenes down to their components as philosophic juxtapositions, forces the Coens to focus themselves more than they have in their comedies. It lacks the usual dark humor and while watching one hardly misses it. They deal here with eternal forces, not broad satirical targets, and the result while far from perfect is refreshing.

In embracing their tendency to draw two dimensional archetypes instead of awkwardly trying to distract the viewers with jokes the Coens do away with much of the gratingly adolescent malaise and obsessive castration anxiety that mars so much of their other work. The performances are all excellent within the context of the film.  Javier Bardem comes across like a broad villain, but that’s because that’s what the script seems to call for. There is very little behavior in the film and lots of clipped allegorical dialogue; to give a performance in a realist mode would be to betray the forward thrust of the film, the question of free will.

The weaknesses and failures of the film bizarrely enough seem to stem back to McCarthy. McCarthy in an interview once said he only deals with “questions of life and death” and because of this had no understanding of writers like Henry James. This quality comes through very clearly in No Country; the possibility of truth or insight only seems possible when a character faces the inevitability of death in the most stark terms imaginable. As a dramatic conceit this is effective; it ratchets up tension and emotionally draws the audience in. As an epistemology that supposedly draws out “truth” from characters it’s sophmoric, overly hard-boiled, and creates all sorts of logistical problems. If the arrival of death actually brings out someone’s true philosophy, we then need to accept that Charles Darwin didn’t believe in evolution and that Guantanamo Bay is probably the most productive philosophical investigation going right now. These are both, of course, absurd propositions.

Chigurh as the embodiment of death is interesting mostly insofar as his pretense to randomness and chance is theatrical posturing.

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?”

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.

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…

Schizopolis (1996)

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

The use of narrative subjectivity in the cinema is too rarely commented on. When directly addressed, one ends up with dire overly literal POV shots like in the film Doom, a bizarre approximation of literal human visual subjectivity copied from a video game attempting to imitate such subjectivity to far more pragmatic ends. When the full range of possibilities it offers are realized, one ends up with the almost Jamesian brilliance of Mark Rappaport’s Local Color and The Scenic Route.

Soderbergh, in this feature length experiment in narrative subjectivity, has a couple striking sequences but much of the work falls flat. And oddly, the sequences that most seem to vindicate his experiment, clumped in the middle and involving the dental profession, seem uncomfortably reminiscent of similar but more elegantly executed explorations of the dentist in Local Color.

The film covers the same story from three perspectives, each granted roughly 1/3rd of the film’s running time. The first sequence sets up the film, which is essentially a mid-life crisis film. Banal domestic scenes are boiled down to their seeming simplistic actualities, characters frequently speak the literal intent of their dialogue rather than the actual dialogue we’ve been trained to expect, but rather than showing us some objective truth to each scene we realize these spoken intents are actually the interpretation of a middle aged man questioning if there’s any meaning in his day to day existence, a middle aged man who has likely made a lot of films, a middle aged man like, well, Steven Soderbergh.

Scattershot interludes are thrown in to give the film some flow, many of them essentially the sort of blackout gags that marked early television sketch shows. They don’t seem to relate to the primary proceedings in any way beyond their shared weary irreverence, though some of them are fairly funny and in a stream of consciousness fashion that refreshingly don’t feel the need to reach any greater coherence than a suggestion of the filmmaker’s preoccupations. It seems disingenuous to suggest that a film as guarded in intellectual disdain as this one has a feeling of easy intimacy but this one does; perhaps all Soderbergh had left of himself by the time he made Schizopolis was such a disdain and he’s speaking as directly as he can. Perhaps there was more of himself in the James Spader character in Sex, Lies and Videotape than we all realized, he is in fact hiding behind a camera and while comfortable there has the feelings of being lost, of meaninglessness, that any expressive comfort can induce.

