The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. There are as many ideas in it as are in an entire semester of many college courses. Yet it is relatively accessible and definitely entertaining if you are looking for a film with intelligence. Cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek uses movies to talk about ideology. I’ve mentioned this film before, but just told a friend about it and thought it was worth mentioning again. If you haven’t seen it and are looking for something to spark an interesting conversation, I highly recommend it.
The following post concerns the end of the movie ‘The Hateful Eight’. You’ve been warned.
Bullshit is the glue, that binds us as a nation.
Where would we be without our safe, familiar, American bullshit? Land of the free, home of the brave, the American dream, all men are equal, justice is blind, the press is free, your vote counts, business is honest, the good guys win, the police are on your side, God is watching you, your standard of living will never decline… and everything is going to be just fine— The official national bullshit story. I call it the American okie doke.
– George Carlin
I couldn’t help but think of that quote as I watched the end of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie. The new Western features a group of characters that get sequestered in a lodge during a Wyoming winter, in the decade after the Civil War. Like all Tarantino movies, he takes a well known genre and introduces new elements to it, often from other cinematic influences. You could easily watch this movie and just be entertained by it’s combination of dark humor, suspenseful drama, and sensational violence. But like other Tarantino’s movies, especially the last few, there is a more than just sheer entertainment going on. Although Tarantino’s genius has always been attributed to the innovative ways he tells stories through film and his quotable dialog, the style of his films and not their substance, it is wrong to think his films are only style.
The Hateful Eight features historical and cinematic American archetypes. Samuel Jackson’s character, Major Marquis Warren, is a bounty hunter and a former member of the Union Calvary. Bruce Dern plays a former Confederate General. Walter Goggins is a younger Southerner who mentions the Lost Cause of Southern defeat. Those characters and others don’t trust each other. Everyone has a secret, no one trusts that the others are what they say, and a lot of the suspense from the movie comes from the these characters poking and prodding each other to figure out what the real aims are of everyone in the lodge. Whether you like the film or not probably depends on how much you like Tarantino’s style of filmmaking, of which I happen to be a fan of.
But for those that are not fans, you are missing out on one of the best movie endings of the year. The end of the movie features Jackson and Goggins, two characters that are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, teaming up against the gang of which is there to free Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing criminal Daisy Domergue. Like many Tarantino movies, the end of the movie features cinematic violence that leads to all of the characters either being dead or wounded. Jackson and Goggins are the last two alive.
Earlier in the film Jackson’s character produces a letter that he claims is written by Abraham Lincoln. He later admits it is false and claims the lie about the letter is to make white people feel safe around him.
The last shot of the movie, as Jack and Goggin’s characters lay dying, Goggins asks to read the letter, and both men seem to find comfort in it. I couldn’t help but think of this as a metaphor for America, where people with seemingly nothing in common, other than a shared history of violence and bigotry, are bound together by a pretty story that sounds nice, but has very little to do with reality or fact. This is a cynical view, but there is a lot of truth to it. Often the patriotic political stories that we are told as children, and that we still believe far into adulthood, are closer to fairy tales than to reality. One only needs to think of the myth of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. But even such phrases as “the land of the brave and the home of the free” are nationalistic claptrap that we use like a comfort blanket as we imagine an imaginary past where everything was as it should be.
I can’t really think of a better scene in a movie that demonstrates the point Carlin is trying to make above. “Bullshit is the glue, that binds us as a nation.” David Milch, through his show Deadwood, also uses the quote, “History is a lie agreed upon.” I’m not trying to deny the many great things that America has done. There is a duality running through this country’s history. But nostalgia for an imagined past is something that too often prevents many of our citizens from realizing that there can be better days ahead, if only we don’t repeat our ancestors mistakes.
I found the above Rolling Stone article about Michael Mann and the making of the movie Heat to be interesting. The film has long been a favorite of mine since I saw it as a kid. I recently watched it this year to see if it held up. Surprisingly, I not only felt it was as good as I remembered, but actually found new dimensions of meaning to appreciate. One of the all-time classic American films.
Last night I watched the movie The Last Detail staring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and an extremely young Randy Quaid. The movie is about two men in the Navy (Nicholson and Young) who are supposed to take the character played by Quaid to a military prison. Not liking the task they are given from the beginning, and growing to like it even less as the movie progresses, they take longer then they need to complete it. As the task at hand grows more distasteful, they decide to show Quaid’s character a good time, taking him out drinking and to a whore house, among other things. The movie was directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne.
