So it Went

reading-old-magazine

Reading TNR in the mid-2000s, late in high school and early in college, taught me what it meant to be a thinking, liberal person. It taught me what liberals believed, in specifics, about health care, about human rights, about political process. It opened my eyes to far more. And it told me I didn’t have to leave behind the art and culture I was so drawn to, that one could care at the same time about books and people, about history and the present, about other places and my own home.

Maybe what I took from reading that magazine was idiosyncratic, or ignored plain reality. Its lifetime provides many examples of contributions that could not have achieved what I have given the magazine credit for – writing that limited, that discarded, that denigrated. Writing embodying active ignorance or latent hate, to which an appropriate reaction is to find nothing to mourn.

It is difficult to believe this judgment is wrong. Any intellectual development I and others gained from the magazine’s pages does not justify its other sins, nor forgive them. And it would be more convenient if I had found a more pure source of awareness. Yet I wonder if I would be in a position to even hear these reactions and critiques, and understand them, if I had not grown through what I read. If I possess any real empathy or self-doubt or a willingness to revise beliefs, it is in part due to a magazine now condemned for lacking all three qualities. And I wonder if I could have actually learned from a teacher who did not embody something of what it imparted.

Few valuable things come to us in wholly valuable ways. There are many paths to awakening. TNR was one of them, and now it sleeps. I hope other voices will speak forcefully enough to let someone else have what TNR gave me. May they do better and may they, too, exhaust themselves in doing so.

November Notebook

king-of-comedy-deniro

The Evil Dead (1981); Trespass (1992); Carlito’s Way (1993); The Thin Blue Line (1988); The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974);  In Bruges (2008); Once Upon a Time in America (1984); The Devil’s Rejects (2005); Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); In the Name of the Father (1993); Interstellar (2014); The Verdict (1982); Nightcrawler (2014); Marathon Man (1976); Touch of Evil (1958); The Night of the Hunter (1955); Blue Ruin (2013); The King of Comedy (1983); Breathless (1960); Sixteen Candles (1984); Law-Abiding Citizen (2009); Battle Cry of Freedom (1988); Sabotage (2014); Sonatine (1993); The Searchers (1956); Sin Nombre (2009); Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010); The Ice Storm (1997); They Live (Deep Focus) by Jonathan Lethem (2010); High and Low (1963); Stand by Me (1986); Whiplash (2014); Foxcatcher (2014)

May revisit some of these if there’s time.

Out of this group the absolute standouts, not including 2014: Carlito’s Way, The Devil’s Rejects, The King of ComedyHigh and Low. Most of the rest, really strong. Only a few didn’t click. Foxcatcher? Nada said it best (and incidentally, Lethem writing about They Live lives up to the considerable hype).

On the others:

A man struggling with a pinball machine, alone in a bar; the odd coincidence in production which forced the powerful staging of Thin Blue Line‘s final reveal; when after a half hour Leatherface kills someone in a few seconds and the door shuts and that’s it, and you couldn’t say for certain that you just saw what you just saw; Hieronymous Bosch and the reality of hell; sincere religious belief, and what it asks and demands of you and changes about you; Daniel Day-Lewis’ impossible versatility; Nolan making his own variety of blockbuster out of the hole Roy Neary leaves in Close Encounters; children fleeing a domestic nightmare for the comparative embrace of a collapsing society; a gangster film where the white-noise sound design and MIDI synths add up to the cinematic equivalent of Wilco’s “Less Than You Think”–even where Ice Storm‘s score singlehandedly coheres a somewhat formless story about suburban middle America into something bracing and haunting; a sequel flipping the conservatism of a first entry neatly on its head, and gaining even more popular acclaim for doing so; borderland films playing out on bridges and tracks and roads; four boys from a fictional 50s Oregon who correspond to four boys from a fictional 00s Baltimore, and a long book about how they both live in one real country.

I could go on, and I won’t. There was a lot to like.

