Over at The Film Experience (a marvelous blog), there’s a series called “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” where, each week, some writers pick their favorite shot within a given film and explain why. This week’s movie is Sherlock Jr., which reigns supreme over so many other movies that I just couldn’t not give it a try. Special thanks to Andreas at Pussy Goes Grrr (an equally marvelous blog) for tipping me off on the opportunity. My vote for “Best Shot” goes to:
This is the best kind of Buster image. At its heart, it’s a gag. Buster, who works as a projectionist, has fallen asleep on the job. In his dream, he hops out of his corporeal body and begins to see his own life projected on the screen. At the precise moment of this frame, Buster is trying to deal with the fact that he sees his nemesis and heartthrob on screen together. It’s a gut reaction to seeing our imagination on display.
While the gags and giggles will always be the heart of Buster’s work, there are a number of intellectually satisfying things happening that form the brain — and the heart can’t work without the brain. Keaton’s genius relies on this hierarchy. He used his filmmaking skill to inform and enhance the gags, rather than the other way around. So often we see filmmakers try to use film as a highway for jokes. Unfortunately, the wit doesn’t always translate to visual facility. This is one reason I feel Tati is so often compared to Keaton — they were kindred spirits who knew that comedy is dependent on craft.
Let’s think about the numerous things Keaton manages to accomplish in this single frame. First of all, it is a fine image. The foreground is out of focus, but crucial (more on that in a moment), the two Busters and a projector fill out the middle, and there is a clear backdrop. That’s at least three levels of depth established without multiple angles. Especially in Sherlock Jr., Keaton brings an outstanding sense of depth to his imagery — and for good reason. The film has as much voyeurism in its blood as Rear Window. Observe how Keaton designs the foreground. It looks like a picture frame hanging on our living room wall. So, not only are we watching Buster practice awareness of his own voyeurism, he is inviting the audience to be aware of the same. A common motif in Sherlock is that of passing through things. Many times, Buster makes a joke by moving through something that appears to be a solid object — a mirror, a wall, movie screens, even a person. Other times, he plays a simple variation on the theme of the above image. Look at this incredible composition.
Whoa depth. This picture goes on forever, tracing the power lines until they disappear with Buster’s tails wiggling in the wind and the inexplicable Washington portrait. But the image is really accomplishing the same thing as the other. It is Keaton’s way of showing us the business of looking at and through things. Here, it’s a bank vault door — and doesn’t the door frame still look like a picture frame?
Like The Cameraman, another great Keaton picture, Sherlock gives us an account of his own personal thoughts on the cinema. I’m a sucker for movies about movies, but there’s some real meat here. The image at the top of the page shows us two Busters. One of them is staring at the screen, dumbfounded and mystified — enchanted by the impossibility of his imagination. But the other is just taking a nap. Keaton was one of the filmmakers who understood the intimacy between movies and dreams, he proves it here. In fact, the “awake” Buster is really just a dream version of the sleeping one. Over all of the variations on voyeurism taking place in Sherlock, it’s heaviest power lies in its belief in human imagination. Keaton knew that cinema was the key to letting us reproduce our dreams, our fantasies, and our nightmares. That’s probably the source of the confusion on “awake” Buster’s face. In a way, he’s seeing into the future. He’s seeing his own life projected in front of him. And he has the balls to actually hop in and play along. When he does, he becomes a rakish gentleman in tails who destroys all threats to his honor at the billiard table. I’m not sure, but Sherlock might be the most earnest thing Keaton made — and it’s done by being outrageous, fantastical even.
There’s one more thing about the top image. Visually, it establishes that “frame” motif that comes back again and again, holding the picture together. The end of the film has some iconic imagery that echoes the same moment.
Finally, Buster’s got the girl and he has risen from the dream. He awkwardly (read: charmingly) enacts the love scene that plays on screen. The visual symmetry between the two moments is obvious, but its message is more subtle. In the image at the top of the post, Buster is looking at his exaggerated impression of his own life being played out in front of him. Here, he is trying to bring elements of the imagined film into real practice — he’s being more proactive. But even through this flipped circumstance, he still wears a mystified expression. It’s of a different kind than the other, but it is an acknowledgment of cinema’s ability to beguile us whether or not we think we’re the ones in control.
The image of the two Busters remains a key to Sherlock. We see so much of the film distilled into a single frame — the dreams, the wonder, and the extra layers. Most importantly, I feel Mr. Keaton might say, he’s making a funny face.
