Millennium Actress (2001)

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At some point, I sort of stopped watching most movie trailers. I didn’t do this intentionally. It developed out of habit: I’m always running like 15 minutes late, even when going to see a movie in theaters, so I miss previews almost entirely, and I don’t spend much time looking for new trailers online. And as a personal preference, I don’t read much about a film before I see it. Afterward, I’ll try to read as many different perspectives as I can find, but before going into a movie, I’m usually aware of its title, maybe some cast and crew, and a few headlines’ worth of story and general critical reception. Blockbuster releases are the exceptions to this practice, as I like to read everything I can find about them in advance so that I might complain better later.

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Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

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You might anticipate that a film set in the Amazon would demand the latest HD color photography in order to properly represent the unfathomable biodiversity of the region. “Embrace of the Serpent” is shot instead in a gorgeous but unexpected black and white. Director Ciro Guerra addresses this filming decision in this interview (around a minute in):

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A Wolf in Short’s Clothing

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In the eight or so years since the financial meltdown that precipitated the Great Recession, there have been many attempts to figure out What the Hell Happened, and Why, and How, and What Did It Mean. Which makes sense, considering the (boundless, ongoing) impact of the crisis on the global population. In 2013, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” made one such attempt by turning the clock back to the 1980′s to depict a culture of American financial greed and excess run rampant, a culture that ultimately encouraged and reproduced behaviors that led to the Recession two decades later. Scorsese’s picture aimed for an anthropological view, directly and intentionally avoiding hard discussions of finance in favor of a portrait of human behavior. It never explicitly drew connections to 2008, either, but Scorsese understood the context in which he was creating and releasing his film and the context in which audiences would watch it.

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Meet the Young Han Solo, Same as the Old Han Solo

This article is pretty representative of a lot of what I’m reading about the Young Han Solo news that’s leaked over the past few days. I understand and sympathize with the frustration people are voicing – we don’t need a Han Solo prequel, it’s a boring idea, it lacks diversity – but I will be honest: I’m not sure why anyone is surprised about all of this.

Near the end of the linked article, the author writes:

Young Han Solo feels like a desperation move, and with The Force Awakens making close to $2 billion worldwide within a month, Disney should be the furthest thing from desperate.

Without any disrespect to the author intended, I think this completely misunderstands what Disney is trying to do here. Young Han Solo is the opposite of a desperation move – it’s a move made in full confidence, designed to capitalize on the unprecedented success of “Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” Disney is not in the business of funding arthouse cinema; the $2 billion they’ve counted so far from “The Force Awakens” is not an indicator that they can start taking some risks, it’s an indicator that Star Wars is still an enormously profitable franchise, and that staying the course will lead to even greater results. The Walt Disney Company has assets totaling some $84 billion. It is in their absolute best interest as a multibillion dollar corporation to make Young Han Solo because its familiarity to audiences almost guarantees a profitable return on investment.

I’ve seen some people predict audience disinterest in a Han Solo prequel because it’s a stale and unnecessary idea. I doubt that this movie will break records the way “The Force Awakens” did, but this prediction seems off. Disney is the company that pulled over $500 million out of “Ant-Man” last summer. I don’t mean to insult anyone who worked on “Ant-Man,” or anyone who enjoyed “Ant-Man,” but before 2015, most people’s reaction to the idea of an Ant-Man movie was probably some variation of, “who the hell is Ant-Man?” That they were able to market that idea all the way to half-a-billion dollars, and a sequel already in production, leads me to believe that they’ll probably find a way to make a few bucks off Han Solo, a character who’s been a staple Halloween costume since 1978.

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Perhaps the surprise surrounding the Young Han Solo developments is a result of our continued (and growing) complacency, or comfort, with corporate interests in our daily lives. When we engage with corporations like Disney on a personal level through Twitter and Facebook, or share and discuss advertising campaigns on sites like Reddit, when we identify so closely with the products they create and market on an intimate level, we forget that the primary goal of any corporation of this scale is growth through capital accumulation. The qualifiers in phrases like “movie business” or “music business” lead us away from the fact that “business” is the operative word here, and that the entertainment or artistic side is tangential. Movies are products designed to be sold, like any other product.

