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No Country for Old Men (Coen, 2007)

June 5, 2012 2 comments

No Country for Old Men is a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. It was impossible to foresee such a remarkable fusion of genius between the Coen’s and McCarthy. Both harness a proud idiomatic style, but down to the weird rhythms and pregnant pauses the two form one of the great literary/cinematic matches in recent memory. Perhaps long-term memory. The Coen’s precise ambiguities blend perfectly with McCarthy’s ability to fill one conversation between two strangers with the wisdom of the world. Especially in Tommy Lee Jones’s monologues, we hear a type of earnest realism — somehow simultaneously so contrived and so faithful to our imaginations.

The denizens of No Country are not interested in us. They don’t want to be our friends. Anton Chigurh is at once an animal and a god. He is on a mission seemingly more powerful than even he. And the mission is a spiritual one. There is a scene inside of a gas station that, not unexpectedly, pits old against young. The elderly clerk cannot come close to understanding Chigurh’s deranged existentialism. Like many of the other scenes in the film, this one seems to hold the mysteries of the film — presenting an incomprehensible and unstoppable force with simultaneous belief and disbelief in mysticism. “It will become just another coin… which it is.”

We are trapped into accepting Llewelyn Moss as our hero. We meet him looking through his own scope and endure a regular cycle of point-of-view shots until his death. Indeed, this is what makes his death so unbelievable. So frustrating, even. Some have complained about the offscreen death of our hero but we are never  meant to see him die. We are led through a gripping, near-silent chase for 60 minutes — always aware of the sheriff lagging behind. Just as he is allowed to engage in the chase, we assume his point of view. One step behind the rest. Like the sheriff, Llewelyn is a man who understands the operations and mysteries of the land but cannot comprehend the ghosts. This is what makes them old.

One character calls it “The Dismal Tide” of youth coming in. We are meant to think of Chigurh and his final scene. He is a ghost, capable of enduring all. However, it is right to call it a “Tide.” For the tides come in and go out regardless of our small plans. Youth force out the old regardless of theirs. But it isn’t even that simple. Not only can the old not comprehend the young — they were once the young themselves.

The Coen’s have presented a complicated perspective on their interpretation of the film’s style. Thus, a flurry of nonsense has been written about No Country. However, it is impossible to deny the influences of silent Westerns, Sam Peckinpah, and Hitch. Hitch would have been proud of the Coen’s and their astonishing mastery of editing to serve suspense. There are long chase sequences. Twenty to thirty minutes of minimal dialogue. But you never look away. The cuts are so specific. They are more than motivated. They’re somehow essential. The impressive thing here is not the silence, it’s the fact that you’ll never notice if you’re not listening. When characters do talk, their dialogue seems to drop away just when we least expect and least desire but always at the perfect time. Visually, it is impossible to deny Peckinpah’s eye on the West. Horizon’s are mostly in the middle of the frame, unlike Ford and Mann. Things are arid and empty. No Country harnesses the old idea of the West that has been lost on my generation — the existence of a place populated by another side of the human spirit; castaways, ghosts, gods, and prostitutes. The landscape isn’t one that crushes or waits. It’s merely the place where the coin is flipped and fate is decided.

What ultimately lends No Country with enduring greatness is its overarching simplicity. The Coen’s are always looking back and revisiting formal structures. Consider how the plot breaks down — Good Guy finds Money. Bad Guy hunts Good Guy. The states are clear and so are the roles. These characters might be archetypes, but they inhabit a separate realm. Only something so simple can harvest the contradictions of humanity. Only in creating these timeless, ghostly creatures can we see so deep into ourselves. The film is a triumph of the highest order.

93.8

Mad Men, 5.12 “Commissions and Fees”

June 4, 2012 7 comments

“Commissions and Fees,” the penultimate episode of a deceptively placid season, begins with Don in a barber’s chair. Another ad man (mad man?) walks in and congratulates him on winning the Jaguar account. He says, “that’s a big win for your little agency.” These little characters hardly know that their small talk quickly becomes the focus of the show. In this episode, we see Don get hungry, Lane run out of steam, and Sally cross the avenue.

