27 August 2011

Bellflower (2011)

From, "As important as the operatic assault at the movie’s end are the scenes of Woodrow scouring the fields in slo-mo with his flamethrower—it cannot be an accident that he is compensating for emasculation with a fiery phallus. That said, Glodell’s awareness about the thoughts of Woodrow doesn’t change the fact that the actions of Milly make no sense. Great art has to contain the perspectives of multiple people, even when one person’s emotions are a raw wound. Bellflower is the work of a director bravely admitting that he doesn’t understand how to relate to women. It would be a better movie if he understood women."


I think Mesh confuses his perception of the imperfections of the characters with his perception of the imperfections of the narrative, and I don't think he took the time to separate the intentional from the unintentional, nor did he grant the film the potential complexity of these qualities being intertwined. The movie's characters are flawed, all of them, and none are explained. The film's goal isn't explanation.

I think the moment you make a rule for art is when you begin to misrepresent it and shape it in your image. In this case, if the movie understood women, it would literally be a different movie. By withholding permission for the characters (and creator) to not understand women, Mesh is wanting to correct the characters, to shape them into other, perhaps better, perhaps stronger, but other, different characters.

The reason this bothers me is it perpetuates the creation of art that untruly reflects reality. It's like if you had a city with dirty streets and you made a film in which all the streets were clean - when you went outside, the city streets would, of course, still be dirty. Only the window was clean. I simply don't think you should demand that artists say the streets are clean in all places when they are not. Plus, maybe no one else will ever make a film about the city, the only record of it will be a false one, and no one will ever be able to know what the streets were really like.

I concede that Bellflower's ending disappointed me (and that I almost walked out during it), but, then, it may have been appropriate for its characters, and, by the way, I wouldn't want to be the people in the movie. I could relate to them because I knew guys like that growing up, and I would hang out with them sometimes, but usually feeling remote, and they'd probably hurt my feelings and I'd go home and write Young Adult Poetry (while they made flamethrowers and had sex with women who were probably impressed by the manliness exhibited by making fun of me - it's a culture I escaped from). I have different limitations and fixations, that's all, not better or worse, and I will always defend an imperfect movie when its imperfections further develop its imperfect characters, because for me the pairing continues to make a lot of fucking sense.

26 August 2011

Teen Wolf ('85) and some Standing Ovation

Teen Wolf begins with a great sequence: Scott Howard (Michael J. Fox) approaches the free throw line. His team, the Beavers, are being crushed by rival team the Dragons. I can't remember if he makes his shot, probably not, but what I remember is the sweat on his face and the intensity of the moment. Heart beats may have been emphasized on the soundtrack as well, but if not then, definitely later in the film. Coach Bobby Finstock (Jay Tarses) wants to forfeit the game, but the Dragons' coach doesn't allow it, since this game will increase his players' league stats. The Beavers get womped! Seriously, they lose so bad, and Scott even misses his buzzer-beating final shot.

This is a movie that gets going right away: during the first sequence you know Scott will become a werewolf. Because the titles begin the movie, but also because he growls at archenemy Mick McAllister (Mark Arnold). You're like, whoa. It surprised me to learn that director Rod Daniel came from television! Teen Wolf's cinematic touches made this film way more enjoyable than, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Rod Daniel knew how to have fun. Stephanie and I were cracking up during his movie, and I think maybe high-fived a couple times, and once, I swear, she said, while watching Teen Wolf, "This is why I love movies," or something like that, maybe "The only movie I'll ever love from here on is Teen Wolf. Oh Teen Wolf, you have won my heart and it is yours forever." I can't remember the exact phrasing.

When Scott's eyes turn red and he speaks in his wolf voice to demand a keg of beer, the movie entered my heart. It's such a silly, perfect scene. I believe the keg scene is directly followed by Rupert 'Stiles' Stilinski (Jerry Levine) surfing on top of the moving van. At that point I was really getting excited and was having thoughts like "Don't make 'em like this anymore," which is a thought that made me think I need more movies like Teen Wolf in my life - maybe they still make them like this, where are they, please let me know.