Today, Sight & Sound released a new iteration of its “Greatest Films of All-Time” list. This is a silly game that we cinephiles are only allowed to play once every decade, so it’s a special occasion. Sight & Sound‘s list is by far the most respected and celebrated of its kind. Each decade on the deuce since 1952, critics have sent in a personal top ten. Directors have done the same for a few decades now, creating their own lists. Since 1962, the second poll, Citizen Kane has managed to “win” without fail. This year, things changed a bit. Here’s the rundown:
- Vertigo [Hitchcock, 1958]
- Citizen Kane [Welles, 1941]
- Tokyo Story [Ozu, 1953]
- The Rules of the Game [Renoir, 1939]
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [Murnau, 1927]
- 2001: A Space Odyssey [Kubrick, 1968]
- The Searchers [Ford, 1956]
- Man with a Movie Camera [Vertov, 1939]
- Passion of Joan of Arc [Dreyer, 1927]
- 8 1/2 [Fellini, 1963]
- Tokyo Story [Ozu, 1953]
- 2001: A Space Odyssey [Kubrick, 1968]
- Citizen Kane [Welles, 1941]
- 8 1/2 [Fellini, 1963]
- Taxi Driver [Scorcese, 1976]
- Apocalypse Now [Coppola, 1979]
- The Godfather [Coppola, 1972]
- Vertigo [Hitchcock, 1958]
- The Mirror [Tarkovsky, 1975]
- Bicycle Thieves [De Sica, 1948]
BFI has the Top 50 listed for now, with more things to be revealed as the issue becomes widely available.
There’s a reason to be excited about all of this nonsense. Over 1,000 people voted and over 2,000 movies were mentioned — by far the most in the poll’s history. In a time when film criticism is said to be struggling or declining, it’s important to remember that it also owns a very important corner of the Internet. For example, many expected that the wider inclusion would increase the potential for a Pulp Fiction or Tree of Life to crack the Top 10. Not so. In fact, the critics chose three silent films and the average release year was pulled down by 6 from 2002′s poll.
There are going to be a lot of headlines saying “Is Vertigo Really That Great?” and “Vertigo Dethrones Kane” and “Citizen Kane No Longer Good Movie.” Indeed, the most obvious change in the poll comes from the top — Hitchcock’s Vertigo defeated Citizen Kane by a healthy amount of votes. Does this say anything about the actual value of those movies? No, it doesn’t. They are both incredible works of art and occupy a level of genius that is remarkable in any circle. It seems clear that the critical pendulum is swinging, as usual. Vertigo isn’t necessarily enjoying a renaissance and Kane isn’t getting any worse. Rather, a new generation of film lovers is beginning to establish itself. It doesn’t seem difficult to imagine some critics intentionally leaving Citizen Kane off of their list, not because it isn’t worthy of it, but because it has enjoyed a healthy half-century as the recognized King of Cinema. Brilliantly, Kristen Thompson once suggested that we “retire” films (as jersey numbers are in The Sports) after they appear in the Top 10. That methodology would give us a constantly growing canon as opposed to the Sight & Sound poll where we mostly watch for minute changes and try to apply some zeitgeisty commentary to them. Surely, a headline somewhere will be, “Vertigo Tops Poll; Internet Fracturing Consciousness” or “Internet Eating Apples” or “Internet Changing Babies” or some other nonsense. As the Sight & Sound poll functions right now, it celebrates the juggling of a couple established essential titles and bickering over the small cracks in their overwhelming genius instead of finding greatness in all the unexpected nooks in which it presents itself.
That said, there are a couple very satisfying and unexpected shifts in other parts of the list. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera has supplanted, thankfully, Battleship Potemkin as the Soviet Constructivist representative. No segment of The Godfather cracked the critic’s list, their chances probably injured by being rightfully separated. Perhaps most important and thrilling, Tokyo Story won the top spot on the Director’s poll. It’s not the representative I would choose for Ozu, but seeing him celebrated in any way is exciting — especially among the men and women actively moving the art form ahead. The Searchers, absent from the 2002 list, takes number 7 — marking my biggest qualm with the list. I deny that The Searchers is the best representative of Ford’s catalog or even a great film, for that matter. I could be a crybaby about 2001 as well, but that’s all for another day.
