Sunday, November 25, 2012

Titus Andronicus - Local Business

Titus Andronicus – Local Business (3.5)

What can you possibly do to follow up on a masterpiece?  This question must have invariably hovered over the group Titus Andronicus when they were faced with crafting another album following their epic, The Monitor.  The Monitor fits the definition of a masterpiece so snugly that I wouldn’t be surprised if lead singer Patrick Sickles and his gang had struggled with the above question for quite some time before deciding to go into the studio and write a straight up rock album. 

Local Business, Andronicus’s third album, sees the band trying to rein things back somewhat.  Gone are the readings of Albert Camus or the overarching historical thematics.  Instead, the band has replaced its prog-rock ambitions with a renewed focus on autobiography.  Sickles’s lyrics revolve almost exclusively around the life of a twenty-something as well as strictly personal issues like his struggles with a rare eating disorder.  The result is decidedly scaled down.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with attempting to strip things down, but at times the old tricks Androncus could rely on for their older albums don’t work quite as well in this setting.  Their use of a continual refrain, which used to sound energetic, can now sound somewhat tired.  Smaller interludes, which in earlier albums had served as a connective tissue for their grand themes, now sound like they’re stalling for time.

The subject that Sickle returns to again and again is his own body.  The body becomes a means for escape and something that he is trapped within.  Sex and alcohol and their bodily impact serve as a means to flee existential questions, a means to escape from the oppressive life of the mind.  And yet, at the same time, there is a sense that the body itself is also a trap.  The first song off the album, “Ecce Homo,” is a reference to a genre in classical art that depicts the torture of Jesus and translates into “Behold the Man.”  In it Sickles sings, “We’re breaking out of our bodies now / Time to see what’s outside them.”  But his attempts to escape his body appears to be refuted later in the song “My Eating Disorder,” where Sickles recounts his struggles with selective eating disorder.  No matter what, he doesn’t seem capable of thinking his way outside of the choices his body has made for him. 

There’s no doubt that Titus Andronicus are a bright group of musicians who will leave behind them a great oeuvre.  And even if Local Business isn’t as impressive as their last two outings, there are some fantastic tracks here.  “In a Big City” is the kind of Pogues meets Springsteen that we have come to expect from this band.  And “I Am the Electric Man” is a surprisingly effective left turn into the realm of what can only be described as Motown R&B with a ragged edge.  Overall, Local Business isn’t a bad stop gap between now and Titus Andronicus’s next magnum opus.   

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas (4/5)

Cloud Atlas is that rare Hollywood artifact: a big budgeted work of art that also happens to grapple with cosmic level questions at the center of human existence.  The film is absolutely sincere in the sense that these questions of how we fit in the universe and what we mean to each other are clearly foremost on the mind of the directors.  And the plurality of the word director is important, since it took no less than three people helming this monstrosity in order to bring it together: Andy and Lana Wachowski of The Matrix fame and Tom Tykwer who is most known for Run Lola Run.  The result is the kind of film that we haven’t quite seen before and most likely (judging by its box office numbers) will never see again.

Cloud Atlas follows six separate storylines across the millennia, and each narrative is nearly rich enough to stand on its own.  In chronological order, we follow a young lawyer, Adam Ewing, who is making a trip back from a slave plantation in the Pacific; a gay composer, Robert Frobisher, who plans on making his mark in the world of music by working for an aging curmudgeon; a muckraking journalist from the 1970s, Luisa Rey, who is working on uncovering what might be another Three Mile incident on the West Coast; a desperate editor, Timothy Cavendish, who becomes caught up in continually escalating series of troubles; a clone, Sonmie, who, living in a future dystopia, slowly learns to question the world she has been programmed to accept; and a tribesman in a post-apocalyptic world who must escort Meronym, a woman from a more advanced people, up a mountain to a nearly forgotten cathedral of sorts. 
Naturally, this is a lot to fit within a single movie, and the film has an overstuffed running time of three hours.  And yet, the story never felt like it dragged.  As you might guess, the film does not run through each story in sequence (this is the tact of the novel the film is based on), but instead each story is interwoven with the other, creating a much larger tapestry that engulfs any single thread.  Where the novel makes drastic stylistic shifts according to each section, because of the way the stories are cross stitched onto one another, the film doesn’t make similar visual transformations.  But there are clearly delineated genres for each section.  The story of the muckraking journalist has the feel of an era appropriate political thriller like Three Days of Condor, where the dystopian world of clones and dark cityscapes owes a lot to cyberpunk (a genre that the Wachowski’s worked in previously for their most famous creation).  But the directors all come together to make sure that we move nearly seamlessly from one narrative to the other, and we pass through moments of tension in one world only to have it relived by an action sequence in another until we are finally pulled back into a scenario where our nerves have tightened up.  In other words, this film must have been hell to edit.

There is no doubt that the film is an incredible technical accomplishment, but many viewers might ask, what’s the point?  There are a number of curious choices that will leave audiences scratching their heads.  Perhaps the most distracting will be the reuse of most of the principal actors.  From big Hollywood stars like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry to lesser knowns like Ben Whishaw and Doona Bae, the film is sprinkled with a number of major and minor actors who take up a different role in each story.  While this is an interesting theory in practice, the result is a lot of awkward makeup jobs.  It’s difficult to take a story seriously when it looks like a character’s face might fall off at any moment (although, it is nearly worth it see Hugo Weaving don a wig and play a Nurse Ratched type nursing home tyrant).  The poor makeup is a clear sign that the weight of this project nearly crushed its directors, and it’s no surprise that it took three principal artists to carry this thing to completion.

