Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Woman Under the Influence

If we accept the idea that, deep down, all American movies are stories of consumerist wish fulfillment, then the rags-to-riches genre could be the great Hollywood meta-narrative, the fantasy that undergirds all the others. These films perform that fundamental Hollywood promise: If we can simply tap into our reserves of indomitable brilliance, we can transcend our drab daily lives and enter a utopia of romance and wealth and, well, happiness. If this unlikely but lovable hero can beat the odds through sheer grit and charisma, the dream whispers, then so can you. Once an indie idiosyncrat, David O. Russell has lately been taking a tour of the venerable old-Hollywood genres. He's made his sports movie (The Fighter), his rom-com (Silver Linings Playbook) and his prestige picture (American Hustle); it shouldn't surprise us that rags-to-riches is next.

On its face, Joy hews closely to the conventions of the genre. Jennifer Lawrence is a deeply harried divorcee and working mom struggling to hold a dysfunctional family together. Her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) is an agoraphobic, silk nightgowned diva who spends her time in bed, almost fully absorbed in a "Dynasty"-ish nighttime soap opera. Joy's ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), an under-employed nightclub singer, lives in her basement, as does her father, a volatile, paternalistic ("colorful" might be the euphemism) Robert de Niro type, played by Robert de Niro. Also in Joy's orbit are Peggy, the resentful half-sister, Trudy, the miserly stepmother, played with majestic, alien witchery by Isabella Rossellini (as if she could do it any other way) and children doing their needy, rambunctious, childlike things. This family bickers in the screwballish, hyper-verbal way that we have come to expect from Russell's families. And all of this energy--the complaints, the grievances, the stream of expectation and demand--converges on Joy. She is the only adult in the room, the family's provider, mediator and problem-solver.

We learn in a series of dreamy flashbacks narrated by Joy's grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) that Joy was a touched child. She was the valedictorian of her class; she crafted deeply realized imaginary worlds; she had a gift for invention and ingenuity. Even so, Mimi's dreams for Joy never stray too far from the domestic: "You are going to be a smart, strong young woman," she tells the young Joy, "go to school, meet a fine young man, have beautiful children of your own and you're gonna build wonderful things that you do in your room."[sic]

In any case, that dream of domestic ease (it must simply be a dream of wealth--how else could working motherhood come off so pastorally?) has been lost in the struggle to survive. Joy has been thoroughly ensnared in the demands of lower-middle-class family life. Her gifts and potential seem to have gone unrealized. Unrealized, that is, until, in a burst of inspiration, she invents the miracle mop. Using every ounce of her charisma and moxie, she charms a powerful QVC executive named Neil Walker (played by Bradley Cooper, Lawrence's old foil) into giving her and her mop a shot. Despite her family's resentment and poisonously low expectations, despite the burdens of debt and trademark law, despite daunting economies of scale and the ruthlessness of her competitors, not to mention a gnarly case of stage fright, Joy rises to fame and fortune, a trailblazer for other housewife/entrepreneurs after her.

Call it optimism or call it conservatism, but rags-to-riches films have typically displayed a credulous faith in American social mobility, that strange alchemy of egalitarianism and social conservatism that has always been woven into the American dream. And Joy, on the surface at least, is no different. It is a fable attesting to the magical power of entrepreneurial talent to transcend economic circumstance, a paean to the domestic, an allegory of spiritual-capitalist predestination.

Seems pretty straightforward. But what's strange is that while the the film's last act, in which our hero triumphantly overcomes the odds etc, is essentially a cobbled together mess of deuses-ex-machina and miraculous reversals of fortune, Russell invests the full freight of his cinematic ingenuity in depicting Joy's domestic confinement. He intertwines memory and present-day reality within the same spatial-temporal plane. The camera pans from scenes of Joy's childhood to the present day; the former provides commentary on the latter, pointing out the contrast between her youthful promise and the perpetual crisis that is her adult life. The border between them is fluid, as if to illustrate the ease with which youth slides into adulthood, with which possibilities become foreclosed. And the comic surrealism of Joy's present day is vintage Russell. Joy's house rings with the chaos and noise of needy children and bickering grown-ups--while all the while Terry lounges queenlike (though utterly dependent on Joy), her soap-operatic fantasy world endlessly streaming from the TV. The space is a little too small and ramshackle for the emotional and physical chaos it contains. The scene plays as comedy but, as in all of Russell's work, it is a comedy that reverberates with anxiety--in this case, the anxiety produced by surfeits of energy and money and time, by the all-too-familiar overwhelm of domestic life.

The whole tableau trembles with a kind of madcap surreality. When her Terri's compulsive hair-brushing results in a clogged pipe, Joy brusquely rips a hole in the floor and begins pounding away, water spraying everywhere, even as her family's noise continues unabated. It's as if the architecture of Joy's life were crumbling away, as if reality had become a farce. It's a perfect illustration of what Lauren Berlant calls "crisis ordinariness," that condition of perpetual economic and social precarity so endemic to contemporary everyday life. It is what happens "when the ordinary becomes a landfill for overwhelming and impending crises of life-building and expectation whose sheer volume so threatens what it has meant to 'have a life' that adjustment seems like an accomplishment."

Given all of this, it's hard not to see Joy's appearances on QVC, like Terry's soap opera, as simply another mediated dream. Joy stands on a rotating soundstage outfitted to project a fantasy of order, cleanliness and domestic beauty. She is selling a mop, but the floor is already sparkling and spotless. There are no kids, no bickering adults, no holes in the floor. It is silent, save for the pacifying muzak and the music of Joy's deep, Long Island rasp. Sure, Joy rejects the costume department's glamorizing outfits in favor of her own uniform of a button-down blouse and slacks. But this only contributes to the fantasy of earthy comfort. How easy life could be in this kitchen with this mop! The charm and luxury it could provide!  The divergence of this fantasy from Joy's home life seems to reveal it as another false promise, just another ode to consumption--not to mention female domestic labor--as a means to happiness. That Joy is attempting to realize her dream of the good life from within the conditions of her own confinement, that she is doubling down on a fantasy that has already proven bankrupt, is an irony that the film passes over in silence.

This irony is made darker and more salient by the speed and violence with which Joy's entrepreneurial dream comes crashing down around her. In the film's most savage scene, Joy's family confronts her with the news that, despite her mop's success, bad legal advice has made bankruptcy inevitable. "It's my fault," says her father. "I gave her the confidence to think that she was more than just an unemployed housewife selling plastic kitchen stuff to other unemployed housewives on a junk cable channel...It was my mistake to make me think that she was more than she was." The moment seems to refute the possibility of class mobility and economic hope and even to the very idea of a woman aspiring to more than domestic servitude. With her father, her lawyers, and the now-ghoulish Trudy looming over her, summoning all of patriarchy's incantations to relegate this woman to her proper sphere of life, Joy signs her business away. She turns to her young daughter and calmly rebukes her for holding fast to Mimi's fantasy. "The world does not give you opportunities," she says. "It destroys your opportunities. And it breaks your heart."

