California Dreaming

This past December was the sophomore year of the Disney Star Wars resurgence, and fans and critics were generally pleased. Rogue One was an entertaining return to the time of the original trilogy, complete with Stormtroopers, Star Destroyers and Vader’s signature black helm. The key differentiator was the tone of the film, closer to a gritty war movie than the jolly camp adventure of the Lucas originals. Also missing were the opening crawl, John William’s score and signature fade wipes. So we’re left with a solid action movie, dressed up in all the mise en scène of Star Wars (the tech, jargon, lore) missing the feel of the core trilogy. From a business and marketing perspective, this is a brilliant move, broadening Disney’s Star Wars IP beyond the narrow artistic confines of the original films. Prior to Rogue One, this was all but impossible. See: the uproar over the blasphemous prequels; the Force Awakens honing tightly to the prescribed formula.

Yet there’s something lacking in the new broadened and reawakened reality. Something cynical in the ultra efficient filmmaking of the Disney-Lucasfilm industrial complex.

Thinking back to the 77 Star Wars, there was a crew of dreamers and engineers, shaggy and bespectacled. They lacked the funds of the big studios, so they improvised spaceships with model airplane parts and glue. I watched the original 77 film recently, and I was struck by those moments in-between. Not only the iconic scenes that are oft repeated (Vader stomping around, Luke’s wide eyed naivete), but the naturalistic shots of a krayt dragon skeleton in the sand, the denizens of Mos Eisley drinking and smoking exotic vices, Aunt Beru pouring blue milk, Han’s improvised frustrations, Leah’s feisty snark. It’s these non-serious in-between shots that make the universe feel lived in, that it will stick around beyond the battle between the Empire and the Rebellion. That feeling is lost from the later films, and most of the newer entries, where every moment is a life or death struggle, high intensity, and even the humor is that of soldiers, not idiosyncratic galactic weirdness.

The similarities to another California success story are striking: Apple. Jobs and Woz, hacking away in a garage with borrowed parts, their first computer cobbled together with a hand soldered board and wooden frame. Accolades, fame and fortune came later, but that first strike defined the core of what Apple would be: beautifully designed personal computers for individuals, not gray number-crunching machines. Just as Star Wars redefined the feel of space sci-fi in cinema (away from the cold techno optimism of Star Trek or 2001 to a warm, worn galaxy of adventure, populated with familiar archetypes, not unknowable aliens or pressing philosophical conundrums), Apple made nerdy gadgets the ultimate status symbol.

And of course, both Apple and Star Wars were massive hits, redefining their respective industries, entering the cultural canon, earning billions. Here we are, 40 years later, both have become institutions. Both are riding on their past glories, minor adjustments being marketed as courageous moves, but mostly just polishing and remixing the rich material of the past.

The question remains: is the magic still there? The spark that brought these two behemoths to life? Of course, Jobs and Lucas are gone. But there were others in the early days, down in the death star trenches. Disney has proven to be a responsible steward of cultural heritage (Star Wars, Marvel superheros and fairy-tales the world over). And Apple continues to bevel aluminum edges and perfect their minimalist helvetica marketing. But now they are the establishment.

The time’s ripe for another set of shaggy underdogs with zero budget and a dream.

The Long Bright Dark

HBO has a thing for Louisiana.  True Blood, Treme, and now True Detective.  Maybe it’s the tax breaks, or the distinctive mise-en-scène of a Spanish moss shrouded bayou.  Or maybe since Katrina, when the southern gothic literary tradition became glaringly real on CNN, the State has dominated a cultural sub consciousness, the glory of crumbling Americana.

truedetective-pos

True Detective’s format leads itself to acclaim: top actors at the apex of their creative powers, a young novelist and director, a full eight hours to tell a story.  All those pieces work very well together, and the show will rack up awards and sell lots of artfully packaged box sets.

