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December 14, 2008

The Dark Knight: Superpowers enough to turn opinion into fact

Writing about web page

There are a number of startling statements and attitudes in this piece - a resurgence of the type of online discourse that surrounded The Dark Knight upon its original release this past Summer.  

Here Josh Tyler notes that, as yet, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight has not featured as heavily in award nomination and critics best-of-2008 lists as he would like.  He goes beyond this observation to suggest that, if critics refuse (and know that Tyler does view this as a point blank, ideological refusal by critics) to include the film, then they are putting their critical legitimacy and their JOBS at stake.

For print critics, a vote against The Dark Knight is a vote for your own irrelevancy. It’s a vote for the unemployment line. It’s a conscious choice to ignore a cultural phenomenon in favor of pushing some undeserved indie-film agenda over a movie which people have already seen.

I would certainly argue that it is the function, and value, of professional critics to resist cultural phenomena in favour of their own tastes (which they are paid to hold) in situations such as this (Jim Emerson makes something like that argument in this piece - although he risks swinging too hard in the opposite direction and being equally as dogmatic as Tyler).  Of course, there is an argument to be made that critics can ignore or suppress their own tastes for fear of not appearing 'high-brow' enough - and I think it is a sense of this that motivates Tyler's piece, but he takes it into some serious extremes. 

I really find quite pungent the suggestion that if someone disagrees with a majority, then that person should regardless articulate a view that falls in line with the majority.  This logic suggests that, to qualify for the right to speak or write in public, one should agree to exclusively provide the public with what they already know.

Yet this is not quite the logic in which Tyler couches his article.  He doesn't quite suggest that critics should suppress their own opinions in order to give the public what they already know.  Instead, he suggests that - before writing in public - critics should wise up and realise that they do in fact think identically to the public (and the view of the public is represented by his own opinion).  This paragraph is astonishing; he writes:

Call me and the other 99% of moviegoers who love this movie biased if you want, but this is more than just our opinion. It’s also the opinion of many of the people leaving it out of their awards. Shortly before its debut in theaters, critics were hailing it as one of the best movies ever made, a life changing experience. It is, for a fact, one of the very best reviewed movies of the year. According to RottenTomatoes it has received a higher percentage of positive reviews than literally any of the other movies nominated in the Best Picture category by the half-mad Golden Globes… and it’s done that in spite of being much more widely reviewed. It’s more than just the year’s best movie, it’s also almost unquestionably going to be the year’s most influential. Like Star Wars before it, The Dark Knight is fast becoming the new mold from which all future movies will be poured. Its impact, its influence on cinema will be felt for decades to come. 

This paragraph is of course notable for the enormous historical importance wreathed around the neck of The Dark Knight and Star Wars (in the former case, I'm sorry but it's just too early to know what influence the film will have on film history).  What strikes me hardest though, like a hard punch in the stomach, is the implication that, if you don't like The Dark Knight, then you are just wrong.  It is apparently an empirical FACT that this is the best film of the year.  I've been noticing a lot recently that, because it gives each film a solid number and claims to represent EVERYBODY WHO WATCHES FILMS IN THE WORLD EVER, Rotten Tomatoes has been fulfilling the function of backing up such appeals to fact.

Personally, I really dislike this attitude.  If we discursively present an opinion as a fact, then we can preclude other people from forming their own opinions (this is a phenomenon that I've noticed amongst students, including myself, recently), deny the possibility that our opinion of a film could change over time, and completely shut off the productivity of debate.  After all, if a debate is taking place between two people - who hold different opinions, but are both of the opinion that their opinion is a fact - then we'll never reach a compromise or synthesis of opinion.   

March 05, 2008

I have this, you want this, now dance for me.

I saw There Will Be Blood last night at the Apollo.  My original plan was to see In The Valley of Elah at the Spa Centre (because I love the Spa Centre), but when I arrived there I was told that there wasn't a film that evening as the medium Stephen Holbrook was on.  Why he couldn't just perform in the normal theatre - like Jimmy Carr, Dave Spikey and other entertainers would - and let me see the darn film was beyond me.  Fortunately I remembered that there was a 7.50pm screening of Blood (it was now 7.56pm), and I hightailed it to the Apollo to make it on time.  I even got there in time to see the second half of the Dark Knight trailer, which I've seen about 3 times now (my favourite bit is when the Joker says to a woman, 'A little bit of fight in you, I like that' and then Batman interjects with 'Then you'll love me!' before clocking him one) , and the whole of the Never Back Down trailer, which looks ridiculous fun (it's like the Karate Kid but with MMA!).