Which makes the film's final act even stranger and more unbelievable. In a stirring research montage (fundamental elements of this genre of scene include: protagonist in glasses gasping epiphanically over a crucial document), Joy discovers a fraud perpetrated by one of her creditors. She flies to Dallas to confront him, unleashes a torrent of wit and emerges victorious, contract in hand, her capitalist destiny restored. Flash forward to a quick montage of Joy as the scion of an empire, shrewdly cutting deals, luxuriating in that realized dream of wealthy, tranquil domesticity and, crucially, doling out opportunities to other harried moms with good ideas. Roll credits.

Suffice it to say, this smacks of narrative desperation. This sudden, frankly incredible stroke of fortune to restore justice only reveals the story's basic unbelievability. Because Joy's situation is impossible. And in its impossibility, it powerfully depicts the forces arrayed against a working woman's hope for economic advancement--forces of time and space and economy and patriarchal expectation. Only a kind of genius, a woman touched with almost supernatural (or cinematic) gifts of ingenuity, charisma and verbal dexterity could possibly overcome these odds. The fact that the story is based on the life of an actual, living person does not make this observation any less true. Indeed, in the magic of the ending, the film almost acknowledges the preposterousness of the story it wants to tell: the story of the virtuous, self-made woman, the benevolent meritocrat.

In many ways, American Hustle is another telling of this very story. Like Joy, it depicts the way in which survival on capitalism's margins requires ingenious verbal performance and a kind of fantastical self-reinvention. But in American Hustle that self-reinvention becomes outright self-deception. In that version of the story, those margins are morally chaotic; navigating them entails a massive compromise of personal integrity. American Hustle seemed to be indicting capitalism for its inherent tendency toward corruption and moral distortion. In this light, Joy's story of virtuous self-advancement seems all the more naive. Despite the two films' similarities, Joy seems exactly like the kind of yarn that American Hustle was created to repudiate.

"Why," Berlant wonders, "do people stay attached to conventional good-life fantasies--say, of enduring reciprocity in couples, families, political systems, institutions, markets, and at work--when the evidence of their instability, fragility, and dear cost abounds?" Joy presents that very evidence and yet is unable to resist the fantasy's allure. The film redoubles its investment in a failed economy and in a vision of domestic enchantment demonstrably alien from anything resembling real life. Indeed, Russell's own work has put the lie to this very fantasy. One wonders: Why is he telling this story?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Infinite Justice

Is there a filmmaker alive as adept as Quentin Tarantino at simultaneously delivering pleasure and befuddlement? His virtuosic narrative ability is matched by his willingness to rip the viewer out of their trance with abrupt tone shifts and genre reversals. His worship of cinema history encompasses masterpieces like Stagecoach and Band of Outsiders as well as B-List curiosities like Zorro's Fighting Heroes and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. His fluency in the aesthetics of cinematic violence produces work that is all at once horrifying and beautiful, hilarious and revolting.

And then there is the chutzpah. Isn't it absurd and offensive on its face to even propose the idea of a Samurai revenge treatment of Schindler's List, or a blaxploitation/spaghetti western retelling of Twelve Years a Slave? Our relationship with aestheticized violence is troubled enough as it is; how are we supposed to feel about it in the context of American slavery or the Holocaust? Are we really willing to see these movies as serious engagements with history? And if we don't, are they not just the crassest kind of exploitation? If its a joke, its a pretty profane one. If its art, its fucking bewildering.

The strangeness is heightened by the fact that both of the films referenced above, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, toggle between scenes of horrifying, not-at-all beautiful or funny violence and scenes of spectacular, cartoonish violence. Tarantino's claim to pop-postmodernism is well established and it is nowhere more evident than in his tendency to switch genres without warning within the same film, to segue from art-house character drama to old Hollywood blockbuster, to exploitation flick and back again. It's a technique that he put to thrilling use in the Kill Bill movies and that is significantly more jarring in his history films. After being asked to endure two hours of beatings, whippings and other depictions of antebellum hell, for instance, it is truly strange to see Jaimie Foxx transform into RoboCop and begin mowing down plantation henchmen.

There are a lot of problems at work here: the celebration of violence as a form of historical justice; the cavalier ventriloquism of a white man speaking for oppressed others; the profligate n-bombs; not to mention Tarantino's breezy, dismissive attitude about all of the above. But as his penchant for grand pastiche suggests, Tarantino is a master of meta-cinematic narrative. These films are more than simple homages to trash cinema. Take, for instance, Inglorious Basterds. Yes, we are asked to swallow a counterfactual revenge fantasy in which a platoon of Jewish soldiers mercilessly slaughters German soldiers and in which Hitler dies in a hail of bullets and fire. But that final scene takes place in a movie theater. The all-Nazi audience breathlessly applauds a violent propaganda film about a heroic German soldier, a film that looks suspiciously like the American B war movies that are Inglorious Basterds' aesthetic ancestors. And consider that those cheering Nazis die when the film stock that is the movie's very physical substance is set ablaze, engulfing the theater in flames. When Brad Pitt carves a swastika in Christoph Walz's forehead, are meant to cheer the act of comeuppance? Or reflect on the possibility that, in their lust for revenge, the Americans have become inhuman torturers? Or both? Or consider that in Django, a film whose last act is a riot of cartoonish violence, we watch a room full of Southern gents pay money to see two black men pound each other to death. Yes, the violence is cathartic and spectacular. But in both films our own spectatorship, our own consumption of violent spectacle, is a primary text.

The Hateful Eight is no different. Kurt Russell plays John Ruth, a bounty-hunter attempting to transport a spectacularly foul-mouthed prisoner named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock, Wyoming where she will, presumably, be hanged. On the way, the two encounter a black union officer and fellow bounty-hunter named Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as a former rebel named Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. Both men hitch a ride in Ruth's carriage. Waylaid by a blizzard, they hole up in Minnie's Haberdashery, a barroom, inn and general store. To their surprise, Minnie is nowhere to be found. In her place are four shady figures: an Englishman named Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who claims to be Red Rock's hangman; an aging, terminally racist Confederate general/war criminal (Bruce Dern); Bob, the Mexican stable-hand (Demien Bichir); and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy who whiles away the time by scribbling in his diary.  The cabin quickly becomes a crucible for simmering antagonisms: Union and Confederate, lawman and outlaw, white and black. Where is Millie? Who has designs on poaching Daisy from Ruth and claiming her $10,000 bounty? Who is lying? Who is telling the truth? Who will crack first?

Almost as quickly, a rather obvious metaphor begins to take shape. As tensions between Warren, Ruth, and the two Confederates mount, Mobray proposes dividing the cabin into two halves, North and South, Union and reb. We seem to be setting the scene for a re-staging of the Civil War. But things begin to unravel. The characters form unpredictable alliances. They assume new identities and discard what would seem to be their most essential political commitments. As Richard Brody points out in his astute essay on the film, "The Hateful Eight turns the stagecoach into a stage, the saloon into a stage, and the occupants into performers telling tales that serve their purposes, such as they are." Every identity is a performance. No story, no artifact is quite what it seems.