The executives at Disney literally confirmed as much when they discussed the new movies in development:

The company intends to put out a new Star Wars movie every year for as long as people will buy tickets. Let me put it another way: If everything works out for Disney, and if you are (like me) old enough to have been conscious for the first Star Wars film, you will probably not live to see the last one. It’s the forever franchise.

So, no, I do not believe the production of Young Han Solo is a move made out of desperation. It’s the kind of move other film industry conglomerates would love to make if they had the opportunity. Most of them are in the process of creating their own franchises to better position themselves to make movies exactly like Young Han Solo when the time is right.

The author at The Atlantic makes another note that I think is worth discussing when he points out that the list of actors being considered for the Han Solo prequel is “a grab-bag of semi-famous white actors in their late 20s and early 30s.” This reflects the very valid concern that a movie like Young Han Solo just takes production and marketing resources away from other films Disney could produce that could offer more diverse casting opportunities – roles for nonwhite, nonmale actors.

This is a problem that absolutely deserves to be addressed, but again, I’m not sure where our collective disbelief originates from. Disney did not make itself known for its commitment to diversity, and its projected release schedule does not look markedly different from its past releases. The Marvel film franchise will feature its first nonwhite lead with the release of “Black Panther” in 2018 – 10 years and 17 films after the launch of the franchise with the original Iron Man in 2008. Another year and 3 films after that, “Captain Marvel” will feature the franchise’s first woman in a leading role. Similarly, Star Wars built an entertainment behemoth in the 1970′s and cultivated it for over 35 years while remaining entirely within the boundaries of an incredibly narrow, exclusionary sociocultural worldview.

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“The Force Awakens” is not, I don’t think, a symbol of a drastic philosophical overhaul at Disney in terms of casting diversity. That the film features a more diverse cast is notable and commendable, and its true significance will likely only become more apparent as time goes on. It’s exciting. But a great deal of this cultural impact is due to the marketing machine Disney put to work for the franchise’s reintroduction. The film grounds itself in a conservative set of characters, despite the marketing materials suggesting otherwise.

I think Ridley, Boyega, Isaac, and the rest of the new cast members do a great job with their roles in “Episode VII,” and I think their characters have great potential. But that potential is not really activated in this movie. “The Force Awakens’” main dramatic arc focuses mostly on Han Solo and his family. While we may be rooting for Rey, Finn, and Poe, the highest emotional stakes are reserved for Han and his kid, both white men. Their experiences are at the center of the movie. Beyond that, the overarching expository device, the great mystery that propels the entire thing into motion for 130 minutes, concerns Luke. We spend over two hours waiting for a glimpse of the same white guy we met back when Carter was in office.

Some, including the author of the Young Han Solo essay at The Atlantic, refer to this as a sort of “passing of the torch” onto the new cast. A more pessimistic observer might characterize it as Disney hedging their bets. It’s true that this incorporation of the old cast is a clever way to introduce stubborn or apprehensive (or, perhaps, racist and sexist) audiences to the nonwhite, nonmale characters that will presumably take over the series, but it’s also remarkably cynical. It’s a form of appeasement, an insurance plan in case the film underperformed or didn’t sit right with the proper demographics.

Of course, “The Force Awakens” didn’t underperform. Hopefully, this will help lead to a more inclusive and representative set of actors, writers, directors, producers, composers, editors, and filmmakers of all trades over at Disney and other industry giants. If that result begins to materialize, though, it will be important to remember that those casting and production decisions are eventually, fundamentally, business decisions made only when the financial benefits for those choices become most obvious and actionable. Disney is not a staunch ally in the struggle for a more equitable society.