The bottom line is this — we should be happy that we are so in love with a medium that somehow encourages, or sometimes requires, us to engage in childish games. In that way, I’m glad to be a cinephile today. But Sight & Sound should also take a page out of some architecture, painting, or opera magazines and try to find a way to allow a broader canon. The lists above contain only 15 different movies. They’re all essential films. For any of my readers who are a little less obsessed with movies, don’t start here, but I implore you to work up to these films someday. Diving into the top of the heap can be confusing. That’s often the reason I think Kane is thought of as “not that great” or whatever — these movies, at this point in history, ask us to contextualize them with history and, most importantly, other movies.
The most beautiful thing about these lists is that they’re so small. Ten films to define a medium? It’s hard to argue with the brilliance atop these lists. But the important part is that we recognize the wealth of greatness below the surface. For every film on this list, there are 100 films worth seeing immediately. Every director represented on those lists has another masterpiece waiting around the corner. Howard Hawks, the single greatest filmmaking human in the history of Earth, isn’t anywhere to be seen in the Top 50!!! That’s how big this world is. That’s how amazing it is.
Because the best thing about lists like this is that they encourage us to make our own and to always be on the lookout for new contenders and to always reconsider the rubric. It’s a childish game, but one that I’m glad we’re all playing.
Screenwriting has always been a thick game. Despite the dalliances of Faulkner and the curiosity of Fitzgerald, major literary figures have – to some degree – distanced themselves from Hollywood business. Most of the active filmmakers who consider the medium capable of art both write and direct — P.T. Anderson, Ethan and Joel Coen, and Terrence Malick to name a few popular examples. So rarely is the cinema greeted by self-sufficient literary genius. Enter Charlie Kaufman. Now, I don’t want to suggest that he is a genius yet. He has written and made a few extraordinary films, but time is necessary to judge the type of thought and ambition that Kaufman has begun to practice. Charlie Kaufman is without comparison in contemporary popular filmmaking — a screenwriting auteur and an artist willing to confront literature and creativity as the object of his own literature and creativity. It is easy to get lost in a forest of postmodernist nonsense when considering his films and I’ll do my best to avoid most of that.
Kaufman is responsible for writing Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. With his script for Synecdoche, New York, he made his first attempt at directing. Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine are both clearly Kaufman’s scripts, but they are also his most juvenile. They are dense stories that attempt to assess how our memories shape personal relationships. They also use gimmicky business models as a way to justify their density. To be relative, though, either of these films has room close to the top of their respective years. Juvenile for Kaufman is 300 level philosophy for us. But it is in Adaptation. and Synecdoche that he lets go of those tricks. We’ll focus on those two pictures as examples of Kaufman’s importance in keeping the movies vital.
Adaptation. is, among other things, about the process of adapting a novel into a screenplay. Kaufman was tasked with turning “The Orchid Thief,” a book by Susan Orlean, into a movie. When he became blocked, he wrote himself, a fictional twin brother, and his own experience into the film. Nicholas Cage, in his finest screen appearance this side of Face/Off, plays both Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Charlie is trying to adapt “The Orchid Thief” and, in combatting his writers block, comes to terms with the demands of Hollywood and his twin brother. We can imagine that the film is really just a grand fictionalization of Kaufman’s own experience writing it. Adaptation. gives us immediate evidence towards Kaufman’s importance. Since he is actually willing to write himself and a make-believe brother into a screenplay, he brings the audience closer to the artifice of movies. This ties in with an even more critical point that I’ll get to with Synecdoche, but Adaptation. allows the audience an additional layer of awareness. He inserts Cage into behind-the-scenes footage on the set of Malkovich and constantly references previous events in the film (like the creation montage) as Cage’s character writes them into the fictional screenplay. The astonishing thing about this is that the film doesn’t lose mobility with this awareness. Kaufman isn’t asking us to just be aware that we’re watching a movie — he’s asking us to see how dirty the process can get, but still deliver an engrossing, beautiful product. That’s why, in the final image, we pass through a week of time on the L.A. street while watching a single bed of flowers stay the same. He’s drawing an important comparison between the creative process and natural process. And much of the film is really about his own adaptation to the “rules” and “principles” of Hollywood. Many critics claim that the final 30 minutes destroy the entire movie, but it seems like, shrewdly, Kaufman intended it as a sly send-up of the way so many Hollywood films jump off the ledge. Unlike others who have tried to reveal this extra awareness with cheeky nods to the camera, he uses it as a way to dissect creative experiences and capitalize on his own writers block.
