"Carol" dir. Todd Haynes, 2015

Early on in Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, we see Rooney Mara’s character, Therese Belivet, perched in a projection booth watching Billy Wilder’s classic film noir, Sunset Boulevard. While Therese’s boyfriend makes hapless advances from behind, another boy is vigorously taking notes, proclaiming that he’s seen the film six times, and that he is currently “charting the correlation between what the characters say and how they really feel.” Perhaps the joke is that Carol plays out mostly through scenes of smoldering innuendo, but the sight of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond for a fleeting moment might cue even a casual movie enthusiast to think about Carol through the smoky lens of film noir.

            The director of Carol, Todd Haynes, has definitely taken good notes on genre styles of the past, whether he’s experimenting with the superstar bio-pic via movies about Karen Carpenter, Bob Dylan and the Bowie/Eno glam-rock era, erecting an homage to the technicolor melodrama’s of Douglas Sirk in 2002’s Far From Heaven, or intertwining three genres at once with his first feature length film in 1991, Poison, a poetic commentary on alienation, punishment, and queer desire that manages to juggle noir horror in the tradition of Don Siegel or Herk Harvey, a 1980's TV Docu-expose of the Bizarre, and an Andre Gide prison tale designed in a lavish, theatrical style reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's final film, Querelle. The lineage of queer cinema that runs through the work of Sirk, Fassbinder, and Haynes has reached a strong point of culmination in Carol, which may prove to be Haynes’ most effective film since the rise of the new queer cinema he was such an essential part of in the early 90’s.

Carol is punctuated significantly by the shared name of the central character of Haynes’ most acclaimed film from that early period, [Safe], where Julianne Moore played Carol White, an American housewife suffocated by aerosol and affluence. Cate Blanchet plays Carol Aird, a wife and mother of the 1950’s whose home environment is similarly suffocating and threatened, but where Carol White’s character was trapped by the cold, symmetrical architecture of the suburban 1980’s, Blanchet’s Carol is immaculately trapped by a series of brooches, gloves, hats, and hairstyles that also mark the difference in social status between her and her younger lover, Therese.

It was only late in the film, when Carol and Therese make a somewhat desperate move to seize their desire for one another in the present, ignoring the consequences of the inevitable future, the rainy streets and subway grates of the film’s opening having given way to the dusty parking lot of a remote, Midwestern roadside motel, that I was reminded of that earlier flash of Norma Desmond, and how subtly Haynes had transformed Carol into an unexpected noir. In her influential work on “Women in Film Noir,” Janey Place defined Desmond as “the most highly stylized ‘spider woman’ in all of film noir as she weaves a web to trap and finally destroy her young victim, but even as she visually dominates…she is presented as caught by the same false value system.” Blanchet’s Carol Aird certainly dominates visually, yet she is played at a pitch nowhere near the delusional narcissism of Norma Desmond. Still, how intentionally her web for Therese is woven is ultimately a question whose answer is as discreet as one of the lover’s initial conversations over a glass doll case in a department store. Of course, the more important entanglement to Haynes and Highsmith is one of a false value system in relation to sexuality, one that treats them like dolls under department store glass. This is highlighted by Haynes’ persistent presentation of the characters through rainy car windows, streaked glass, windows and frames, which Place also writes about as “one of the most common motifs in film noir.” The film’s circular chronology, along with what Paul Schrader described in his “Notes on Film Noir” as “an almost Freudian attachment to water” are also utilized in Carol, but the ultimate effect of the film is not one stuck in the repetition of past styles. And, even though a gun is introduced in the 3rd Act of the film, the violence of Carol is ultimately not at all physical, but emotional. Haynes blends these conventions into the film in such a painterly, subdued way that what we are left with is not just a period homage, but what feels like a new chapter in progressive, queer cinema.


Best Films 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road George Miller

Adieu au Language Jean-Luc Godard

The Hateful Eight Quentin Tarantino

Inherent Vice Paul Thomas Anderson

Hard To Be A God Aleksey German

Experimenter Michael Almereyda

A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence Roy Andersson

The Duke of Burgundy Peter Strickland

Saint Laurent Bertrand Benello

The Big Short Adam McKay

The Best of the Rest

What We Do In the Shadows (Clement/Waititi)
Ex Machina (Garland)
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Gibney)
Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas)
The Assassin (Hou)
Jupiter Ascending (Wachowskis)
Mustang (Erguven)
Mr. Holmes (Condon)

The Disappointments:
          Bone Tomahawk (Zahler); Trumbo (Roach)

The "Just Terrible":
           Creed (Coogler); Ted 2 (MacFarlane);
           Mortdecai (Koepp); Maggie (Hobson)


"Terminator Genisys" dir. Alan Taylor, 2015

The production and maintenance of a movie star as hyper-masculine as Arnold Schwarzenegger must be an arduous ongoing process. If Terminator Genisys is any indication, the industry that created Schwarzenegger may not be limited to the mere extinction of the 67-year old action movie mainstay. The titular, robotic role originated in James Cameron's 1984 film The Terminator is probably the most iconic of Schwarzenegger's career, which now dates back over 45 years to the schlock of Hercules in New York (Arthur A. Seidelman, 1969). As a star, Schwarzenegger's career trajectory and cultural impact are unlike any other. As an actor, if I may, his skills are severely limited.