But I think what caught so many viewers off guard was how dark the entire thing was.  These were some of the scariest, most disturbing episodes of television I’ve ever watched.  The initial murder was draped in horrific imagery and menace with hardly any gore.  And after that we listened to Rust and Marty talk in two different timelines.

A cardinal rule of storytelling is “show, don’t tell”.  And yet, that’s where we find ourselves, listening to Marty and Rust tell the story to two detectives.  It’s testament to McConaughey and Harrelson we remain captivated.  Of course, there’s some dramatic irony when their recounted tale doesn’t match up with the events played out on the screen.

Our narrators are unreliable, and the camera possesses a certain perspective as well.  The landscape shots are slow zooms, clipping the tree tops, the vantage of a malevolent god.  And there’s some criticism about the male gaze, gratuitous nudity, objectification of the paper-thin female characters.

I’ve come to see the “sexification” as intentional.  Even the opening credits are a mix of caustic Louisiana landscapes and writhing female flesh – literally exposed on the faces of Rust and Marty.

Note how the women in Marty’s life are beautiful, Playboy centerfold quality.  Rust is in with the sad and dirty truckstop girls, and he turns them down, preferring a bottle of pills under the table.  Even Maggie, the one woman who crosses the line between the two, has a rutting, guilty encounter with Rust – far from the acrobatic and sensual affairs Marty imagines.

Since the 80s popularization of the horror genre, there’s been a formula: take something wholesome (summer camp, a pristine neighborhood, etc) add an evil element, and watch things fall to pieces.  Innocents are killed, perhaps the villain is stopped.  But in the end, we’re still left with that default control state that the world (sans our villain) is good.

Cosmic, existential horror works in the reverse.  The default state of the universe is misery, terror and despair.  For a time, something heroic may rise for a time, but it will always be crushed and decay.

Horror lost its meaning, going from a true supernatural fear, to something to joke about, rubber masks, and teenage pranks.  Those tropes were our protection. By putting something frightening – death, demons, the occult – into a set of familiar characters, we could shrug off the fear with a laugh.

The old Lovecraftian horror envisioned malevolent Old Ones, beings outside of time and space, who watched us with hungry and angry eyes.  The new nihilism, explained by Rust, has a lot of the same despair and horror, but Cthulu has been replaced by the cold laws of physics.  Human consciousness is a mistake of evolution.  Love and human relationships are just a veneer, a trick to get us to reproduce.  Even concepts of good and evil are emergent behavior, irrelevant to the pull of gravity or the strong atomic force.

Rust goes further, talking about a perspective from outside of time, where all our actions are pre-ordained, and can be viewed as a “flat circle”, ever repeating, confined within realm of possibility.  We’re ultimately trapped within that circular prison.

One interesting reading is that we – the audience – are those old gods.  We watch the True Detective story on its flat circle (DVDs), skipping chapters, fast forwarding and rewinding, Rust and Marty seeking clues and shooting creepy murderers without end.

And so it comes back to us, the viewers.  How we respond to the things we’re seeing.

There was some backlash at the conclusion.  Disappointment that the conspiracy wasn’t cracked open, that fingers weren’t pointed at the high and mighty, that all the clues weren’t consumed.

I’d call this the Lost syndrome: we want to build crazy conspiracies, and then have the show validate them.  When the show takes a different path, focusing on character or theme instead of the intricacies of plot, we get angry.

Even as Rust explains “Nothing in this world is solved,” some still viewed the show from that lens of 80s horror, that all the evil in the universe of the story can be pinpointed exactly on the conspiracy.

The idea that things are messy (cases aren’t solved, there are gray zones of evil, our actors aren’t either heroes or villains) is what is disturbing to the audience.  They want to wrap up their genre feast of serial killers in a neat package, all the trope checkboxes marked off.  Fact is – the Yellow King cult was just a McGuffin to illustrate true existential horror, not only in the southern gothic tradition (rural decay, poor backwoods life, inbreeding, sexual abuse and debasement) but all of life.  That was Rust’s feeling, that regardless of where he went (undercover in the Mexican cartels, up north to Alaska to work as a fisher and trapper), the horror of life followed him.  It was inescapable, part of his reality.