While some might (justifiably) critique the film for how the makeup really shows its seams, others have decried Cloud Atlas for promoting New Agey bull.  And I admit that there are moments where I thought the film was starting to become too granola, but by the end of the movie it had made an end run around my defenses, and I was won over.  There are moments in the film that suggest that these characters are experiencing a form of reincarnation.  But I don’t think the film limits itself to a spiritual reading.  As someone who is skeptical of religious message movies, I don’t think I would have enjoyed this film if could only be read through a spiritual lens.  Recycling actors is more about simultaneously freeing and entrapping these characters in their race and gender.  On the one hand, because the characters switch race and gender throughout the film, it shows ways in which our bodily selves are physical entrapments and social constructs.  The body becomes ephemeral.  But these characters are also socially limited and segmented because of their race.  The 19th century lawyer, Adam Ewing, has to defy his class and gender position in order to establish a friendship with an escaped slave, for example. 

Similarly, characters influence each other through real material objects that seem to skip their way down the centuries.  The diary of Adam Ewing ends up in the hands of the composer Robert Frobisher.  In turn, the love letters that Frobisher wrote to his paramour, Rufus Sixmith, are passed down to Luisa Rey, the investigative journalist.  Texts and works of art filter down through the ages, each time providing the current owner a glimpse into the inner lives of others.  The readers of the different texts are drawn to them because they recognize a little of themselves.  The transference of art across the centuries reminded me of the Hindu conception of time.  Where modern Westerners conceptualize time in relatively small chunks—looking at discrete decades or centuries—Hindu beliefs conceive of time on a much larger scale.  Hindu religion gives us the idea of the kalpa, or a single aeon that lasts for 4.32 billion years.  By expanding how we look at time, it also, paradoxically, can change how we see our place in the world.  Instead of viewing ourselves as insignificant, we might ask how small events millennia ago, events we might not have direct knowledge over, affect our present day.  In this sense, our impact on the world might very well outstrip our time living on it. 

If Cloud Atlas can be defined by any sort of genre, then it is the “everything is connected” movie.  But where others of these films have little more to say than the simple fact that there are a lot of coincidences and event impact disparate people, Cloud Atlas asks us to consider our place in the universe, to completely reconceive of how we look at history, and how art might transcend our subjective realities.  Not every character accomplishes what he or she sets out to do, but rather than being failures, their accomplishments become the inspiration for those who come after them.  When one particularly evil character belittles Adam Ewing’s wish to become a suffragist, calling him nothing more than a meaningless drop in the ocean, Ewing responds with, “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”  Tykwer and the Wachowski’s seem to be telling us that despite our insignificance, we matter.  This is an important message, and one that deserves a retelling.  While some critics have been dismissive of Cloud Atlas, there is no doubt that the film, like the letters and manuscripts passed down in the movie itself, will live on, and it will no doubt gain its place as either a cult classic or a lost masterpiece.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man (3/5)

The Wolf Man is one of those films that you know even if you’ve never actually sat down and watched it.  It has become a sort of ur-text for werewolf films, and the mythology of the werewolf that’s posited in this film has made its way through each subsequent movie about a man transforming into a wolf creature.  The Wolf Man was made during Universal’s “monster movie” heyday, but unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, The Wolf Man isn’t based on a previous existing text.  And while I would have to strain a little if I wanted to call it a “classic,” I can, at the very least, appreciate its role in constructing a modern myth out of cast off legends. 

The movie begins when Larry Talbot returns to his father’s manor in England after the death of his brother.  Larry’s father, John Talbot, is played by the erudite Claude Raines, and the two are a complete mismatch.  Where John is a man of theory and academia, Larry works well with his hands but freely admits he doesn’t exactly have a lot of book smarts.  It’s somewhat puzzling that despite John’s upper class English accent, Larry sounds like he’s been working in a Pittsburg steel mill. 

But Larry, played by Lon Cheney Sr., isn’t so broken up by his brother’s death that he can’t hit on the local women.  While looking through his father’s telescope, Larry happens to spot his neighbor, Gwen trying on some earrings.  In what is arguably the most awkward pick up scene in movie history, Larry proceeds to go over to Gwen’s family shop to ask her if he can buy a pair of earrings.  When she offers up a few that are on display, Larry tells her that he actually wants the ones she was just trying on in her room.  I honestly don’t know why Gwen didn’t turn around and flee the shop right then.  After insisting that he will pick her up at eight that night (Gwen pretty much turns him down repeatedly), Larry is able to convince Gwen to grudgingly go out with him. 

At the very least, Gwen is smart enough to bring along a chaperone on her creepy date.  Gwen, Larry, and the third wheel go see the local gypsies and get their fortunes read.  From here you can pretty much guess what happens.  The third wheel is attacked and killed by a wolf, which in turn is killed by Larry who happens to have a silver topped cane on hand, but in the scuffle he is bitten.  Now cursed as a werewolf, Larry must come to terms with his monstrous transformations.  At this point the audience might draw a connection between Larry’s animalism and his repressed sexuality or perhaps the dual nature of man.  But don’t worry, audience member, because John Talbot helpfully makes this point again and again.  While John doesn’t believe in werewolfs, he does think people sometimes suffer from lycanthrope as a mental disorder, which is really just a metaphor for our innate animal urges.  Who needs subtext when you have text-text. 
Up until now I have been a little hard on this film.  But watching it is an interesting look back in history to pre-slasher era horror films.  It’s interesting to note that questions of psycho-sexuality seem imbedded in horror movies long before Carol Clover’s study, Men, Women and Chain Saws.  Besides, the movie is actually pretty good whenever the director has a chance to film a simulacrum of the English countryside at night.  These shots are surprisingly dark for a black and white film, causing the images to devolve into a sequence of abstract shapes.  He also brilliantly shoots through the gnarled branches of tortured looking trees and surrounds them with Fibonacci-like swirls of smoke.  The set design on this film is clearly top notch.  In fact, it’s a shame the movie wasn’t made a couple decades earlier as a silent-film.  If you turn off the volume, you might very well have yourself a horror classic. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Back to the Future: The Game

Back to the Future: The Game (4/5)

In the early years of the 21st century it became clear that nostalgia had reached the point where its own gravity would cause its collapse, resulting in a black hole of childhood reminiscence, film reimaginings of decades old cartoons, and impeccable recreations of popular music culled from the past fifty years.  It has gotten to the point where, once you reach this black hole’s event horizon, there is no possibility of escape.  You are doomed to spend your remaining years looking backwards at your formative years. 