In a season that suggests we all have a price printed on our forehead, it’s impossible to exclude the bookkeeper. A few weeks back, Lane embezzled funds from SCDP in order to pay backed taxes to Her majesty. The entire season hasn’t been kind to him. He is clearly unstable romantically, making passes at Joan and having a bizarre interaction with the woman on the photograph. After last week’s charade, there has been some backlash in the critical community about characters acting out of character — most of it centered around the disbelief that everyone has a price (or at least having a price so quickly). It is interesting, then, to be given Lane, a man who is less concerned with money than with honor.

After Don discovers the embezzlement, he offers to let Lane write his own resignation. Some have construed Don’s response as uncharacteristically principled. Really, the offer is incredibly kind. The company bookkeeper embezzled money from his own books and forged a partner’s signature. He had to be fired. He couldn’t be trusted. There is no way that Don could have known where the events would lead. Don has found finesse in starting over — it’s an art. To Lane, it’s unthinkable. It’s shame. He could care less about the money. It’s about honor.As a result, Lane commits a type of harakiri. Hanging himself from a rope in the middle of the night. In a cruel cruel joke, this all happens after failing to commit suicide in his new Jaguar. I was questioning the process until the heartbreaking moment when Lane snaps his glasses in half. That was proof enough that he was really ready to go. He knew that he just didn’t need them anymore and that he hated them his whole life.

Some may be disturbed by the scene where he is discovered, but it was treated with ease and concern for character. Pete, Ken, and Harry’s reactions are all revealing — not to mention Don, who frantically helps to cut him down, hugging his body to hold him up while Pete cuts the rope.

Lane’s suicide neatly (and more than a little strangely) coiled around to meet the beginning of another cycle. Sally has been walking the line of womanhood all season long. We are given the climax of that character’s arc in “Commissions and Fees”. Yet again, she is entranced by the romantic glow of adulthood while out with Megan. Did she not learn anything at the Codfish Ball? (That said, there was a beautiful moment when Sally orders coffee so as to appear grown up — dumping a long stream of sugar into it.) She reacts by enticing our real favorite Weiner, Glen Bishop (played by Matt Weiner’s son), to meet her for a day on the town.

Wearing the boots and makeup that her father denied before the Ball, she takes Glen to the natural history museum. As they stand looking at diorama’s, all of families of animals, we are reminded that they both come from broken homes. It’s not unexpected, then, that they softly share their problems, sort of. Glen speaks about being bullied and reveals how he lied about “doing it” with Sally. Sally doesn’t care, of course. All of these words are still dreams to her — vague images that will transform her into Megan. Alas, and very conveniently for Weiner&co, Sally runs away to the bathroom, discovering that she had gotten her first period. She runs away to her mom, which was an incredibly earnest end to that story as well as Betty’s. Betty has had a truncated role this season, but there is clear anxiety over her role in Sally’s life, competing with Megan’s trappings. Their unity over a simple matter of biological necessity seems right. They are brought together by the natural force that allows motherhood. We all understand the relevance of mothers in this show and last night’s “Sally Plot” was particularly well-crafted to subtly (as subtle as Mad Men can be) touch on some less-articulated motifs.

Finally, we come back to Don who, after going to the barber, is so hungry for business. Complacency is his worst enemy and he cannot understand the concept of settling. It can’t be unusual for us to see his impulsivity. “What is happiness? It’s the moment before you need more happiness.” Well said, Don. I think you just found your own mantra.

His obsession for freshness and passion is balanced by the final image of the show — allowing Glen to drive himself back to school and appreciate the simplest moments of happiness. While Mad Men has, to some, become too “obvious” or “packaged” this season, this final scene resonates as the kind of oblique, but earnest storytelling that made the show popular. The episode dealt with death, life cycles, happiness, and need. The writers seem to be reminding us that the moments of true happiness are simple joys rooted in the freshness of childhood. In that way, are they also affirming Don’s impulsivity? He asks Glen, “if you could do anything right now, what would it be?” Either way, they are allowed to be in a moment where happiness isn’t a moment before you need more — it’s a moment where you can forget.

  • I predicted that we would not see Peggy this week. Will we see her next week or will they make us hang on for our dear lives?
  • “Do you want something to eat?” “If you don’t mind”
  • “You’ll tell them the next thing will be better. Because it always is.”
  • The green car recalls Joan’s robe and some other potent uses of green this season.
  • Don couldn’t stop looking at Lane’s corpse. This is not the first person close to Don who has hung himself. Recall Adam.