I say this with full awareness that it’s a stereotypical cheap jab at an easy target, but, more importantly, as a somewhat flabbergasted acknowledgement that this extreme imbalance of masculinity over ability has been such a longstanding, surmountable factor for movie consumers. The triumph of the Star, in this case, comes at the expense of Acting. Schwarzenegger's rise to stardom (ironically crossing paths with the great actor's director Robert Altman in The Long Goodbye, 1973), traverses a period of Hollywood filmmaking that gradually shifted values from one that was actor-oriented to one that was spectacle-oriented.

For Hercules in New York the Austrian body-builder-turned-thespian had to have his part dubbed by a more intelligible actor; an interesting reversal on the appearance in Terminator Genisys of Australian bodybuilder Bret Azar, a "body dub" for Schwarzenegger in the film's attempt to re-contextualize scenes from the original Terminator. Hercules is a similarly suited role for Schwarzenegger, foreshadowing the type of mythic, repeatable roles through which his Star power would produce a new brand of right-wing cinema.

In Terminator Genisys Schwarzenegger continues this long, conservative trek that has criss-crossed a political career and three Expendables films, kicking ass to the vicarious delight of aging, small-minded racists and militants who lived through the simultaneous eras of the Counter-Culture, the Hollywood Renaissance, and Viet Nam, and still have a bony right arm with which to pull a voting lever. This entry of the long-exhausted Terminator franchise amplifies this historical aspect of the conversation by placing the action in San Francisco, the epicenter of the counter-culture movement, which we eventually see Schwarzenegger's aging Terminator (Pops) transform into an underground arsenal. The speakers of San Francisco, once carrying across the sound of revolution, are transformed into weapons for destroying an even deadlier Terminator, the T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee). But, the larger enemy is the new Skynet-as-flower-child, Genisys, whose youthful hologram promises in the idealistic vernacular of a bygone era: "We will change the world together."

Of course, it's Schwarzenegger's job, once again, to bash any uprising of change, intellectualism, or youthful idealism. And, perhaps, the once die-hard angst over the hippies has faded a bit, usurped by the fear of a technological age that will trojan-horse in via video games, and the wish of a generation to "Be Sedated," as per the film's Ramones-penned refrain. In a scene late in the film, in the underground San Francisco arsenal, the relentless time signature of the Ramones is too much for Pops the Terminator, as he fails to load his final clips in rhythm with the music or his human rival of masculinity, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, in for Michael Biehn). It's here that Reese reminds Pops of another of the film's refrains, that the Terminator is "old, but not obsolete." For a movie I had taken as a sometimes clever genre exercise for at least the first hour, at this point I could only hope for the obsolescence of the Terminator franchise.

Beyond the blow that the Schwarzenegger era dealt to the craft of acting, and the conservative ideology it passed off as heroism along the way, Terminator Genisys is perhaps the most degraded example of "post-classical" cinema, as discussed by Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland in their book Studying Contemporary American Cinema. Not only defined by the aforementioned value of craft over spectacle, Terminator Genisys is what they would call a "pastiche of the classical" where "the classical cinema is merely refigured within the post-classical, neither abandoned or opposed," not unlike the refigured metal globs that find their way back to the T-1000. Yet, pastiche doesn’t quite cover the case of Terminator Genisys, nor any of the multiple post-classical movies occupying theatres this summer. Like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World before it, Terminator Genisys continues the trend of meta-narratives that are not only products of pastiche, but resigned to a preoccupation with their own terminal nature as product, hopelessly unable to exist on their own--not only as successful films, but as mere comprehensible narratives—with Schwarzenegger’s flaking countenance as the latest signifier of this dire trend.