I watched Standing Ovation recently, and that was a lot of fun. I don't think it's the same thing, however, because when I recommended it to a friend he texted me, "And why am I watching standing ovation? Im 7 minutes into it and am more confused than ever why you thought of me. Im gonna try to sit with it." I'll have to recommend Teen Wolf; I really don't think this person could say the same thing about Teen Wolf. But maybe, there's just no accounting for taste.

One thing I was confused about was Teen Wolf's message. In the movie Scott decides to be his human self and not showboat his werewolf side, so I guess the movie is saying he should like himself for who he is and not for who people want him to be, but he is actually a werewolf. In the movie he's actually a werewolf. So why shouldn't he be a werewolf all the time? Doesn't that mean the message is really that we should accept mediocrity and never reach for higher aspirations because doing so may affect the status quo and possibly shatter our complacency? There's also something about how becoming a werewolf gives Scott confidence but he learns by the end of the movie that he doesn't need to transmogrify in order to have confidence. And he ends up with his friend Lisa 'Boof' Marconi (Susan Ursitti), the girl who liked him all along and liked him for him, not for werewolf-him. That still seems like the message is things are fine the way they are and we don't need to ask for more or want alterations in a life that's livable as it is.

That's stupid. Personally, this movie made me want to be a werewolf. I think that's a perfectly fine message to send to kids, and I don't understand why the movie wanted to complicate things in the end. Other evidence of normalcy brainwashing: when Stiles (pretty much the coolest guy in the movie because people seem to really like having him around and he brings genuine joy with him, and he wears sunglasses in a lot of scenes) gets back a D- test grade and he shows it to someone with a bit of pride, presumably because it's not an F. I guess the movie had to cut into him like that and imply that he's a person of limited intellectual depth, because it supports the subplot about his opportunism, but also because it reinforces the central motif about normalcy being the best option. It's like, he can't wear the brightest and best shirts and be a smart guy, no way, this movie wouldn't allow it. This sensibility flatters the Normal Kid who sees Teen Wolf in the mall or wherever, and Normal Kid leaves the theater thinking he's perfectly cool the way he is. Teen Wolf is like, yep, just be Normal Kid, you're fine, get out of here (buy some soda on the way out). I just think the better message is about not being afraid of change and exploration of your internal and external possibilities.

Sure they win their final basketball game due to inner powers, but that's not realistic, that doesn't usually happen, and if it does it's an unusual circumstance and becomes some Yahoo News headline. They didn't even have to work to become better at basketball. There were no practice montages, and I don't think Chubby (Mark Holton) ever went on his diet, not really. That tells kids miracles occur, it goes full-throttle on a stupid movie miracle, so why not on a great movie miracle like lycanthropy. Have werewolf Scott eat a kid's head, who gives a fuck?

Of course, you can forgive the film for this conservatism because of its great scenes, like the wolf dance during prom.

You can also forgive the film for having actors in their mid-20s play high schoolers, no suspension of disbelief required: they're all in their 20s; they've stuck to high school because they don't believe there's reason to move on or go forward, life has nothing special to offer them. Their lives are frozen. Then, Scott turns into a werewolf, and they all begin to believe, and you know they're on the cusp of graduation into adulthood and an acceptance of unlimited possibilities. See, that makes the movie even more magical. And if you want to see Michael J. Fox nearer the correct age and in high school, there's always Class of 1984.

25 August 2011

Kes vs. Terri

I woke up in today's early morning hours with a thought on my mind: it seems fair to compare and contrast Ken Loach's Kes with Azazel Jacobs's Terri. I terribly wanted to return to my sleep and consider the matter again at a later time, but I could not fall asleep again and remained restless. Similarities and dissimilarities kept popping into my mind, and the cinematic kinship seemed so urgent and important that I felt a little rush of excitement in even considering it, which was counterproductive to falling back asleep. I also could not pinpoint, to my satisfaction, the fundamental distinction.

Sorry, but I still don't have the answer.

Part of me thinks that Kes is a more authentic film because of its relaxed dramatic structure and use of more non- and semi-professional actors, but another part of me thinks I can't make this claim without having lived and breathed in its time and place, and also because the film has a lyrical and sometimes literary quality that prohibits it from being completely naturalistic. It's based on a book; adapted by the author, Barry Hines, with credited contributions by director Ken Loach and key collaborator and producer Tony Garnett.

