August Notebook

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Selections from “Things I Should Have Left in the Draft Folder.” Reading and viewing. Spoilers marked.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

I haven’t watched one of the Marvel films since Thor, and was happy to see that franchising obligations didn’t dominate. Most of it mostly worked, and I say that carefully: it’s a film consistently close to the mark. Rocket and Groot were both fantastic, and the action sequences (and iconography) needed a second or third look by the pre-vis teams. Everything else was pretty good. It wasn’t a new Star Wars or an epochal event, but it thought better of us than most other tentpoles, which counts for something.

There isn’t much more you have to say, yet everyone has found a way: Guardians has brought in more money and generated more writing and commentary than anything else this year. And it’s because talking about films on the Internet has moved away from any relationship to the two hours in the theater. Every angle is being covered, and if you take the right turn you can find anything you want to hear: business strategy analysis, where discussion of culture and sports and politics is converging into the same discourse; behind-the-scenes controversy over screenwriting, complete with gender issues; explainers and catch-up material on the (nominal) source texts; vetting the diversity of the cast; catch-phrase lines turning into Twitter jokes and memes; heartfelt personal narratives; recurring (and increasingly insane) discussion of the meaning of “geek culture.”

This being used to say that, all rarely about anything specific to the experience of the film.

Economic imperatives and societal forces and political assumptions all matter in reading and understanding a film, and assessing what it’s doing. They all matter outside of a film, too, far more. Too often we’re getting a deadening middle ground: a quick detour toward a work to serve another motive, of page views or critical taste or canon construction or causes. Amazing work can take place threading together text and culture, but it takes a rare patience. To find its absence disheartening isn’t to wish away social reality. It’s to wonder whether there might be better uses of everyone’s time. Content generation has made it harder and harder to know what’s genuine. The hours you can spend reading about these films, reading what is, in the end, bullshit, could be used watching other films, or reading actual books. You’d get more out of it. But that wouldn’t make online publications any money.

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A Most Wanted Man (2014)

A story where everyone accuses everyone else of naiveté. The cruelty is some of the players have the ability to make events fit their pessimism. Hoffman’s Bachmann doesn’t. Reasonable arguments can’t do anything if they concern a reality someone else can change. And maybe they don’t mean anything at all. The logic of other narratives would dictate the same result, but bury it somewhere a few months after, well past the time you’ve watched the end credits and headed home safe. Here you get Hoffman holding it together on a prayer, and disintegrating when his faith comes up short.

Rachel McAdams’ character commits the most professional responsibilty violations of any fictional lawyer I’ve ever seen, and I’m counting Matt Murdock.

Crimson Tide (1995)

It only works when it pulls strings, and it doesn’t always work. This story of how they got the shot of the submarine going under the water is great.

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Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (1969)

The sequence in the middle of Butch and Sundance fleeing across wide landscapes and stopping to guess about their pursuers: more movies should steal this.

Never gets mentioned enough: Butch is a decent person, Sundance is a sociopath.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

One of the top five most influential action films of the last thirty years. Relentlessly mean, so that Arnold kneecapping a room full of people is him in humanitarian mode.

My friend leveled some devastating criticism of the evasion skills of young John Connor. He’s right. Motorbikes have their advantages over four-vehicle pursuers, but not when you drive straight down the middle of wide, flat paths.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

In contrast to A Most Wanted Man, the “twist” here felt more cynical than earned. It probably meant something different in the 60s: more radical, hitting a different tenor. But like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, not my kind of story.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

The 6 is my train now, so enjoyable for the details alone. The eye for process on the heist, how the police and the robbers move and counter, grips most of the way. The ending is too neat, almost like a studio note (maybe the book’s to blame), and the cast is too sprawling to give all the characters enough time. But Matthau and Shaw on the radio is all you need.

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The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

A fun movie that feels like a story for boys, and that’s fine. Hitchcok already with an airtight grasp on plotting, moving scenes forward to unfurl conspiracies. Still “early,” though, and not sure how much I got out of this. A lot of the trivia and stories behind the film are more interesting than the work itself.

Stepping back from this being a Criterion-approved movie from one of our greatest directors, there’s a fight in here in a religious space that goes on for a couple minutes and features a group of violent people just hucking chairs at each other. Because it would be too noisy to use their guns. (That’s the actual reason provided). And I don’t mean to imply some orderly alternation of fire. I mean chairs being thrown as hard as people can at each other across the room. There are no rules of engagement here. International law didn’t apply.

Nowadays chairs are for sitting, folded neatly after group therapy circles. Audiences flock to events where a single chair might be used in a violent manner. Not back then. Then chairs were for throwing. The way men did.

We’ve lost our way as a society.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Eddie Murphy cracking up everyone watching and everyone acting.

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Out of Sight (1998)

The way Soderbergh cuts the romantic meeting between Clooney and Lopez: he’s one of the best there is at matching simple tools to precise moments. The things Soderbergh does read as flashy or show-off-ish from other directors, but with him it’s (usually) for something, and in this one it always is. And Elmore Leonard never hurts.

Mean Streets (1973) (first hour)

Insight on Scorcese so important that I wonder if this needs to get moved ahead on the syllabus for people starting out. (Should be watched before Raging Bull, at a minimum, and wish I’d experienced them in that order). Feels specific to its community and yet a story that could be told about cities and young people all over the world.

Frank (2014) – wrote about it here.

The Shining (1980)

I watched this when I was 10 and, like long hallways and enclosed spaces, I avoided it until now. Found myself laughing, not because it isn’t terrifying, but because Kubrick is having so much fun. Everything one reads suggests that the shoot for this film was the most emotionally grueling of any Kubrick picture, which is a high bar to clear. But the end product is the joy of showmanship, Edgar Allan Poe brought to you by P.T. Barnum.

