2011 - Leftover Thoughts and Films

In a year when the industry seemed to be going through a struggle reminiscent of the 1950's, pushing the gimmick of 3-D on the movie going public with increasing adamance, it may be that part of the backlash has been a return to making good movies with basic tools.  The popularity of films like "The Artist" and "Le Havre" seem to acknowledge the fact that most of the invention in cinema was over by the end of the silent era.  By the time Lang and Renoir had mastered the elements of sound in the 1930's, there wasn't much left to do.  Of course, the quality of sound and image has become increasingly clearer (which is not necessarily synonymous with better), and the intermediary process has expanded stylistic possibilities to a great degree, but the basics are still with us:  the frame, the cut, the sound.

Jean Dujardin in The Artist
As for the resurrection of 3D presentation, at least this time around the persistence of the studio system and subsequent pervasiveness of the equipment peaked the curiosity of film makers who managed to elevate the technology with films that took seriously the format's potential; namely, Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams), Wim Wenders (Pina), and Martin Scorsese (Hugo), not to mention the work of a director whose name is perhaps considerably less recognizable, Toni Myers, who directed the IMAX feature Hubble 3D, which, although not a great work of art, has got to be the most mind blowing use of 3D to date.

Hubble 3D
Part of the catalyst for writing ECSTATIC is a fervor for film art in it's purest sense, apart from the trappings of conventional storytelling that film eventually inherited from literature and theatre.  The era of Inventor's Cinema, evoked this year in films like Scorsese's Hugo, had little to do with the aspects of film that the majority of movie goers so reliably demand, like character, plot, or even editing.  Likewise, our early experiences with film have little to do with these things either.  If we collect our earliest film memories, they are most likely linked to something more akin to spectacle than anything character or plot related.  Yet, today, we are so conditioned into thinking of storytelling and cinema as the same.  If a film fails to tell a story in a clear way that requires little mental effort to understand then we are most likely offended, if not completely turned off.  In fact, if we don't get it we may demand our money back, as was the case this year with portions of the audience at the Avon Theatre in Stamford, CT for Terrance Malick's The Tree of Life, where the theater manager ended up posting this notice:

It needs to be said that what is exciting about Malick's latest film is perhaps the thing that even I responded a bit negatively to in my post on it back in August, and which I have come to be overwhelmed by upon a second look, which is Malick's abandonment of storytelling almost entirely, and his re-birth as a film maker completely assured in his ability to churn hearts and minds visually.  The Tree of Life remains one of the most aggressively experimental films to gain access to a wide audience in 2011, and it saddens me to think that culturally we're at a point where many are unable to hold the enormity of it's challenging beauty and the enormity of Brad Pitt as a commercial product in the same cultural space.  If you've seen The Tree of Life, whether or not you like it, hopefully you understand that it is striving for something way beyond the goals of commercial film making, and that we need for that to happen more often.  Personally, The Tree of Life marks something bigger for me than most films this year, because it shines the brightest light on where we are as a cinema going culture.  At the end of 2011, my biggest wish is that the Cinema can continue in this vein, in the hopes that our culture evolves toward the glow of it's strange, undulating light.

The Tree of Life
Challenges for 2012:  To David Fincher:  remake The Decalogue as a series of 10 minute silent films. To Adam Sandler:  stop making Adam Sandler movies and make another Paul Thomas Anderson movie, or maybe something with Aaron Katz.  To Christopher Nolan:  remake Fritz Lang's Metropolis without a script, or words, or Christian Bale.  To David Cronenberg:  make Videodrome II and cast James Woods and Debbie Harry.  To Gary Marshall:  Just stop.