I’ll admit to being more than a little anxious about the awesome power of nostalgia’s gravitational pull.  But I’ll let you in on a secret.  It’s not because I never want to return to my childhood.  No, it’s because, like anyone living in the new millennium, I too feel a pull towards reliving old cartoons, movies, and music.  In fact, sometimes I’m afraid I love nostalgia too much.  As a result, my defenses go up whenever I sense that a product is carefully constructed to send me back on a recollection bender.  So it’s a real compliment when I write that Telltale’s Back to the Future: The Game, with its knowing intertextuality and reverence for the original trilogy, easily disarmed me. 

While Back to the Future hasn’t embedded itself in the popular culture firmament in the same way as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, there are some of us who hold this series in just as high regard.  In other words, the bar was set pretty high for Telltale Games.  The developers smartly decided to push up the narrative a year after Marty and Doc have returned from the Old West.  So instead of our two adventurers attempting to get back to 1985, they’re trying to return to 1986.  This also means that Back to the Future: The Game is likely the closest we will ever get to Back to the Future Part IV. 

If the movie trilogy was mostly about saving Marty’s past, present, and future, the game revolves around young Emmet “Doc” Brown and his struggles deciding between his love of science and his father’s plans for him to go into law.  The story begins in 1986.  Doc has gone missing and his house is being put up for sale.  You begin as Marty looking through all of Doc’s byzantine collection of gadgets, which also serves as a walk through memory lane, from a wall filled with clocks to an oversized guitar amp.  Thanks to the Delorean’s retrieval system, Marty is able to, eventually, find where in time Doc has been stranded, and it happens to be prohibition era Hill Valley, 1931. 
Upon making his way to 1931, Marty discovers that Doc, under the pseudonym Carl Sagan, has been framed for burning down the local speakeasy.  Your job, then, is to break him out of jail before he is gunned down by the local gang (lead of course by a Tannen), but to do so you must convince young Emmett Brown to stray from his duties as his father’s law clerk so that he can invent a drill that will help Marty with his jail break.  Of course, even after you save Doc and make your way back to 1986, you soon notice that the time line is out of whack.  Over the course of five episodes, you pong back and forth between past and present attempting to reset Hill Valley to semi-normal. 

The single shifting variable happens to be Hill Valley’s local teetotaler, Edna Strickland.  While making certain that Kid Tannen (local bootlegger and father of Biff Tannen) gets nabbed by the coppers, Marty inadvertently sets up Strickland with the young Emmett Brown.  The pairing of a science obsessed Emmett and a control freak Edna reverberates through the timeline and transforms Hill Valley into a police state.  Your goal then becomes to dissolve Brown and Strickland’s relationship back in 1931.  This may in fact be the only game where you must prevent a totalitarian police state by serving as a cock block. 

The fact that, as Marty, you must break off Doc’s relationship in order to win the game only further emphasizes what is perhaps the mono-theme of major blockbusters: male bonding.  I’m not suggesting that Marty and Doc are up to any funny business behind the scenes.  But I am suggesting that, despite a love interest here and there, the Back to the Future movies were chiefly about homosocial relationships.  Aside from Oedipal anxiety, the first film revolved mostly around the relationship between Marty and the 1955 version of his dad.  In the second film, Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer, is allowed to hitch a ride to the future, only to be quickly sidelined.  The central dilemma of the final film is Doc’s decision to either stay with Clara in the past or to return with Marty to the future, and his final decision, to stay in the past (albeit, briefly), was arguably made by the screenwriters in order to reassert his heterosexuality.

But enough about the old trilogy.  The game makers have absolutely nailed the dynamic between the odd pairing of mad scientist and slacker teen that typifies their relationship.  You can hear Doc sputter out strings of technobabble and Marty drop 80s appropriate slang.  Of course, it helps that they got Christopher Lloyd to reprise his role, and even though Michael J. Fox didn’t come back to voice Marty, the voice actor, A.J. Locascio, does an eerily spot on impression. 
There are a number of throwbacks to the original series, but the one that will hit you straight in the medulla oblongata nostalgia center is the original music by Alan Silvestri.  The moment the majestic, rising horns sound out the opening notes to the Back to the Future theme, I guarantee you every scene from all three films will come flooding back to you.  In addition, there are plenty of allusions that reach back to the film, from reminiscent bits of dialogue to familiar action beats.  At times, all of the loving connections to the films threaten to make the game feel like a retread, but since the movies themselves took part in these sorts of call backs, ultimately I think it’s in keeping with the spirit of Robert Zemickis’s creation.  Perhaps the only drawback to the game is that, as an adventure game, it is entirely too easy.  This might be bad for adventure gamers, but it likely won’t bother those who are unfamiliar with the genre. 

I’ll admit that I was originally reluctant to look back at my past.  I don’t want to be like one of those old hippies still going on about the time they saw The Grateful Dead back in ’72.  There’s too much great art and culture released every year for me to spend too much time on things I loved when I was a child.  And yet there’s still value to be found in thinking like a child and of loving something without reserve like a child.  I may not want to live in the past, but it sure is a great place to visit now and then. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Black Swans - Occasion for Song

Black Swans – Occasion for Song (4.5/5)

Death may be the most difficult topic to honestly, straightforwardly address in popular music.  The topic is so imposing that it is nearly impossible to fully explore the one constant of human existence within a three or four minute song.  Luckily for Black Swans, they tackle the subject of death not through a single song, but over the course of a nearly hour long album.  The single loss that hovers over the album happens to be that of Noel Sayre, the band’s violinist who died suddenly in a swimming pool.  The front cover pictures the stark, imposing image of a diving board.  And absence is at the heart of the album, since much of the music and lyrics are less about death itself than with coming to grips with loss.