I found out about the movie by reading Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. This is a book that examines New Hollywood, a period that runs roughly from the late 60’s with Easy Rider and up through the 70’s. Ashby was one of the directors who came up during this period, along with Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and others.
This movie is a good example of the character driven films being made during this period. The camera barely moves compared to modern filmmaking. Other than a few scuffles, there is very little action. Most of the movie revolves around the personality of the characters and the dialogue, which is fantastic. There is also a strong anti-authoritarian streak running in this film and others from this period. Watching this film is closer to, if not reading a novel, at least reading a well written short story. The language is realistic for the time, in markedly different contrast to older Hollywood films.
I wanted to mention the movie, as I believe, if you are interested in well written character driven films, that it is worth seeking out. However, this isn’t a review. I would just feel amiss if I didn’t mention it. Although I was at least aware of many of the movies in the book, this is one that I had never heard mentioned before.
I’m always interested in why certain forms of art flourish in different time periods. Although there are many reasons why the 60’s were great for music, the 70’s for film, and modern times have been described as the golden age of television, I think that the economics of a given era are always something to be considered. The more money that flows to creativity, the more interesting and creative things we will see made. Not only will those in a given field have more resources to give birth to their dreams, but more creative people will seek out a given medium. Again, although this is not the only thing that influences culture, this is a big factor that has been proven time and again. Biskind even talks about this near the end of the book:
Could another group of directors have done it differently, broken the back of studio power, created little islands of self-sufficiency that would have supported them in the work they wanted to do? Could a hundred flowers ever have bloomed? Probably not. The strength of the economic forces arrayed against them was too great. “We had the naive notion that it was the equipment which would give us the means of production,” said Coppola. “Of course, we learned much later that it wasn’t the equipment, it was the money.” Because the fact of the matter is that although individual revolutionaries succeeded, the revolution failed. The New Hollywood directors were like free-range chickens; they were let out of the coop to run around the barnyard and imagined they were free. But when they ceased laying those eggs, they were slaughtered.
The book goes on to talk about how the directors, even the truly great ones like Coppola, were selected by market forces. However, another interesting point is that the directors that were able to marry the personal with the commercial lasted longer than the ones that were making strictly personal films. Success seems to be dictated by those that had the strength to create something personal, melded with a flexibility to bend to the commercial forces. The Godfather is a perfect example. It was a studio picture that Coppola took, even though at the time he would have rather been making movies that were even more personal to him. However, he was able to infuse that studio film with enough personality to make it popular and unique for its time.
I don’t know if I have reached any definitive conclusion in all of this. But I think these things are interesting to think about. Another thing to consider is now, with so many people wanting intellectual property and artistic products for free, how does that affect the kind of culture around us? Many people lament the fact that films and music aren’t what they used to be. Why is this? Is this simply nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist? Or have we simply devalued things to the point where they can’t be created at the rate that we would like?
P.S. I couldn’t help but think that the movie, which I don’t want to spoil, is in some ways a great commentary on this whole period of creativity in Hollywood. (Even though the movie was created during the middle of this period.) If you watch it, pay close attention to the relationship between freedom and authority.
On my last post I wrote about Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu. It was an album savaged by critics. A lot of my favorite pieces of art have been critically condemned only to find reevaluation years later. Terry Gilliam has a movie called Tideland that knocked me out when I saw it. It was one of the only times I have walked out of a theater thinking that I had just seen something completely new. I was excited, ecstatic even, only to read reviews later that tore the movie to shreds. This did nothing to alter my view of the film, I was only sad to learn that the film wouldn’t find a larger audience. I also felt bad that so many people had missed out on such a fantastic film.
This is not standard review, nor do I want to spend time relaying the entire plot. If you want to learn more about the movie here is the Wikipedia page.