I thought it was good, very good.  Something about P.T Anderson, or perhaps his critical prestige, turns me off to the thought of him - but this is a great movie.  About this movie, my chum Jim MacDowell has already written:

In short, this is a film that (like other recent bold American movies such as The New World [2005] and INLAND EMPIRE [2006]) demands we meet it on its own terms, and requires a deeper engagement than a mere two viewings can provide us with. This fact alone should tell you that this is a fascinating and major work. If I am not yet liberally throwing around words like ‘masterpiece’, then it is because its great complexity also means that any critical evaluation of it - maybe short of a book-length study - must necessarily be considered a work in progress.

I'm not convinced that I see the same scary aesthetic beast as Jim does, but I definitely agree that it requires a mightily deep engagement.  I just wanted to write something short, about one of the film's concerns that I was struck by.  It is the little pieces and little ideas that help us to chip away at understanding something (hear the lament of one unable to identify or handle big concepts!).

Let's look at two of the film's key, and for my experience most powerful, scenes - two scenes, both located towards the end of the movie, that rhyme with one another.  In the first, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) attends the Church of the Third Revelation, the main hub of spritual (and all of any importance) activity in the Little Boston community, to publicly renounce his sins and be baptised by the young minister Eli (Paul Dano - who is ON FIRE right now).  We've seen Plainview at the church once before, in a scene where he maliciously mocks the proceedings to Eli ('that's one goddamn hell of a show you've got there').  His 'change of heart' now is precipitated by a demand from a local man called William Bandy, who owns the last remaining plot of land that Plainview wants to run an oil pipeline through.  In full view of the whole congregation, Plainview yells that he is a sinner, and - after pressure from Eli - screams that he abandoned his son (we know that this would be particularly annoying for Plainview as, in an earlier scene, he reacts extremely violently to a fellow oil prospector mentioning his relationship to H.W, his son).  

The second scene I have in mind is the final one, set 14 or so years later (dated 1928) in Plainview's mansion-esque abode.  Eli visits Plainview with the intention of finally selling him the Bandy estate.  The large temporal ellipsis means we have less information about the characters at this stage in their lives - but notably, Eli is drinking whisky (we've previously seen him criticise alcohol consumption) and he references 'these financial times' (which led me to consider the date's proximity to the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression) which all displays a failing struggle to stay afloat in a society where money has become super-important.  Plainview agrees to make the deal if Eli proclaims that, 'I am a false prophet, God is a superstition!'.  In an inverted reflection of the previous scene, Plainview coaxes Eli into repeating the phrase louder and louder - "like you would in your sermons". 

These two scenes both investigate the things that people will do when they are desperate for something, and - on the other side of the coin - the type of things that those who 'have' will force those who 'have not' to do.  In both scenes we see a protagonist giving up - loudly, in public and without dignity - one of the central beliefs on which they base their self (in Eli's case his religion, in Plainview's case his atheism and, more importantly, the belief that his personal affairs should not be the concern of others).  The reason in both cases boils down to money.  Perhaps more disturbing is the glee that the other character seems to take in forcing this submission, and their active role in rendering it more and more humiliating.  There is a question of whether Plainview comes off 'worse' than Eli in this exchange (after all, we already know the intensity of Eli's sermons) - but I think that the direct rhyming scheme here seems to colour both human beings with the same brush: when someone wants something that another has or controls, the empowered individual both relishes and exploits that interpersonal power.  Do we really enjoy finding out quite what a desperate someone else is prepared to do?

February 15, 2008

the old–ness of competing elements.

This is an issue that I have been meaning to write about for a little while - probably since I read 'Digital Encounters' by Aylish Wood, an interesting and clear book.  There is an idea about aesthetic differences in cinema galvanised by digital technologies that I have been testing in probably every film I've seen since.  It struck me again yesterday when watching Little Miss Sunshine whilst eating take-away pizza - as a sort of forgetting-Valentines activity.

In the introduction to 'Digital Encounters', Aylish Wood writes:

I will argue that digital technologies have led to an increasing appearance of competing elements in digital effects cinema, games and gallery installation art, and that the degree to which viewers have to distribute their attention varies within the organization of the interface. (4) 

This idea ties together aesthetic developments across several different media.  Digital aesthetics have concurrently developed, according to Wood, towards increasing the freedom of the viewer/user; towards providing the viewer/user with more "embodied agency".  It's important to note that this is posited as a general  trend (rather than a rule), and Wood does acknowledge that "the opportunities for agency available to a viewer depend on the different ways interfaces distribute a viewer's attention" (82).  We can find a similar idea in Mark Hansen's Philosophy of New Media, although his focal point is gallery installations.