“Portsmouth, Ohio” is the only song that directly grapples with Sayre’s death, and it serves as a sort of emotional and thematic centerpiece.  Black Swans tackle the subject with a hushed understatement, preferring to let the real life narrative speak for itself without a forced emotional push.  The song’s refrain, “Nobody’s supposed to die three days before the Fourth of July,” is delivered matter of fact like.  Within that phrase is imbedded the unthinkable nature of death—that, try as we might, we can never truly wrap our heads around the idea of not existing.  It also emphasizes the devastating abruptness of such an accident, a reminder that no one is guaranteed the supposedly requisite 75 years. 

The rest of the album approaches death obliquely.  Even when the subject matter seems to deal with our past, because of the shadow Sayre’s death casts across the album, each song seems to fashioning a cartographic image of mortality.  When singer, Jerry Decicca, tells us, “I give one hundred dollar bills to homeless men, so they can get fucked up right,” I can’t help but think that he’s giving us a perverse reinterpretation of carpe diem.  In “Work Song” Decicca ruminates on the tension between material necessities and spiritual fulfillment, singing “Watch the seahawk dive, it needs food just like you and I to survive.”  For some of his best lyrics, he relies on concrete imagery rather than abstraction in order to cut to the pith of his meaning.

Each song sounds both lush and ramshackle, like an intricate bird’s nest thatched together by twigs and mud.  Decicca’s singing is similarly rugged, falling somewhere between Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan’s speak-sing.  But the most interesting aspect of their music is what’s missing.  Instead of trying to replicate Sayre’s violin, Black Swans instead chose to do without the instrument, possibly deciding that some things are just irreplaceable. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon (4/5)

            Over the course of his career, Michael Chabon has built a body of work that seems determined to prove that, paradoxically, we may engage with complicated, real-world entanglements through escapist literature.  Kavalier and Clay detailed the Jewish immigrant experience by looking at the early formation of superheroes and comic books.  The Yiddish Policeman’s Union took on questions of national identity and sovereignty while telling a noirish mystery adventure.  At this point it seems strange to see Chabon come to reality through the decidedly un-otherworldly genre of the personal essay.  Chabon’s collection of essays, Manhood for Amateurs, gives fans a glimpse into the real life obsessions that have made his novels unique imprints on the world of literature.

            Anyone who has read his magnum opus Kavalier and Clay knows that Chabon is perfectly capable of writing novels of intellectual and physical weight, so it is somewhat refreshing to read this series of airy musings that might be best read during a sequence of lazy afternoons.  Chabon’s ruminations are evenly split between autobiographical exploration and pop culture inquiry.  In one of the more intimate essays, “The Heartbreak Kid,” Chabon recounts flashes of his first marriage and waxes nostalgic about his relationship with his first father-in-law.  And yet just a couple dozen pages prior, he was tracing the evolution of Legos and doing his best impression of a septuagenarian while decrying their recent glut of licensing deals.  But perhaps the best individual essays of the collection happen when the autobiographical and the cultural cross paths, like in “A Woman of Valor” where he compares his wife to the Jack Kirby superheroine Big Barda (which, if you are a DC Comics fan, is perhaps the most romantic sentiment ever uttered). 

            I had the good fortune to briefly talk to Michael Chabon while he signed my copy of this book.  During our brief back and forth, my wife asked him if Manhood for Amateurs was a response to his wife’s collection of essays Bad Mother (which is also excellent, by the way).  He said that he wrote Manhood as a sort of companion piece to Bad Mother.  After hearing this I couldn’t help but line up both books.  The essay genre seems like a more natural fit for Ayelet Waldman, who managed to go to some difficult places in her writing.  Wanting to limit an audience’s access to your personal life is a perfectly reasonable reaction to writing non-fiction, but it would be a lie to say that it doesn’t in some manner limit this collection.  Still, I’ve always felt that it is sometimes necessary for an author to write minor works in order to prove he is a major artist.

Monday, September 10, 2012

On Pitchfork and Lists

 Several weeks ago, often described as the hipster Bible of music websites, put up an application that allowed you to arrange, in order of quality, the best albums of the last fifteen years, which also happens to be how long Pitchfork has been in business.  What often bothers people about Pitchfork (myself included) is the definitive way in which they present their tastes. The website does not include a comment section, presumably because it could serve as a platform to launch an attack against the aesthetic arguments of Pitchfork’s reviewers.  The lack of a comment section ensures that there will be no oppositional discourse to Pitchfork’s tastemaking.  In a world of web 2.0 where interactivity has increasingly become essential, this decision by Pitchfork appears more and more to be a deliberate strategy.  Their obsession with lists also reinforces the idea that they are engaged in a canonical enterprise with the end goal being the construction of what constitutes a “proper” understanding of popular music.  Their opinions are less arguments than they are divine truths inscribed onto a tablet and brought down from the mountain top.

So the “People’s List,” as Pitchfork called their project, at first appeared like a nice way to admit that they had placed a tyrannical emphasis on their own judgment.  It was time to give back to their readers, to let them make the tough decisions.  I personally enjoyed passing along best of lists with people I know like we were trading baseball cards.  However, problems crept up once again when Pitchfork aggregated their reader’s picks.  The end result ended up looking like something that Pitchfork, rather than its readers, would have put out.  But in hindsight this isn’t terribly surprising.  People read Pitchfork because they are interested in indie-rock music, and in return Pitchfork helps shaped the aesthetic taste of its audience.  The end result was, in a word, bland.

This caused Pitchfork critics to go into a fury.  Over at Slate they accused Pitchfork readers of being racists and claimed that the entire list was a “scandal” (I’m not making this up, folks).  Gawker’s response was, unsurprisingly, heavy on the snark.  For me, however, all of this discussion of lists reminded me of the wonderful Walter Benjamin essay, “Unpacking MyLibrary.”  In this essay, Benjamin analyzes the process of book collecting.  He notes that it is much more and much less about reading the books in one’s collection.  In one sense, Benjamin argues, book collecting is a sort of obsessive compulsive disorder, or, as he writes, “For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as an order?” (60). What’s more, collecting is just as much about the corporeal aspect of the books as it is about their actual content.  Physically assembling the books in one place, regardless of whether or not you have read all of them, seems to be the main goal of the book collecting obsessive. 