In these two films filmic technique and thematic intention are intertwined - each necessary for the other's full shape. It doesn't seem fair, despite the use of more professional actors, to accuse Terri of being more artificial. Both films are composed of dramatic sequences, and though the sequences are breathing, and wish to capture the feeling of reality and being, the fact is that deliberate dramatic tools are used to achieve this, and I don't think in one film more than the other. Both films temper their dramatic forces with sprinkles of characters who and moments that represent oppositional or clarifying elaborations - part of a structural design that takes additional steps to avoid on-the-nose-ness. I won't give away specifics, but, to address crucial final moments, it's true that both films depict tribulations of powerful emotional importance that are achieved by film-long buildups to catastrophic moments.

Some characteristics that I considered are difficult to give relative values. I like that Kes is bereft of a sentimental love subplot, but I like that Terri includes a troubled, complicated love subplot. In my opinion, Billy Casper (David Bradley) from Kes is simply a more lively and interesting kid, his environment has more beauty, and training hawks is more captivating than killing rodents. But then, that's to say that Kes is really a film about sometimes escaping and always wanting to escape harsh conditions, and Terri is a film that meshes misery and hope. The components of Terri that are awful or boring or ugly are part of the film's chemistry, and to remove them would be to falsify, ruin. In Kes there is terribleness too, but the strength of Billy's spirit is so radiant, so like pure and gorgeous, that it's him we remember most of all. Does that mean Terri is the more honest film then, or does it mean that Kes is the better film, or does it mean something else or nothing at all?

13 August 2011


Lately, more and more, I've been wanting to talk about movies that I like. I think it's because, although you can come up to me and we can chat about Cowboys & Aliens, the truth is that a little part of me dies when this happens, that's just the truth. Not because of what Cowboys & Aliens is, because I think all types of films should be made and co-exist, but because of who I am, and because in order to appreciate the things that other people like I sometimes have to silence the voice that is mine. Heartbeats is a film I saw during PIFF, and about it I wrote, "No one could decide if The Woods was more self-indulgent than Heartbeats, but Heartbeats won me sometimes with its sincerity, because sincere self-indulgence is still sincerity," and I gave it one and a half stars.

Most cinephiles can probably relate when I say that you can tell when you were right or wrong about a movie, months after you made your judgment, based on whether you'd watch the film again or not. And the fact is that right now I would watch Heartbeats again. Preferably with someone who might like the movie (during PIFF I saw it with a person who hated it so much that he felt completely justified in checking his wristwatch - which required a light button to view - multiple times during the screening, including one 'double-take').

I've seen those around me make fools of themselves in holy, blind tribute to the art they love, and if twenty-two year old Xavier Dolan wants to make a film that makes a fool of himself in order to pay holy, blind tribute to the art and beauty that he cherishes, I see no problem, and I encourage all 22 year olds to be exactly this way, and not to care about what mean spirited or envious people say, or even what loving and nurturing people say, like Cannes, or Sundance, or whomever, and to love to the fullest the things you love, right or wrong.

Which is what Heartbeats does:

It's on streaming. I wish it was on blu-ray. Also, I would not want to rewatch The Woods. So that settles that.

10 August 2011

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Redux)

It's an accident that my second attempt at writing about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is so near the one year anniversary of its theatrical release (my first, dated 8/14/10). Last night I watched Scott Pilgrim, which I don't like very much, for the fourth time (w/trivia track), which must mean that I like this movie very much. It's a compliment when I say that in my opinion Edgar Wright's films are the easiest popcorn films to watch - I've seen all of them multiple times and have written about Shaun of the Dead multiple times as well.

"You broke the heart that broke mine. Now get ready to Chau down." - Knives Chau (Ellen Wong)

But still I struggle over what it is exactly that I get out of them. They're infectious, they're fun, perhaps the acme of modern escapist fantasies, but they haven't stimulated me on deeper levels. His films haven't rattled my insides, and I can't find a reason why they should. For me it's telling that reshoots were required for Scott Pilgrim's ending and that focus groups and O'Malley's final volume were necessary for Wright to find the film's emotional denouement. Here is a filmmaker who, largely through self exhibition, is well-known to be meticulous, but it may be that he holds his microscope to dramatic and filmic design, and struggles to give his characters more than a filmic depth.

