happy birthday, clint: army of one

I had no idea I hadn’t blogged since March. I honestly just stepped away from the computer. The house is obviously bigger than I thought. I will do a proper post soon, but since it’s the birthday of one of the great (still living) movie stars, I thought I’d celebrate with a couple of videos from two of Eastwood’s best movies.

I watched Kelly’s Heroes earlier in the week. It’s not a movie I ever cared about. Friends have tried getting me to reassess it, but I’ve been stubborn. I really didn’t like it the last time I struggled through it around 1999 or so.

What an idiot I was. I saw it with new eyes and for my money it’s one of the most entertaining of the later World War II movies. The director, Brian G. Hutton, directed the fabulous Where Eagles Dare, starring Eastwood and Richard Burton, and that one has always been one of my favorite war movies. But Kelly’s Heroes was too anachronistic and silly for me. Like I said, however, I was an idiot. It is very much the things I chastised it for being… so what? That’s why it’s fun. It’s also great because of the cast and it’s well-directed. War movies post-Saving Private Ryan tend to be serious, serious, serious affairs. Real war is certainly grim and depressing. But not every war movie has to be. At least, not all of the time. The video below is the original trailer.

And when I think of Eastwood, I think of Westerns. My favorite of the Eastwood oaters (excluding the Leone ones) is The Outlaw Josey Wales, released in 1976. I was seven years old when it came out and I saw it in the theater. It made quite an impression on me and I’ve watched it numerous times since and its hold hasn’t weakened. The book it’s based on, Gone to Texas, is very good too. The video below is the original trailer. I may just have to re-watch the movie this weekend.

chaos cinema and the sorry state of the modern action movie

Action movies have been undergoing a major transformation over the last decade or so, altering how physicality is captured on screen, and deviating dramatically from the conventions of what we commonly understand as classical Hollywood filmmaking. The way audiences absorb these images is arguably changing as well–our eyes are adapting. We can’t see fast enough. But what is it that we’re seeing? Anything beyond the surface?

What is at issue here is the idea that through the use of random staccato cutting, jarring and seemingly mindless use of close-ups and shaky camera movements, and a bullying manipulation of sound to stranglehold the senses, the modern day action movie less resembles a motion picture than it does a commercial—sensory overload with only a superficial acknowledgement of dramatic conflict and resolution to stitch the brawny money shots together.

The directors who are consistently castigated for the use of these techniques are Michael Bay (Armageddon, Bad Boys, and the Transformers movies), Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Domino, and Unstoppable), and Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Green Zone). However, the trend is far-reaching and the list of culprits long and growing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with fast cuts or the use of handheld camera to convey disorientation or verisimilitude. All filmmaking is manipulative, whether we’re talking about the modest yet profound grace of a naturalistic movie like The Bicycle Thieves or the orgy of furious pixels and aural cacophony that fuels most big budget commercial action movies. But while the technological advancements have juiced up the surface pleasures of movies like never before, offering audiences a mainline of numbing thrills to help distract one from thinking about how poorly written and constructed the dramatic elements truly are, they become more and more irrelevant in terms of story and emotional resonance. The over-the-top cartoon violence of the sugar pop Shoot ’em Up looks childish and stupid in a way that Oldboy–a movie that contains one of the most kinetically exaggerated yet impressive action sequences of the last decade–never does. Oldboy, which is pure melodrama, is invested in its characters’ plights in such a manner that it resonates deeply with emotional depth. Its slick style is not intended to alienate the viewer, but force us to engage deeper with it, something that Bay or Scott or the director of Shoot ’em Up, Michael Davis, aren’t capable of. At least, they’ve not yet shown that they can connect with an audience in a genuine way. But they’re masters of visual obfuscation and jazzing about. They seduce you with over-amped imagery that only registers surface stimulation, if even that. They’re cinematic cosmeticians, bred on the techniques of advertising and bad television shows more than they are on the masters of action cinema like Kurosawa, Peckinpah, Leone, Sturges, Hill, and so many others.

For some people, I guess, that’s enough. They just want to see shit blowed up real good. But for someone like myself, who wants their action narratives grounded in character, emotion, and real physicality—it’s a bore and I anticipate the tide turning, because this trend won’t last. It may be irritating, but it won’t last. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is real storytelling and the ability of a director to generate genuine emotional investment in his characters. It’s the fundamentals of drama. And you can pit your hero up against the most ass-kicking robotic giant we’ve ever seen on screen, but if the hero isn’t worth our emotional investment, why should we care? Plenty of people obviously do enjoy being lulled into waking sleep week after week, since these movies are astoundingly popular. I’ve yet, though, to hear anyone talk about them as great stories; I’ve yet to hear anyone tell me they actually cared about what happened in a Michael Bay movie.