In this sense, collecting books is more about the collector than the books themselves.  The same can be said about the creation of best of lists.  In some sense, they’re less than the sum of their parts.  A list that attempts to collect the best films of the last twenty years, for example, tells us an awful lot about the person who created that list, but usually tells us very little about the films themselves.  This is just Benjamin’s obsessive compiler of rare book artifacts transmogrified into the digital age.  The internet is overrun with enumeration.  If you want someone to read a web article, then start typing out numbers, and, if you aren’t pressed for time, throw some paragraphs in there as well.  I mean, the website Cracked is based around the idea of creating listings that in no reasonable sense could be organized from worst to best. 

But this doesn’t mean that lists are necessarily pointless.  Like I said, they tell us an awful lot about the compiler.  I enjoyed reading the various lists of favorite albums that floated around the web over the last few weeks.  They taught me a lot about the person who put these lists together.  And every once in a while they pointed out some new classics that I felt compelled to track down.  But once these lists were compiled into Pitchfork’s uber-list, they lost their individuality. They started to tell us more about the kind of music Pitchfork grants 9.2s and 9.6s to than about their readers.  These days we collect in order to create a mosaic of ourselves.  If you’re curious as to what albums I came up with, then you can see them here.  Putting it together, I think I learned a little about the last fifteen years of my life.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Wrap Up to Nolan's Batman Trilogy

Over the course of his Batman trilogy, Nolan has produced three distinct films with a shared aesthetic.  Although each film takes place within the same canonical Batman universe, they take increasingly different positions on the political issues of the day.  Since Momento, his first full length film, Nolan has always been interested in pop-philosophy, and this did not change when he was given a much bigger budget to work with.  For this he gets a lot of credit.  But what has been disturbing over the course of the three films is their gradual drift into conservative ideology.

It's easy to read Batman Begins as a rebuke of America's foreign policy during the "War on Terror," what with its questions about justice and vengeance and where the line between them lies.  But all of these questions are brought up naturally and are carried along by characterization.  They fit right at home in a Batman movie.  And the fact that Batman is fighting against terrorists (albeit comic book terrorists) draws an obvious parallel between the events in the film and America's foreign policy. 

A lot of these same questions came up in The Dark Knight, which is arguably a better film (I kind of wish I had bumped it up half a star in my rating) even if it doesn't handle the larger issues as well.  The part of the movie that people on the left criticized the most was Batman's cell phone hacking.  In the climax Batman hacks into all of Gotham's cell phones so he can use them as some sort of sonar devices in order to track down the Joker.  Plenty have noted the similarity between Batman's phone hacking and the actual phone hacking done by the government.  But while Batman's decision to essentially take over all the cell phones in Gotham is obviously a violation of privacy, it is arguably nowhere near as invasive as the NSA's search through the e-mailand phone conversations of American citizens.  Do we really want the government listening to the conversations between friends, family, and lovers?  First of all, the issue is simplified.  Of course, the audience wants Batman to broach the law because the Joker is about to blow up two boats.  Nolan has basically constructed a ticking time bomb situation, which also happens to be a situationthat has never occurred in real life.  (Besides, if you only have a matter of minutes, wouldn't the mad bomber just be able to hang for that short period of time?  The hypothetical sort of defeats itself.)  This is radically different from having the government creep into our personal communication network over the course of years.  And the movie's proposed solution, that we just blow up the capabilities when we're done with them, just doesn't cut it in a democracy where not only do you set a precedent, but that precedent can be later used by someone you wouldn't trust.  (This is why we must be just as critical of Obama when he skirts the law as we would have been with Bush). 

Still, The Dark Knight comes up with some interesting questions, including whether we would be ready to disproportionately punish criminals if it means that we can save our own necks.  Unfortunately, Nolan loses all of his ability to pose interesting questions in the third installment, The Dark Knight Rises.  Where the first two films offered interesting queries about the world we lived in, for the third film I had to actively ignore some of meager attempts at social commentary in the third film in order to enjoy it.  Ultimately, I liked the film thanks to its ambition and the care it takes with its characters.  Still, Nolan's attempt to deal with questions of social justice and class wouldn't cut it in a freshman philosophy course, and they certainly don't work on screen.  As I mentioned in my review, the entire set up is unclear to begin with.  (Is it the underclass who are trashing Gotham or just the prisoners, or are they being treated as one and the same?)  Perhaps the most laughable line in the entire film comes from Selina Kyle's friend.  When the two of them are surveying the damage done to a ransacked mansion, Selina remarks that this was someone's house once, to which her acquantance says, "Now it's everybody's house."  Don't you see, people?  If we ask the wealthy to pay a marginally higher tax rate, then it will be total bedlam!  Granted, I'm not sure if this is exactly what Nolan is saying, but I don't think he has a clue as to what he is saying either.

The end of the film winds up pitting those in power, the police force and the wealthy aristocrat Bruce Wayne, against the prisoner population of Gotham.  The status quo must be set right.  This is an inherently anti-populist view of the world.  It is only those few elites who, in the old world, could exert control over the many that must regain control and set things to the way that they used to be.  Batman as an archetype can be used as a political symbol for the left or the right.  He does not inherently signify a particular ideology, so I don't think positioning him as a neoconservative is automatically wrong.  But I do wish that Nolan would acknowledge some of these issues, which he at least attempted in the second film. 
I’m reminded of Frank Miller’s work on The Dark Knight Returns, which asked us to question whether or not we should condone the actions of a vigilante.  Throughout the book, Miller uses news style interviews of Gotham’s citizens to show how different people project their own fears and prejudices on Batman’s actions.  Some decry his actions while others praise him.  And then, in the midst of these opinions, one man on the street gives the following viewpoint: “Batman? Yeah, I think he’s a-okay.  He’s kicking just the right butts – butts the cops ain’t kicking, that’s for sure.  Hope he goes after the homos next” (45).  The line is brilliant because the reader can feel himself agreeing with the man until the brutally bigoted last sentence.  Here, Miller asks us to question populism in a more complex way than Nolan.  At what point should we shield the minority from, as the philosopher De Toqueville called it, the “tyranny of the majority”?  But Miller teases out these issues in a couple of sentences when Nolan couldn’t do so over the course of nearly three hours.  It is not that the issues that Nolan brings up shouldn’t be discussed.  It is that these issues should be discussed with nuance, vigor, and intelligence.