One of the things interesting about the film is that it’s protagonist is a little girl and the movie is filmed with her perspective in mind. The little girl undergoes many trials including her dad dying of a heroin overdose in their rural farmhouse in Texas. If you view the film through the eyes of an adult, there are many uncomfortable moments in the film. There is a kiss scene where the girl kisses, innocently, her friend who is a boy that is mentally handicapped. Because we are adults, and adults are sexual beings, viewers may be inclined to view this scene with a sense of horror. But if you view the scene through the eyes of its protagonist, it is just an innocent kiss between friends. As with many Gilliam films, a theme running through the movie is how our imaginations allow us to survive the realities of the world, which are often less than ideal. Children, out of all ages, possess the strongest imaginations. Therefore, it only makes sense that in many ways children are more resilient than adults.
Although knowledge can, at many times, increase our appreciation for art, as we learn to understand the language of certain art forms, it can occasionally blind us to its true meaning. What we bring along with us, our psychological intellectual background, is important. This is often why you may see musicians, painters, filmmakers, appreciating different things than the general public. They usually are steeped in the knowledge of their particular field. They might have a better idea of when someone is breaking from convention to reach new ground. You don’t have to be an artist. It’s not some kind of secret club, just generally if you are making something you are interested enough to immerse yourself in it. A library card and a curious mind are all one needs to learn the language of any given medium.
However, outside of the language of a medium, there is also what we bring to a piece of art from our personal background. How we view the world influences how we view the themes of a piece of art. What I love about this movie is that Gilliam has created something that asks us to shake off our personal and cultural biases. He is asking us to be children again, to view the world with the same sense of wonder that they do. It’s a beautiful place if you can get into that headspace.
No one states this better than Gilliam himself in the introduction to the movie, up above. This introduction also played in the theater when I saw the film. Although sometimes overstating your purpose can be harmful, given the nature of this film, I really felt that it is effective. He is trying to get the viewers in that headspace of a child before the film begins, which is essential to a proper interpretation of the film. I remember thinking, upon seeing this introduction two things:
“Gilliam is throwing down the fucking gauntlet”, and “I’m in.”
The link above is to a Cracked article that has clips from old horror movies from early in movie history. The title is theirs. However, I think the clips are interesting. They are visually striking and some of them are quite artistic. Plus, in looking at them you realize that there is this whole world of lost history out there, things that many people saw that you aren’t even aware of. It’s like looking through a portal into another time and place.
The other night I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator for the first time since seeing it in theaters in 2004. I was struck by how good it was, much better than I remember it being when I originally saw it. This is Scorsese’s account of the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio).
I seem to remember it mostly for its first half hour, of when it gives a kind of synopsis treatment of early Hollywood. It seems the work of a lesser filmmaker, tying to recreate a historical moment, without providing us any kind of insight into the actual moment. It looks good, but it is emotionally empty. The first section of the film almost plays more like a music video than a fully realized film with strong characters.
However, once Scorsese really starts showing us the struggle behind Hughes’s outward can-do facade, the movie really starts to become interesting. You start realizing that the same things that allow Hughes to succeed are the same things that will eventually destroy him. Hughes struggles with an extreme case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This personality trait drives him to be a perfectionist in the world of aviation and film, cause him to later be a shut-in that can no longer function in any kind of normal capacity.
That the film doesn’t adhere to the normal biographical film structure is a huge plus. Scorsese is too smart for this. The final shot, which leaves the viewer with a shot of Hughes obsessively repeating a phrase makes the film depart on a haunted note, that hints at what is to come, while leaving just enough ambiguity to make it work as symbolism rather than just strict biography. Although Scorsese provides viewers with a possible explanation for Hughes’s insanity, he never overplays this hand either, not allowing simplification of the mystery of the human condition.
If the film follows any traditional narrative it is that of the classic tragedy, where the hero’s strengths are exactly what destroy him. Before the last moments of the film, the hero’s strengths allow him to rise for one final triumph.
Although Hughes’s demons are largely the result of a inner struggle, the film also seems to be commenting on how society tries to destroy the dreamer. Hughes dreams bigger and bolder than everyone around him and for the mundane everyday nature of commerce and bureaucracy try to bring him down. We like to tell ourselves the narrative that we reward hard work and bold ideas, but we really only reward those a great deal of the time if they fall within a pre-established order. If someone doesn’t kneel before the powers-that-be, those powers, which have the backing of the majority, will try attain retribution.