The Informant! (Soderbergh, 2009)

May 26, 2012 Leave a comment

In a year of trilingual Basterds and three-dimensional Avatars, it’s easy to miss The Informant! The film stars a bloated Matt Damon, portraying a the real-life price fixing scandal within ADM, a business that manages the sale and distribution of corn product. The subject is nothing short of vital. This type of business dealing has put a dent in our culture over the last decade. Instead of serving up an earnest dish of ironic criticism, Soderbergh throws a pie in our face. He reveals the best comedy of 2009.

Soderbergh reminds me of King Vidor in more ways than one. His visual style isn’t intrusive, but there is a steady tendency toward the unexpected in the editing room. He relishes in the most misshapen moments, even if they blow by. Most importantly, Soderbergh seems to engage in the same “one for me, one for them,” philosophy that governed Vidor’s production schedule. Of course, in these days it’s much easier to badger folks for money, but Soderbergh does have a tight list of trusting supporters that aren’t likely to keep the pen in their pocket. His visual style bends toward popularity at the same time as being distinctive. His edits have a unique rhythm — offbeat but comprising some sort of pattern that deserves surrender. People aren’t slaves inside of their environments, but they are less knowing than we are. Soderbergh loves that type of man — the one that seems in control when they rarely are.

Damon plays Whitacre with dizzy aptitude. We are only exposed to his process one layer at a time. Indeed, The Informant! is a film that deserves multiple viewings if I’ve ever seen one. Damon is convincing and oblivious at the same time. His capability for perpetual lying is made shameful but not without some understanding. From the beginning of the film, the audience is allowed inside of his head. We hear his streaming ribbon of thought as some kind of bored voice-over. Whitacre continues to interject throughout the film, often distracting us from critical business moments that we’re not supposed to catch. It’s outrageous and absolutely hilarious in each manifestation. The entire layout of this character banks on amusement and gravity. This doesn’t even consider the awake, opportunist score from EGOT recipient Marvin Hamlisch. Soderbergh commits, even when he is uneasy or staggered, to a nuanced approach. Especially here, where he could have accepted any number of straight-faced interpretations of a contemporary tragic hero, the audience is given an amusing sequence of events that, in the end, forces us to reflect on corporate business with more concern and immediacy than any dramatic production. The Informant! passes along a rare type of comedic narration that, in small bites, has worked like a charm for any nominal summer blockbuster. However, when a film carries that naiveté through to the end, everyone becomes frightened and critical.

This film deserved far more praise than it ever received. On subsequent viewings, it holds up as the most original and vital comedy of 2009.

[Review] The Help (Taylor, 2011)

April 24, 2012 1 comment

The Help has proved critically divisive and rightfully so. When it gets it right, it’s marvelous. When it gets it wrong, it’s shameful. Still, a magnificent group of actresses render this film as sweet as chocolate pie — made not by Octavia Spencer.

The first decisive critical split comes in the characters. Just like so many nostalgic period works we see, writers forget to develop characters – only archetypes. These women are divided into two groups, White Racist Hussies and Color-Free Saintly Perfections. There is Black, there is White, but there is no Gray in The Help. Morality is so sadly made into an on/off switch any three-year old can figure out. In dealing with an issue still so pungent as American racism, Tate Taylor (writer-director) should know that things are much more complex than are presented here. However, so much praise is due to Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis. Their individual performances easily stand alone, but in tandem they create a tangible energy and ambition. Moments they share provide some hope for contemporary cinema. Emma Stone is also great. I hesitate in evaluating her because she hesitates in her own role. She is so well-crafted for modernity and self-referential comedy. Visibly, she was working hard to adapt to the period style. It paid off. The rest of the company does as well as possible in their stereotyped restrictions with special applause for Jessica Chastain as Celia. It’s a long way from The Tree of Life, but here she brings to life The Help‘s most vivid and realized character.