On the internet people like to bandy about the word pretentious, but it is often used incorrectly.  When people call a work of art pretentious, what they really mean is that the film is too difficult or esoteric for them.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines “pretentious” as “Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed” (OED).  So a pretentious work of art is something that thinks it has more to add to the conversation than it actually does.  The Dark Knight Rises is often pretentious in the truest sense of the word: it is not nearly as smart as it thinks it is.  But, I would still rather watch something with a pretense to greatness than a film that doesn’t even try.  I might not love The Dark Knight Rises as much as I wanted to, but I do respect its ambitions. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (3.5/5)

By now even those who dislike Christopher Nolan’s Batman triptych have been so beaten into submission that, in lieu of screaming “uncle,” they have conceded that the trio of films serve as a sort of repository of all of the anxieties running through the first decade or so of the new millennium.  They may disagree about the quality of the films themselves, but after seven years everyone agrees that these movies have established themselves as important cultural artifacts.  In particular, I’ve enjoyed that Nolan has somehow managed to hoist his personal vision of the world in front of millions and it has still connected with large swaths of audiences.  The blockbuster as personal missive approach to filmmaking has become increasingly rare, because either the audience or the studio have rejected those directors (see: Lee’s Hulk, Singer’s Superman Returns, and Raimi’s Spiderman series).  These days it seems as if Nolan is one of a few directors with the clout to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on his own personal vision.

So where does The Dark Knight Rises, the epic finale square with its predecessors?  Does it consistently meld its fantastical premise with a real world aesthetic like Begins?  Does it successfully tangle with questions of ethics like the sequel?  Well, not exactly.  At two hours and forty-five minutes, the film is unwieldy (how could it not be).  But it still manages to stick its landing, providing a satisfying and logical conclusion to one of the most distinct movie series of the last ten years.

The Dark Knight Rises plays out like a dialectic of the first two films, stringing along the two main threads of the previous installments – the League of Shadow’s terrorist attack and the moral fall and death of Harvey Dent – and combining them.  Because the people of Gotham still believe in Harvey Dent’s martyrdom, the lie concocted by Batman and Gordon at the end of The Dark Knight, they have come together and passed something called the “Dent Act,” which has helped clear the streets of criminals.  It isn’t exactly clear what was in the Dent act, but apparently it was controversial enough for some politicians to push for repeal.  The dramatic cut in crime has formed a city that no longer needs Batman as its protector, and Bruce Wayne hasn’t worn the cape and cowl since the end of the second film, eight years ago in movie time.  After a stunningly shot jail break in mid air, the film opens with a large gala at the Wayne mansion, but Wayne himself is absent, leading one party-goer to suggest that he may be growing out his finger nails and filling jars with urine in solidarity with Howard Hughes. 
During the gala one of the maids, suspiciously played by the headlining starlet Anne Hathaway, makes her way into a largely abandoned wing of Wayne manor.  Of course, Hathaway is playing Selina Kyle, better known as Catwoman (although that name is never used).  And after a confrontation with her reclusive host, she slips out with some pearls and copies of Bruce Wayne’s finger prints.  The pearls are for her while the fingerprints are for a mysterious new player in Gotham who happen to be a front for the League of Shadow, the same terrorist organization that trained Bruce Wayne and then later attempted to destroy Gotham in the first film. 

Like a lot of people, I was skeptical of Hathaway’s ability to play Catwoman.  She has a tendency to find roles that take advantage of her mostly chipper attitude, and I wasn’t sure she would be able to convincingly beat up guys twice her size on screen.  Luckily, my skepticism was misplaced.  Hathaway is easily one of the best elements of the movie.  Most of Nolan’s Batman films are shrouded in a decidedly pessimistic view of humanity, an element that is both refreshing in a blockbuster but also, at times, oppressive.  Hathaway provides a respite from the heavier aspects of Rises because she’s one of the few characters who seems to actually enjoy herself from time to time.  When she first stumbles upon Wayne during her burglary she starts by playing innocent, but when he calls her out on her lying Hathaway’s entire demeanor shifts, from the way she speaks to how she holds herself.  Throughout the film Hathaway plays Selina Kyle as mercurial, and we never really know which side she’s on or whether or not she has gained or lost the upper hand.

The central protagonist, however, is Bane, the new leader of the League of Shadows.  Rumors about Bane suggest that he comes from a prison pit in one of the more brutal corners of the world.  It is nearly impossible for any prisoner to scale this pit and gain his freedom, and although many of tried, Bane is the only one who has made it out alive.  Bane’s approach to leading the League of Shadows is different from Ra’s al Ghul’s.  Where Ra’s obscured the violence of the terrorist group through reasonable sounding rhetoric and Liam Neesom’s proper British accent, Bane himself appears to be brutality incarnate.  Without hesitation he guns civilians down but seems to prefer killing people with his bare hands. 

His followers also have a religious-like devotion, dutifully sacrificing their lives upon a simple request, which Bane makes in the same perfunctory manner that a boss might when asking for a TPS report.  But it’s not exactly clear why Bane himself garners such allegiance from his acolytes beyond the mythology surrounding his emergence from the pit.  Tom Hardy, who has put in some great performances in his career, is constrained by a mouth piece that not only serves to obscure his facial expressions, but also distorts his voice, which ends up sounding like Sean Connery with laryngitis.  The end result can look menacing in a fight, but when Hardy has dialogue to deliver, his tools as an actor are hobbled.  This is no more apparent than when Bane gives an impassioned speech to Gotham’s downtrodden, but the audience can’t even see his mouth move, and his vocal range is electronically suppressed.