And really, for the executives at Disney, the discussions currently happening around the Young Han Solo movie must be confusing. They essentially just made half of a Han Solo movie and were handsomely rewarded for it, and their audiences pushed them to record-breaking box office numbers. Those are the numbers they privilege. Those are the numbers that lead to a greenlight and a probable nine-figure budget for a Han Solo prequel.

I understand being frustrated or disappointed by the Young Han Solo news. But a sense of surprise or incredulousness just indicates that we haven’t been paying enough honest attention. The Star Wars renaissance is a lot of fun, sure, but we should be aware of what we’re enjoying.

A Supposedly Fun Movie I’ll Never Watch Again

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I don’t hate “The End of the Tour.” I think it does some things very well, some things not so well, and ends up somewhere in the middle overall. But it feels like a missed opportunity. 

Maybe we should admit to the inevitability of a film being made about David Foster Wallace, despite the very legitimate protests of his friends and family. If it was inevitable, thanks to Wallace’s cultural significance, then David Lipsky’s interview-book from 2010 seems like a natural place to go for filmable material. So if we start with this flawed premise – that they were going to ignore Wallace’s wishes and make this movie anyway – then we can judge the film from a different perspective than “this movie shouldn’t have been made” (which is, again, a totally valid perspective). We can look at how it handled the material it was given. And from that angle, I find problems with its basic construction.

The main problem is that it caves to a certain kind of pressure, a certain tug or pull that occurs whenever David Foster Wallace is discussed. It’s the same tug you may be feeling as you read this right now, which is: “When will they talk about the suicide?” Almost any conversation about Wallace now centers on his death and what it might mean for his work and his legacy. It becomes the definitive element of his life and career, the anchor for any exploration of his writing. “The End of the Tour” acknowledges this by bookending its main narrative from 1996 with episodes from the days after Wallace’s death in 2008. The entire film becomes a genuflection. It’s almost impossible to exist in the present moment with the film, because it almost demands that the viewer be constantly referencing back to September 2008, wondering, oh, god, did he know then? Is this when he knew he would do it?

This feels insincere to me. It collapses 12 years of his life into a simple calculation, instead of allowing for a more complicated reality. Answers to interview questions in 1996 become portents for 2008, ignoring the period in between in which he led an actual life. And that life from ‘96 to ‘08 isn’t really relevant to this film, so I’m not arguing for its inclusion. But there was an opportunity here to shift the discourse a bit, to focus solely on those weird few days from 1996 when Wallace and Lipsky became road trip buddies. It could have been a snapshot of a notable time in their lives rather than the memorial service it is now.

Wallace was a towering figure in American literature at least since the release of “Infinite Jest” in 1996, and by the 2000′s his influence was visible everywhere from contemporary fiction to personal blogs. His suicide in 2008 led to a shift in the popular conversations around him, eventually settling on a conception of him as a “tortured genius” archetype, the kind of grim and serious person we expect to be behind monumental works of art. This is ultimately the portrait proposed by the film, as well, despite some small efforts otherwise (like an awkward dance montage). And while Wallace certainly battled depression and other difficulties for his entire adult life, I don’t believe that this one-dimensional portrait reflects the entirety of who he was as either a person or an author. I don’t know that any person could be fairly represented by that characterization. I never met him, of course, but reflections from his friends and family suggest that there was much more to him than the depression he experienced.

But the tortured genius trope persists. Look at the comments on a video like this interview from 2003

People argue back and forth over whether or not his facial expressions, his mannerisms, and his speaking cadence indicate that he would commit suicide five years later. Some see omens in his self-consciousness or insecurity. Wallace becomes a sort of symbol for his own death, and his choice now looms over everything he said, did, or wrote.

This isn’t uncommon and I understand the impulse. People hope to make some sense of something we will likely never be able to comprehend for ourselves. His suicide was a tragedy and an unimaginable loss for the people in his life, but I’m not interested in speculating on the circumstances around it or in making any judgments. 