The combination of high stakes, constricted space and imperfect information creates a thick, escalating tension. The Hateful Eight is almost a film-length extension of the Mexican standoff, that longtime Tarantino staple. But this suspense is only a catalyst for another jarring genre transformation. Because the last third of The Hateful Eight is a total bloodbath. What was a tense drawing room mystery suddenly becomes a splatterfest. Characters vomit buckets of blood. Limbs are severed. Heads, chests, testicles explode. There is shrieking and carnage; it is totally insane.

The brutally tense first two hours seemed to be leading us toward some great cataclysm on the scale of the Civil War itself. And the last act is indeed cataclysmic, only not in the way that the film has prepared us for. It is silly and excessive, a gross-out rather than a horror, more Evil Dead  than Apocalypse Now. It's too much of what we want, like washing down a fine, six-course tasting menu with a gallon of McDonald's milkshake. In its camp and slapstick elements, it is almost a parody of the narrative payoff we have been expecting--less like tragedy, more like farce.

It feels a bit as if, in subjecting the Civil War, the so-called "second American revolution," to such low-born treatment, Tarantino is profaning hallowed ground. But let's remember: The Civil War was pretty profane itself. Maybe the war was too catastrophically surreal--picture, you know, rivers running with blood, acres of meadow filled with bloated, teenaged American corpses--to ever be adequately represented on-screen, at least in the typically reverent way. Maybe The Hateful Eight is suggesting that our political ideals and our national identity, are founded on a violence so extreme--from the Native American genocide through slavery and the Civil War--that it renders our high toned rhetoric of justice, democracy and virtue absurd. Maybe it takes a burlesque to depict such absurdity with any degree of truthfulness.

The fact that all of the characters' ideological commitments and sectional allegiances fall away in the face of that overwhelming violence--to the point that Mannix, the lost cause warrior, and Warren, the black Union officer, end up allied against the Domergue gang--is, to me, a claim that violence is our most salient national characteristic, the ideology that trumps all others. This is why I'm not convinced by the argument that that Mannix and Warren's alliance is an argument for racial solidarity. The movie is called "the hateful eight," after all. Even Warren, the character we are asked to identify with most strongly, whose vengeance against the Confederacy is one of the film's primary texts, is a mass murderer and a sadist who once marched a naked man for hours through the cold and snow, sexually assaulted him in exchange for a blanket...and then didn't give him the blanket.

And while the viewer gets the satisfaction of seeing the Confederate mercenary of Warren's story forced into abjection and of seeing Daisy bloodied and hanged, Mobray, the putative hangman, has already told us everything we need to know about such satisfaction. "Now the good part about frontier justice is it's very thirst quenching. The bad part is its apt to be wrong as right." 

We begin to feel, as Mannix and Warren chortle, bleeding to death in a house full of mangled corpses, Daisy swinging above them with Ruth's severed arm dangling from her wrist, that this is, let's say, a pyrrhic victory. Doesn't their laughter and their satisfaction feel a little hollow, a little grotesque? It is hard to accept the premise that justice has been done. Here it's worth considering the second part of Mobray's line on frontier justice. Under the rule of law, he says, "the man who pulls the lever that breaks your neck will be a dispassionate man. And that dispassion is the very essence of justice." When we recall that this proclamation on the nature of justice is offered by a murderer impersonating an officer of the law, it's easy to smell the irony. Doesn't this lead the viewer to suspect that, in this film's world at least, idealized talk of justice is inherently deceptive, merely a rationalization of violence? Taken together with the final scene, the line begs the question: How different, really, are the hangman and the vigilante? Are Ruth and Mannix and Warren really in any position to administer justice? After all of the shifts in identity, the unravelling of stories, the hedging of allegiances, we're left with the possibility that the only meaningful social fact is violence itself. If The Hateful Eight is Tarantino's answer to Eric Garner and Michael Brown, it is in this way: The film ultimately questions the idea that justice is even possible, that the law is anything but a cover for rapacity, that there is any kind of ideology or politics that rises above the level of simple murder.

*   *   *

But there's a problem here and that problem is Daisy. Jennifer Jason Leigh has, as Slate's Dana Stevens has said, "an excessive outsider-ish quality, a solitary, feral energy." And in the The Hateful Eight, that surplus of subliminal, witchy charisma becomes fully, outlandishly realized. Leigh's Daisy is a racist, foul-mouthed, rotten-toothed maniac. And by the end of the movie, she is a shrieking, bloody wraith. The performance is somehow both mysterious and over-the-top, both comedic and terrifying. There something deeply human about Daisy's pain. She is battered and bloodied, chained to her captor and then to a dead man. Each new wound raises the pitch of her histrionics and expands scope of her fury. The courage and force of the performance, the ability to depict physical suffering as a kind of mania...well, it's just awe-inspiring.

Warren, Ruth and Mannix (and Tarantino himself, the unmoved mover of The Hateful Eight's universe) heap unconscionable levels of violence on Daisy. What's more, in the tradition of the exploitation films whose aesthetic Tarantino is mining here, the violence is explicitly gendered: Every violent act against Daisy is accompanied by one of the male characters calling her a bitch. What's maybe even more troubling is that these moments are structured as comedy. When Ruth elbows Daisy in the face, the audience (at least when I saw the film) let out a shocked laugh, as they did when Warren punches her so hard that she flies out of the stagecoach. As they did when Mannix shoots her in the foot.

When violence arises suddenly out of long periods of stasis and talk, as it does so often in Tarantino's films, it reveals itself as a punchline; it takes advantage of the same relationship of expectation and surprise that structures comedy. We are unable to fathom what has happened and our response, as in so much camp horror, is to laugh or scream or both. We are led to laugh at Daisy's pain or to thrill at it or to recoil from it. Maybe we feel shame at our own laughter and our own cathartic pleasure; maybe we feel disgust at the sadism on display. I obviously cannot speak for every audience member's emotional experience. But as a lover of cinema and a committed suspender of disbelief, but one who is maybe a little bit soft when it comes to violence and who also feels, you know, sympathy for the suffering of other human beings, I felt all of these things.

This brings us into a puzzled relationship with Daisy's fate. Because, on the one hand, the film seems to be suggesting that the standards of justice justifying her execution are deeply degraded. On the other hand, she's the bad guy. She's a murderer, a Confederate sympathizer and a terrible racist. It's in the service of her rescue that the movie's most heinous crimes--the murder of Minnie, Sweet Dave and the rest--are committed. The film's narrative structure pushes us to desire that Warren, the film's hero, bring her to (frontier) justice.

Furthermore, we can't ignore the fact that, despite Leigh's transcendent performance, Daisy's humanity is not rewarded. The historical wrong of gendered violence--and the specific, narrative fact of the violence done against Daisy's body--gains no redress. And despite the irony of the film's ending, despite the affective complexity of the violence done against her, Tarantino still delivers that pleasure and narrative satisfaction at Daisy's expense. I mean, the audience is supposed to enjoy this movie; if it weren't, we'd be talking about Funny Games and not about a spaghetti western gorefest. Tarantino thinks that cinematic violence is cool and he wants the viewer to think its cool too. Can he really be delivering pleasure with such skill while also undoing the premise of that pleasure? Can he actually be as smitten as he is with cinematic violence and also profess to be "on the side of the murdered"?