(Michael Cera) Scott's fight sequences are best considered from a symbolic pov, as allegorical treatments of what would be emotional confrontations in real life. He's not The Bride, and he's not really killing; he conquers the idea of evil exes. The duels to death, as called by Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) through e-mail, involve no real deaths, but page-turning moments of maturity. Edgar Wright says he "tried to make it so that [Scott's] emotional story is consistent throughout [the film] and even the way he fights the exes is, in some ways, a reflection of his emotions." Most viewers probably make this switch without putting it into words. If the battles are taken as literal, Scott is a murderer, kind of, or whatever people who turn other people into coins are called.

Either way I don't understand why Scott Pilgrim reserves judgment for boy on girl violence, and I continue to see the implication as being that some forms of violence are acceptable. Wright has said that when Scott "gets to ex number four [Roxy Richter] he doesn’t really even want to play anymore and tries to opt out of fighting because he’s just had it," and it's true that Scott and Ramona are in conflict when this fight occurs. What we hear from Scott is "I don't think I can hit a girl. They're soft," and Ramona's response, "You don't have a choice." Other instances of boy on girl violence are given specifically negative contexts (all except the [accidental] boob punch), and are singled out from other violent acts committed in the film. The first time is when Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh) punches the highlights out of Chau's hair, and it's meant to be an example of how Todd is a rockstar asshole. The last time comes after Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) utters "let's both be girls" before kneeing Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman) in the balls. Gideon backhands (double checked in slow-mo) Ramona, and as he does a BAD!! graphic flashes on screen, and as he kicks her down the pyramid's stairs more BAD!! graphics flash on screen.

If the film wanted to express an ethical point it might have considered violence charged personalities from a more objective pov, but instead it makes the easy, obvious comment that girls should not be hit by boys, and chooses not to explore the complexity of the problem of boys hitting boys, or violence in general. The film behaves like Scott Pilgrim. All instances of this moral judgment, against boy on girl violence, which contradict the phantasmagorical circumstances, are clouded by narrative material - Scott is tired, Todd is an asshole, Gideon shows his teeth - but the fact is that not a single instance of boy on boy violence is given this type of treatment.

Scott Pilgrim's double standard on violence has also always bothered me, it's present there in my first response to the film. It's lame that the film would draw one line and not other, harder to draw lines; it's lame that Scott would. To me it indicates that the film's focus is not on philosophical or fundamental inquiries, and only considers essential questions from its narrative and temporal pov. Scott's pov, during the early 2000s or whenever the film is set. And Scott is a purposefully imperfect character, he's: immature, selfish, insouciant, and nearsighted. At least. A damaged protagonist can be more interesting than Edgar's Scott Pilgrim (I've never read the comic books, I should mention). Scott is a dull, limited lead for a movie. Worse, Edgar hopes both to give Scott flaws and to forgive them, which ideology I don't traffic in, because it seems contradictory to the point of having flawed characters.

The fear of female sexuality by males is very real. Though I think the film fails to offer rich expressions of intimacy between Scott and Ramona. Why she loves him is a complete fucking mystery to me. It's not that I doubt that a person could fall in love for no good reason, it's simply that I think the good reasons, and bad reasons, are way more interesting to explore than no reason. In the interview I keep quoting, Edgar laughs about this, laughs, saying "man, I’ve told girls I’ve loved them without knowing anything about them (laughs)." Okay, he's told a girl he's in love too early, but does he know the difference between telling a girl you love her and really loving a girl? I can't tell by the film.

This may be why Edgar didn't know how to end the film - he didn't know why anyone cared about anyone else, and he wasn't sure how seriously to treat their feelings. Emotional satisfaction is like sexual satisfaction in the Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman) battle, a matter of opportunity. Edgar may have been unsure of their final moment because he hadn't asked himself vital questions about his characters.

