Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best of the 2000s

I guess it took me long enough, but now that New Year's is nearly upon us and I've gone through a number of Top 50 lists for previous decades, I couldn't hold off any longer and yielded to pressure to participate in the 'Best of the Aughties' list-making frenzy. The two top spots in my list are pretty much interchangeable: both brilliant variations on the themes that have run through Lynch's career, and both focusing on issues of gender and cinematic representation. Having recently re-watched both films, it's not so much a question of finding one film better than the other, but more the issue that Inland Empire can only be accessed as a companion piece to Mulholland Dr., whereas the latter makes sense (more or less) on its own.

Looking down the rest of the list, it would seem that most choices reflect a sustained and tragic sense of loss, with life, love, and family all slipping away on the "dismal tide" that was emphasized so eloquently in the Zeitgeist-channeling favorite No Country for Old Men. Even the comedies (Adaptation., Ratatouille, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) seem marked by their poignant sense of melancholy that overshadows their technical virtuosity and moments of joyous abandon, while spectacular action movies like Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon never let us forget that we are watching stories of violence, betrayal, and doomed lovers.

Hard to say whether themes such as these truly typify that arbitrary ten-year period we now haltingly call 'the aughties'. Whether it's all post-9/11 malaise, a bad case of the George W. Bush blues, or the result of our growing awareness that ecological, geographical and financial systems all seem to be crumbling as we watch, the decade has in any case produced a large number of stunning films, to which the following list aims to testify. And what better way to testify to these strange times than with the stunning end credits of Inland Empire?

1. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
2. Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)
3. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
4. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
5. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007)
6. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, 2003)
7. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
8. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)
9. Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)
10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Spike Jonze, 2004)
11. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)
12. Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)
13. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
14. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
15. The Man Who Wasn't There (Joel Coen, 2001)
16. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
17. Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003/2004)
18. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
19. Keane (Lodge Kerrigan, 2004)
20. No Country For Old Men (Joel Coen, 2007)
21. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
22. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
23. About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002)
24. Stevie (Steve James, 2002)
25. The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2006)
26. Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002)
27. Save The Green Planet (Jun-hwan Jeong, 2003)
28. The Devil's Rejects (Rob Zombie, 2004)
29. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
30. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
31. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2004)
32. The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
33. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chan-wook Park, 2005)
34. Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)
35. The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)
36. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2004)
37. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)
38. Let The Right One In (Thomas Alfredson, 2008)
39. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
40. Good Night, and Good Luck. (George Clooney, 2005)
41. Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)
42. 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007)
43. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
44. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
45. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates, 2007)
46. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2008)
47. The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, 2004)
48. Dig! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
49. Observe And Report (Jody Hill, 2009)
50. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

AVATAR: white heroes and noble savages

With all that's already been said by others on Avatar, it seems a bit redundant to chime in on the phenomenon at this point. So let me respond to the ongoing phenomenon by linking to some of the most interesting perspectives I've come across so far:

  • At io9, Annalee Lewitz approaches it from what I perceive to be its most obvious (and most problematic) aspect, which is race. She argues very convincingly that Avatar falls neatly into a genre of films about white guilt, in which she lists other notable examples such as Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Dune. In these films, the focus lies strongly on a situation "where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member."

  • Acephalous is beautiful when he's angry, swinging for the rafters with his blog post title alone: "Intentions be damned, Avatar is racist." In a remarkably concise bit of sharply observed analysis, he first explains that the mercenaries doing the imperialist company's dirty work in the film do not constitute an attack on the US military (as right-wing critics of the film have alleged), but "a perversion of the military" that clearly references 'security companies' like the infamous Blackwater. Jake Sully is an example of a real (i.e. non-mercenary) soldier, who lost his legs in a legitimate military conflict, as is, I might add, Michelle Rodriguez's character, who "didn't sign up for this shit." The piece then moves on swiftly to Avatar's race problem, which Acephalous condemns across the board:
    The film argues that once a white person truly and deeply understands the non-white experience, he becomes an unstoppable combination of non-white primitivism and white rationalism which is exactly what happens. In order for the audience to support the transformation of Jake Sully into Braveheart Smurf, it must accept the essentialist assumptions that make such a combination possible ... and those assumptions are racist.