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Warrior (2011)

I wish the writers could have found an elegant way to avoid three of 16 contestants in a national tournament being from one small city, let alone all making the final four. The collaboration with ESPN and the professional MMA circles can be grating.

Also more moving than I would have thought possible. A story like this keys up a few big moments and has to hit all of them, and here they’re presented with devotional care. The bonus is the attention to small details: Jennifer Morrison tapping on a table once before answering a phone, Nolte hollering in a diner, a dad taking the time to fix his daughters’ toys. The scene in the parking lot where Edgerton pleads for his chance to get killed.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Entirely a film about passing, and loaded with enough material to fill a thousand papers each in race, gender, and queer studies, before you even start on Americans in Europe and class relations. Flirts with being maudlin, or worse, gay panic, but the symbols and the thought experiment are so overt that it easily accommodates a more charitable reading.

Also gives passing a harder edge than normal, Ripley a Trojan Horse. The out-group is coming for your money and your young, upper crust, and you can’t escape to your vacation home. Flee, and let the bourgeosie take the blow, or suffer the consequences.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

False-flag attacks, the challenges of Washington or Churchill, tensions between moderate and conservative factions, exile regimes plotting counter-coups, the aligned incentives of extreme elements, foreign nations backing the installation of friendly rulers. An honest-to-god international relations parable, this one.

And monkeys!

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Miami Vice (2006) (theatrical cut)

Header-image at the top of the post. Morgan Jeske and Tucker Stone talked about this recently.

First watch, and I’d sign up ten more times. Despite a dense plot, the aggressive cuts and the economy of how information gets presented leaves a lot of space. Mann doesn’t fill it out with stock “character” scenes, but the lead partners convince as a unit, even without kicking back over drinks and talking about their fathers. You learn what you need to from what goes on between them, what’s comfortable and unspoken, what’s worth commenting on. And as Mann cuts down across the board in exposition and characterization, he fills the space he creates, those curious absences, with flourish after flourish after flourish. Lush and tough and in love with the sky.

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Solaris (1972)

The visuals made its reputation, but the script is lights-out brilliant, line after line of thesis statements at war with each other for interpretation of the narrative. And it’s not all “second-rate Dostoevsky,” even if the characters can’t tell anymore.

And, Bruegel. Neck and neck with Alfonso Cuarón putting Guernica in Children of Men.

The Crow (1994)

I saw this and Event Horizon for the first time this year, and it’s “before” and “after” for understanding why sci-fi in the 2000s looked and sounded and felt the way it did. And not just “The Matrix” or a dozen other action films; even more than Event Horizon, this had a major impact on video game aesthetics and storytelling.

I would believe this takes place in the same universe as King of New York. I can’t justify that with maps or charts or data. But it’s the same glasses and the same skeptical attitude by the characters toward the concept of de-escalating conflict.

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Mad Max (1979)

First viewing. Most reminded me of Star Wars, Kubrick, and, of all things, West Side Story. How the vehicles move, how the characters speak, and how the actors move, respectively.

As feats of low-budget filmmaking go, extraordinary. Every single resource they had and a lot they didn’t are up there on-screen. Gibson is learning on-screen the beats he’d hone, master, and eventually wear out over the course of his career.

Today the final act of this film would begin no later than the 20th minute. Leaving it toward the end to unfold directly and without pause strengthens interpreting the film as reactionary while diminishing the temptation to extrapolate beyond what you’re seeing. It’s up to the viewer, I think, whether this is right contextually or getting to some core truth. And even if this is pure indulgence, you can’t get much better than the business with the hacksaw.

I’d really like to know more about whether this was originally intended with an eye toward Road Warrior or as a standalone. Two entirely different readings of the film, depending, and it colors how you read the superhero introduction beginning the film.

This is me rambling, though; read what Chris Ready said.

 

Comics

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The Bulletproof Coffin (#1-#6)

A writer having fun creating nesting dolls and an artist getting another shot and making it count. I don’t know enough about the internal commentary and the way it’s playing with predecessors to say more. Modern critical-favorite comics are so often like that for me that I wonder if it’s impossible to appreciate new books, and really get them, without having a full grasp on the back catalogues. Comics might be the medium most catering to and most trading upon completist tendencies. That is in no way a criticism. But a major asset for artistic appreciation for committed readers is a major obstacle for us tourists.

Bigfoot (2010) & The Squirrel Mother (2006) – wrote about these here.

 

Books

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Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)

Powerful, and deeply sad. A fascinating formal experiment in how to depict genius-level intelligence, which gets more odd the more you think about it. “It’s paradoxical that an ordinary man like Nemur presumes to devote himself to making other people geniuses.” – key line. Have a lot of notes on this one.

I have a soft spot for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and you can draw a straight line from Keyes’ classic to the later YA reinvention.

The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration, by Jack Goldsmith (2007)

Shorter than I remembered it. Enormously influential book on my thinking and on the area of law I’m most interested in.

Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War, by Burrus Carnahan (2007)

Good refresher on things I learned this past spring, subtle and fine-grained look at the Lincoln administration’s attitudes toward legal questions in the Civil War, focusing mostly on the Confederate South and the border states. Avoids hagiography of Lieber, and a convincing reminder that Lincoln thought about legal questions like a lawyer and political questions like a politician. The most interesting passages by far are those placing the Emancipation Proclamation in comparative perspective with earlier struggles in the Americas. The Proclamation was the capstone to over two centuries of freeing slaves as both a weapon of war and a tool of diplomatic coercion, and even if it was a more dramatic application than its predecessors, the precedents were firmly in Civil War-era minds. So good and so interesting that it makes me want to read Latin American history for a year. Quite a feat for treading old ground, to make you excited for new steps.

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