Tarantino's first love is the aesthetic utopia of American cinema. His imagination is nourished on it; it is his primary language. Although he ironizes legal justice and even the naivete of a cinematic morality in which evil is punished and heroism prevails, he never quite escapes that world's symbolic economy or its complex of desire and catharsis. It is within this realm, in which blood functions as moral currency, that he levels his critique of American politics and plays out his desire for justice. Tarantino wants to have it both ways. He wants us to take his political critique seriously, while still viewing the violence as a purely aesthetic element, a tool for delivering cinematic pleasure. But if we take the social message seriously, as I believe we should, then we have to take the violence against Daisy seriously too. Because while Tarantino has crafted an aptly nihilistic parable about the violence and injustice suffered by African-Americans at the hands of American power, he has done so at the expense of leaving another old yarn intact: the one in which female bodies absorb the brunt of our need for catharsis. Only in this realm--a realm, I might add, typically willed into being by white dudes like Tarantino--could Daisy's punishment makes sense, could the torture of another human being ever deliver moral satisfaction. Tarantino may have unraveled the fantasies of American political idealism, but we have Jennifer Jason Leigh to thank for unraveling Tarantino's own fantasy. Because in her drawls and wails, in her charismatic presence, Leigh's Daisy exposes her own humanity. In so doing, she transcends the moral logic of violent cinematic escapism and reveals the sadism at its heart.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Finis Terrae

Finis Terrae, the title of Jean Epstein's 1929 "narrative documentary," is the Latin translation of "Finistere," the farthest west part of Brittany, a remote swath of land jutting out into the Celtic Sea. It means "end of the earth" or "land's end." Taken most literally it refers to Finistere's place as the last shred of France before land gives way to ocean. So Finistere is an actual place, but when we imagine "the ends of the Earth," we conjure places only accessible to the imagination, places that almost cannot be found. Even more radically, the title evokes not just remoteness but apocalypse, not just the end of the earth but the end of the world, that threshold space between the world and what lies beyond, the final encounter between humans and earth.

The inhabitants of Finistere were ideal subjects for such a meditation. When Epstein encountered them, they seemed, to him at least, far removed from modernity, living a culture and economy that brought them face-too-face with the natural world. The film centers on a four men who camp out on the uninhabited island of Bannec and harvest seaweed, which they then burn to ash and sell on the mainland. It is lonely, arduous work. Fresh water is scarce. The island, itself little more than a pile of rock, is surrounded by dangerous reefs and rough seas. Amid the rocks, the burning, smoke-spewing mounds of kelp and the makeshift hovels the men construct for shelter, the place feels either pre-or post-historic. The kelp farmers seem either like relics of our most primitive economies or survivors of some millennial catastrophe, scavenger's of the Earth's meager remains.

The film's plot is little more than a reenactment of the hazards of life in Finistere: Jean-Marie loses his knife; he accuses his friend Ambroise of stealing it; Ambroise injures his thumb in the argument; he becomes sick and unable to work; the men wonder what is to be done.  But the real "plot" here is the relationship between human bodies and the physical world around them. The film is essentially a collage, a rhythmic interplay between images of the human body--hands, arms and, especially, faces--and shots of the natural world, of white water crashing on rocks, of sun reflecting off of waves, of earth meeting sea meeting grey sky. Epstein was among the first filmmakers to grasp cinema's corporeal possibilities, its ability to situate bodies in physical spaces, to capture dynamic, expressive movement, to explore human affect in fine-grained detail. Finis Terrae is rough around the edges. It keels between melodrama and the open-ended banality of the home movie. It's action meanders aimlessly; its camera work unsteady and jarring. But it is an unsteadiness born of exploration. Epstein is willing to allow events to unfold unpredictably, to plumb the depths of a shot without knowing the result. And this exploration results in a dynamism, a real, original beauty, a world being born before our eyes.

Finis Terrae is somehow neither a straight narrative melodrama, nor a simple aesthetic meditation. It deterritorializes both genres, leaving viewers in a state of suspension, a kind of non-expectation. The most basic source of this effect is an inconsistent temporality. While the pace of action is almost painfully slow, the editing scheme is erratic. Sometimes Epstein toggles quickly between faces and seascapes. Sometimes he lingers on shots of non-action longer than is comfortable for the viewer; sometimes he cuts away from actions before they are complete. And sometimes, without warning, the film drops into slow-motion. A wave crashes, a man laughs and narrative action suddenly evaporates. We are suspended in the affective moment; we absorb all of the moving image's emotional and perceptual possibilities. The pathos of slow motion has become a cliche, but here it still feels radical, as if the fabric of temporal and narrative convention have ruptured. We are suspended in a state of temporal uncertainty, sometimes frustrated and bored, sometimes lost in the expressive eternity of the cinematic moment. It's like a dream.

Epstein frustrates our expectations in another way too. Crucially, all of the the cast members of Finis Terrae are non-professional actors, members of the Ile d'Ouessant community. And Epstein's script and stage-directions were famously bare-bones. ("You are angry with your friend. Action!") As with Robert Bresson's films, we are witness to a strange paradox. Professional actors use artificial techniques to create the illusion of emotional naturalism. They create performances that read to the viewer as authentic reactions to the film's narrative and emotional situation. Non-actors react more "naturally" of course--which is to say, without the artifice of professional technique. But the situation they are reacting to is that of being filmed, of performance itself. As we all know, that reaction produces an affect that feels stilted and emotionally unnatural. The Bretons, very few of whom had ever even seen a film, produce genuinely strange performances. They look at the camera and freeze in stiff, unnatural poses. They gesture wildly and vamp like models. Conventional acting of the era was broad and gestural. Actors created large, well-defined pantomimes of emotion. The villagers' acting is just as broad, but much looser and less circumscribed. They emotions they express bleed into one another and transcend the scene's narrative constraints.

As film historian Christoph Wall-Romano says, the actors here are conveying affects, not emotions. I take this to mean that they express modes of being that are both prior to and are also wilder and more diffuse than emotion. When Jean-Marie is angry at Ambroise, he rants and raves. His gesticulations are exaggerated and erratic. It is almost a burlesque of anger. But also: Even as he berates Ambroise, he steals a glance at the camera and flashes a bemused half-smile. The actors convey the hardships of life, for sure: anger, weariness, sadness, pain. But under it all is a kind of pleasure, a subtle amusement at the act of performance itself, at self-consciously making one's body into an instrument of expression.

There are many analogies that we could use to describe these actors' presence on camera. In their intense emotionalism, their almost monumental presence they are masquelike or even statuesque. But this isn't quite right. Because while the faces and bodies on the screen are estranged from ordinary expression, they are also humanly animated--by movement, by facial feature, by their simple, ecstatic aliveness. In this combination of totemic otherness and human animation, they are uniquely cinematic objects.

What is remarkable here--in the men on the wasted island, in the women in black, surrounded by monolithic rocks, staring out at the sea--is the juxtaposition of these human actors with the world around. What at first seems like simple contrast--the actors' "unnatural" pantomimes superimposed on the "natural" world, their expressiveness up against the world's silence --becomes much less simple the closer we look. Epstein famously said that the camera grants "a semblance of life to the objects it defines." The broken bottle bears the emotional weight of a friendship in crisis. The found knife carries in it the guilt of Jean-Marie's mistreatment of Ambroise. Even the rocks and sea evoke the weariness and fragility of human life at the end of the Earth. In Epstein's hands, the camera has the power to capture an almost spiritual expressiveness from humans and non-human objects alike. It is as if Epstein has discovered a common mode of being, a common affective language, for both objects and humans. The camera transfigures everything it sets its gaze on, absorbs everything into the  realm of the cinematic.