It’s also interesting that the very things that Hughes struggles with, outside of his own personal demons, are the same thing that haunts our society today, which is the unholy alliance of big business and government. When big business is allowed to corrupt our government, the results are not only bad for the individual, but for society at large. When we look at the freak power that is now the Republican party, we see these forces at work in our own time. In a way this film is not only an interesting character study, but timely as well.
Last night I saw Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, and I loved it. If you are a fan of directors like Nicholas Winding Refn or David Lynch, I think you will like it. It’s definitely a strange fever dream of a movie, and one I don’t think you would like if you are not comfortable with abstraction. It’s certainly a late night art house kind of a movie. The whole thing is visually gorgeous, with vivid colors that explode onscreen. I kept thinking of describing the movie as looking like “melting cotton candy” while I watched it. Even horrific images of things like houses burning, are darkly beautiful.
The movies takes place in an imaginary version of American, filmed in the depressed areas of Detroit. Christina Hendricks, best known for Mad Men, plays a mom that is trying to keep hold of the family home. In order to make payments she takes a job working in a nightclub, hired by an unsympathetic bank manager who also runs the nightclub at night. It is later observed that even his one act of kindness, providing employment, have malicious intentions. The club, a place that looks like New Orleans on acid, excels in acts that are full of mock blood and gore that distract its patrons from real nightmares of their days. What goes on in the basement of the club is even more sinister.
The other plot line centers around Hendricks’s son, Bones. Bones trys to help provide by finding useful scrap that can be sold. In doing this he runs afoul of the local gang lord, Bully.
The plot in and of itself may not sound like much, as visuals, sound design, and dream logic play every bit as much of a role in the proceedings as the story itself. What the camera sees, how things sound, tell you as much as the dialog and the overall story arc. This doesn’t mean that the general story arc is not clear, even if there are ambiguities, but the movie is more of a poem than a novel.
The performances of many of the main characters are great. The characters are more archetypes than fully fleshed out personalities, but in this kind of movie it helps, as it does away with exposition and allows the movie to attain a kind of dream state. You know who those people are and where they stand in the universe after only a scene or two. Particularly great is Matt Smith, formerly of Doctor Who, as the psychopath Bully. Also great is Ben Mendelsohn, who takes a Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet turn at the microphone, as the bank manager/nightclub manger. Out of the protagonists it is Christina Hendricks that makes the most impact, as she makes the most out of her scenes, and seems visually created to be in this film. Also great is a cab driver played by Reda Kateb, who makes a strong impression with very little screen time.
There are political overtones in the film, but this is not a political film in any traditional sense. Kateb’s cab driver talks about the disappointment between how immigrants view this country and the reality that they find here. One can’t help but be in disbelief of the world that in front of ones eyes, the dilapidated buildings, the seedy gas station, and know that however beautiful it all is in some strange way, due to the colors of the film and its dream like nature, it is equally horrific, especially realizing that this is all filmed in real world Detroit. The closing scene also is especially meaningful, though I don’t want to spoil it, if one thinks about the symbolism behind it.
However, make no mistake. This film is first and foremost about creating an emotional experience. Helped by this is the great music created by Johnny Jewel, and the title song by his band The Chromatics. Much like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, which starred Gosling and also featured music by the above participants, the movie has 80’s cinema overtones, even if these overtones are more about how we remember certain movies from that period, less than the reality of those movies themselves.
This movie received many negative reviews and was booed by a large part of the audience at Cannes, where it debuted. However, I think this movie will gain a cult audience overtime. I understand how there are people that will never like this movie, as it is very unsettling and requires work on part of the viewer to interpret its many charms. However, if you love batshit insane movies that deal largely in imaginative visuals and ecstatic emotions, then definitely give this one a try. Despite all of its obvious debts to other works, it still manages to create a unique and compelling world that is worth spending time in.
When I watch the news I often think of the movie Apocalypto. This is a Mel Gibson directed movie that deals with the Mayans. The movie is an insane spectacle filled with ideas and blood. The characters speak in ancient Mayan dialogue, but the movie is brilliant because it manages to tell the story in ways that are mostly visual. It is an extremely intelligent piece of entertainment, an action movie with ideas. It is barbarous, batshit insane, kinetic entertainment.