With Adaptation., Kaufman first allowed himself to experiment with creativity as the actual subject of a narrative. He wasn’t trying to answer the existential questions people believe him to be obsessing over. I don’t believe it is fair to say that Kaufman is obsessed with a subject any more than any other writer. The difference is that he doesn’t stop himself where most writers decide to stop. What does it mean to “put it all on the page”? With Synecdoche, Kaufman still seeks truth in the creative process, but uses death instead of Hollywood as his “portal.” Phil Seymour Hoffman plays an aging theater director (Caden Cotard) who engages in a number of relationships and marriages during the second half of his life.
Synecdoche, Kaufman’s directorial debut, is full of more visceral and emotional moments than Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry were ever able to pull from his scripts. For instance, Caden watches his estranged, grown-up, tattooed daughter dance naked in a glass box — he screams her name but she can’t or won’t listen. Much of Synecdoche works on a simply cinematic level, ignoring intellectual pursuits for a moment. It functions as a moving portrait of parenthood with Caden’s relationship with Olive. It does not ignore the way men float through marriages, often choosing very similar women. And the finale is a gripping abstraction of a moment in life that no viewer can have experienced. Just recognizing it as a movie reveals some decade-defining performances from Hoffman and Morton and a dynamite make-up job as well.
But the magic of Synecdoche is derived from its astonishing intellectual ambition. No words can relay the gravity of what Synecdoche attempts to accomplish. With death as its obsessive motif, the film is more clearly an illustration of all life and the way we try to process it. After his wife and daughter leave him, Caden receives a MacArthur “Genius” grant and decides to make a “truly uncompromising” theater piece that shares the same ambition as the film. In a massive warehouse, Caden and his enormous team slowly erect a life-size facsimile of New York City — ultimately, it even contains the warehouse in which the facsimile is built. Caden’s theater piece functions in the same way that the script does in Adaptation. Both are attempting to discover larger connections while deconstructing creativity. Synecdoche does make some progress in demonstrating how we compartmentalize all the people in our lives. It’s really a window into the narcissism of which we are all guilty. We all build our own warehouses and store our relationships in them. We expect certain things from certain people. But we don’t stop to understand that they have built their own warehouse, too. We can’t share that space.
Caden’s theater venture does reveal the greatest strength in Synecdoche and Kaufman’s most profound cinematic revelation — the binding intimacy between art and life. We watch Caden search for the meaning of his life through art. His wife’s work becomes infinitely smaller as his becomes infinitely larger. Most potently, Caden casts a man who has been following him for 20 years to play himself in the play. Some scenes are acted out, only to eventually be revealed as a rehearsal for the play. Ultimately, there is no difference between Caden’s art and his life. We can easily quote Shakespeare here, but Synecdoche is something else.
As the film relates to Kaufman himself, it is really a continuation of the subject he began to pursue in Adaptation. – creativity. The film sometimes reads as a criticism of the very questions it seems to be asking, balanced so confidently between pretense and unintelligibility. Synecdoche is what happens when a writer “puts it all on the page.” It doesn’t solve any of the riddles that Caden sets out to understand. In fact, it’s as much of a movie about the limits of genius as it is about the capabilities of one. Kaufman is saying that rabbit holes exist. Endless loops exist. Dead ends exist. He is beginning to understand that some of these questions we all want to ask are really just too much. There’s no answer.
And it’s Kaufman’s audacity to confront his own creativity and its limits in clear sight that makes him vital to Hollywood’s literary climate. Instead of just settling for sly self-reference or fleeting moments of meta-textuality, he fights the creative battle on the page and for everyone to see. His grace reminds me of David Foster Wallace, a martyr of 21st Century literature who was able to transcend “postmodernism” by confronting it without an attempt at irony or wit. Kaufman, likewise, is capable of great literary accomplishments. Thankfully, he makes movies.
Bob Dylan turned 71 yesterday. The guy still tours all over the world, croaking out songs new and old. Saying that the man was important would be a ridiculous understatement. Along with a couple other folks, he created the movement we call Rock ‘n’ Roll. In the upcoming paragraphs, I quote from three different sources, all of which are worth understanding. They are — Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Greil Marcus’s The Old, Weird America, and No Direction Home, a documentary produced by Scorcese.
Dylan’s career is sprawling. It’s a stunning demonstration of personal evolution, not only in appearance but also in spirit and sound. He was never primitive, but in a consistent mode of innovation and reinvention. Not only is his career one of the few that can maintain such a puzzling level of revolution, it also parallels the rapid shifts in American culture during his lifetime. Greil Marcus, a Dylan specialist and author of The Old, Weird America, a book detailing many pivotal events in his life, claimed that he had the motivation to “make [himself] up.” (Marcus 19) Dylan’s will to embrace evolution was the key to a deadlocked American musical atmosphere. His activity is best judged through contradictions. Evident in so many public appearances, he would both embrace and denounce the same ideology as it was convenient.