The boundaries here are porous--between animate and inanimate; between cinematic time and lived time; between performance and non-performance; between the film and the world.  The human actors are enmeshed in the world. The waves and rocks and smoke and broken glass and characters suffuse one another with their affective presence. This mutual enmeshing produces not a coherent whole, but a fluid, multivalent, affective flesh. And just as humans and environment envelope and penetrate one another, we viewers are suffused by that very flesh--which is the film itself.  The film's disruptions of temporality, of narrative expectation, of visual continuity and of emotional realism--even its boredom and banality--all serve to unsettle our habits of perception, to guide us into this new corporeo-cinematic order. What seemed at first like an apocalypse, like some ultimate encounter, is actually the beginning of cinema.

Near the end of the film, Jean-Marie realizes that he has falsely accused Ambroise and attempts to sail his ailing friend back to Ouessant for medical attention. Simultaneously, a rescue party has launched from Ouessant to save the men on Bannec. It is a dangerous voyage through thick fog and rough seas; it seems impossible that the two boats could find each other. In one way, the scene illustrates the precarity of life in Finistere. Ambroise's survival hangs in the balance. The two boats are all alone, enveloped in fog, at the mercy of the elements, drifting off the end of the Earth. Miraculously, the boats meet and the boys are brought home to safety. There is hope here. That fog and water and human beings are part of the same system of expression and intelligibility. That we are at home in the world. That we may navigate the wild, dark sea.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bloody and Chrome

The plot of Mad Max: Fury Road (directed, as were all of the previous three films, by George Miller) is refreshingly simple. The setting is a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland. Immortan Joe is a ghoulish, Vader-esque warlord who hoards water, food and beautiful women of birthing age in a mountain stronghold called the Citadel. Like most such strongmen, he rules through a combination of charisma, economic power and a quasi-religious cult of extreme violence. Joe charges Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron),  one of his most trusted cadres, with leading a convoy to replenish supplies at the aptly named Gas Town and Bullet Farm. Instead, Furiosa smuggles Joe's harem in the belly of her big rig in a mad bid for freedom. On the way, they pick up Max (Tom Hardy), the Road Warrior himself, also recently escaped from Joe's clutches. A mind-blowingly violent car chase ensues.

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Action movies are supposed to be fun but they almost never are.  In my experience, they manage to be at once overstimulating to the point of panic, obscenely cavalier with human life and also deadly boring. So it's no small compliment to say that the carnage and speed and noise and visual density of Mad Max: Fury Road truly is an incredible thrill. Be prepared, though:  this movie aims for all-out perceptual saturation. Light-drenched widescreen panoramas of desert and sky give way to frantic camera swoops and zooms. Extreme closeups of colossal, heaving machinery and manic human faces flutter by almost in collage. There are huge, kaleidoscopic mosaics filled to the brim with visual detail. And the design aesthetic choice. The nearest description might be an armed, post-apocalyptic, death metal demolition derby: monster trucks and muscle cars, all souped-up, armored and seriously weaponized but decayed and shambolic, held together with spare parts and found objects--skulls, spears, tank treads--covered in rust and oil and desert sand. It's like a medieval, carsploitation, sci-fi western. And if that sounds steampunk to you, it is--but in the gnarliest, most psychedelic way possible.

Did I mention the Doof Wagon, a flatbed loaded with Marshall stacks, a fleet of tyco drummers, and, suspended by cables above it all, a blind guitarist shredding on a flamethrowing double-necked guitar? That's real. (While we're on the subject of the Doof Wagon, this movie features some of the most spectacular character names you will ever hear. Imperator Furiosa? Toast the Knowing? Rictus Erectus? A thousand times yes.) And the humans are just as frankensteinian as the machines. They're like sacks of dusty bones, like prehistoric dirt creatures, clad in leather and rusty iron, often grotesquely scarred or deformed, sporting mechanized limbs, packing serious heat. From the cars to the weapons, from the goth accessories to the human bodies themselves to the speed of everything, Fury Road tends toward total audio-visual excess. It is mind-blowing and campy and terrifying and hilarious. It beggars description. Certain passages of this movie felt, to me, like something close to pure cinematic pleasure.

Of course this pleasure comes at a high price. The film overwhelms the viewer's sensorium, but it also overwhelms the human bodies within the film itself--by maiming, by cyborgification, by disease. This is practically a convention of the genre. But the violence here is extreme and total and it poisons every aspect of life. In this world there is almost no trust or human companionship. Violence mediates every human relationship; it backs every interaction like a currency. The beginning of Max and Furiosa's partnership is a game of mutual mistrust; almost every move they make is a hedge against treachery. Even language is badly decayed, boiled down almost entirely to sheer utility or violent exhortation. Max himself communicates mainly in a series of grunts and refuses to even utter his own name.  When Nux, one of Immortan Joe's army of "war boys" who has stowed away on Furiosa's rig, casually refers to a tree as "that thing," it's a funny acknowledgement not just of the obliterated natural world, but also of that world's severely restricted possibilities--for language, for imagination, for human life of any kind.

Unlike most movies of its kind, Fury Road actually seems to understand the devaluation of human life implied by violence on this scale. And it illustrates it in typically spectacular ways. The war boys are hairless and painted white. They are anonymous, born to live and quickly die in thrall to violence and power. Before they hurl themselves into certain death--and a ticket to Valhalla--they spray chrome paint on their mouths and scream "WITNESS ME!" It is pure insanity. After his capture by Joe's henchmen, Max becomes a "bloodbag," a human IV bag used to funnel healthy blood into sick war boys. Women work as milk-pumping machines or sex slaves. And the people living in the shadow of the Citadel are essentially abject human dust living at Immortan Joe's mercy. Also: One of Joe's henchmen sports an embalmed baby's head as an amulet.  Despite the aesthetic thrill, this may be the least appealing post-apocalyptic desert-scape of all time. As the film goes on, the horror of it all becomes harder to ignore.

We're even forced to consider the lives of the war boys, the kinds of faceless storm troopers that are dispensed with, casually and in great number, in so many violent movies. After he comes aboard Furiosa's truck, we actually come to know and to sympathize with Nux. We get to see him as a human person with feelings and desires. It's a lot harder to see other war boys blown to bits when we know they're capable of, say, love or regret or nostalgia. And, significantly, we  come to understand the nature of Nux's worship of Immortan Joe. It turns out that the violence and spectacle serve the same purpose for Nux as it does for the viewer. Just to perform as crazed warriors, they must achieve an ecstasy that short-circuits their deliberative minds and overwhelms their natural-born empathy. They truly are a benighted bunch, indoctrinated from childhood in an ethos of total violence, fed myths of an eternal reward in exchange for their self-sacrificial zeal. They, like us, are meant to be enthralled by the terrible beauty of it all; of course the optics are going to be spectacular. There's a parable on the fascistic perils of spectatorship for you.