Scott's confrontation with the lesbian character Roxy is handled by Ramona herself fighting (battle hammer vs. razor belt), then puppet fighting for Scott. How she is defeated, though, is by Scott touching her erogenous hotspot, a place below one of her knees. She explodes in an orgasm, or something. What bothers me is the fact that this transgresses the simplest principle of lesbian intimacy, namely that a woman is stimulated by other women and not men. It makes sexual pleasure a matter of purely physical logic, activated by anyone given the knowledge and opportunity, and not a matter of more meaningful emotional intimacies and loyalties. I call bullshit. I too have an erogenous hotspot, located between my legs, but I don't explode in orgasms when anyone touches it. I explode when the right person touches it. That's because my penis is romantic (as love should be, please?).

The final fight, between Scott and others vs Gideon, is a process that is exactly the same as all the others + w/more people. If Scott had really gained the sword of self respect he might have immediately put the sword on the ground and realized his fights against other people were misguided and the real fight existed in an interior realm. I think one fight is with ourselves, one fight is authentically personal; and either Scott was wrong about the final fight with Gideon, or he was wrong about all the previous ones. Scott shouldn't have to destroy the hipsters or Gideon in these battles. When the real battle arrives, the one with Nega Scott, a joke about french toast is made (foreshadowed when Knives and Scott play Ninja Ninja Revolution and Nega Ninja appears: "I can never get past that guy," Scott says, to which Knives replies "Don't beat yourself up about it." I see this as more implicational evidence that Scott views everyone else as the problem).

It's knights and damsels programming, ("about him trying to win the heart of this fair maiden"), the same cultural wiring as always. The film's reluctance to probe violence from a fundamental level is for me symptomatic of a larger problem of emphasis on the superficial. All the worse that the violence is PG-13 neutered by a lack of bloodshed and profuse videogame flourishes. It's violence for kids, and it's glorified. All the worse that it echoes the most dramatically pleasing aspects of violence, without considering the reasons behind violence's dramatic dominance.

Edgar's Shampoo joke holds no water for me. It may be that Universal wouldn't have allowed the downbeat ending, in which Scott ends up with neither girl, but this undermines the gravity of Scott's flaws and his need to face them. It makes the dirtiest Hollywood lie there is: that the process of personal growth fits neatly into some manufactured narrative. I hate the way Edgar emphasizes how the film's end is a question mark, "a symbol to the audience that you gotta figure the rest of it all out," because he really means it's a question of who Scott will be with. That's the major riddle. Will Scott become an evil ex? To me that's an ambivalence that sidesteps harder questions about Scott's hubris.

The "hidden" elements in Scott Pilgrim, many of which I know better thanks to the trivia track, are unimpressive and reveal little more about the characters. Most things are simply complimentary on an aesthetic level; for example the inclusion of numerical clues to the exes (practical ones around ex number one, twos around ex number two, etc.), and heart shaped lights for Scott in relation to Ramona, and ex shaped lights and objects in relation to Scott in relation to Ramona's exes. That's information already available in the narrative. The film's surface and subsurface are so simple and smooth that the film can be watched and rewatched ad infinitum. It's designed that way, and "the essential love triangle should be easy."

07 August 2011

Tabloid (Errol Morris)

Last year's documentary Catfish was about a woman who wore a robe of lies with many loose strings which were slowly pulled until the robe came unraveled and the woman stood naked before the gawking filmmakers. There was discord between the wishes of her heart and the realities of her world, and the film's tragedy was in the revelation of that great divide.

But Tabloid is about a woman, Joyce McKinney, whose lies are inseparable from her construction of reality, and whose secrets are buried in the deepest chambers of her heart, which she guards with all her strength. If you've seen the movie you know she even places a guard dog, a literal guard dog, between the outside world and herself, and when the dog dies she clones it, and there come to be five guard dogs that protect her secrets. Each secret that could potentially destroy her love's integrity she protects with conviction relative to the extent the love's integrity is necessary for her existence. But is it really a love for Kirk Anderson, or is it a love for self?