In understanding the most transformative and static moments in Dylan’s career – from Highway 61 Revisited and “Royal Albert Hall” to his “Basement Tapes” – in dialectical terms, it becomes clear that his revolutions were dependent on his internal contradictions and personal contempt for the American variation on personality as cultural iconography.
Dylan’s tendency to seem prophetic and revolutionary is based, in hindsight, on America being primed for his personality. Hegel claims that progress is rooted in contradiction or opposition within a system. Therefore, Dylan’s inversion of public expectation and the previous nature of national iconography allowed him to function as such a potent agent of change within America’s existing cultural foundations. His most infamous evocation of this contradiction is undoubtedly his decision to, as so many say, “go electric,” or even “go commercial.” When he was young, he traded his electric guitar for an acoustic guitar in order to play folk music (Scorcese). In 1964, when he decided he “would be better with a small group,” he chose to switch back to electric instruments, which reportedly had nothing to do with sounding “modernized.” (Scorcese). Dylan began performing electrically in Bringing It All Back Home, a 1965 recording that shows a heavy influence from artists like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. It revealed a relationship with the blues that was deeply rooted in his musical identity. As a teenager in Minnesota, his first recorded song was one that recalled Lead Belly’s heavy hand and wail. However, it is in the release of Highway 61 Revisited that Dylan’s most imposing revolution becomes evident.
It is only fitting, given Dylan’s absorption of the blues, that he names the album after the famed “Blues Highway.” But what does it mean for him to revisit this tradition? The answer is a basic foundation in Dylan’s logic. (Or illogic?) As he revisits certain traditions, Dylan supersedes this classification by never looking for answers to problems. His career has proven that he had no ambition to cure social ills. Indeed, he said outright that “[he] didn’t really have any ambition at all” (Scorcese). While it is important to treat any of his claims as suspect, that precise idea creates the contradictory atmosphere that shapes his progress. In terms of Highway 61 Revisited, his lyrical content moves away from sweeping social narrative to a series of vaguely related non-sequiturs of dubious relevance. In Chronicles, Dylan wrote that he “could tell you anything and you’re going to believe it.” (Dylan 82) His disavowal of any heritage, musical or otherwise, along with a determination to reveal cultural inconsistencies was only another way he epitomized Hegelian progress. His expansive cultural knowledge is clear, but the endless references in “Desolation Row,” “Tombstone Blues,” and the eponymous “Highway 61 Revisited” function as witty rhyming tools rather than prophesy. Dylan features two types of songs on Highway 61 Revisited; the “you” song and the meandering pseudo-narrative. He chose to address an unknown object with the most clarity in three songs, “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Queen Jane Approximately.” With the exception of “Desolation Row,” a long comedy that could easily be addressed to anyone, these songs outline the architecture of the album by beginning and ending the two sides of the record.
Dylan’s progress through opposition is most evident in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the end of the first side. The biting refrain “you know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is,” forms one of the most cynical, but also sincere, moments on the album. In it, “Dylan found an instant catchphrase for the moral, generational, and racial divisions that in this moment found American’s defining themselves not as who they were but as who they were not” (Marcus 8). This chorus revealed the most power by allowing the listener to believe that Dylan knew “what [was] happening,” when he never felt like he knew more than anyone else. Of course, this is the engine that propelled his progress through tumultuous relationships with the public.
Bob Dylan was awarded the “Tom Paine Award for Freedom” in 1963. In accepting it, he gave a speech clearly refusing that he was a topical or political songwriter. During a sequence of largely criticized performances in the UK during the summer of 1966, he told a reporter, “all I sing is protest songs” (Scorcese). Instances like this and his frequent interchanging of acoustic and electric performances reinforce his application of progress through internal contradiction. His affirmation and rejection of dominant trends allowed him unprecedented freedom in manipulating his own material. Imagining him as a performer who chooses a successful operation and sticks to it is impossible. It is Dylan’s public enactment of Hegelian progress that established him as a legendary American figure.