Ultimately, Terminator Genisys is about Arnold Schwarzenegger as an aging Star, and our naturalized anxiety about watching our icons of masculinity age. In Richard Dyer’s book Heavenly Bodies, he reminds us: “Stars articulate what it is to be a human being in contemporary society,” and that the “individual” represented by the Star is complex in its construction, as well as its impact on how we construct notions of ourselves and each other. Terminator Genisys adds a new binary to the way in which Dyer sees the complex physical body of a Star like Schwarzenegger, here in his most literally artificial role, made even more complex by the nature of the indestructible underneath of the Terminator character, and the potential for endless incarnations of Schwarzenegger as a marketable commodity well after his death. Where Dyer sees the classical heroes divided by their “public” and “private” aspects, or their “naturalness” and “artifice,” Terminator Genisys adds the post-classical constructs of the Star as “human” or “post-human.” One has to wonder to what extent we will become naturalized to the distinction between a “thespian” and a “synthespian” in the movie production, consumption, and criticism of the future.  Perhaps Schwarzenegger can re-do his past failures like Hercules in New York from beyond the grave? Or, given the recent share of the cineplex market occupied by the Christian right, maybe he could experience a second coming in a biblical epic, simply titled: Genesis.


"Ted 2" dir. Seth MacFarlane, 2015

Throughout the early 2000's, in the era of the post-Leslie Nielsen parody cycle and Fear Factor, I occasionally watched as Seth MacFarlane's animated Fox series Family Guy sacrificed actual jokes for shock value, and any semblance of wit for easy pop reference. During that period, while the Scary Movie and “________” Movie franchises were launched, the target audience for American comedies was successfully trained into a Pavlovian response that seemed to hinge on mere pop culture reference. The joke was dead; or, rather, reduced to the mere mention of Paris Hilton.

Ted 2 begins with the marriage of the titular bear (voiced by MacFarlane) to his new bride Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). The narrative arc of the film involves Ted and his best friend John (Mark Wahlberg) embarking on a hapless, stoned journey to prove Ted's personhood and evade the toy manufacturing accusers who want to mass-market sentient Ted bears. And, there's a budding romance plotline between John and Ted's legal counsel, Sam L. Jackson (Amanda Seyfried).  Absent of any engaging momentum, the film allows space to ponder the most important question about MacFarlane's brand of humor: is this a satire?

Somewhere along their journey, Ted is getting high while watching the iconic Kunte Kinte whipping scene from the late-70's TV mini-series Roots. In a moment of epiphany, Ted remarks on Kunte Kinte's struggle as the sounds of the whipping man are heard in the background: "that's just like me!" This is, perhaps, the sharpest moment of satire in all of Ted 2, nailing the absurd cries of "reverse-racism" from certain sectors of the privileged, white, male middle-class. Of course, you have to read Ted as a white, middle class, Peter Griffin-like male--not a stuffed, brown bear without a penis--in order to make this reading work. This may seem like a needless point to make, but hiding behind the thin, protective walls of anthropomorphic characterizations is one of MacFarlane's favorite tricks, and I think his audience buys it.

Unfortunately, for every moment of MacFarlane's truly risky, satirical jabs there are innumerable examples in Ted 2 that compromise any chance the film has at having its satirical cake and eating it too. This manifests itself not only in the way the film wears a fetishized preoccupation with black bodies and voices on its sleeve, but in the way it transforms that same fetishizing attitude into a lens for objectifying, eroticizing, and ridiculing everything it encounters; and, not in a lazy way, but with the near-sociopathic organization that Ted discovers in John’s pornography files in the film. Again, Ted 2 is somewhat aware of itself, and does play at clever, subversive satire, particularly when it comes to another of MacFarlane's fetish objects, Busby Berekley-era musical numbers, which we find parodied in the opening credit sequence. There is no punch-line in this peppy, parodic segment, but rather in the juxtaposition of the Raging Bull-inspired depiction of Ted's married life that follows, where he and Tammy argue over bills and Ted's lack of a penis. If it's MacFarlane's mission to call out the false icons of wholesome, American entertainment (or the American Western with A Million Ways to Die in the West), marked by his choice to filter his crude comedic voice through that most American of symbols, the Teddy Bear, then has he succeeded?

Also, did I mention that the bear doesn't have a penis? The satirical thesis statement of Ted 2 is as follows: "Americans don't give a shit about anything," which MacFarlane may finally prove to be true with this film, on a 4th of July opening weekend, nonetheless. But, the real preoccupation at the heart of Ted 2 is the phallus (make no bones about it). Furthermore, Ted 2 fails as a satire not solely because much of it is unfunny, but because of timing. For instance, the recent 40th anniversary of Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" may put audiences in the mind of thinking about Ted 2 through the lens of "castration anxiety." In Mulvey's critique (which is no doubt complicated by an unforeseeable cinema future that produces a sexist, dick-less teddy bear franchise) Ted 2 reads as a "complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object, or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous." In a film noir, the fetish object may be a femme fatale, or in a Busby Berkeley a wholesome young starlet. In Ted 2, MacFarlane draws the world as one castration anxiety fetish after another, with the film's action culminating in one of the meccas of masculine anxiety, Comic-Con.