Bane’s goal is not only to break Batman but also to hold Gotham hostage, cutting it off from the outside world and allowing the city residents to turn on each other.  After a vicious battle against Batman where Bane methodically dismantles his opponent, the League of Shadows proceeds to blow up any egress from the city and arm a nuclear weapon, which they are prepared to detonate if the U.S. military takes action against them.  The sequence is impressive in the way that it manages to make the stakes suitably and improbably high, a difficult task coming off of the threat of the Joker.  While Batman is trapped in the same prison that once held Bane, the citizens of Gotham plot to bring down the League of Shadows.

Bane’s ideology and the film itself are peppered with pseudo-populist sentiment about inequality and class.  Selina Kyle, who has had to scramble to survive her entire life, resents Wayne and his high society peers.  And when Bane has finally cut Gotham off from the outside world his first move is to release all of the prisoners from jail.  Unfortunately, the film’s handling of class issues is muddle at best and downright moronic at worst.  After Bane releases Gotham’s prisoners, waves of the resentful underclass spread out over Gotham smashing the homes of the city’s economic elite.  But it’s unclear if all of this terror is a part of some Marxist dialectic, or if they’re just angry prisoners.  The film suggests that the Dent Act, which is vaguely defined, has prevented parole for many of the prisoners and has in turn stoked much of their anger.  But later, these criminals form a twisted version of the judicial system in a kangaroo court headed up by none other than Dr. Crane a.k.a. the Scarecrow.  We’re supposed to be incensed by a court whose sole purpose is to sentence its subjects because the verdict of guilty has already been determined, but we’re not asked to question whether the Dent Act affected potentially reformed convicts who may have lingered in jail for years, or wonder about the potential for false conviction present in most attempts to create a tougher, more rigid judicial system. 

All of Nolan’s philosophizing has the bong scented whiff of a dorm room soliloquy.  In the previous films the ethical and moral questions were wonderful thought puzzles buried within exciting action movies, but here the very premise of these concerns fall apart the moment you think about them.  The obvious contemporary parallel to the film’s class anger is the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 2008 financial crash.  But is the inclination to open prison doors and suspend the right to a fair trial really all that similar to increasing the top tax bracket by three percent and reinstituting economic safety guards put in place after the Great Depression, like the Glass-Steagall Act?  Nolan himself has distanced the film from real world events and claims that much of it is based off of the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities.  And at times it seems as if Chris and his brother Jonathan want to be writing novels instead of making movies (which would explain the incredible amount of exposition that at times bogs down their plots).  But this doesn’t necessarily solve the problem that, unlike much of Dickens’s work, the moral quandaries found in this film are not well thought out.
But despite all of this, I enjoyed the film.  When it started to wobble, and it does from time to time, the movie got a boost from the emotional resonance that carried over from the first two movies.  Nolan does not treat this Batman series as a movie studio franchise, a fungible property that can be turned out by any number of studio approved directors.  If anything The Dark Knight Rises puts a cap on the series, and anyone would be hard pressed to awkwardly continue Nolan’s story except for Nolan himself (and my guess is that he will be out of the Batman business for some time).  This is a situation where the studio should wait a decade or so, give the audience some distance from Nolan’s vision of Batman, and then completely reinvent the character with a young and hungry director.  Whether you loved Nolan’s movies or hated them, you must admit that the character has so clearly become his in the public eye that it will take some time before anyone will accept a Batman film that isn’t helmed by Nolan.  Rises may not reach the heights of its predecessors, but its surprisingly moving denouement proves that it is possible to spin fully realized characters out of a world of superheroes. 

Addendum: in the next week or so I will have a brief write up detailing my thoughts on all three of Nolan's Batman films.  This short wrap up will allow me to discuss the relationship between all three films in more detail.  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight (4/5)

By now we’ve been trained to expect a franchise’s second film to be its darkest.  This precedent was arguably set by Empire Strikes Back, which managed to end on a surprisingly bleak note for a blockbuster film.  This trend continued with Back to the Future Part 2, which brought us the terrifying Biff controlled Hill Valley, Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, which introduced a heart collecting Thuggee cult, and D2: The Mighty Ducks, which placed our pee wee hockey team in the middle of geopolitical turmoil.  In this sense, The Dark Knight does not disappoint.  If in the first movie Batman struggled against questions of retribution and revenge, in The Dark Knight he confronts untethered chaos as embodied in Heath Ledger’s Joker.

The movie begins in media res, as the Joker’s men rip off a bank housing the unjust enrichments of Gotham’s mob.  The heist’s “punch line” happens to be the fact that the Joker has told each thief that he should kill the others in order to cut down on the number of people who will eventually split the money.  The only thief who survives happens to be the Joker in disguise.  This is one of many robberies the Joker has committed, all of which targeted the holdings of Gotham’s organized crime, a move so brazen that one of the bank’s guards even asks “Do you know who you’re stealing from?”  I think it is safe to say that the Joker does in fact know who he’s stealing from. 

This string of robberies stretches back to Batman Begins where Gordon tells Batman that a bank was ripped off by a lunatic who left a joker card as his calling, which means that the heist that opens the sequel does a nice job of connecting both films.  The Dark Knight further maintains the global scope of its predecessor.  Gotham’s mob community (who have sorts of inter-familial meetings along the lines of the Algonquin round table) are involved in an international money laundering scheme that stretches across the globe to China.  In one of the film’s best sequences, Batman decides to forcibly extradite Lau, the head of a Chinese corporation that is in league with Gotham’s underworld.  Not only does Batman glide from one Hong Kong skyscraper to another, but he also devises a way for to hitch a ride with an in-flight airplane with Lau in tow.