Because I thought also about how Joyce McKinney referred to her years of dramatic training - she said she summoned her dramatic abilities for her court appearance on the matter of her notorious sex in chains scandal (rope, perhaps, but chains sound better, as one teller says). What I thought about was how the degree to which we expose ourselves to the tradition of drama and dramatic structure and dramatic interpretation warps our visions of ourselves: we cast ourselves as major players in the drama of our lives.

And good drama, in the traditional sense, is fueled by conflict. For some, I believe, conflict is the engine of a lifedrama which is indivisible from a personal conception of a meaningful life. I worry about this all the time because I watch so many movies and read some books - I talked about it a little in my entry on the melodrama - what if I harbor a desire to ink spectacular stories for my life? What if I attempt to fill my life with great drama because I incorrectly equate great drama with great importance?

Joyce McKinney is a US southerner as well, which links her narrative with that region's tradition of willed self-identity and bubbles of private fantasy. Her story's foundation of perpetual and romantic self-construction and idiosyncratic and homespun belief systems is the foundation of so many other memorable US south tales. Although I've always admired California as the birthplace of lifestyles, the truth seems to be that lifestyle ideology has always existed. I point to the US south as evidence.

And of course if you believe yourself to be a free-spirited self-styled wide-eyed individual like Joyce McKinney, it may very well be that it is not secrets you are guarding at all. Many theater goers were saying mean things about Joyce as the end credits were rolling, about how she was full of shit and all that, but most of us compose our lives from tiny lies which we do not even know to be lies. Isn't that the similarity between us and Joyce and the world of Mormons? She refers to herself several times as something like a good ol' American girl. Well, that's her Mormonism.

In a way everything about the film including the film itself is a lie. As sometimes happens to people thrust into the limelight, I do not believe Joyce ever stopped hungering for attention, and I believe her thoughts continue to dwell in the limelight. The film was another stage for her. Did she not seem to be working herself into tears at certain points? But if her life is a drama she creates, than the drama becomes her reality, and if her tears are symbols of a lie that constitutes her core being, then the tears are both real and not real. Joyce McKinney's personality is large, and forceful, and magnetic. Couldn't I categorize this documentary, a documentary of her life, as a melodrama?

05 August 2011

The Melodrama

This is my first official, my first labeled, entry on the melodrama genre. I have been going through something of a melodrama phase lately. And by phase I mean the figure of melodrama has taken shape amidst the immensity of film history, and whispered in my ear sweet things about Max Ophüls's Caught, André De Toth's The Other Love, Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory, and Michael Curtiz's Flamingo Road. Flamingo Road came recommended to me by the dead, by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who listed the film as one of his favorites.

The functional melodrama works because of an agreement between the heart and screen. It is a visual, visceral secret shared with a person by a film, and the greater and braver the truth of this secret, the more the film works. Honesty is achieved by commitments from the filmmakers and actors - they must fully believe in the material and invest in it a seriousness and purpose to match the extreme heights of the human emotions conveyed.

Human emotions are conveyed with the utmost sincerity in a melodrama, even when the utterly absurd occurs. This is why melodramas from Hollywood are dazzling, and specifically, dazzling from Hollywood in the 1930s through 50s. During this period the craft of populist and sensationalistic filmmaking reaches for the highest peaks of the human heart, and the two, craft and heart, ignite and explode before the teary eyes of the audience. These movies are hot messes. The hotter and messier the better and bigger the film.

It takes a large, powerful personality to lead a melodrama, someone like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or Elizabeth Taylor. It takes a sensitive and keen filmmaker to create a melodrama. The latter seems more interchangeable than the former: certain actors cast long shadows over the melodrama genre, while the filmmakers they worked with are more numerous, and truly great melodrama filmmakers, like Max Ophüls and Douglas Sirk, are as rare as truly great melodrama actors.

I have always been attracted to the melodrama genre, but tend to have consumed it in small doses. This is because the films destroy me, viz., they wreck my heart. I wonder what it is about the melodrama that attracts me to it; is it desire for purgation, contrition, catharsis, escape, masochism, or other, or all? Do I want to suffer and does the film help glorify my suffering? Do I want to fantasize my life as some thing of great importance and terrific emotional scope? Do I want to pretend to be rich, or pretend to be a servant? I cannot know for sure. If the answer is simple, the film isn't good.