Only when he was reduced to a coma, and he had a glimpse of some deeper force, could he see beyond the horror.  The world is still filled with darkness, but maybe there is some light.

So too with the show. Some of these hinted images were the most disturbing things I’ve seen in some time.  Difficult to sleep through.  But it’s the glimmer of hope at the end, and the change in the heart of Marty and Rust, that elevates True Detective beyond quality genre fodder.

I’m looking forward to Season 2.

Day Per Second

Back at the end of 2012, I saw a cool video and accompanying TED talk about a guy who was going to record a second of his life each day, then compile each snippet into a 5 minute video of his entire year. He planned to do this for his thirties, and beyond, so he could watch a feature length film of his entire life. The more cynical view was that he was just trying to raise funds for an iPhone app that would enable users to make these clip compilations.

So I said, what the heck, I’ll give it a shot.

I carry an HD camera on me at all times (iPhone) and figured it would be a fun project. At the very least I’d end up with some decent footage of my family and lifestyle during the span of the year. As opposed to normally, where I end up with a few chunks of lots of images (holidays, vacations), and blanks gaps everywhere else.

So on New Year’s Eve I started, recording the ball drop, revelry, a big bonfire. Some great footage. But I could only use 1 second of it. The next day I was stuck in the office, staring at cubicle walls, lines of code, parking decks, trying of find something to record. I ended up taking a shot of walking in the front door, greeted by my son. The next day was much of the same.

Halfway through January, an awesome ski trip, seeing old friends, snow covered mountains, a wedding. I could only use 4 seconds of it.

That’s been the maddening reality of it all. The boring parts get stretched into a long stream of clips of my kid rampaging around, jogging with my dog, sunsets. The good parts: travel, scenery, spontaneity – get compressed and mostly edited out.

But I think that’s part of the goal of the project. My memory will naturally emphasize and highlight those awesome trips. This project is not to record those. The project is about expanding and focusing all those boring days in between. Helping me find presence and attention in the moment.

If anything, I’ve had to remain aware. I’ve had to think – did I record my clip for today?

At first, I’d try to be artsy, and find some way to tell a 1 second narrative of the day. But 1 second isn’t enough time to be clever. You can’t have much movement, or transition between focal points. You just have to pick a single image and capture it competently.

I’ve found a few common trends, things that I naturally find myself recording: jogging with my dog, watching my son play, brewing beer, cooking food. And then all those ubiquitous shots (computer screens, elevators, parking decks) in a corporate complex.

I’m two and a half months in. We’ll see how the whole thing turns out in a year.

 

Thoughts on some 2012 Films

Note: these reviews will contain spoilers.

The general consensus is that it’s been a good year for film.  As opposed to some years past, when the Academy was content to celebrate big CGI spectacles (LOTR, Avatar) or well-crafted whimsy (Kings Speech, the Artist), this year contains films that are culturally relevant, deep themed, and artistically innovative.

I’m not going to dig into all 9 films up for Best Picture, but these three have a lot in common.  They’re all about dark chapters in American history. All three employ unique style and voice, but each ask deep questions and aren’t afraid to peel back the patriotic veneer of American mythology.

Zero Dark Thirty

ZeroDarkThirty2012Poster

The backstory of this film could be a film in itself.  Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal start out to make a documentary-style film on the failed hunt for Bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind gets whacked half-way through, they reboot and use their unprecedented government access to put out a feature film only a year later.  And then the whole backlash over torture, whether it was condoned by the film (it’s not) or useful in the quest for OBL (it wasn’t).

But never mind that.