  • Of the three different takes offered by the staff at The House Next Door, Ali Arakan's full review provides the most convincing explanation of the film's strengths and weaknesses, eloquently likening the experience of watching the film to "staring at an “Astounding Science Fiction” cover for eight hours while somebody drips LSD on your eyeballs." He manages to point out the good stuff on the screen, like the "exceptionally expressive features" of the Na'vi and the spectacular vistas on display throughout, with fauna that is "silly, but rather splendid." But in spite of these strengths, one of the main problems with the film I find myself agreeing with is simply that Cameron's ideas are half baked: Avatar is "a sumptuous feast for the eyes that’s as dumb as a rock. Then again, you don’t go to Hooters for the food."

  • Gerry Canavan provides his own terrific roundup of quotes and links related to the film, with an outstanding blog post that moves swiftly through its racial, gender, and religious problems before developing an interesting perspective on Avatar's relationship to genre, pointing out that it uncomfortably straddles the conventions of sci-fi and fantasy: "by the end of the film any pretense of scientific plausibility or internal logical coherence has been abandoned altogether: telepathy and transmigration of souls are real, MechWarriors pull Bowie knives from their belts, and not even gravity seems to work anymore."

  • Of the many straightforward film reviews out there, Walter Chaw's review is -unsurprisingly- the most convincing and the most edifying, opening his piece with a memorable shot across the bow of the SS Fanboy by identifying the film correctly as "a morally, historically, socially, and politically childish amalgam of Pocahontas and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest." If you don't believe him, watch this fake trailer.

  • The Christian right also chimes in on the film over at MovieLand, finding fault with the film's "abhorrent New Age, pagan, anti-capitalist worldview that promotes goddess worship and the destruction of the human race." I guess there are any number of roads that lead to disliking Avatar.

  • As for the issue of Avatar being a kind of open text, a Rorschach blot in which we see whatever we want to see, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times editorializes further on her original review by suggesting -somewhat redundantly- that we tend to see our own views reflected in whatever text we're talking about. She claims to find ideological readings of films unproductive, which is a rather tricky point to make here. But she's right in pointing out "that movies are filled with contradictions," and that this dialectical nature of capitalist products such as this may be the thing that we're observing in all the ongoing arguments on Avatar.

  • Finally, just to pre-empt the inevitable 'why spend so much time thinking/talking/writing about a movie?' response, allow me to refer you to this outstanding user comment to the io9 article on race listed above: 'Of all the varieties of irritating comment out there, the absolute most annoying has to be “Why can’t you just watch the movie for what it is??? Why can’t you just enjoy it? Why do you have to analyze it???”'

  • Update:About a month after the general wave of blog postings and magazine articles that followed the general release of AVATAR, Slavoj Žižek chimed in as well with a short article in The New Statesman. Many of the customary Žižekian snark on the film's obvious "brutal racist undertones" rang familiar by that time, but the Slovenian theorist makes a strong connection to the real-world political situation of the Indian Dongri Kondh people, which is uncannily similar to the fictitious plight of the Na'Vi.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Best of the 1960s

While continuing to postpone the inevitable, I find myself moving ever further backward in time with today's new post. I feel I am actually getting closer to a final Best of the 2000s list, as several important questions are resolved (like whether to put Eastern Promises ahead of A History of Violence, or vice versa). After this morning I do at least know for sure that Avatar isn't going to make the cut - but more on that later. At any rate, the number one choice for the 1960s was probably the easiest of any decade for me, as John Frankenheimer's glorious Seconds is one of those films that effortlessly leaps to the top of any list. I screened it for a large group of undergrad students last year, and was pleased to note that it was extremely well received, seemingly making as much sense to today's kids in their early twenties as it still does to me, and that it has lost none of its ability to creep its audience out.

1. Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
2. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
3. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
4. Jules et Jim (François Truffaut, 1962)
5. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
7. The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)
8. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
9. Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
10. The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
11. In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967)
12. Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
13. The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
14. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Hill, 1967)
15. The Night of the Iguana (John Huston, 1964)
16. Fail-Safe (Sidney Lumet, 1964)
17. West Side Story (Robert Wise, 1961)
18. The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
19. The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)
20. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1967)
21. Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)
22. Carnival of Souls (Frank Harvey, 1962)
23. Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)
24. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
25. Hud (Martin Ritt, ]1963)
26. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
27. From Russia with Love (Terence Young, 1963)
28. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
29. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
30. Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964)
31. Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964)
32. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965)
33. The Battle of Algiers (Guillermo Pontecorvo, 1965)
34. Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut, 1966)
35. One, Two, Three! (Billy Wilder, 1961)
36. Pretty Poison (Noel Black, 1968)
37. Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
38. Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968)
39. A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1963)
40. A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinneman, 1966)
42. Bob Dylan - Dont Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967)
40. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
43. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (Geronimi, Luske & Reitherman 1961)
44. The Misfits (John Huston, 1961)
45. The Diary of a Chambermaid (Luis Buñuel, 1964)
46. Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, 1962)
47. The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder, 1966)
48. Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)
49. Faster, Pussycat... Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyer, 1965)
50. The Fall of the House of Usher (Roger Corman, 1960)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tarantino and Food

Revisiting a whole bunch of Tarantino films in the last few weeks in tandem with the home video release of Inglourious Basterds, I was struck once again by the crucial role food has played in his movies throughout his career. The diverse ways in which he has been able to incorporate rituals of eating, ordering and preparing food got me thinking about putting together a selection of clips from his body of work that mirror each other in interesting ways. So I spent an afternoon going through his movies, hunting down moments that seemed to fit together, sometimes in very obvious ways, and sometimes (hopefully) in less obvious ones. Anyway, here's the result.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Best of the 1970s

Now that those list-making juices are flowing, why not move ahead (or rather: backward) and release my rankings for another movie decade. I guess we can describe this as a perverse form of procrastination, as the endless but somehow more manageable task of putting together Top 10 lists for earlier decades should ultimately serve as some kind of preparation for the inevitable '00s list. Simultaneously, it's an easy way out, as I labored over lists like these as part of a larger project I participated in at an online film forum I frequent.

While looking over this list for publication here, I started having second thoughts on my unconventional choice for number one, and was momentarily tempted to move the more widely established classic The Godfather Part II up to the top spot. But then I revisited the "logic scene" from Kaspar Hauser, and immediately concluded that director Werner Herzog's genius in casting the extraordinary Bruno S. as the film's lead and the heartbreaking tenderness with which his character is presented simply transcends the usual criteria for film criticism, and deserves all the recognition it can get.

1. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Werner Herzog, 1974)
2. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
3. Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)
4. Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
5. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
6. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)
7. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
8. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
9. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
10. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
11. Le Fantome de la Liberté (Luis Buñuel, 1974)
12. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
13. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
14. Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
15. Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972)
16. Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975)
17. Gimme Shelter (David Maysles, 1970)
18. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
19. All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
20. Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)
21. The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)
22. Cet Obscur Objet du Désir (Luis Buñuel, 1977)
23. Don't Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
24. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
25. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
26. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970)
27. Lenny (Bob Fosse, 1974)
28. The Day of the Locust (John Schlesinger, 1974)
29. The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974)
30. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
31. Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974)
32. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)
33. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
34. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
35. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
36. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
37. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
38. The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978)
39. Images (Robert Altman, 1972)
40. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1979)
41. Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
42. Stroszek (Werner Herzog, 1976)
43. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
44. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
45. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
46. Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977)
47. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)
48. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
49. The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976)
50. The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)

Lists, lists, lists...

While continuing to resist the ubiquitous urge to compile my own Best Films of the '00s List, I find myself somehow both drawn to and repelled by other people's lists as they are published all over the place, with more of them showing up literally every day. I remember major Best of the Decade lists being published in 1990 and 2000, and the feeling they gave me that the results were somehow official: Raging Bull was the best film of the 1980s, and Pulp Fiction was the best film of the 1990s.

But now, with the radical proliferation of media, news outlets, and opinions in general, the fundamentally historiographical exercise of list-making seems to have become little more than a social act that emphasizes its own discursive character: the multitude of lists seem to be responding to each other in acts of continuous one-upmanship. As ever, the exercise is more telling about our present than it is about the past decade, our lists of favorite movies revealing more about who we are as we are writing them down than about those movies we're ranking.

So while I continue to ponder my own choices from the past ten years, here are my own choices from the small screen, which in many ways eclipsed the cinema as a complex, artistically articulate and versatile medium in the '00s.