One famous performance, closing his 1966 tour of the UK and wrongly thought to have taken place at Royal Albert Hall, marked a critical point in his career. Even his setlists contained internal contradiction, performing the first half acoustic and alone while the second half was with a loud rock ensemble. Audiences were split. Some were appreciative of his innovation and most were livid. Greil Marcus claims that, “Dylan’s performance now seemed to mean that he had never truly been where he had appeared to be only a year before, reaching for that democratic oasis of the heart – and that if he had never been there, those who had felt themselves there with him had not been there” (Marcus 31). So many fans felt betrayed by a man who once epitomized their ideology. Famously, one concertgoer called him “Judas” just before the final song at the “Royal Albert Hall.” Dylan told his band to play “fucking loud” when barreling into “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song that transformed into an even more seismic indictment during one dramatic moment. This performance, full of spite and contempt, seemed to contain the entirety of Dylan’s mounting frustrations. Still, there is an air of pleasure that he takes in his power. He wrote, “[i]t was impossible now for me to observe anything without being observed.” (Dylan 121) This may be true, but his artistic innovation and reinvention was dependent on an audience. It was as though his contradictions meant nothing unless someone could pick them out and throw them back.
After the tumultuous 1966 tour of the UK, Dylan retired to America, feeling spiritually depleted. He suffered injuries from a motorcycle accident and subsequently took an eight-year hiatus from public performance. Secluded in a Woodstock, NY home, he gathered a band to record a series of extemporaneous sessions titled, “Basement Tapes.” Dylan, throughout his career, mentioned that he only “sang because [he] felt like singing,” he was “determined to play,” and that the people who didn’t understand him were “outside the music community” (Scorcese, Dylan 43). The sessions in Woodstock, a situation dense with potential for artistic license, thus became an opportunity for Dylan to be a musician without anyone watching. Marcus wrote, “[t]he sense of people playing with no accounts to settle – the sense that everything is possible and nothing matters – defines the basement tapes once they get rolling.” (Marcus 75) A lethargic philosophy dominates the “Basement Tapes”. The seclusion warded off any public ghosts but also chased away Dylan’s determination. The “Basement Tapes” are an astonishing demonstration of cultural virtuosity and musicianship that has seeped deep into the bone. However, they are also a collection of recordings that show so little development. When in the public eye, Dylan was able to be the darling of Newport and the begetter of punk within a few months. The recordings that comprise his stay in Woodstock only affirm that Dylan’s personality is one that requires an audience to witness his contradictions and progress. His trajectory is distinctly American and would form a trademark of rock ‘n’ roll. Dylan wrote, “I practiced in public and my whole life was becoming a performance” (Dylan 17). This was a technique he had mastered to the point of, as becomes evident with the “Basement Tapes,” needing the audience so that he could maintain a stable personality – one only comfortable when in performance. This reading also serves to explain his current obsession with touring, even in a crippled vocal state.
Dylan may have considered popular American culture “lame as hell and a big trick,” but it is clear that he needed it to implement his revolutions (Dylan 35). His influence and legacy cannot be overstated. In hindsight, it seems as though America needed Dylan and Dylan needed America. None of his innovations would have carried if he weren’t so charged with internal contradictions and if he didn’t have a public to watch it all happen. This is the wrong way to interpret Dylan’s career. His interest in delivering answers or conclusions seems to be miniscule. His ability to create profound cultural questions through contradicting himself is paramount. In terms of defining a massive, pluralistic society, Dylan is one of the most efficient and prolific practitioners without ever trying to be. About America, and probably the world, he wrote, “[i]t was pointless to think about it. Whatever you were thinking could be dead wrong.” (Dylan 35)
Some of the most prodding criticisms of Season Five assert that the themes might be too clear. Those who sport that suggestion might have been briefly relieved by “Lady Lazarus,” but like the rest of the season, strong, deep currents were pulling our characters down the elevator shaft.
“Lady Lazarus” refers to a poem written by Sylvia Plath, a part of her “Holocaust” series. It details a female speaker who is continuously reborn and eventually plots to devour all men. Both background and foreground of this poem serve to illuminate the two primary focal points of this episode — Pete and Megan.
It is revealed late in the episode that Pete is now 32 years old. Thinking about the growth of these characters is arresting and especially in the case of Pete and his struggle to attain a new identity in adult responsibility. Looking back to the pilot episode on the eve of his marriage and turning our attention to his current intimacy with Beth reveals that Pete might be the character who has struggled the most to progress, save for perhaps Roger, his nemesis of sorts. It is clear that Pete is in need of worship and response from someone who isn’t Trudy. Weiner&co. have drafted Trudy into a stay-at-home behemoth. Though Pete may be the most richly drawn character on the show, he still inspires a strong amount of public resistance and it is largely due to his inability to achieve self-control. So often, he seems to be the man falling off the opening credits and into a torturous and perpetuating cycle of self-loathing and misguided determination.