The film is built of lots of hand-held shots and quick cuts, the faux-documentary style of Paul Greengrass and others.  It’s even less stylized then Bigelow’s last film – The Hurt Locker.  There aren’t any super slow-mo shots of explosions, macro-lenses zoomed in on grains of sand or C4.  The film stock is visibly digital, heightened by the fact that much of the expository scenes are simply recordings of Maya (Chastain’s character) staring blearily into security cam footage of interrogations.  The big explosions are filmed perfunctory and then explicated further with archival newscast footage.

Even the Bin Laden compound raid is strangely mundane.  The SEALs move confidently and orderly, but they aren’t elite ninjas.  A few of them bumble around with their explosives or equipment.  Their chopper crashes from a combination of mechanical and pilot error.  Their guns are suppressed, so the kill shots sound like an office worker stapling a stack of paper.  The brunt of the work occurs when they have to ransack the trove of hard drives and files from Bin Laden’s home office.

The film creates a reality of a dystopian American hegemony, where white collar workers do the business of intelligence and spy gathering.  It’s no surprise the CIA holds the nickname “the Company”.

These are office workers – bleary eyed under fluorescent lights, shuffling papers, a forlorn Christmas tree in an empty cafeteria in an Afghanistan base.

Maya has no relationships, no smiles.  Her only emotion is when she is pushing back against bureaucratic road blocks.  Her human connections are cold.  When a colleague is killed by in a suicide attack, she’s left frozen at her desk, staring at a dangling IM convo.

Contrast this with bin Laden’s daughters, weeping and awestruck when the SEALs bust in.

As opposed to the jihadists, who face their fateful conflagration with religious zealotry (“Allahu Akbar!” prior to detonation), the Americans are all dry wit and sarcasm, middle managers stuck with unappetizing business tasks.  Even the CIA director faced with a losing situation rages in the language of a CEO decrying a bad quarterly return, more Jack Welch than George Washington.

There’s no patriotism in their actions, and any deep seated political convictions are sucked away, plastered over with the machinery of a modern tech empire.

The film opens and closes with weeping.  KSM’s nephew, strung up and water boarded, sleep deprived, weeps from his torture.  Maya, victorious but alone, finished with her mission, weeps as well.  Both have experienced the death of friends, the hollowing of their resolve, physical, mental and emotional strain.  Spiritual destruction.  Both sides had their gory victories, but at what cost?

Django Unchained

Django_Unchained_Poster

Tarantino continues to make alternate history with Django Unchained, and lives up to his calling card, which is giving obsessive homage to schlocky genres of cinema past.

The initial comparisons are to Inglorious Basterds, his World War II alterna-history which also starred Christoph Waltz. But that film was far more wordy, ratcheting up tension slowly in scenes such as the French farmhouse and the basement bar.  Django’s true analogue is probably Kill Bill, where a hero is wronged, and then spends the remainder of the film enacting bloody revenge, no questions asked.

Tarantino constructs his films out of obvious tropes, and here he combines the Western (beautiful vistas of American outdoors, silhouettes on horseback, the sound of gunfire) with Blaxploitation (quick zoom close up, cheesy ultra-violence, lo-fi soul soundtrack, and 70’s color correction film stock).

Violence has always been a motif in his films, and QT is strangely adamant about not discussing violence, even getting pissed at interviewers when they ask.  Why is violence so prevalent in his films?  For one, it’s entertaining (in a Roman Coliseum type way).  It’s over the top, visually fake (wire work, enormous squibs, etc) and relentless.

But beyond that, violence in Tarantino’s films is cathartic – clearing the messy dramatic structure built up by his plot and dialog.  In all his films, his characters get in increasingly dire situations which are  totally resolved in the climax by bloodbaths.  Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained.  And in the newer historical remixes, instead of merely the situations built amongst the characters, he’s wiping out entire cultural sins (Nazism, slavery).

Part of the rationale is demonstrating that film has that power.  The visceral energy of filmic violence is pretty impressive, perhaps even more impressive than simple narrative.  Why can’t that energy directly change narrative?  Instead of reality, where violence usually complicates things, why not clean them up?