Now, the self awareness at work here only extends so far. For as much as Fury Road has allowed itself to be hyped as a "feminist" action film, Immortan Joe's runaway brides look suspiciously as if they've just escaped from an Aerosmith video. They may be rebelling against the Citadel's particular form of sexual control, but they're still objects, if not of Joe's affections than of the hetero male viewer's eye. (Which is not to say that Charlize Theron's performance as Furiosa is anything but devastating.) And, in the end, the film still proffers a rather well-worn narrative of redemption through violence, a violence that rights political wrongs and offers personal salvation to go along with its narrative resolution. And that resolution here is fairly thin. We're supposed to believe that something transformational has happened simply because one impressively costumed, water-hoarding caudillo has been toppled? I don't buy it. The evil at play here is too deep-seated and sinister, the ecological and spiritual wounds too deep. This is still a desert hellscape of warlord capitalism. We still have Gas Town and the Bullet Farm. This world is fucked.

But there is another moment in the film that offers a more convincing utopian possibility. As the action wears on, Max and Furiosa repeatedly exchange brazen life-saving feats. Their fates increasingly intertwine. Belatedly they come to trust one another. Near the end of the film, Furiosa sustains a life threatening wound and begins to bleed to death. Max puts an IV line from his arm into hers, allowing his blood to flow into her veins. "Max," he says, "my name is Max. That's my name." Like everything in Fury Road, the moment passes instantly. But the rhyme with the Max's time as a bloodbag is unmistakable. Immortan Joe's colony treated Max's body as just another natural resource to be plundered. But when Max commingles his blood with Furiosa's and finally speaks his name, it is an act of real brother-and-sisterhood. It's a genuinely communal moment, practically a marriage, that most optimistic of human institutions. In this world, that qualifies as a miracle.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Welcome to the Machine

Christopher Nolan's dark horse not-quite masterpiece The Prestige is a movie about magicians. But the magic that The Prestige explores most profoundly is the alchemy inherent to our experience of cinema: the way the eye can transform flickering light into an illusion of reality; the way we are enticed into investing our bodies and our emotions into blatant artifice. Not coincidentally, The Prestige describes a turn-of-the-century cultural moment in which science began to replace the supernatural and the religious as the site of our magical imagination. Fossils become light. Humans walk on the moon. Machines speak. Says Hugh Jackman's voiceover: "We be fooled."

But science's greatest magical aspiration might also be nature's most impossible feat of alchemy: the creation of consciousness out of nothing more than matter and energy. These overlapping phenomena--the magic of human consciousness and the messianic desire to synthesize it--are the subjects of Alex Garland's Ex-Machina. Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac with the perfect blend of charm and menace, is the reclusive founder of a Google-like technology company called BlueBook. He invites a young, low-level BlueBook programmer named Caleb to his home, a hyper-modern enclave nestled to the point of invisibility within a vast, mountainous wilderness. It's a beautiful, but distinctly unwelcoming place. Much of the house is underground and windowless. There are key cards that restrict access to certain mysterious rooms. There are random, late-night power outages that automatically lock all the doors. Setting a place this enclosed and suffocating within a location of such openness, produces a strange claustrophobia. (Extremely remote places can, of course, produce a claustrophobia all their own. No one can here you scream, etc.)

We soon learn that Nathan has secretly been building an AI robot; it is Caleb's role to test the machine, named Ava, for consciousness. The test, known as "The Turing Test," is this: Can a computer fool a human into believing he or she is talking to another human? Nathan, ever the provocateur, ups the ante. Can Caleb be fooled into believing he is talking to a human--or at least a perfect simulation of a human consciousness--when he already knows he is talking to a computer? This is the magic trick that Nathan performs for Caleb and that Ex-Machina performs for its audience. Nathan's house is a kind of black-box theater in which the trick plays out in plain sight. Will Caleb come to believe that Ava is human? Will we?

Every magic trick has its distractions, the filagrees and gestures that divert us from the real sleight-of-hand. In this particular trick--and this comparison is directly raised in the film by Nathan himself--the diversion is what you might call "the magician's assistant." Simply put, these robots are all beautiful young women. The revelation late in the film--and this is is a spoiler, as is probably everything hereafter--that Ava's particular beauty and demure personality have been specifically designed to fit Caleb's deepest desires (not to mention, I'm guessing, that of a significant portion of the film's audience) is, upon reflection, not really a revelation at all. It is one of Hollywood's oldest tricks. Put a beautiful woman on screen and you will hold our (assumed to be male, hetero) gazes. In fact, we will be hard pressed to notice anything else.

Ava is the robot we get to know and the only one with anything like a fully formed personality. But there are plenty of other women in this movie. We discover late in the film that Ava is merely the latest generation of AI babes; the rest have been deactivated. Their eerily inert unclothed bodies are stored in a cabinet in Nathan's inner quarters. One shudders to think of the young actress reading the casting descriptions. Yet another role calling for a "astonishingly beautiful" young woman to stand around naked and silent; a piece of erotic visual furniture. Indeed the real test here might be the one performed on the audience by the character known as Kyoko. She is Nathan's, yup, astonishingly beautiful Japanese servant, sexual and otherwise. She caters to Nathan's every whim; she sits around half-dressed; she unflinchingly absorbs Nathan's temper tantrums. And she never speaks. "Don't bother trying to talk to her," Nathan says, "she doesn't speak a word of English."

Here's the thing. The viewer--this particular viewer anyway--doesn't know until late in the film whether she is a human or an AI.  Has she simply been programmed for mute, Geisha-like subservience? Or has she been programmed in the larger sense that Nathan describes in the film, programmed by biology and culture, or maybe by a sadistic male captor? It is revealing of our expectations for female representation in cinema that this character could plausibly be taken for a human being.

Ava is trapped in the same house, in the same hermetically sealed world as Kyoko. But (at least as far as we can see), she has a far greater intellectual, social and verbal capacity. She puts these tools to great use. Alicia Vikander's performance as Ava is totally captivating. Her movements and expressions are somehow both robotic and also recognizably human. She performs all the appropriate social signals and facial inflections, but they are subtly stilted; we can sense the synthetic processing behind each expression. And yet, she charms Caleb and she charms us. The tension between her desire--for freedom, for companionship--and the severe limitations of her world produces a tangible, human frisson. Ava feels real. We see her wires and circuits but when she puts on a wig and a dress, there she is: a real girl.

But this is, of course, a magic trick, though not the one we were expecting. Like Gone Girl, Ex-Machina resurrects a type as old as Western lit: the scheming, beautiful woman who flirts and seduces, who makes use of the entire array of feminine wiles to achieve an ambition. Both films explore the idea of femininity--most specifically, female heterosexual desirability--as a kind of manipulative performance, a stand-in for "authentic" expression. (In my opinion, Ex-Machina does this much more intelligently and thoroughly.) Given the emotional deception and cold violence performed by both female leads, this performance comes off as almost a form of sociopathy.