October Notebook

blue-velvet-woods

Scarface (1983); Gone Girl (2014); Videodrome (1983); Eastern Promises (2007); They Live (1988); 12 Angry Men (1957); Psycho (1960); Blue Velvet (1986); Stretch (2014); Bright Shining Lie (1988); Braveheart (1995); Hunger (2008); The Thomas Crown Affair (1968); Get Carter (1971); Black Sunday (1977); Fury (2014); The Killer Elite (1975); Deliverance (1972); The Magnificent Seven (1960); John Wick (2014); Raising Arizona (1987); Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Fall’s about filling in the gaps: on classics, on directors, on genre touchstones. Making progress. Every film here was a first-time viewing except for Raising Arizona, though I’d seen the first hour of Psycho and I think GTA: Vice City may have every single scene from Scarface in it.

Blue Velvet wins this one in a walk. Not into Videodrome at all (and Scanners was awesome, so I have no clue what that says). The Thomas Crown Affair is a way better existential-criminal film than ScarfaceJohn Wick had choreography approaching Raid levels. Remaking 12 Angry Men must be the most thankless task in existence, and they still try. They Live was really fun. Stretch was disappointing, anything would be after those last two though. The first hour of The Killer Elite is brilliant. Sunset Blvd. is significantly stronger whenever it’s with Joe and Betty, and hits a peak when they make up dialogue at the party.

 A Bright Shining Lie taught me a lot.

Wrote about Gone Girl here. Wrote about BraveheartHunger (and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, from last month) here.

I Want a Body

gone-girl-trailer

Gone Girl (2014) (Spoilers)

Credits vanish without time to read twice. Establishing shots cut a second earlier than we expect. Gone Girl commences impatiently, clipped and curt. We know why we’re here.

The first words we hear are questions from a wife to a husband. Later, we see how they met, Nick’s playful interrogation amid a boring party. He charms Amy by offering to play a game under their own rules. They judge who they are not, and promise who they will not become. They delight in double entendres because they like getting away with something. The rapport between Nick and Amy is less charming to the audience. They are performing to each other, but not to us, and in this they are content.

This love of theirs is a curious thing, and murder mysteries rely on our curiosity. They assure the audience of a life taken, and call on those watching to judge people they have just met. Viewers must imagine each character capable of something terrible. Deductions arise from impressions of character, details pointing to trustworthiness or suspicion. He’s squirrely. A little creepy. She seems mean. He’s a bad father. She’s a bad wife. He must have killed her. She must have killed him.

Stories like this instruct those experiencing them to charge forward on what is no more than blind inference. This is the moral horror of a detective story, which invites the audience to “find the murderer” while flattering our intuitions. It asks us to assume the worst in others, and promises a reward for our degradation.

These stories rarely pay off in time or satisfaction. Gone Girl isn’t fooled by the narrative straightjacket of the long reveal, and wraps up this plot in about an hour. It has made its point. It is looking to mystery because of how it can prime an audience to condemn, and excite them for justice. The next narrative it seems ready to enter, based on how the mystery resolves, has its own logic. Fraudulent destructions of lives are a psychological thought experiment—RicochetEnemy of the StateSide Effectsto unsettle our assumptions about stable lives and stations. These stories draw their energy from the righteousness of being wronged, and characters seeking to restore their name and the life they had before. Redeemed from the peril of oblivion, the hero triumphs.

Gone Girl briefly flirts with telling this kind of story. It is wrong for someone to go to prison for what they haven’t done. Nick aims to prevent this, and we wish for his success. The rhythms are off, though, and it’s soon clear this isn’t the path we’re taking. Vindication arrives too quickly, resolution announcing itself to our passive leads. Like another of Fincher’s works, a blood-soaked murderer sets the terms of their capture, and substitutes unease for the expected catharsis.

Nick, who may have freed himself of the first false narrative, cannot subvert a second. And though he was right, in the process of proving this he has not become someone better or more admirable. At a point when the audience might be most willing to sympathize with his fear and his exasperation, he knocks a pregnant woman’s head against a wall. We can’t stay on his side.