1. The Wire (best season: IV)
2. Curb Your Enthusiasm (best season: VII)
3. The Sopranos (best season: VI)
4. Freaks and Geeks
5. Deadwood (best season: III)
6. The Office (US) (best season: II)
7. Breaking Bad (best season: II)
8. Extras (best season: II)
9. The Shield (best season: V)
10. Mad Men (best season: I)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

More Dark Knight parody: "Key of Awesome"

Somebody up there clearly wants me to keep updating my blog: now that I recently indicated that my update-finger starts a-twitchin' as soon as I come across a fresh Dark Knight analysis and/or parody, they seem to be popping up all over the place. This one is a spot-on music video parody that combines some astutely observed critical points on the film with the usual kind of silly parody (discovered via Jim Emerson).

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Best of the 1980s

With all the 'best-of-the-'00s' lists going around, I find myself woefully ill-equipped to compare recent favorites like Synecdoche, New York or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans to what are to my mind well-established masterpieces such as Mulholland Dr. or Adaptation. Even the question which Tarantino film I would consider his best of the past decade seems to me all but unanswerable.

But since it's fun to waste one's time on the relative merits of individual films within fairly arbitrary limitations, I did put together a Top 50 for a decade that gets a bad rap, but that actually yielded a large number of fantastic films. So here's my list for the decade that was the 80s, headed up by what I consider not only the sharpest, most brilliantly observed film of the decade, but also the one that seems to me the most enduringly relevant to us today.

1. The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983)
2. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen, 1989)
3. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
4. Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985)
5. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (Miller, 1981)
6. Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980)
7. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982)
8. My Dinner with André (Malle, 1981)
9. The Elephant Man (Lynch, 1980)
10. The Thing (Carpenter, 1982)
11. This Is Spinal Tap (Reiner, 1984)
12. RoboCop (Verhoeven, 1987)
13. Fitzcarraldo (Herzog, 1982)
14. Fanny & Alexander (Bergman, 1982)
15. The Fly (Cronenberg, 1986)
16. Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984)
17. The Verdict (Lumet, 1982)
18. The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)
19. Blade Runner (Scott, 1982)
20. Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
21. Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983)
22. Hannah and Her Sisters (Allen, 1986)
23. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg, 1984)
24. Stranger Than Paradise (Jarmusch, 1984)
25. The Terminator (Cameron, 1984)
26. Do The Right Thing (Lee, 1989)
27. Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense (Demme, 1984)
28. Matewan (Sayles, 1987)
29. Day of the Dead (Romero, 1985)
30. After Hours (Scorsese, 1985)
31. Jean de Florette (Berri, 1987)
32. Brazil (Gilliam, 1985)
33. Pee-wee's Big Adventure (Burton, 1985)
34. The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen, 1985)
35. Commando (Lester, 1985)
36. Runaway Train (Konchalovsky, 1986)
37. Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
38. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Hughes, 1986)
39. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)
40. Little Shop of Horrors (Oz, 1986)
41. Big Trouble in Little China (Carpenter, 1986)
42. Tin Men (Levinson, 1987)
43. Cobra Verde (Herzog, 1987)
44. Repo Man (Cox, 1984)
45. Broadcast News (Brooks, 1987)
46. Evil Dead II (Raimi, 1987)
47. Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 1987)
48. Midnight Run (Brest, 1988)
49. When Harry Met Sally... (Reiner, 1989)
50. Road House (Herrington, 1989)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Agents of Chaos

Once again, a Dark Knight-related YouTube clip pushes me towards an eternally-overdue blog update. This time it's a new video essay by Film Freak Central reviewer Jefferson Robins, whose Agents of Chaos brings an entirely new perspective to the film characters that came closest to capturing a particular contemporary Zeitgeist.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

You're The Voice

A fabulous peek-a-boo moment last week on NBC's Community, a new comedy that is continuing to pick up steam as it moves through its first season. In the Halloween episode, Abed comes dressed as Batman, entering an early scene with a flawless imitation of Christian Bale's increasingly irritating Batman whisper/growl. But what brings the episode home at several levels is his climactic reappearance at the end of the episode, which currently stands as the finest parody/homage/reappropriation of Nolan's Batman universe.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Watchmen Extras

Since receiving the movie version of Watchmen on Blu-ray, I've been going through the extras slowly but surely. The moderately hyped, ridiculously titled 'Maximum Movie Mode' is pretty nifty, even if it fails to say anything interesting about the movie in three hours of audio-visual commentary, image galleries, text overlays, and picture-in-picture videos. Like the movie, the technique is far more impressive than the ultimately shapeless content it provides.