But this is a normed sociopathy. In both films, classically feminine seduction and deception are the women's only means of escape from terrifying, claustrophobic, male-orchestrated worlds.  Indeed, this is precisely Nathan's real test of Ava's assimilation of human consciousness: Could she make use of her desirability, the only avenue to power granted her by her "culture," to achieve her liberation? (Ava's culture being the massive database of search engine analytics that Nathan uses as her software, plus the heavily circumscribed world that he has created for her.) Nathan's hermetically sealed science experiment is a simulacrum-in-miniature of how feminine performance is produced. So the question of Ava's affective authenticity is something of a red herring. The visible circuitry and the robotic gestures that signal her artificiality are a slight-of-hand. The real question is: How authentic, how "natural," is any gendered performance?

Ex-Machina's final reversal--it's prestige, in the parlance--is a pretty fascinating trick indeed. For most of the film, we are allowed to adopt Caleb's perspective as our own without a second thought, to fall under the cinematic spell of straight male desire. It is a familiar way of viewing and we succumb to it easily. It is fairly amazing, then, when our sympathies, and even our embodied perspective, begin to shift from Caleb to Ava. She stands in front of Nathan's cabinet of horrors, staring at the inert, battered bodies of her predecessors. She peels their synthetic skin and layers it over her exposed robotic innards. She literally wears the skin of other women, absorbing their bodies into her own. There is something eminently familiar about this, the cobbling together of a wearable skin, a skin fit to be gazed upon---the fabrication of visible self that could pass as human.

The longer we spend in Nathan's house--a place of almost messianic technological ambition hidden within a sublime wilderness--and the more we get to know Ava, the more we can feel the slippage between what we know about what is human and what is not, what is nature and what is technology, what is organic and what is synthetic. This slippage is surely a major element of the disquiet that pervades the entire film. But the final act's sudden reversal of fortunes upsets our confidence in even those compromised binaries.  Hidden within our working conception of nature is the idea that the way things are is the way they have been ordained to be--ordained by physical laws or by some transcendent creator. "Nature" is often merely an excuse to follow the cognitive path of least resistence, to fall into automatic habits of seeing. It's easy to believe in Ava's pliability and sexual availability. We're used to seeing women, on-screen and elsewhere, as barely more than objects of male desire. Nathan believes he has hacked human consciousness or nudged it, God-like, to its next evolutionary stage. But all he has ultimately done is reproduced some of our our culture's most ingrained assumptions. The "nature" that Ex-Machina undermines is the assumption that these beliefs are based in some organic reality, that they are, well, natural.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Killer of Foxes

From the outset, Foxcatcher is intimately attuned to physicality. This is, after all, a wrestling film. Early on, we see Dave Schultz and his brother Mark (played by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, respectively) in training. They gently stretch one another's limbs and joints; they slowly mimic the movements and interlocking holds of a match; they carefully put their hands on each other's faces and heads; they embrace. It is a kind of intimate dance, a pantomime of aggression doubling as a physical expression of brotherly love. The wrestlers' mere presence is a testament to their physicality. Tatum's performance of the wide-armed, short-striding gate of very muscular men verges on a waddle. It is almost as if his body is so primed for explosive athletic movement that it is uncomfortable with the mundane physical acts of daily life.

Steve Carell's portrayal of John du Pont, the monumentally wealthy wrestling aficionado best known for murdering Dave Schultz, is equally physically expressive but set in almost an almost diametrically opposed register. He tilts his head back at an odd angle and maintains a plasticene facial stillness. His nose and teeth have been bizarrely prosthetically reinforced. His body is soft and hunched; he moves with a pinched, sclerotic shuffle. The effect is one of instant clammy smarm, an effect that is only enhanced when he opens his mouth. He speaks in a clipped, aristocratic western Pennsylvania accent that halts and restarts unnaturally. And he seems to have no ear for conversational English as spoken by non-billionaire non-aristocrats. When du Pont first meets Mark Schultz and attempts to convince him to live and train on the Foxcatcher estate, he drops this tangential snippet (and realize, this is a conversation about wrestling): "Do you birdwatch? You could learn a lot from birds. I'm an ornithologist. But more importantly I'm a patriot. I want to see this country soar again." Later in the film, du Pont assures Mark that they have become so close that Mark need not call him "Mr. du Pont." "My friends call me 'Eagle' or 'Golden Eagle.' Or you can call me 'John' or 'Coach.'" Will do, Coach.

It soon becomes clear that du Pont is a fraud. His knowledge of wrestling is mostly limited to classical/patriotic soliloquies that pass for motivational speeches. He calls himself a "mentor" and a "leader of men" but his athletes view him as little more than a very creepy benefactor. The physical contact he goes out of his way to initiate with the wrestlers--touches on the arm, demonstrations of elementary wrestling moves, even some drunken horseplay--display an unearned intimacy. We begin to understand that anything du Pont claims to have achieved he has purchased. His only childhood friend, he confides to Mark Schultz, was paid by du Pont's own mother to hang out with her strange son. His claims on his own behalf are grandiose delusions, testaments to the power of extreme wealth to buy human experience. The du Pont of Foxcatcher is a mix of extreme interpersonal awkwardness and pathological vanity. In other words, he is terrifying.

Hollywood films seem obsessed with achieving maximum imitative "authenticity" in their portrayal of historical figures. They strain to revivify the character's every gestural mannerism and facial tic. Here, Tatum and Carell may have taken this tendency to its endgame. It's hard not to be a little awed by power of Carell's eccentricity, by the exquisite menace he projects throughout the film. But Carell's portrayal is a grotesque of the historical du Pont's manner of being. It verges on pure performance, on a kind of expressionist caricature that nearly transcends the film itself.

Which is, in a certain way, fine with me. In fact, I very much appreciate the moments of almost hallucinatory grotesquerie that well up from within Foxcatcher's based-on-true-events, sports-movie structure. When Mark Schultz loses a match in the 1988 Olympic trials, he feverishly devours an entire room service cart's worth of chocolate cake and fried chicken, smashes his face into the mirror and then attempts to purge the weight by first vomiting and then by losing 12 pounds of sweat on a stationary bike. Flying to a benefit dinner (a dinner honoring du Pont, presumably funded by du Pont himself), du Pont engages in a coke-fueled reading of remarks he has prepared for Schultz: " ornithologist, philatalist, philanthropist!" he repeats over and over in his manic whine, Joker-grin pasted on his face.  Later, there is the very strange sight, almost reminiscent of the great bath scene in Spartacus, of a coke binging Schultz giving du Pont a haircut. It's pretty strong stuff and it quite effectively conveys the sense of a familiar human situation (athletes training for a competition) that has slipped into frightening, unfamiliar territory, of a world become demented and strange.  In terms of communicating that strangeness-unto-dread, of making the viewer feel it in her toes, Foxcatcher is a near-masterpiece.