The photography is fine. The colors look like a children’s book and some of the bright hues do breathe life into an otherwise deadened 60′s suburbia. Sound, design, make-up, and costumes all do well enough jobs that I don’t feel like complaining and I can’t find a reason to commend. Not so in the editing room. The picture is long. Towards the end, it isn’t bothersome at all. However, the opening of the film could have lost five to ten minutes of footage as introductions drag on and on. Sure enough, rewatching the first half-hour uncovers one unnecessary scene and two that are egregiously long. Also, the final confrontation between Aibileen and Hilly seems an appendix. It does nothing for the film but offer one a chance to shout at the other. As if Taylor were trying to tie up the film with a nice bow regardless of the fact that Aibileen had just lost her job. Here again, THE HELP ends on a strangely certain note. Civil Rights was only a dream in 1964; the movement only beginning to gain speed. If there was a happy ending for Aibileen, it wasn’t at the denouement of The Help.

Disregarding the archetypes, the bad coda, and some numbness, The Help did beautifully conjure age-old imagery of White kids being raised by Black women. It’s one that so many of our parents remember. Was that a way to improve race relations? Were those awful days polishing silver the seeds of a great improvement? The Help might mean many things here. It might mean Skeeter writing a revolutionary book. It might mean Hilly “helping” herself to a nice slice of pie. It might mean Aibileen raising children while hers is at home. The point is that help needs to come from everywhere “and it needs to start with the truth,” as they say.

Black ladies will raise the kids. Black ladies write the books. Black ladies clean the kitchens. Black ladies write the newspaper columns.

But the most unfortunate flaw in the film is that a White lady saves the Black ladies. Perpetuating the thankless circumstances that need to end.

74.5

[99 Problems] Carmen, Rear Window, Bed

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Originally published 2 June 2010. Hitchcock may be the only filmmaker who receives the same level of unabashed praise from me today as he did years ago.

I have seen and heard Carmen so many times that I could probably dictate most of the first couple acts from memory. Before I even had a clue what the opera was about, I first came in contact with some of the music from it by way of none other than Weird Al Yankovic. This song was put on a CD for me called the Z-Man-ZurZur-Fun-Mix in the fifth grade, long before I had any idea what beer was, tasted like, or how terrible Weird Al could be. That just shows how ridiculously popular Bizet’s music has become. I would be willing to bet that some children could recognize the Toreador song just as fast as Frere Jaques. With all the dancing around I probably did to “The Beer Song,” I had no idea how much I was going to fall in love with opera and how big a part Carmen was going to play in that.

When my family first got a DVR for the TV, one of the first things I recorded was a hyper-updated pseudo-futuristic version of Carmen with Barenboim conducting. It’s Euro-trashy, but the singing is unstoppable and the chorus is better than 90% of the CD’s you can find (and a good chorus is vital, here). Since then, I have watched that movie at least 30 times, Carmen being one of the 5 most abused scores in my library.

One of the most unique things about Bizet’s writing is his capacity for separation. He ever succumbs to melodrama and only gives the music that is necessary. By doing so, he invites the audience to relate to the characters directly, not necessarily through their music. This gives the piece a voyeuristic tone that many operas don’t carry, even when making the audience feel like a bunch of peeping-tom’s is often the point. Through the proscenium window, the observers come to understand Don Jose through the infatuation that Escamillo also experiences. His passion accelerates alongside his scenes with Carmen, moving with the arch of Rear Window, a steady but forceful incline from attraction to obsession to jealousy to murder. Carmen, however, remains enigmatic – most of her arias dealing out a varying degree of indifference to love or fate. Her motives in acting are never clear outside of the fact that she has clear attachment issues. This is evidence of her fear of commitment. Her mad acceptance of her fate is both puzzling and the only appropriate reaction for her character. Carmen must have had some crappy parents or no parents at all, judging from her insensitivity to Jose’s mother issues. (*aside: The Callas recording has some terrible terrible choruses but her performance proves that she should have spent way more time sifting through mezzo repertoire. Skip to 5:20 in that track for an inspiring few minutes. She is meditating on her impending death by way of Jose, revealed to her through tarot cards. If you watch this performed, Carmen should have eyes full of passion and pain at every “la mort.”)