The series of decisions that lead up to this abduction lend the world of Gotham some real life weight.  Like an episode of Law and Order, the district attorney Harvey Dent confers with Lieutenant Gordon in order to determine how best to take down Gotham’s mobsters.  The two then decide to rely on Batman’s ability to perform an extra-legal extradition.  The police procedural aspect to the film accomplishes something that we rarely see in the comic books which are often concerned with flitting from one action panel to another: presenting the Gotham as a living, breathing city.  It is certainly in-keeping with Christopher Nolan’s goal of grounding the superhero film in reality, an objective that is often achieved on the level of aesthetics, if not often on the level of plot.

The Joker pulls off a series of criminal acts that look more like thought experiments than traditional crimes.  He threatens to continue killing Gotham’s citizens until Batman reveals his identity to the public, and when Harvey Dent turns himself in as Batman in order to calm an agitated public, the Joker attacks Dent’s SWAT team convoy in a dazzling set piece.  Later the Joker will make Batman choose between the life of Gotham’s one true hero, the law abiding Harvey Dent, and Wayne’s childhood friend Rachel Dawes, graciously recast from Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal.  And in the film’s climax two ferries, one containing everyday citizens and the other criminals, must decide whether or not they want to blow the other up in order to save their own lives. 

All of these Sophie’s choices could have easily come across as the product of a freshman college student’s philosophy 101 term paper, if not for the byzantine, contorted, and scene stealing performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker.  Despite the fact that Ledger’s Joker only appears for a grand total of ten and a half minutes in the entire two and a half hour movie, he successfully hijacks the film.  I think it is safe to say that Ledger’s performance would have received the same accolades even if it weren’t for his untimely death.  Ledger frequently smacks his distended lips as if he is never quite satiated, and at times he moves in a waddle in what is some unknowable inside joke.  Perhaps the film’s most iconic scene occurs when Joker swerves down a street in a stolen police car, stretching his head out of the window and enjoying the wind on his face.  It is in this moment that the Joker seduces the audience to his point of view.  For just a second we get to see the joy and absolute freedom of anarchic will.  I have always felt that a great portrayal of the Joker lies not in his body count (although there’s plenty of that here), but in his ability to convince an audience that his form of freewheeling violence might be just a little enjoyable.

As a villain, the Joker poses a problem that’s distinct from the League of Shadows.  Where the League of Shadows was an ideological terrorist group bent on refashioning the world in their own image, the Joker is pure bedlam.  His reasoning is inscrutable and thus unpredictable.  Like in the best horror movies, a genre from which Nolan also borrows, the Joker is scary because he defies traditional Enlightenment notions of reason.  Where half of Batman Begins was dedicated to the origins of its title character, Joker is distinct because we are denied an origin story.  He does provide a shifting narrative of his scarred face, but he’s an unreliable narrator switching out his traumatic beginning whenever he feels like it.

If the League of Shadows represented Al Qaeda, then the Joker represents the anthrax attacks that followed.  Where the Twin Towers attack was a sickening spectacle, the anthrax attacks only furthered America’s belief that violence could strike any one of us at any time and was arguably just as influential in convincing Americans that it was a good idea to invade Iraq as the 9/11 attack.  To this day, it is still entirely unclear who was involved in the anthrax attack and for what reason.  As the Joker tells a mentally and physically scarred Harvey Dent, “If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger, will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all, part of the plan.”  Likewise, Americans seemed perfectly comfortable with the idea of civilian and military deaths within a war zone half a world away, but the moment that our own sense of security comes under attack, then we readily sacrifice hundreds of thousands of innocent foreigners and thousands of our own soldiers just so we can open our mail in peace. 

The central idea of The Dark Knight, that we are willing to cross ethical lines when the personal safety of ourselves and loved ones is broached, is embodied in the character of Harvey Dent.  While we see shadows in the corners of Dent’s personality early on—he is surprisingly tolerant of Batman for a DA—the film explicitly positions him as the opposite of the caped crusader, as a man who works within the system and still manages to put criminals behind bars.  At one point he is referred to as Gotham’s “white knight.”  But over the course of the film Dent becomes tarnished.  He begins bending rules, even threatening to shoot a suspect in order to garner more information.  When the Joker blows up half of Dent’s face, then he goes into full on Inigo Montoya revenge mode. 

Any fan of Batman knows that Dent is playing the role of Two-Face, one of Batman’s most complex villains.  While I’m sure most moviegoers were happy with Two-Face’s appearance, as a longtime fan of the comics I was a little disappointed in his inclusion as a second tier villain.  The character also got short shrift in the campfest Batman Forever (again, playing second fiddle).  Even at two and a half hours, The Dark Knight feels increasingly overstuffed (I haven’t even touched upon the subplot of the Wayne employee who uncovers his dual identity), and tacking on Two-Face feels like there are too many balls in the air.  Besides, when will this great character get the full spotlight he deserves?

In some ways The Dark Knight is a messier film than its predecessor, but it more than makes up for it by being a much more ambitious film as well.  Arguably the greatest improvement between the first film and the second is Nolan’s increased comfort shooting action scenes.  This is apparent in a showdown between the Joker brandishing a machine gun and Batman on a high tech motorcycle.  The scene becomes a clash of wills, the Joker employing Batman to break his code against killing, willing to sacrifice himself to prove man’s infallibility.

The Dark Knight ends on a note of nihilism.  Batman must become the villain in order to maintain Dent’s role as a hero, because otherwise the masses would lose faith in social and government systems.  In Nolan’s world there’s a deep distrust of the people.  And while he does suggest that at times everyday people might surprise us and make the moral decision, ultimately this is overshadowed by the central characters who give in to a code of no code.  It is this anti-democratic point of view that not only makes the film an intriguing in its own right, but also makes it a unique blockbuster.  What other multi-million dollar success stories are as critical of the type of widespread populism that makes the summer blockbuster possible in the first place?  I may not agree with The Dark Knight’s view of the world, and at times its theorizing can be incredibly thin, but it is a rare big budgeted film that makes us question our own moral fortitude.