But Ted 2 suffers from bad timing in other ways that are achingly obvious. Seeing Ted 2 only days after the racism-fueled acts of violence in Charleston and the subsequent debates about recognizing the Confederate flag, and the further racist arson of multiple black churches in the South, MacFarlane’s glibly “post-racist” humor is not only embarrassing, but carries a feeling of fueling those fires. It doesn't take film theory to understand that the other people in the theatre aren't laughing at MacFarlane's clever satirizing of white, male supremacy, sexism and homophobia. They're laughing at the racism, sexism, and homophobia; at the fetishized black man, which now carries for them the same consequence of laughing at a reference to Paris Hilton, or ISIS, or selfie sticks.


"Inside Out" dir. Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen, 2015

Inside Out did big business this summer alongside a handful of 40th anniversary re-releases of the progenitor of the modern blockbuster, Steven Spielberg's Jaws. Without getting too much into the oft-narrated shifts that the movie industry underwent in the mid-70's (relevant as it might be) it seems useful to reflect on the films that populated the top ten from the “Year of Jaws” in contrast to this summer’s top grossers: Jurassic World, Fast and Furious 7, Pitch Perfect 2, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Cinderella. In other words, this summer brought new meaning to the metaphor of cinema-as-fast food. If you don't see the similarities between the latest recombinant Taco Bell item and the nutritional/cultural value of Fast and Furious 7, then you really aren't paying attention.

In contrast, the box office frontrunners accompanying Jaws forty years ago include the likes of Hal Ashby's Shampoo, Milos Foreman's adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon. Needless to say, these films have a challenging complexity that has endured across the intervening decades, and a maturity that is only magnified when put in relief to the listless screenwriting and relentless marketing of films like Jurassic World.

To gaze at the list of films leading the box office so far in 2015 is to see the reflection of a culture with developmental problems. Of course, American culture and media has had numerous occasions to flaunt its truly immature nature recently, dangerously so. Those who have followed the childish, anti-intellectual responses to everything from the Caitlyn Jenner story to the denials of racism in the Charleston church shootings are possibly coming to similar conclusions recently: that American culture has not only failed to learn from the  past, but to simply grow up.  In part, the cinema is the place where those attitudes are incubated and debated, where we deepen our emotional connection to each other; not unlike how Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) ultimately develops deeper emotional capacities and wider personal constructs through the narrative arc of Pixar’s Inside Out.

So, what to say of the films dominating the Box Office this year? At least half of it is built from young-adult or children's sources, while the more adult-oriented fare would be hard to make a case for actually having been made with adults in mind.  Inside Out is somewhere in the middle of this current top ten, and maybe one of the most intelligent and artful of the bunch. The structure of Inside Out is an exercise in cross-cut action between the inner, psychological world of 11-year old Riley, and her less-colorful, increasingly troubled external journey as an only child having to move from Minnesota to San Francisco. The design of Inside Out is essential to establishing these two separate worlds, at first creating entertaining juxtapositions, but eventually making more elaborate assertions about consciousness, memory, and the nature of the Self more commonly found in the realms of philosophy or neuroscience.  

By film’s end, I found the questions raised by Inside Out to be quite engaging, even though enduring the more maudlin aspects of the movie threaten to overwhelm all this by the final reel. The hilarious outro sequence takes us through various depictions of the inner-pilots of minor characters, ultimately landing us inside the mind of a cat. At this point, questioning the problematic though common assumption of a tiny character (or characters) controlling consciousness from behind the third eye (if so, who pilots their consciousness?), this “cat-based” paradigm opened up a whole new imagistic world that jived more with my understanding of the chaotic, mysterious, and pluralistic nature of consciousness, while simultaneously providing the biggest laugh in an already pretty funny film. In any case, the discussions evoked by Inside Out will likely be what sets it apart from a surfeit of young-adult fare, and what distinguishes it from the current trends in mainstream movie consumption that endlessly reward disproportionate preoccupations with nostalgia over any engagement with the world on the other side of the screen.

In this way, Inside Out is the most hopeful of the aforementioned commercial frontrunners. Beyond that, it’s a film that elaborates on the idea of meta-cognition--that is, it offers a way to think about how we think--that seems a novel idea in the world of animated movies, though right in line with the more sophisticated of Pixar films, which present everything from eloquent examinations of criticism (Ratatouille) to questions of post-Earth post-humanism (Wall-E). In fact, I imagine Inside Out will be the only animated film--possibly the only mainstream film--to reference Inductive Reasoning, Critical Thinking, and the traditions of Abstract Art I’m likely to see all year. Warning: Adult themes.