Now why do I think of this movie when I see the news? This is not due to the themes of the movie. The Mayan empire is depicted as a civilization on the verge of collapse due to environmental calamity and human exploitation. It came out during the Bush years and the Iraq War. Gibson even commented that the Mayan rulers were very similar to Bush in his boys. Sure, the invading Europeans put the nail in the coffin of the Mayans, but the Europeans are aided by the Mayan leaders’ tyrannical rule. That is not to say that is true in history, but Gibson is trying to draw a parallel through art. He is saying if we don’t quit oppressing people, if we don’t protect the environment, history shows that we and our way of life is in trouble.
However, none of that crosses my mind when I watch the news. The greatest emotional quality of Apocalypto is insanity. When I watch the news and they focus on the trivial and ignore the important, I feel emotionally like I do when I watch Apocalypto. When I see war and oppression trumpeted as normal, when I see global warming treated as not real, when I see celebrity eclipse the common good, I feel the same as when I watch Apocalypto.
There is intellectual truth and emotional truth in art. Even if you argue that the movie doesn’t have the former, it has the latter in spades. It feels like what happens when the world turns upside down. It’s why the movie makes me happy, even though it is largely an action movie and a quite dark one at that. Someone connected to an emotion that is all too common in the modern world. It’s always uplifting to know someone feels like you do. If there are others, you might just stand a chance.
The truth is never simple and yet it is. The truth is we did kill him. By silence we consented… because we couldn’t go on. But by Ares, what did we have to look forward to but to be discarded in the end like Cleitus? After all this time, to give away our wealth to Asian sycophants we despised? Mixing the races? Harmony? Oh, he talked of these things. I never believe in his dream. None of us did. That’s the truth of his life. The dreamers exhaust us. They must die before they kill us with their blasted dreams. – Old Ptolemy, regarding Alexander the Great, in the movie Alexander
Last night I watched No No: A Dockumentary, a documentary about the baseball player Dock Ellis. He was famous for, among many things, throwing a no hitter on LSD. The documentary was worth watching, really good even, but not exceptional. The footage and the interviews were fantastic, but something about the way the different pieces were put together, the narrative arc, seemed a little loose and unfocused.
One of the things that I found disappointing, but did not take away from my enjoyment of the film, was the end of the film’s focus on Ellis getting clean and teaching prisoners how to reenter life. Now this is true to life. I also don’t wish to discount what is obviously a noble pursuit for anyone. But for most of the film Ellis is Icarus before the crash. You know, because he is mortal, that his wings will melt, but you can’t help but enjoy watching him fly to close to the sun. So often society wants the outcome of the Icarus myth. They show a brief shot of his obituary and the newspaper’s headline says something about how he overcame drugs. For much of his life Ellis was the black ball player that, during a time of extreme racial prejudice, refused to keep his head down. He not only was a physical mutant, succeeding in MLB while being extremely high, but also quite fearless in his behavior. When black ball players were expected to keep their mouths shut, enduring things that can only be seen as outright ignorance, Ellis refused to play by the rules of society. He was never one of the silent masses, guilty by consent.
Early in the movie the film talks about how black ball players, in certain parts of the country, were supposed to stay in different hotels than the white players. This is obviously insanely stupid. Black ball players also had to deal with everything from racial epithets to threatening letters. Ellis never let this kind of discrimination water down his personality. He was bold and proud when the world wanted him to be meek, quiet, and safe.
Society, even today, wants people to know their place. I don’t even necessarily mean this in a racial way. It wants people to tow the line. It wants people to apologize for their personal transgressions. But the world needs people like Ellis. It needs freaks and mutants that by design or will can’t conform. Although there are many ways to challenge the absurdity of the world, one way is to match its absurdity blow by blow, to refuse to bend to the will of the ignorant. For a longtime Ellis out-crazied the whirlwind.
He eventually takes it too far. As one ages their body can no longer handle the excess of youth. Society is more powerful than the individual and it eventually will take the edges off someone or destroy them. Very few, like George Carlin, actually get bolder with age. Even if you refuse to bend to the will of society, life will eventually defeat you. But for a little while he was out their defying the powerful, even defying the gods. He was up there in the clouds, free and beautiful, a mythic character in the flesh.
I’m not saying his later deeds do not deserve commendation. His work with those on the outskirts of society were noble, good, and worthy of respect. But don’t for a second discount his earlier accomplishments. He was a heroic mutant, momentarily shaking off the shackles of the mortal. I’m glad he was out there, for a little while…