The second-disc featurettes are unsurprisingly superficial as well. The best one is probably a half-hour documentary-lite titled "The Phenomenon: The Comic that changed Comics," which briefly introduces some of the most obvious points of the book while singing its praises in nonstop hyperbole. This may be considered an easily palatable introduction to the book for people who haven't read it (and honestly: how many people buying this Blu-ray are unfamiliar with the comic book?). But in drawing its commentary on the film from the likes of Malin Akerman, Zack Snyder, Dave Gibbons, and a parade of DC Comics executives, it's not exactly providing the kind of insight that would make this stuff interesting to the fans for whom this was most likely intended. Some of the most cringe-worthy sound bites actually come from Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman, who proudly proclaims that Watchmen showed us the underbelly of superhero archetypes, and that we "loved them all the more fore it" (???). The whole thing suffers badly from the absence, both in body and in spirit, of Alan Moore, whose fundamental authorship is consistently undervalued, while a constant source of annoyance is the frequent use of the god-awful 'motion comic' version of the book (a DVD release that stupidly animates the panels from the book, supplemented by some absolutely terrible voice casting).

Unfortunately, it's all downhill from there, as the 26-minute "Real Superheroes: Real Vigilantes" combines endless scenes from the film with Discovery Channel-type reportage on real-world vigilante, again with commentary from the film's cast and crew, along with pretentious-as-hell Grossman offering this kind of insight: "They didn't really have superpowers; they were just dudes wearing costumes. And it makes you think really, really hard about questions of ethics and morality in a way we're sort of not used to, but Watchmen forced us to." Wow. I guess Richard Schickel isn't the only idiot working as a critic for Time magazine...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Red Dawn and America's obsession with Insurgents

Watching Red Dawn, that astonishingly up-front Reagan-era bit of violent Cold War paranoia fused with teenage NRA wish-fulfillment, I was struck once again by how strongly the narratives of American pop culture emphasize underdog insurgency fantasies in which the heroes (i.e. the Americans) find themselves either literally or metaphorically under the dirty boot-heel of a technologically superior invader/conqueror. From Star Wars to The Matrix and from Rambo III to 300, the protagonists with whom the (implicitly American) audience is made to identify face enemies that for all intents and purposes have more in common with the United States as a geopolitical, economic, and cultural superpower than any other real-world entity. Is this desire to indulge in fantasies of identifying one's national identity as that of the underdog an ancient remnant of the American Revolution? Or perhaps the remainders of Southern frustrations resulting from the Civil War?

It is in any case noteworthy that this 'insurgency fable' seems to reappear most prominently under (neo-)conservative White House administrations. The list of popular Reagan-era films in which American heroes triumphed over forces that were both superior in numbers and in technological advantage, either in Vietnam or elsewhere, are many, while the 21st-century list continues to grow even now - the long-rumored Red Dawn remake is finally going to happen, and apparently in a way that is 'very intense, very much keeping in mind the post-9/11 world that we’re in' (according to screenwriter Carl Ellsworth. Who knows? They might get Harry Dean Stanton to return in a similar small role. And whether or not he is avenged this time, perhaps he can at least get the principals to keep from blubbing every other scene this time...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Green Lantern - fan trailer

The already famous fan-made trailer shows just how little it takes to connect the dots and imagine a full-length generic blockbuster simply by creatively repurposing spectacular moments from existing features...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Classic Colbert: Superhero Stamps

"But the real injustice: out of ten stamps, no Captain America. Ridiculous. He's a real hero. Every lick of his sticky backside would taste like democracy. Plus: your tongue would be greeted as a liberator."

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sign Off - Super Hero Stamps
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Wolverine, Schmolverine

Loath as I am to lavish any kind of attention on the atrocious X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I somehow feel obliged to comment on this most recent entry in the ongoing line of superhero blockbuster embarrassments. One would think somehow that no matter how bad Wolverine was, it couldn't possibly be any worse than Brett Ratner's abortion of a movie X-Men: The Last Stand. But although a comprehensive point-by-point comparison would require more attention spent on both films than I can reasonably summon, sufficed to say that Wolverine certainly isn't better in any noticeable way.

Shallowly hyperbolic in every department, the film has been described as something written and produced by a group of eighth-graders, though one might actually suspect that today's eighth-graders would on average probably be capable of an end product a good deal more sophisticated than the collection of visual clichés and narrative non-sequiturs on display here (not to mention the fact that off-the-shelf software packages are able to conjure up better-looking visual effects than pretty much anything in Wolverine...).