Three "leftovers" from 2011:  films that live, more or less, within the trappings of conventional storytelling, each one gently challenging the expected formulas, and therefore well worth a look:

Young Adult, dir. Jason Reitman

Diablo Cody's screenwriting has matured since her Academy Award winning screenplay Juno (2007), resulting in the more assured Young Adult.  With the help of Charlize Theron, who plays the role of a "Young Adult" fiction ghost writer having a mid-life crisis, Cody's second collaboration with Jason Reitman comes out about as successful as Reitman's 2009 film Up in the Air.  Like that film, Young Adult manages to be refreshingly character centered, only occasionally flirting with the more trite conventions of the romantic comedy.  My annoyances with Juno aside, I think Cody is genuinely interested in the way our language is shaped through pop culture, but in Young Adult she is starting to get at that in an interesting way by uprooting herself, and her main character, from that "Young Adult" world of careless expression.  Yong Adult is a rather uncompromising reflection of girls growing up in a culture where "self esteem" has been reduced to meaninglessness (the first words we here in the film are those of TV personality/Playboy model Kendra speaking of her attempts to regain her self esteem after childbirth), and fortunately does not fall into the expected pitfalls of the rom-com it seems so hopelessly headed toward at times.  Reduced to it's essence, it's a fairly bleak character study of an alcoholic, and often sacrifices an easy joke for a bit of insight.  Theron is key here, playing the lead character with depth that reaches beyond the script.  Likewise, Patton Oswalt and Collette Wolfe as brother and sister Matt and Sandra Freehauf are perfectly cast and played.

The Descendants, dir. Alexander Payne

The more negative critical response I had heard about Alexander Payne's feature follow-up to his Academy Award winning screenplay adaptation Sideways (2004) was that the film failed to connect with audiences emotionally, and that Clooney was perhaps miscast in the lead role.  Having not much liked Sideways, critical darling that it was, but having really liked his previous films About Schmidt (2002) and Election (1999) I was nearly resigned to leaving The Descendants behind altogether.  Fortunately, the film returns to some of the best aspects of pacing evident in About Schmidt, and seems almost defiantly patient in the way it plays out the drama of a family dealing with the slow death of their matriarch, an engaging character whose arc is a testament to the quality of the writing, given that she is comatose in a hospital bed for the majority of the film.  I would suggest that The Descendants is successful in that it isn't trying to connect with the audience in typical "tear-jerker" mode.  The tragedy of the film is so evenly spread out and explored in the film that the death at the center of it is ultimately not exploited, but rather used as a platform for a more profound reflection.  And, ultimately, I would agree that Clooney is miscast, but his experience and restraint pull him through the task admirably.  Fortunately, he has Shailene Woodley's thoughtfully crafted performance as his daughter Alexandra to play off of.  Also, the Hawaiian-themed score is surprisingly effective.

Shame, dir. Steve McQueen

Above is the opening shot of Steve McQueen's second feature, an exploration of sexual addiction titled Shame.  The film features the skilled actor Michael Fassbender, also featured in McQueen's first film, 2008's exceptional Hunger.  I'll spare you the gushing hetero man-crush verbiage that seems to increasingly accompany reviews of Fassbender's recent output and just say that I hope the full frontal nudity and NC-17-deemed sexual content of Shame don't overshadow the truly insightful work Fassbender and McQueen produce here.  Like the tragic case of Brokeback Mountain a few years back, I fear Shame will be reduced to a series of cheap jokes, when, in actuality, it manages to express something about sexuality and violence that shouldn't be laughed off.  Shame is a film that tends to encapsulate it's themes so powerfully within it's frames and performances (as in the framing of the image above, which pretty much tells you in one shot everything you need to know about the character before you've even been introduced to him) that it suffers from the unfortunate case of going too far in it's narrative.  Shame is one of those films that is nearly perfect for me, if I get to chose where it ends, which is a good stretch before it's final sequence.  Beyond that point, the film becomes needlessly challenging to Fassbender, and fails to offer anything more than what it has already given us.  For everything up until that point, I can't recommend it enough, particularly if you are interested in McQueen's work and his particular style of careful framing and duration.  As I noted in my "2011 - Best Films" post, Carey Mulligan has one of the most memorable scenes of the year, Shame being the perfect platform for her to evolve her skills beyond 2009's An Education.       

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