The funniest sequence comes in the film’s only invocation of what seems to be genuine passion. Our dentist character goes to a palm reader and finds out he’ll meet the love of his life soon. When an attractive woman comes in for some work on her teeth, he’s instantly smitten and writes her an obscene letter declaring his love for her; even though her name must be in his office files he can only refer to her as “Attractive Woman #2” and in the note we increasingly realize he only express such feelings in the almost offensively mundane particulars of his existence finally comparing her lips to those of a “French model” he “desperately wants to fuck.” To call her by an actual name would actually be less than truthful in the situation; she is to him and the filmmaker (that the director plays him only drives this home more concretely) purely an abstraction, a potential not really believed in.

I’d recommend this film to people interested in abstract narrative who’ve already gone through the far superior works of Godard, Rappaport, Korty, and the early US narrative avant-garde first. It’s most rewarding when seen as an attempt by a fairly straightforward director to try to dabble in the genre and his failures when matched up to the works of the masters puts their great successes in a more distinct relief.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013): Dan’s Review

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

Martin Scorsese has always had a certain yen for the criminal element, a fascination that makes their exploits, their interesting anecdotal characters, come alive for him but at the same time this liveliness dulls the possibility for his films to be critical. He realizes intellectually that the people he portrays are amoral at best, and more often than not evil, and we see in film after film their rise into a temporary opulence and their later descent into domestic violence, madness, but more to the point, upper middle class living. What a horrific fate to befall someone who’s seen the top!

There are frequent points in his most recent rise and fall biopic, what might be considered the end of a trilogy of such films, where the urge is to compare it to his earlier film Goodfellas. And there is definitely a goodly amount of shared DNA, a similar carriage.

But Scorsese in 2013 is an older man than the Scorsese of 1990, and as each film might be his last, what the French would dub a “testament” film, he strips away more and more of the bullshit. The Wolf of Wall Street is a longer better and more honest film than Goodfellas, Scorsese as usual makes a life of crime seem like the world’s greatest block party, the people are a little off but they’re funny and charming and could be your neighbors, the music never stops and often has a beat, you could dance to it, food is plentiful as are drugs. The difference being that in this film the criminals are stock traders. The late great Dennis Grunes said once in a review that the brilliance of John Huston’s The Asphault Jungle was that Huston made what was essentially a crime film but shot it like it was essentially a business deal, the film is full of interminable boardroom meetings etc. Wolf of Wall Street could be said to invert this dynamic; though ostensibly a film about business it’s shot like a crime film, and if anyone should be the person to effect this inversion it’s Scorsese, who essentially created the style of the post-noir crime film.

I liked this film more than Goodfellas because oddly enough it embraces the excess and insanity of its lifestyle far more than the earlier film. The typical visual gag in this film is the sort where one pulls away from a yacht to show that it has a helicopter on top of it. The criticism that Scorsese makes crime too charismatic and appealing was perhaps never a criticism that accrued any capital because that’s the point of the typical Scorsese film. He likes the excess and visual possibilities it provides, he likes the liveliness of it, the dynamism. The Stratford-Oakmont office in the film, any of the three shown, are so buzzing with activity that Fellini would’ve been impressed. And the film does seem, if not morally on board with Belfort, at least far more interested in his lifestyle than any other kind; when an FBI agent approaches Belfort on his yacht Belfort taunts him with a description of what he imagines the agent’s life is like, lower middle class income, riding the subway and when it gets hot in the summer fidgeting so his balls don’t stick to his thigh, and in the only shot in the film that isn’t subject to Belfort’s subjectivity we see the agent, on the subway, most likely thinking about how his balls are stuck to his thigh. Belfort meanwhile is playing tennis in a low security prison. Belfort gets the last laugh.

Wolf of Wall Street is also better than Goodfellas (a comparison I’m not artificially dragging into the review, anyone who’s seen both realizes they’re essentially twins) because it more effectively conveys the appeal of crime to a filmmaker; crime shows the actual promise of Horatio Alger to the ethnic working classes, the reason why urban kids saw Scarface as an inspiration rather than a cautionary tale. In a speech late in the film, Belfort compares his boiler-room penny stock operation to Ellis Island; he isn’t wrong in this.

And it ends as a defeated Belfort addresses a large crowd of eager onlookers; they’d like to be him, to have had his wealth. They’re clueless, awkward, and one could imagine they probably own a couple Scorsese DVDs…