Monday, March 2, 2009

From Three Kings to Generation Kill

Having recently watched the Generation Kill mini-series a second time (after recently finishing the excellent book by Evan Wright), the time seemed right to revisit the only American film about the first Gulf War of any interest: David O. Russell's still-astonishing Three Kings. Both the similarities and the differences between these two pop-culture comments on American policy in Iraq are telling.

Ten years ago, when Three Kings was first released, it was already remarkable for a major studio to have somehow produced and distributed a high-profile picture starring heartthrobs George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg that served as a scathing critique of America's abandonment of the Iraqi people after the 'liberation' of Kuwait. And although the film ultimately loses its way and descends into rank sentimentality, it remains truly remarkable for at least two things: fist, its depiction of American soldiers as clueless, uneducated trash shooting video footage of themselves in front of American flags and freaking out to loud hiphop music; and second, a scene in which an Iraqi torturer (Saïd Taghmagoui) manages to make clear to his victim (Mark Wahlberg) what this was has meant to him. Both elements seem to point both to how much has changed, and to how much has stayed the same in just a little over a decade.

When comparing Three Kings to the semi-nonfictional Generation Kill, what may be most striking about Russell's depiction of the military in Iraq is that this is clearly a world where independent spirits like Clooney and cohorts have retained some degree of latitude within which they can undertake action and ultimately realign their own moral compass. This postwar landscape is still one where the American independent spirit, which may be initially inspired to seek out a profit by going after Saddam's stash of gold bullion, but which is ultimately redeemed by its own (reluctant) altruistic instinct, has the freedom to go out adventuring. And not only are the three surviving heroes' better impulses ultimately rewarded by a traditional Hollywood happy ending, but the mass media (represented in the film by reporter Nora Dunn) even prove instrumental in getting them their final just rewards.

In Generation Kill, all our desires to see goodness and nobility rewarded seem to be thwarted by endless levels of stifling bureaucracy and rampant incompetence. As in Three Kings, we easily recognize and appreciate charismatic, instantly sympathetic characters like Brad Colbert and Lt. Nate Fick: both are presented as good, professional soldiers who recognize injustice when they see it. Due to its serial nature and longer running time, Generation Kill is able to present a wide and diverse range of characters within its cast of soldiers, running the gamut from 'Whiskey Tango' ('white trash') Trombley to noble warriors like Eric Kocher. As such, its depiction of the American army is -unsurprisingly- far more nuanced than the cavorting rabble pictured briefly in Three Kings's opening scenes, from whom only a select foursome are singled out for enlightenment.

Generation Kill present numerous moments where opportunities are raised for these soldiers to 'do the right thing' and help the population rather than antagonizing it, or even killing indiscriminately. But at every turn, the combined forces of stupidity (in the form of commanding officers 'Captain America' and 'Encino Man') and bureaucratic, politically-minded leadership (Col. Ferrando, aka 'Godfather') seem to crush all hopes of actually doing anything about it. Unlike the deliberately fabulist Three Kings, the viewer here is left with no way out of this nightmare, and feels stuck in this eight-hour audiovisual quagmire - much like reporter Evan Wright must have felt at the time.

But of course the most striking thing about Three Kings from a post-Iraq II perspective is neither its unusual level of political involvement nor its striking imagery: it is its torture scene, which becomes almost unbearable to watch in the aftermath of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. The first disquieting moment comes when our heroes accidentally discover a dungeon that is being used by the Iraqi army to torture prisoners, and the three soldiers are noticeably shocked. This single moment illustrates uncannily how much has changed since 1999, when the idea that the American military would use torture was all but inconceivable. It becomes even more unsettling when Wahlberg's character is subsequently abused, and through this process comes to identify with his Iraqi torturer, imagining his own suburban home being attacked and losing his wife and child from within the supposed safety of American soil.