Cinema has blunt instruments for judging and assigning punishment, and they rely on structures underneath for their responsible employment. Gone Girl repeatedly jumps the tracks, and revels in what it can convice you of thinking and confuse you about feeling. The one character killed in the film may be the least sympathetic, a man who feels the need to reassure a woman he cares about that he will not “force himself” on her. Unrequited love of many years can provoke sympathy in a character, until the moment its essential hypocrisy reveals itself: the prayer for someone’s world to someday veer off its axis. Yet this joke of a person also does nothing remotely justifying his murder, let alone deserving of being tarred as a rapist after his death.

Gone Girl gives its audience early textual evidence to doubt faith in our inferences, but assumes correctly that an audience’s faith in itself will emerge unshaken. The story holds out for examination sins small and large, for the eyes of viewers hungry to organize what they’re seeing into blame and credit. In turn, characters hollow out any reassurance truth might offer, demonstrating it can be a literal defense and an ethical facade.

Gone Girl also avoids easy referents to guide any exercise of judgment; staged around a criminal indictment, the film never shows a judge, prosecutor, or courtroom. The audience can only keep assessing, and the film springs constant trap-doors for their reassurances and conclusions. The real predecessor is the terrain once claimed by Vertigo: deceptions destroying lives, indignities inflicted on selves and others, paths not taken and forever closed, the impossibility of ever making things right.

This is only a mood, though, not a map, and the only organizing structure Gone Girl leaves intact is a marriage. Spouses bookend the film asking questions of each other. We learn more than we want to about this love of theirs, a union incomprehensible from without, baroque horror within. The dialogue trades liberally in epithets, hate realized through reduction. Nick and Amy’s partnership surpasses in obscenity when it becomes remade into something recognizable and wholesome, appropriate for daytime television. They are finally performing for more than themselves, and they are expert.

It is their business, not ours. Relationships in their intimacy and privacy provide a safe haven for love and hate alike. And whatever solace it provides is only available for them. Outside their bond, the film’s most empathetic character is left alone. She receives neither a reprieve from consequence nor an acknowledgment of her unconditional love. Her life is what is left after the scrutiny of people’s judgment. And our verdicts – our crimes – never return to make amends.

Some lose; Amy doesn’t. No one wins. Assessments of character have no correspondence to right and wrong, and most stories will refuse to impart this lesson. Gone Girl presents two ways forward: acceptance that other people are not ours to know, or retreat to the consolation of our own superiority. And it knows which way its audience will go.

When he hears what we have seen, Nick’s lawyer calls it straight: “You two are the most fucked up people I’ve ever met.”

Laughter echoes in a refuge for cruelties, from people he hasn’t.

September Notebook

wind-that-shakes-the-barley

The Road Warrior (1981); A Fish Called Wanda (1988); Blade II (2002); The Running Man (1987); Cliffhanger (1993); Demolition Man (1993); Face/Off (1997);  The Great Escape (1963); The Drop (2014); The 400 Blows (1959); Big Trouble in Little China (1986); Assault on Precinct 13 (1976); Prince of Darkness (1987); Gamer (2009); In the Mouth of Madness (1995); Scanners (1981); Body of Lies (2008); The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006); The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (2013); A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014); Boyhood (2014); Several Short Sentences about Writing (2013); The Equalizer (2014)

Here as a marker. May add some thoughts eventually. I wrote some good things in emails and stuff for work. Never great about getting momentum to finish posts on here – but you knew that.

First time watching for everything on this list except The Great Escape. Caught up to speed on John Carpenter. Best film was a tie between The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Boyhood, though The Great Escape is tough to dismiss. Worst film was A Walk Among the Tombstones (not even close), or, for real films, Body of Lies or The Running Man – mostly a terrific set.

Nathaniel P was simply beautiful.

August Notebook

miami-vice-michael-mann-plane

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.

hoffman-a-most-wanted-man

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.

butch-cassidy-sundance-chase

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.

hitchcock-chair-fight

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.

out-of-sight-cheadle-clooney

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.

warrior-hardy-nolte

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!

jamie-foxx-colin-farrell-miami-vice

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.

solaris-bruegel-pose

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.

mad-max-gibson

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

bulletproof-coffin

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

daniel-keyes-flowers-algernon

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.