My principal interest is what Wood calls 'digital effects cinema'.  I personally dislike the 'effects' in that term but can't offer a better one here - what we're studying is any films that use digital technologies.  Wood translates her idea to reference this cinema when she writes:

...when effects are visible on screen in a way that competes for a viewer's attention their impact is different, generating both a spatial and time-based engagement where watching one thing means not watching another. (86, my emphasis)

Most obviously, this can refer to a film such as Timecode (Mike Figgis) that has four different frames on-screen at the same time.  The notion of 'watching one thing means not watching another' seems to work here, when there is more than one frame - and Anne Friedberg has developed a similar line of argument about digital technologies in her (ace) book The Virtual Window

Wood also sees this broad aesthetic trend in blockbuster films that use a lot of CGI, because digital technologies can give 'life' to objects or entities.  For example, in the film Twister the tornado, although not personified per se, acts as if it is 'alive' - Wood describes it as a 'dynamic element'.  She writes:

The tornadoes are made credible by being integrated with the human figures, but at the same time they compete for a viewer's attention, redistributing it between the character and non-character elements.  As spatial objects they have meaning beyond that given to them by character actions. (54)

Therefore we can see how the same broad theory about digital aesthetics describes both Timecode and Twister within the terms of Wood's argument.  The central characteristic is a mise-en-scéne that contains 'competing elements', parts of an image that distribute the viewer's attention; in other words, to make a shot more complicated or layered by the presence of more-than-one potential focal points.  My question is: is this a characteristic of digital technologies in cinema?  Or is it just a relatively common characteristic of cinema?   Is 'pre-digital' cinema, or even post-digital cinema that doesn't use digital tools in overt ways, characterised on the whole by images with a single focal point?  Or can we find more examples of 'competing elements', separate from aesthetic developments engendered by digital technologies?

Let's look at a shot from Little Miss Sunshine, taken from what is in my opinion the film's most moving sequence.   As the family's van nears their destination, Olive is passing the time by giving her brother Dwayne an eye test from a free card taken at the hospital.  It transpires that Dwayne is colour-blind, and therefore unable to fly a jet in the air force (his dream, towards which he has taken a vow of silence for 9 months).  He freaks out, the family stop the van, and he runs down a ridge screaming whilst the rest of the family remain at the top.  I remember seeing this sequence in the Ashford cinema with my hand over my mouth, at a time when I was really worried that studying films had removed some of their emotional effect for me.

Olive, his sister, walks down to comfort Dwayne - and just gives him a simple hug, resting her head against his shoulder.  In the shot that depicts this beautiful gesture, Olive and Dwayne are in the foreground on the right side of the frame.  Further to the left, in the distant background, we can see Richard, Sheryl and Frank standing at the top of the ridge looking on.  Olive's gesture lasts several, almost silent seconds before Dwayne says, "Okay, let's go."  To me however, this shot contains at least five 'competing elements', that is things that a viewer could pleasurably look at whilst missing other potential pleasures, in the form of the characters. 

little miss sunshine screen grab

We can concentrate on Olive, walking towards Dwayne (which creates suspense, as Sheryl has already failed to comfort him and we are unsure of how she is going to act towards him, and vice versa) and then quietly making the aforementioned gesture.  Looking at her, we can see that she understands and cares for her brother.  Or we can look at Dwayne - and notice his sharp intake of breath when Olive touches him, or how he stifles a cry, or how he lightly shakes his head in a way that implies "Life has fucked me over, but Olive's competition is important right now and I've got to accept that".  Or Sheryl's worried and nervous glances from side to side in the background.  Or the direct contrast made between Frank and Richard: Frank keeps his arms tied behind his back, remaining composed and respectful, whilst Richard has his arms by his side in an impatient manner.  Richard doesn't want to be late, he doesn't want Olive to miss the contest because then she (and, by extension, he) will be a loser.

The shot is carefully composed in a way that ensures that all the characters are visible simultaneously.  In our view, Richard's left foot stands directly behind Olive's right shoulder - not one character is placed in a way that would impair our vision of another (or, indeed, the still camper van).  I've gathered this information by pausing, re-winding and watching the 10-15 second shot three or four times over - I don't think you could glean it all from one single viewing.  Yet it is all there, several elements are presented to the viewer to choose from - each potentially at the expense of the other.  And not one of these elements are given their central qualities, their heart, by a digital technology - these are provided by excellent performances, one of cinema's most traditional tools.