On top of the voyeurism, Carmen plays with the thirst for fantasy – particularly sexual fantasy. Sexual desire is the tool with which Carmen controls Jose and all of her other victims. Both roles are constructed on common fantastical scenes. Jose is the submissive, sacrificial ball of Play-Doh until he gives in to ruthless jealousy. Carmen is the prototype mysterious, voluptuous (hopefully), and alluring woman – violent in her seduction. One of the most potent uses of subconscious suggestion in all non-Wagnerian opera is the finale. The fate of the characters is secured with a triumphal chorus (like a good opera comique should) in the background, but with painful, writhing string chords underneath. The triumphal chorus is none other than the Toreador song, the song of the reasonably harmless man who ran Jose’s reason into the ground.

Rauschenberg was a charming American artist. He had a refreshing fervor for pop culture, but rejected the angst and seriousness of abstract expressionism. He won fame in the fifties by creating “Combines,” his signature. They commented on society by using the very things that created the society – Presidential pictures, shoes, tennis balls, or other familiar objects. His ideas sat on a ledge that didn’t quite tip into “pop art,” to which he is considered a leading precursor. He always said that he wanted to “act between art and life.” So he did.

In the similar manner of Duchamp (who we will look at one of these days ahead), Rauschenberg made serious questions of what art really means. This video is great and reveals the wit, humility, and simple intelligence of the artist. His work pulled out of the basket today is “Bed” from the early 1950′s.

“Bed” thrives on energy and sexuality. Even violent sexuality. Rauschenberg clearly invites the observer into his personal space with this piece. It is said that the sheets, pillow, and quilt were all his own and used. He scatters paint, toothpaste, glue, and other personal artifacts across the place where man normally meets bed. The angles which we are encouraged to observe the piece have a voyeuristic feel. We look at it in many dimensions – at, into, onto, around. The artist asks us to seek answers to questions only the paint can satisfy.

Rauschenberg’s art is simultaneously personal and repulsing. Pictures like “Retroactive I” seem abstract and grotesque from a distance. Closer, though, they begin to formulate a dialogue. It is a Joycean stream of consciousness – a conversation where one segment flows softly (or not) into another. “Retroactive I” has more scenes than all of Rear Window and remains equally American in flavor.

Franz Waxman composed the music to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The score is bustling, jazzy, and full of metropolitan Bernsteinyness (who was busy writing for On The Waterfront at the time, a movie Grace Kelly turned down for the role of Lisa Fremont). Waxman allows for a cute little transition, since he wrote a famously difficult fantasy on themes from Carmen, still his most famous work.

I don’t have the guts or the intention to write a bad review of Hitchcock, but is there seriously not a bad shot in this entire film? There is virtually one scene in the entire 2 hours. Only he could pull that off. Until the end, we remain claustrophobic and voyeuristic with Jeffries. The very beginning states the theme of the movie, with blinds opening up to show a courtyard full of windows, activity, and private lives. The rear window of Jeffries’ room becomes a sort of movie screen, a proscenium through which we observe a false world. Hitchcock accomplishes this by using the same consistent shot, a pan of the courtyard followed by a swinging behind Jeffries to place us claustrophobic and in the room with him. The nurse says, “We’ve become a race of Peeping-Tom’s. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.” Still just as true, if not more, today. The obsession that Jeffries (another masterful collaboration with Stewart) experiences is a revelation that with enough time, we can discover the secrets and unflattering qualities of anyone. The only one in the film with no unflattering qualities seems to be Lisa (Grace Kelly, yum). Hitchcock makes full use of female beauty. Her character might be the only perfect human in any conceivable universe.

Jeffries uses his career as a migratory photographer to justify his fear of commitment, being unrealistically rude to Lisa until she finally enters the picture of his rear window by investigating the crime that drives the plot. With that, she enters his fantasy as well and their relationship remains solid. The human fixation on private affairs is also developed in the obsession that Jeffries’ guests eventually feel towards the crime. Hitchcock again masters suspense by utilizing a propulsive scheme, a steady upward roller-coaster track with a shocking rush downwards, no bumps in the middle.

Common throughout is Waxman’s score, evoking a city life and suggesting that all of our lives are public in a way. Especially with the advent of extreme social networking, privacy has become extinct. The voyeurism of Jeffries is reflected in all of us as we use screens to constantly look into the lives of others. But – like the neighbors across the way – many of us still don’t know how to close our blinds.

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