Film writer and academic Matthias Stork has labelled this new form of dissociative action filmmaking “Chaos Cinema.” Over at Press Play you can view Stork’s two-part video essay and judge for yourself. Then head over to Big Media Vandalism and read Steven Boone’s thoughts on the subject, “Blind Fury: Notes on Chaos Cinema,” and take in some of the rather hostile reactions in response to Stork’s criticisms.

A part of me is rather dispirited in seeing such unthinking, reactionary support of directors like Bay and others. It’s like hearing someone mount an enthusiastic argument for the virtues of Hamburger Helper over that of a perfectly grilled steak or even a good old fashioned delicious cheeseburger. The argument becomes a bit embarrassing after awhile and displays a shocking lack of taste. Okay, you like eating shit. But you do know that you are eating shit, right? There’s nothing wrong with championing undervalued or critically-loathed filmmakers. You do, though, have to establish sound reasons why they’re worthy of taking seriously. Just saying you like them a whole bunch isn’t enough, I’m afraid.

I’m also encouraged by all of this, however, because what essentially people are arguing about is… editing. Aesthetics. Movies. Entertainment. Criticism. Art. And there’s something oddly beautiful about that, especially at a time when supposedly dialogues like this are things of the past or confined to academia. Is anyone really convincing anyone to his or her side? I don’t know. But I’m glad people feel passionate about… editing rhythms.

I should make it again clear that I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with the techniques utilized in these so-called Chaos Cinema movies. Commercial films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch both shocked audiences out of their apathy with jarring editing schemes during their apocalyptic finales. Violence had never been represented on screen with such savagery and graphicness before. Exit wounds exploded, blood spurted, and the agony of death could be felt in every frame. It was an assault on the senses, but the directors of those two milestones ultimately wanted you to feel. Audiences were shocked by the carnage, but it was the way those scenes had been filmed, edited, and designed that greatly contributed to their disorientation as well. And when they walked out of the theater they felt something.

This was old school Chaos Cinema.

This was a time when commercial feature film directors like Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah, as well as editors like Dede Allen, pilfered the techniques of the Nouvelle Vague for their own uses, manipulating space and time within the frame to a degree that many viewed what they were doing as incoherent and artsy-fartsy. It pissed people off, but eventually our eyes adapted to this new way of viewing action. I’m sure many moviegoers who were more comfortable watching John Wayne in True Grit wanted to rip their eyes out after seeing The Wild Bunch. True Grit, released the same year as Peckinpah’s masterpiece, feels old and wheezy in comparison. It’s plenty good, but it feels old. Now, The Wild Bunch looks like a relic to some kid jonesing for his next digital hot shot. I’m sure even films like John Woo’s The Killer or Hard Boiled–two films that were evolutionary leaps in terms of how action was conveyed on screen in their day–are considered slow to that zapped-out kid sucking out droplets of pixelated joy from the latest Michael Bay or Tony Scott release. But the major difference in what Peckinpah and Penn did in their work and what the directors of Chaos Cinema are doing, is that the former filmmakers never lost sight of character and emotion. They never surrendered their humanity.

Hyper-kinetic cutting, handheld camera usage, and attempts to displace our sense of space within a scene can theoretically be useful tools for a filmmaker if used judiciously and with thought. Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic Saving Private Ryan–a film that I don’t particularly care for overall–effectively overwhelms the viewer with a virtuosic opening D-Day sequence that uses many of the techniques later bastardized in the lesser films that followed. But Steven Spielberg is a master craftsman and, working with the brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, was able to immerse us within the physical combat experience in a way we’d never experienced before in a movie. There was physicality in the images–an awareness of bone, blood, and suffering. There was also an awareness to know when to draw back, to let a semblance of “real life” intrude into the otherwise melodramatic WWII clichés. Arguably, some of Saving Private Ryan‘s most indelible imagery comes from the quiet moments, such as the scene of raindrops pelting a leaf or a procession of soldiers walking across a field at night, their silhouettes visible whenever bombs light up the night sky in the distance.

But directors like Michael Bay and others seem to have only a rudimentary understanding of storytelling, hence why they’re so afraid of boring the hell out of you, hence why they have to overload your senses at all times, even in non-action domestic sequences when characters dribble out useless plot exposition or backstory.