I've chosen Little Miss Sunshine because I watched it last night, and this shot struck me.  It could be argued, I suppose, that Little Miss Sunshine is a contemporary film, and that the aesthetics of contemporary cinema have been changed, as a whole, by developments in digital technologies.  The logic of this suggests that, thanks to trailblazing films such as Twister, audiences now expect competing elements otherwise they view images as too simplistic.  I would refute this argument by pulling a copy of La Regle du Jeu from the shelf - which is full to the brim with comparable sequences.

I do really like a lot of Wood's book, but I'm just not sure that, in the process of marrying ideas about different forms that have all been profoundly affected by digitalisation, she hasn't created a theory about digital technologies in cinema that is too broad to be completely useful.  As it is, it just isn't a new aesthetic phenomenon.   

February 13, 2008

a few things that struck me about juno.

I got to see Juno at the Apollo this past Sunday afternoon, and I really really liked it.  It is quite twee, and has a striking soundtrack appropriate to such a tone (Moldy Peaches, Belle and Sebastian et al), but if I'm honest I REALLY LIKE TWEE THINGS.  I'm all for objects that try to express honesty through simple-ness or childish-ness.  Juno immediately establishes this frequency for itself with a patchwork-animation title sequence and a theme song by children's songwriter Barry Louis Polisar (which is, simply enough, entitled 'All I Want Is You').

Juno is one of the more attractive female characters in the cinema of my recent memory.  She is funny, she is artistic, she is enthusiastic about outmoded pop culture (she namechecks The Stooges and Dario Argento), she makes a novelty pipe look cool.  She is as witty as Enid from Ghost World (minus the bitterness) and as romantic as Amelie - and, indeed, her enormous nighttime gestures towards Bleeker (moving a furniture set across town, filling his mailbox with orange Tic-Tacs) feel like they owe a debt to that French lady.  She doesn't appear to think too hard about the implications or consequences of her actions (see: her pregger-ness), which are signs of an immature, teenage sensibility, but she doesn't try to dodge or be dishonest about her problems.  You get the impression that she'll learn from her mistakes and move on.   

It's important for this film to have such a sympathetic protagonist, because she carries all of its emotional weight - it wants to believe that her innocence and romanticism can be widespread.   She is placed into a social world populated by, strictly speaking, broken or unconventional families.  We find out early on that Juno's mother abandoned their family when Juno was still young.  Further to this, we only ever see Bleeker's mother (leaving open the suggestion that his father has left) and Vanessa & Mark, the couple in whom she invests so much, fall apart.  It is this latter development that leads her to ask her father, "I just need to know if it's possible for two people to stay happy together forever." - a question that I think is at the heart of this movie.  It is at this point that she, and we, look again at the families to be shown the kindness and love that hold them together.  Although her mother left at a young age, perhaps Juno and family are not badly off at all.

I'm really interested in the relationship between Vanessa and Mark.  The decision to get divorced is made so unbelievably quickly (Mark tells Juno that he's planning on leaving Vanessa, Juno storms out of the house and is confronted by Vanessa, Mark has divorce papers about one scene later) that it makes me ask if they got married at a similar speed.  When Juno spots Vanessa at the mall, my first reaction (probably because of Juno's instinct to duck out of sight and spy) was to feel suspicious - what is she doing?  why isn't she at work?  has she been lying? - when the reality of the situation is way more innocent and sweet. 

There's a great moment where Vanessa is painting the nursery, and she's wearing an old Alice in Chains t-shirt splattered with paint.  The t-shirt undoubtedly belonged to Mark, and Vanessa - having deemed it too old or unsuitable for Mark at his age - now uses it as a disposable item.  I'd be willing to bet money that Mark resents this - he feels that he can still go see Alice in Chains if he wants to, and mosh along with the kids.  This type of scenario, and the argument that they later have at the end of their relationship, raises the oft-cited masculine problem or confusion: feeling like a relationship is somehow stifling your self.  Perhaps it is possible to hold up Juno's father or Bleeker as alternative solutions or retorts to this problem - I'm not sure.

A lot has been said or written about Juno's relationship to the politics of abortion (and I do have one or two thoughts about this - her decision to not get an abortion seems to be represented as irrational and borne out of fear, which would seem to be a sidestep away from making a clear point on this issue), but I much prefer a reading that emphasises the film's belief in love, not only in the romantic sense, but also between family members and friends.  It is all very, very sweet.  I like that.

P.S I plan to see the movie again sometime over the next couple days, so perhaps will share more detailed thoughts about it. 

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