His fling with Beth is directly out of Weiner’s playbook, presenting an intriguing, mysterious character inside of a predictable circumstance. Sometimes, writing a show that will ultimately be 100 hours, it is forgivable to engage in something foreseeable. Pete and Beth’s post-coital philosophizing was the obvious opportunity to expound on “Lady Lazarus”‘s thematic edge. Beth asks Pete what he thinks about the new pictures of the Earth from outer space. She is disturbed by how small it looks. You can do better than that, Weiner&co. Regardless, her curiosity and instability are somehow magnetizing to Pete and he spends much of the episode hunting his train-buddy’s wife. It’s presented in such a way that is understandable for anyone who has known sexual obsession and it reveals Pete’s total inability to understand contentment within any context, especially inside the home. Season Five has been so insistent about conveying the impossible permanence of work relationships and their intersection with intimacy. Clearly, Pete isn’t capable of reaching either.
Megan’s struggle forms the motivic and narrative core of “Lady Lazarus,” perhaps representing the Lady herself. After last week’s discussion with her father, she has made a sharp turnabout. No one can deny the weight of parental disappointment no matter the context and Megan’s quick reaction is entirely believable. After lying to Don and Peggy in order to attend a callback audition, she relinquishes the secret to Don in the middle of the night. Over the last 5 years we have been taught to believe that Don would choke Megan or throw her out the window. Of course, he doesn’t and Megan quits. Simple as that.
The complexity of the situation lies in Megan’s increasingly intricate web of significance. After revealing that she plans to quit, Stan wonders who can blame her; saying, “You work your butt off for months and what do you get? Heinz Baked Beans…” This weaves into the Beth’s perceived nihilism. Insignificance and the failed quest for relevance has seeped into the home and the workplace. Megan believes that, by attempting to become an actress, she can achieve contentment and self-actualization. Weiner&co are preparing us for the revelation that no one can ever be completely content with what they do.
Mad Men is revealing a crucial generational shift. Perhaps a legitimate source of Don’s legitimate compassion, Megan belongs more to Sally’s youth than Betty’s complacency. The fantasy that we can do anything we desire for a living is starting to popularize with the sharp incline in college education. Megan, and so many others in the coming generations, sustains herself through change while Don sustains himself through consistency. Don offered Megan the orange sherbet and she didn’t like it. She doesn’t want to live his life. She is beginning to carve out the position that she will likely be occupying for the remainder of the series — someone to make Don look old.
The final montage is notable for one enormous reason. Revolver had just been released and Megan’s reliably hip musical taste forces it on Don. Strangely, she tells him to begin with the last track on the B-side, “Tomorrow Never Knows”. He sit’s down and hears the (probably unthinkably expensive) wobbling sitar and modal Lennon urging everyone to turn off, tune in, and drop out — most of all to “surrender to the void.” This time, he doesn’t like Megan’s ice cream. Earlier in the episode, Don peered down an empty elevator shaft that stared him in the face. It might just as well have been a mirror. Images of Pete’s emotional failure, Megan’s change, and Peggy’s career flash through his mind and he turns the record off in the middle of the song before going to bed. It’s not that Don is unable to cope with youth, but that he doesn’t believe in it. This is going to be the monumental struggle in this Draper marriage — Don’s inability to come to terms with Megan’s willful independence, misdirected or not. His spousal objectification is over.
The tie between home and work has been severed and Don will be required to reconcile with a new and powerfully ignorant generation.
George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, good buddies in their student days, are frequently cited as the first Computer Boys of the film industry. Both have claimed that film itself is a technology.
Maybe they’re still saying it, but times have changed. We live in a time where film is becoming data. Digitalization of movies has been discussed at length, especially the presumed effect on preservation, fidelity, and economics. But what about us? How does it change the moviegoing experience? For decades, shooting 24 frames across the screen in one second was a miracle. Should we be bothered by all the Ones and Zeros?