It’s a con. They know it. Do you?

… only one colossus: alexander revisited (2007)

Oliver Stone’s Alexander, released in 2004, is an easy movie to mock, let alone hate—it’s long, it’s about some king dude who lived, uh, lived a long time ago and like killed a bunch of people or something, and all of the actors talk in funny accents that aren’t American.  Oh, and the lead dude, he’s gay.  I think.  In fact, the whole movie is about gay people.  And that loudmouthed liberal Oliver Stone made it.  It’s stupid.  How do I know?  Well, I’ve never actually seen it.

A lot of people in the U.S. never saw it.  Before the movie plopped into theaters, rumors had already leaked that it was bad in that special way only bloated self-indulgent Hollywood studio projects can be.  There were also plenty of outraged citizens that were upset because Stone was going to portray the mighty Alexander as bisexual, which he was, and then a whole other group was mad because he wasn’t going to be bisexual enough.  It was also supposed to be boring, the worst cinematic sin of them all.  I’d initially wanted to see it, especially on the big screen, but I chickened out.  I’d wait for it to come out on DVD.  Also, at that time, I didn’t particularly like Colin Farrell or Angelina Jolie.  I still don’t care for La Jolie, although I’ve changed my mind about Farrell after he appeared in Terrence Malick’s The New World.  That lad’s got some acting chops after all.

I never did see the theatrical version of Alexander on DVD.  I took the leap sometime later when the second version of the film, the “director’s cut,” was released on disc.  You can scrupulously check Wikipedia if I’m right, but I think Stone lopped off 20 minutes from the theatrical version then added ten new minutes of footage or so.  I wanted to like it and approached it with an open mind, but so much of it felt off.  The varying acting styles were jarring, the pacing lead-footed, and the Freudian psychoanalyzing simplistic.  I was impressed with its scope, its grandness, and with Stone’s ambition in presenting his subject in such complex, deeply flawed terms.  But it just wasn’t very good, was it?

For some reason I checked the movie out again when Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut was released on DVD in 2007.  This was the longer, “road show” version of the movie, which added 30 minutes of new footage.  But more importantly, the movie was significantly re-edited and restructured.  This third, radically altered version was like watching an entirely different movie in many ways.  I sort of loved it, albeit the love one has for a crazy friend or ex-lover.  It’s not particular healthy, but what can I do?  I’m sort of a loose one when it comes to historical epics.  I realize that for an otherwise respectable, educated middle-aged American male, that’s akin to admitting you still like heavy metal or the band Rush.  Some would argue, that’s it’s just a step up from still living in your parents’ basement or storing your urine in large water cooler bottles and hiding it in your closet.  But I can’t take it back now, can I?  I dig epics, particularly set in ancient times.

Is there any cinematic genre more stylistically cumbersome or old fashioned than the historical epic?  It’s a genre steeped in the past, rooted in images of military might, and even in the best productions, despite grandiose scenes of well-staged battles and carnage, there are moments padded with sometimes excruciating sequences of old white guys standing around pontificating about the death of empire or conspiring to wage war against other nations.  That’s a huge generalization, of course, and perhaps unfair since there are a whole lot of movies of this ilk—I’m thinking of the Italian peplum genre from the 1960s, usually focusing on the heroic exploits of Hercules or Machiste or Samson—whose production values were so piss poor they couldn’t even pull off convincing action sequences, although they were still entertaining in many ways.  But at its best, the genre could do wonders, cinematically speaking.  I’m thinking here of Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and El Cid; Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus; Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Kagemusha, and Ran; William Wyler’s Ben-Hur; The 300 Spartans; the Taylor and Burton fiasco Cleopatra, that nevertheless has many extraordinary moments; and on and on.  And then there are the neo-epics, like Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy, and the like.  None of the latter ones are brilliant, but all of them have moments of great emotional power and melodramatic allure.

Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut may be the best of the newer crop.  I can feel you running away from your computer, if you haven’t already, but it’s true.  It’s still flawed, although many of the missteps of the earlier versions have now been corrected—pacing most of all—and despite its longer running time, it flows much easier, and dare I say, it’s even relaxed.  For me, there are always going to be campy excesses that simply don’t appeal—Jolie’s performance, for example.  However, a certain level of kitsch and melodrama are simply things one must put up with when watching historical epics of this kind.  It’s part of the territory, at least in the productions coming from the West.  As a fan, you learn to ignore it or revel in it.