Contrast this sequence with any of several moments in Generation Kill where blatantly incompetent commanding officers regularly abuse prisoners, needlessly attempt to bayonet Iraqi soldiers who have already surrendered, and take degrading pictures of Iraqis as take-home mementoes, and one becomes aware of what a different kind of world this has become. Ten years ago, even the most politically involved popular American narratives maintained a belief in the innate benevolence of the American individual, and his ability to overcome adversity, temptation, and the military chain of command. Generation Kill illustrates how cynical our perception of this myth has now become, and how futile it is to even imagine an escape from it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Watchmen - A lucky break

Having been lucky enough to know a good friend who was able to sneak me into an early press screening of the long-awaited, much-hyped, and already close-to-tiresome Watchmen adaptation, I'm somewhat relieved to relate here that the title of today's posting refers not only to the fact that I was lucky to catch the flick before the wave of anticipation crests, but also that it's not remotely as bad as I had feared --indeed, assumed-- it would be. My first sneaking suspicion that I may have been a bit over-zealous in my blanket condemnation of all things Zack Snyder-related came upon re-visiting his version of Dawn of the Dead recently on DVD. Because let's face it: that was another contemporary adaptation of a 'classic' text which throngs of devotees and other assorted naysayers had rejected in advance, only to make a quick about-face once it actually saw the light of day.

My own reluctance to embrace the hype came pretty much entirely from the total failure of the atrocious 300, followed by the first Watchmen trailer made up entirely of slow-motion shots that recreate famous panels from the book. Perhaps I should have taken into account the fact that Frank Miller's 300 comic book wasn't perhaps the most compelling source text to start off with anyway, and that the film's version attendant emphasis on macho violence and kitschy homo-erotica could hardly be deemed all that surprising.

But now that I've actually experienced the thing first-hand, I must admit that I can't imagine a film version that is substantially better than the one that looks likely to become an international phenomenon as of next week: it's extremely faithful to the book without entirely mummifying the source text; the casting is fiendishly clever, with Patrick Wilson a particular stand-out; there is plenty of delicious eye candy throughout; there are a few moments when the film's editing comes close to resembling the book's extraordinary use of symmetrical mirroring devices; and its depiction of Rorschach as the story's 'hero' is neither more nor less problematic than it is in the book (although the one moment of applause in this screening occurred when that sociopathic loner deep-fried another inmate and let the others know that they're locked up with him rather than the other way around).

Yale conference - the rest

A long-overdue update following the terrific 'Politics of Superheroes' conference I attended at Yale a few weeks ago. All the start-of-semester activity got the better of me since my return, and robbed the planned update to this blog of some of its urgency. At any rate, the second (and last) day of the small conference was certainly worthwhile, culminating in a closing round-table discussion, which was sometimes annoyingly unfocused (like much of the conference), but which did re-emphasize many theoretical concerns central to the topic of superheroes in popular culture.

My own paper was a modest success, but since the panel's chair wasn't very strict about enforcing the 20-minute time limit on presentations and the first paper was plagued by a computer crash and other technical problems, there was only very little time left for Q&A, most of which was then directed at another presenter, whose misapplication of Freudian terminology drew some heated remarks.

What I got out of it for my own work was firstly a new network of strong contacts, not only from some of the better universities in and around New England, but also from France and the UK; secondly, a number of tantalizing ideas on re-thinking and conceptualizing the superhero figure and how this relates not only to politics, but also to the city, to digital ontologies, to globalization, and to race and gender. So now the time has come to feed some of those ideas back into a new draft of my research proposal as I begin to catalogue funding options for the next academic year(s).

Friday, January 30, 2009

Yale conference - day 1

So the first day of the graduate conference at Yale mostly lived up to my high expectations: most papers that were presented during the two longish panels this morning and this afternoon were solid efforts, with a few standout contributions, and the keynote speech from Scott Bukatman was entertaining and contained some stimulating new insights, even if it was somewhat snarky and opinionated. I was pleased to encounter Ramzi Fawaz again after previously having met at the 2007 PCA/ACA convention, where I had already been impressed by his acute dissection of superhero mythology. His talk here at Yale focused on The Incredibles, laying bare the problematic ways in which this beloved film of mine actually has at its core a problematic resistance towards 'otherness' and non-conformity - I now understand somewhat better why I may have been so reluctant to work on this film and take its true politics to task...