Regardless of whether you have a simple crush on Jude Law or an incurable obsession with film, it’s almost guaranteed that you have seen at least a clip of something online and done so illegally. According to the NPD Group, for every legally downloaded movie in the US there are twelve pictures obtained illegally. The MPAA claims that this trend costs the industry over 20 billion dollars annually. A Nielson study states that 73% of adults avoid movie theaters because they believe the cost to be too high. But can we really blame Hollywood? The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings have accounted for a dominating share of 21st Century Hollywood income, not to mention the numerous superhero releases. Some blockbusters manage to maintain decent critical opinion, but the majority are met with disdain — even by the millions of people willing to shell out $8 to see them. Even those of us who need to constantly satiate our film addiction know that The Digital Age has changed the game. Cinephilia has always been a wild race, but now it’s a stationary sprint. Elaborate home theaters and tiny computers have replaced the Silver Screen. It used to be a global scavenger hunt for the newest restoration of Napoleon, now the adventure hardly takes us further than the laundry room. Instead of chasing down that elusive screening of Fig Leaves with our friends, we wait for a torrent or, in the worst case, Criterion to publish a $30 special edition Blu-Ray. The data and our own habits have taught us that convenience trumps quality. The Digital Age has brought history’s theater to our laps. Read more…
Originally published on 19 June 2011
I now have a Twitter. (@Berzurcher) I’m not famous, so it seems a little weird and useless.
This discussion has been going on for weeks here on the internet, but if you haven’t thought about it, you should. First, read this article by Dan Kois in the NY Times (if you haven’t reached your precious 20 articles this month – gag).
Is watching Solaris eating your “cultural vegetables”? Sure, if you want to call it that. But what about meat? What about fruit? Can there be cultural vegans? Or cultural cannibals?
Solaris is long, slow, long, and slow. Difficult, for sure – but breathtaking all the same. During a conversation today, one of my friends expressed her distaste for Midnight In Paris and that she wants film to make her “feel something.” I don’t have too much of a problem with that statement, but what about being bored or lonely or stagnant or depressed? Can any of our popular art forms truly invoke loneliness or depression in the time frame we give to them? We give TV shows 20 or 40 minutes to do their thing, movies generally get about 90 minutes, and God forbid a song be longer than 4 minutes.
Just like eating fast food for all of your meals, it isn’t healthy to absorb culture with only convenience in mind. We are all guilty of subconsciously saying, “Damn it, you have 1 minute to entertain me or I will begin thinking about cats.”
So, we have to construct a sort of Culture Pyramid. Except, like nutritionists realized, there isn’t so much hierarchy to it. A truly healthy person will eat some chicken, but not as much as they eat rice. A truly healthy person also realizes that they can’t do without either of them.
This food analogy is fantastic mostly because the experiences of both art and cuisine are heavily influenced by taste. We will always have individual reactions to the same things. “High” or “Low,” pieces of art will continue to delight some and annoy others. All of this works back to the mysterious truth of preference, showing that it is certainly possible to be a cultural vegan or have cultural diabetes. Often, if you follow a hipster around for a day, they will show you how to be simultaneously high-brow and low-brow.
Even if you don’t really like alfalfa or steak, maybe someday someone will come along and cook you a steak covered in alfalfa that will be the most delicious thing you have ever eaten. And someday, you might find that a balanced diet leads to a balanced life. That is why I might drive 8 hours to see Phish for the third time in a week, but I will listen to Bach on the way there and a Joyce audiobook on the way back.
Originally published 22 January 2011
A few weeks ago, I was Rickrolled. And not in the witty, ha-ha-you-got-me kind of way. Essentially, the experience ruined my aural mojo for the day.
Then I started thinking about how the Rickroll has come to embody a unique part of modern culture — Informational Noise. This is not the kind of noise that comes out of a radio or rushes in your window. Informational Noise is what happens when, just like listening to 9 songs simultaneously, our brain becomes so cluttered that we can hardly function. How many monks do you think suffer from anxiety?
Along the same lines, the internet has been a hub for constant access and attention since Facebook. We now have the ability to have at least a vague idea of what any person at any time at any place is doing. And depending on how smart they are, we can learn plenty of other things as well. Ever since the Rickroll began, it has been an icon of annoyance, brotherhood (the power of 4chan is staggering), nerdship, and, above all, overexposure. “Never Gonna Give You Up” is not a fabulous song by any means, but humans have proven that they can do much worse. The anger that comes out of a Rickroll is not because we aren’t fans of E Major when sung by young British gentlemen in beige raincoats — it’s because we are so remarkably sick of hearing the song. The first 15 seconds of that song have become Informational Noise, not music.
Since my last Rickroll coincided with my determination to become a baller DJ, I used Mr. Astley’s song to practice some skills and recycle some art. The piece addresses all my ideas about overexposure, annoyance, noise, blah, blah, blah. It is in three movements. The second is a ball of sound created by a randomization of every word in the whole song while the third is basically how I feel about cultural memes in general.