Stone’s aggressively muscular style and penchant for hallucinatory visuals makes him perfectly suited for this genre.  I’m surprised it took him so long to embrace it.  But he embraced it with his characteristic gusto.  And while it’s not great cinema, it is a fascinating and intelligent failure that is far more interesting to me than any number of slick, impersonal Hollywood productions from the last decade.  Alexander Revisited may come wrapped in the guise of big budget entertainment, but it’s as personal as any so-called mumblecore toss-off and as politically resonant as any of the many anti-Bush documentaries that came out over the last decade.  While it’s certainly debatable whether one should glorify a butcher, however charismatic they perhaps were, as Stone does here, I do appreciate his (along with his fellow co-screenwriters Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis) intricate and sometimes contradictory appraisal of Alexander.  The movie is about the myth-making of Alexander as much as it is about the conqueror himself.  Also, Stone, quite simply, has the guts to risk playing the fool.  And I can’t help but admire that in a filmmaker.

So what’s with all the rambling about a movie much of the American critical establishment didn’t get and that audiences over here rejected outright?[1] Because I’m not alone in my appreciation of the movie.  Earlier this week I came across a blog post–written back in March–by Dennis Cozzalio at the nifty Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule on Alexander Revisited‘s first theatrical screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.  Cozzalio also conducted an interview with director Oliver Stone, which offers plenty to ponder.  I don’t always link to other blogs here, but it was a nice surprise to see this movie given some proper attention after its initial beat down.  It’s a movie worthy of reappraisal and hopefully that theatrical screening won’t be the first and last we see of it.

[1] It did well overseas and on video, hence the multiple versions released.

random moments in film criticism #1

The Getaway is an utter bore.  A failure as drama, as film, as entertainment.  It is morally corrupt, artistically arid, conceptually outdated and in sum as thoroughly unredeemable a piece of shit as has been released this year, and the horror and wonder of it, is that it came from such massive talents.”

The above quote is from the always outspoken Harlan Ellison, writing in the January 19, 1973 edition of The Staff about Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 crime movie The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw.  The review is collected in the book Harlan Ellison’s Watching.  As good a quote as any to inaugurate this new blog feature.

Below is a scene from the movie, giving you a little taste of what Bloody Sam did best.  If you haven’t seen it before and plan to, you may want to back off.  Plot lines are resolved and not everyone makes it out alive.  Good scene.

ADDITION:

I think you could argue that Ellison is the godfather of the kind of belligerent, smartypants writing that blankets the internet nowadays.  The sort of hostile over-the-top typing that is frequently mistaken for having an opinion.  The big difference is that Ellison could write and he was informed about his opinions.  He harangued the reader, but it came loaded with just as much brains as brawn.  Most of the time.    

president obama and the nobel peace prize

I’m not going to deny it: I love seeing Republicans turn inside-out over President Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize this morning.  I think everyone is shocked.  But after watching the cable news shows and scanning various web pages, it seems the Republican response–and that of many liberals as well–can be summed up below.

i liked it better not stoned

HEAVY METAL was the soundtrack of my teenage life.  Hardcore punk/D-beat madness too and loads of Brit pop/alternative shoegazing blah blah blah.  But it always came back to METAL.  Not the pop metal glam stuff mind you, e.g. Motley Crue, Poison, Cinderella, and all that other crap.  No, I liked METAL straight-up: Sabbath, Maiden, Motorhead, Metallica, Slayer, Venom, Celtic Frost, and all the rest of the knuckle-dragging angry riff masters.  Big, brutal, epic, demonic, stoopid METAL.

I’m not proud.

Anyway, I caught Tenacious D’s infectiously silly and hilarious film Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny again this past weekend and… uh, it seemed funnier to me this time around.  Sure, I liked it enough the first time under the appropriate influences.  But this time it just seemed to click better for me.  It’s ridiculous and adolescent stuff, to be sure.  But so is METAL.  And I’m already on the record about that.

And for the record… Dio is better than Ozzy.

guest blogging over at the rushmore academy

Monsieur Appleby from the nifty Wes Anderson fan site The Rushmore Academy has graciously invited me to guest blog a few pieces about… well, Wes Anderson of course!  Anderson, along with Richard Linklater, David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, and Michel Gondry are the subjects of my new book.

Hope to see you over there!

http://www.rushmoreacademy.com/2008/07/06/guest-blogger-derek-hill-on-wes-anderson