Predictably, much of the discussion so far has been centered on The Dark Knight as a cultural phenomenon, with some heated exchanges of opinion about the film's obvious (and less obvious) flaws. Unfortunately, much of the social banter between panels has had a tendency to the exchange of preferences and opinions rather than further discussion and analysis; I understand the impulse to defend or attack films like these among other academics, but there's really only so many times I can stand to hear what's wrong with Christopher Nolan as a writer, director and/or editor.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Of Samurai and Dark Knights

Resulting from a guest lecture I gave a few months ago on 9/11 and representations of evil, I have been invited to introduce screenings of two films this week, which have been programmed as a 'superhero double bill.' The appearance of last year's phenomenal The Dark Knight on the schedule will probably surprise no one. Combining it on a single bill with Kurosawa's arthouse classic Rashomon, however, is to my mind a more 'creative' choice: I doubt I am the only one to be initially somewhat baffled by the thought that Rashomon is in any way related to the superhero movie genre.

But although Rashomon's reputation is mostly based on the way it constitutes narrative as subjective, with its contradictory accounts of a single event, what it seems to have in common with Nolan's The Dark Knight is the way in which it offers competing ideas about the nature of reality. Speaking more broadly, the different people talking about the different eye-witness accounts bring into sharp relief the absence of a single, trustworthy perspective on the world, which is in many ways one of the foundations of the superhero genre as a whole.

Both films also, each in its own way, break with the moral and aesthetic conventions of the genre from which they have emerged. Where Rashomon offers a deconstruction of traditional Japanese samurai stories, The Dark Knight is far more interested in the slippery slope one encounters when confronted with chaos and nihilism. So whatever the original reasons for programming these two films together on a single bill, I guess there is some basis for a somewhat cohesive introduction...

Superhero double bill @ Crea Amsterdam

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Body of Lies

The latest high-profile entry in the dead-on-its-feet post-9/11 thriller genre, Ridley Scott's Body of Lies is certainly not the worst of its kind, but it somehow did end up one of the more embarrassing commercial failures - in spite of the top-heavy casting of Leo DiCaprio alongside Russell Crowe. Whether its underperformance at the US box office was caused by its (appropriately) ambiguous plot or by its 'been there, done that' similarities to lesser pictures like Syriana and Rendition, it seems to be faring comparatively well in European cinemas.

But whatever the reasons for its commercial rewards (or lack thereof), the film certainly has a redundant quality to it that somehow succeeds in forfeiting its many obvious qualities (not least of which is the too-beautiful-for-belief Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani as the tacked-on romantic interest). Seemingly struggling to offer an exposé of the human aspect of America's War on Terror, it ultimately implies little more than that the US intelligence agencies are fatally compromised in their disregard for actual human lives, and that local authorities may be better suited for managing this fight (see also: A Mighty Heart).

The film may be hampered by a convoluted, strikingly uneven plot, but it sets itself apart from most previous films to which it has invited comparison by ultimately emasculating its hero instead of offering him his expected climax of moral awakening (cf. Rendition) and/or cleansing violence (cf. The Kingdom). "Walk out that door, and you're turning your back on America," says Russell Crowe's boringly immoral handler as DiCaprio opts for Middle-Eastern romance over American bureaucracy. Perhaps that sentiment still echoes the American moviegoer's feelings too much for comfort.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Theorizing superheroes

With the upcoming Yale symposium at the end of this month, I'm starting to try to organize some thoughts and ideas that have been circulating in my mind, and in some cases taking shape in recent lectures, articles, reviews and discussions. One of these concerns the ambiguous relationship the superhero seems to occupy towards theories of modernism and postmodernism. In some ways, they seem to be the ultimate embodiment of the heroic ambitions of early 20th-century modernism: Superman and Batman are - after all - the ultimate incarnation of individual human accomplishment, constituting modernism's ambivalent relationship to technology in its two major figures: Superman has no need for technology, and his first cover (and most iconic moment) is one of him lifting up and destroying a car. Batman on the other hand uses individually customized technological gadgets to overcome challenges. On top of that, we have the strong, frequently defining relationship between superheroes and the modernist architecture of the early twentieth century.

On the other hand, the forms in which we have traditionally encountered them seem to be more characteristic of most notions associated with postmodernism: the stories tend to be predictable and highly generic; the comics clearly recycle dominant ideologies associated with mass culture of the various periods in which they were produced; superhero mythology as a whole tends to contribute to a nostalgic de-historicizing of the present, in a classically Jamesonian way; and with their massive accumulation of varied, often contradictory histories, superheroes also seem to have become Baudrillardian simulacra: free-floating signifiers that can come to stand for anything from an ironic fashion brand to an ideological position.