But when I read his writing, I am surprised at the persistence of the idea of Wallace as the Severe and Serious Author. To be honest about it, I didn’t start reading his work until about a year ago, and I’ve still never read any of his fiction. So I’m not an expert. In reading some of his essays from throughout his career, though, it becomes immediately apparent that there was much more to him than suggested by the depressive portraits we’ve come to accept.

He was serious about his work and not particularly optimistic about the state of the world he lived in. But his love of reading and writing announces itself in his essays, and he leaves no room for skepticism about his passion for the written word. It’s obvious in the basic construction of his essays, which are often dense and long-winded and feature esoteric or archaic vocabulary. His sentences stretch on and on. He clearly loved putting words on the page in a very fundamental sense, and as a reader, I just admire his dedication to that pursuit. I’m not about to suggest that Wallace was a perfect writer, but there is something invigorating and even joyful in reading stuff that is as shamelessly word-y as Wallace’s.

His essays move between academic and conversational approaches, mixing close analysis with humor and digression, which can be both engaging and ridiculous. He understood that ridiculousness, of course, and frequently pointed it out as it occurred. And maybe it didn’t always work; certainly for some readers it never worked. For me, I think that his intellectual curiosity and ambition keep his work genuine even when he drags an essay far off the rails for a tangent. He approached topics with a trademark web of self-aware postures and perspectives, but at the root of it all is a curiosity, an itch to learn that is undeniable and a little infectious.

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These are all very deliberate literary choices on Wallace’s part, and they are choices that leave him wide open to criticism. I don’t know how he felt about that criticism, but the fact that he put so much visible effort into his work suggests that he was at least willing to be part of whatever dialogue was happening around him and his peers. The problem with the sanctification that has occurred in the years since his death is that it effectively removes him from that dialogue. It places him and his work outside the realm of conversation and into the realm of unimpeachability, which is bad news for any artist. At that point, the work becomes inert, unable to be engaged with for fear of disrespect or disruption. But Wallace, like many artists and writers and cultural observers, understood that criticism could be a form of respect, even when it pointed out flaws. Because it’s through criticism that a work can make real connections outside of itself, to other works and to other people and places and times. To presume perfection, as we’ve often done with a book like “Infinite Jest,” fossilizes a work. It no longer evolves with the world around it.

This is all why “The End of the Tour” is disappointing. In focusing on a very narrow point in time, it could have aimed for a more honest portrait of Wallace than the one we’ve been using for the past seven years. Whether or not it would have succeeded is unknown, but the effort would have been appreciated. It likely would have had to risk a more unflattering depiction than this film does (despite its attempt to humanize Wallace through a weird tangent about his jealousy regarding an ex-girlfriend), but that’s a necessity when being honest about someone, dead or alive, no matter the circumstances of their death or the significance of their work.

One of the ways to resist the deification of Wallace is to read what he wrote without expectation. Unless you hate it, I guess – although, even in that case, you’re still participating in the dialogue, still engaging with what he was trying to do. In some ways, even saying “fuck this” is better than the somber, respectful, distant gaze we’ve adopted with respect to authors like Wallace. “Fuck this” keeps the discussion going and challenges people to decide for themselves.

Wallace’s life and struggle certainly deserve respect and a measure of sensitivity. I think this can be honored without setting his work on a higher pedestal than everything around it. It can be honored without feeling the need to view everything he wrote or said through the lens of his suicide. Resisting those urges lets his work grow, even if our responses are negative – it gives the work a chance to rejoin the culture around it despite its age.

This is what I wished “The End of the Tour” had aimed for. I wished it were a movie that showed its audiences a glimpse of an author at an important cultural and personal crossroads, a movie that allowed its viewers to decide for themselves what to make of Wallace’s words in person and on the page. Instead, it’s reverent to a fault, and keeps the mainstream hagiography in motion.

(As a side note, I’m aware that now is a particularly bad time to admit to liking Wallace’s work. I’ve got no defense on that front.)