The film does an impressive job of making the horrors of slavery relevant.  Most people have an underlying notion that slavery was horribly bad, but most of the specifics have been forgotten (deliberately or not).  Django doesn’t display the bucolic plantations of Gone with the Wind’s Tara.

Instead we see slaves in metal collars, threatened with castration, thrown in metal “hot boxes”, forced to fight to the death, torn apart by dogs, offered up as sexual playthings, sent off to toil in mines.  Even more of a villain than DiCaprio’s Candie is Sam L. Jackson’s Stephen, a devilish Uncle Tom who betrays his own kind.  And we see the disturbing effects of racial science, phrenology, where Candie saws apart the skull of a dead slave, pointing out bumps in the bone that imply servility.

It’s this twisted pseudo-scientific superiority (so similar in form to Nazi eugenics) that incites in the viewer nauseous hatred.

And so we get our righteous slaughter, Candie and his underlings pumped full of lead, the plantation home literally exploded.

The fact is only a few years later a horrific violence would be visited upon the south.  Slavery would be destroyed, at least on paper.

But the hatred and superiority that drove that hellish institution would live on.  That’s something even Tarantino’s gleeful revisionism can’t change.

Lincoln

Lincoln_2012_Teaser_Poster

The first teaser for this project was a cell phone snapshot of Day Lewis, shot in profile, in full Abe beard and makeup.  The realism was uncanny, the iconic figure on the Rushmore and the penny brought to life.

But the actual film is (mostly) stripped away of all that mythology.  We’re left with a study of man confronted with myriad demons and trials, and the gentle deliberateness in which he faces them.

The cinematography is dark, Chiaroscuro, dim rooms lit by fires.  The actual logistics of the narrative are also somewhat forgettable – various congressman and cabinet members rejecting details of the proposed amendments.

And aside from a set of cheesy Spielbergian bookends, there are some amazing scenes:

The battle scene itself falls into Civil War cliché, but the actual aftermath, a beautiful crane shot as Lincoln weaves his way on horseback through the wreckage the destruction, is something we don’t see often.  The look on his face that acknowledges he was the source of this misery, he was the commander in chief that inflicted this horrendous wound.

In the darkened war rooms, and the telegraph station (manned by two young engineers) as the bearded old men await updates on the battlefield destruction. Lincoln waxes about Euclid and geometric   equivalence.  Is there mathematical equivalence in politics – do the ends justify the means?

The melancholy and absolute horror of Lincoln’s actual day-to-day existence.  His story is an American gothic: the death of his sons, the insanity of his wife, the hatred and racism of his times, the bickering roadblocks of his closest advisers, the ineffectualness of democracy, the gloomy Whitehouse, lit only by fires, dusty daguerreotypes a pale reflection of men sent off to the slaughter, and then that very abattoir just a few miles from the capital.

Lincoln is a heroic figure because he sees all the turmoil and darkness (a ship lost on a dark sea) and instead of raging against it, he’s melancholic and stoic.  But he’s a romantic.  He takes the raw details about him, mostly horrible, and reframes them in a way that builds the mythology of America.  ” Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth… “ There’s grandeur in those words, spoken in a weedy, fatherly, loving cadence, looking out over fields of death.  A faint smile, a folded handwritten note tucked away in the stove pipe hat.

Daniel Day Lewis gets praise for his acting, but the most visible thing about the performance is that it doesn’t feel like a performance.  It just feels like an actual person of Lincoln filmed on the screen.  It’s not Big-A acting like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who forcefully contorts his face or projects his booming voice.  It’s the small things, like a shuffling gait, a faint smile through the corners of his mouth, pregnant pauses when he recounts humorous anecdotes.

You stick through the film, which is mostly made up of scenes of bearded old men in ornate rooms talking politics, carried on the weight of Lincoln’s personality.

The film completely bypasses the logistics of the assassination, but captures the horror of the theater with Lincoln’s son Tad.  All that’s left is mourning, and surrender.  “Now he belongs to the ages.”