But this is the problem. Not only does Carell's performance threaten to eclipse the rest of the film, it also threatens to eclipse du Pont as a character. We glimpse du Pont's queasily childlike relationship with his mother (played with delicious, icy dismissiveness by Vanessa Redgrave), just enough to infer some Freud-via-Hitchcock psychopathology. But it really is just a glimpse. All we really understand of du Pont is that foreign way of speech, that clammy physical presence, that spectacular eccentricity. And so the violent act that looms at the end of the film, an act known to any viewer with even a cursory knowledge of the film's backstory and that has no satisfying motivation either in the film's plot or the historical record, seems simply inherent to du Pont's being. Carell's du Pont is a purely cinematic artifact; the set of signifiers attached to him all point us inexorably to the inevitable narrative conclusion. (This is probably the deepest irony of the hagiographic documentary that we see du Pont's sycophants producing throughout Foxcatcher.  The doc makes clumsy use of cinematic artifice to create the campy, fawning portrait of du Pont as a neo-classical patriot and wrestling yogi. But the "real" du Pont of Foxcatcher--the one played by Steve Carell--is no less fabricated, only much more artfully so.)

This becomes especially problematic when we see the direction those signifiers are pointing. Foxcatcher presents du Pont as fundamentally estranged from authentic human relationships. We understand this partly as a product of his wealth; his intimacies and accomplishments are all, at their heart, financial transactions. This sounds like it could be an illustration of the spiritual distortions of wealth, or a critique of capitalism's contractualization of experience. But Foxcatcher doesn't come off this way; there's another facet to the portrayal. As the awkward, unwanted touches, the almost idolatrous gazes, the outbursts of jealousy all mount up over the course of the film, we begin to see du Pont not only as very strange but as queer. And this queerness is inextricable from his not just stilted, not just alien, but ultimately threatening affect.

When du Pont attempts to engage in the kind of physical movement and contact that the Schultz brothers--those salt-of-the earth, hetero jocks--perform so naturally, he just looks pathetic and contemptible, like someone's effete little brother trying to hang with the cool kids. The brothers know how real men love (that is: with a kind of tender physical aggression). The faggy polymath most certainly does not. Du Pont's most fundamental delusion is that he could ever experience the kind of camaraderie and physicality that such guys enjoy. And this delusion, this violation of the Schultz's space of straight brotherly love, is the heart of du Pont's menace.

So we understand du Pont's violent trajectory not as a product of some corrupt societal structure, (or of simple mental illness, which is the most likely case) but instead as the inevitable product of his deviance, his alienation from the "normal" social world. For all of the indelible moments that it evokes, Foxcatcher really is a bad, old story, one that Hollywood has told many times over. It is less a critique of a social or economic situation than a critique of a very strange man. In other words, it has very little to say.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Take Back the Night

When, we say that a film is visually "dark," we tend to conjure the all-swallowing darkness that drapes Gordon Willis' Mid-'70's work, in which all of the film's subjects--objects, human faces, space itself--seem to be enfolded in shadow. But the color palette of Ana Lily Amirpour's black-and-white Jarmuschian vampire film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night hearkens back farther, to the high-conrast, chiaroscuro of the noir era. Here, light borders directly on shadow. White draws its meaning from black. Black is both richly textured and bottomless, both the presence and absence of all color, somehow both devoid of light and humming with a dark radiance all its own.

As the title suggests, the film takes place almost entirely after sundown, in the dark, deserted streets of the Farsi-speaking Bad City. This is fitting, because A Girl Walks Home Alone... occupies a cinematic dreamworld, a hybrid of gothic horror, Iranian social-realism and Hollywood gun/girl/car noir, all set to a mix of Persian psych-pop and Anglo-American new wave. It is fantastically beautiful and fantastically cool. It observes the characters on society's margins--junkies, dealers, prostitutes, renegade kids--but sets them within the louche ambience, the blase, dreamy swagger, of mid-century Hollywood. David Lynch has perfected this commingling of B-film style and deep existential dread, and Amirpour has tapped into that vein beautifully. As with Jim Jarmusch, the characters' coolness always seems to be a desperate bid to ward off boredom and, deeper down, something much worse. We never directly encounter the regime and its mechanisms of social control, but we always feel the presence of some abstract authority pushing deviant behavior into the shadows. We sense a kind of heavy malevolence in the air even before we see the casually observed, un-remarked-upon image of a drainage ditch filled with corpses.

*     *     *

Enter the majestic Sheila Vand. Playing a character known only as "The Girl," she silently haunts the streets, her pale, regally inexpressive face framed by her black headscarf. She glides along the walls like a shadow and cruises toward the camera on a skateboard, chador flowing, cape-like, behind her. She dances--very slowly--in her bedroom. And yes, she feasts on the blood of the city's predatory men. But this is not some morally unambiguous revenge pulp. It doesn't go down easy. As in Hollywood noir, the shadows signal a malignant presence in the heart of the world, a corruption of the societal fabric.  The darkness is like the air they breathe. It creeps around corners and through windows; it seeps into the characters' facial expressions and envelopes their relationships.

In this sense, the heroine's vampirism, and the black clothing in which she shrouds herself, suggest that she herself is implicated in the film's fallen moral world. Her first victim is a spectacularly detestable pimp, drug dealer and abuser. Seems morally straightforward enough. But from there things become more complicated. She kills a sleeping homeless man. She approaches a ten-year-old street kid and asks him if he is a good boy. This turns out to be a rhetorical question. When he says yes, she replies, in a truly monstrous voice, "I can tear your eyes out of your skull and give them to dogs to eat." And then, for good measure: "Till the end of your life, I'll be watching you. Understand?" He understands.

This is, without question, a profound indictment of a misogynistic culture; she knows that in some essential way, the boy cannot possibly be telling the truth. But the film--and The Girl--recognize that in making this indictment, she has also indicted herself. She devours human blood; she terrorizes children; she is not immune to the moral sickness plaguing her world--because nobody is. This recognition allows for an uncommon moral ambiguity. A ten year-old-boy holds within him the potential for horrible acts. An abusive John might be complicit in violence but he is also someone's father. "I've done bad things," she says to her maybe boyfriend Arash, and we know it's true.

But The Girl's self-implication is also a radical act. In walking the streets alone at night, in occupying this dark, forbidden space, she reconfigures the symbolism of the black chador. What was a marker of female modesty now signals her dark magic, her transgressive power. The veil is a symbol of invisibility. But in haunting the men of the city The Girl becomes visible. Paradoxically, this visibility allows her to step outside of the traditional fundamentalist, not to mention cinematic, dynamics of female virtue. She has discovered an un-policed space.

What does this look like? Well it's fucking magnificent. Cinema bestows a kind of luminosity. The cinematic subject projects an aura, something like a radiant self-ness. The male gaze circumscribes that aura, channels that self-ness through its lens of normalizing, heterosexual desire. You're not seeing a human person, you're seeing a fantasy. But The Girl is relentlessly herself. Her desire, her thirst, is unchainable. She seethes and smolders like a goth Barbara Stanwyck. She glides on that skateboard; she vamps with her cat; she loses herself in the music; she stares down the camera with a mouthful of blood. She does violence and performs acts of grace. Just like a real human being. And when she does all of this this her wild identity, that radiant self-ness, just explodes on the screen.  "You don't remember what you want," she tells the aging prostitute that she has been following. "You don't remember wanting." This is perhaps the most damning thing she could say about the culture she inhabits. That The Girl's irruption of strange, intemperate desire reads as transgression--that it lives in darkness and shadow and evokes terror--is a testament to cinema's bad conscience, and the world's.