Excessive, Escapist Excellence — Django Unchained

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

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Over the years, acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has exhibited the influence of 60s/70s Italian-made “spaghetti” westerns through the narratives, dialogue, cinematography, and music of his movies, but never before has he directly taken on the genre itself. Until now.

Well, almost, anyway. Given that ‘Django Unchained’ takes place more in the Old South than the Old West and centers on the issue of slavery, Tarantino himself has branded the film a Southern (as opposed to a Western). Still, ‘Django Unchained’ thoroughly captures the spirit of the spaghetti westerns from which it draws inspiration. That wonderful, raw, purposefully violent and over-the-top escapism is present in full force, laid beautifully with the corner stones of Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking—deep and witty dialogue, extravagant characters, unorthodox plots, and striking cinematography.

It’s fun, pulp cinema at its finest, which may be why some have failed to understand it. Various critics as well as noted African American director Spike Lee have derided the film. The story—centering on a former slave who becomes a bounty hunter and kills slaveholders—has been criticized as insensitive to the historical reality of slavery, an ignorant insult to those unfortunate victims of inhumanity and racism.

Such criticism would be valid if Tarantino had actually intended for ‘Django Unchained’ to be at all serious or historically accurate. But he didn’t.

‘Django Unchained’ doesn’t try to say anything particularly insightful about racism and slavery, only that they’re bad; and he almost purposefully seems to throw anachronisms into the film, as if to dissuade anyone from thinking that this was real history. The film is purposefully indulgent in a good way—it allows us to suspend the trappings of reality and (to some extent) real morality and then lets us explore our more base feelings. We want to see evil slave holders being blown away by a former slave; we want the satisfaction of seeing blatant evil destroyed, regardless of the actual historical conditions of slavery in America. That the title character, Django, is himself hardly a banner of morality is irrelevant. He takes down the embodiments of true evil, and that is what we love to see. It’s the same thing the old spaghetti westerns depended on, and it’s a small part of why filmmaking in general is so special. More so than books or plays, film gives us a uniquely powerful way to explore ideas and moralities different than our own. It lets us be excessive, to white wash experiences not for the sake of ignorance, but for emotion. Few of us, hopefully, would ever solve the world’s problems by shooting at them, and yet there is something amazingly cathartic about seeing it done on screen, if only so that we can vicariously live out thoughts and feelings we otherwise keep hidden. In that sense ‘Django Unchained’ is strikingly potent, a well executed celebration of the medium of film.

All that being the case, if you aren’t prepared for graphic shootings, beatings, nudity, explosions, and frequent racial slurs, this probably isn’t the film for you.

What else can be said about this film? The characters are all brilliantly cast. Jamie Foxx plays Django with much the same striking presence that Clint Eastwood had as the Man With No Name; Christoph Waltz (thankfully) plays the antithesis of his character in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ as a German bounty hunter with a heart-of-gold. I hope he gets more heroic roles after this. Leonardo di Caprio steals the show as Calvin Candy, a wonderfully over the top slaveholder and a really fun bad guy with a hilarious accent to boot. Finally, Samuel Jackson, as the head slave of Candy’s plantation, gives an odd yet incredibly effective performance as the film’s true villain. They even get the original Django from the 60’s spaghetti western (which I reviewed on this site), Franco Nero, for a small cameo, which is a nice touch.

Tarantino inserts his usual lengthy dialogue into the film, but unlike the somewhat unjustified excesses of ‘Inglourious Basterds’, it’s more restrained here, and that’s a definite plus. Admittedly, at nearly three hours, the film’s length caught me off guard the first time I saw it, and I initially felt that it dragged by about a half hour. After seeing it a second time, though, I’m now convinced that the film, while not as short as it perhaps could have been, is paced the way it needs to be, and its length is not the hindrance I originally thought.

Lastly, the soundtrack to this film is truly exceptional. Tarantino incorporates a diverse pallet of artists, from Johnny Cash to hip-hop, from the 1960’s to present day, into the film in striking sequences that are a lot of fun to watch. Famed spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest composers of all time, even wrote some original music for the film, which is just awesome. I highly recommend purchasing the soundtrack on its own merits.

It seems obvious at this point and a little redundant to say, but I enjoyed ‘Django Unchained’ a great deal, as much any film I’ve ever seen in theatres. As long as people approach this movie with a proper understanding of spaghetti westerns and the purposefully surreal nature of the plot, I think they too will enjoy it for thrill ride it is.

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How Ron Howard Stole ‘The Grinch’

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

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“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the perennially popular children’s book, was excellently adapted in the 1960s for television as an animated short.  Like the book it was based on, the program was concise and insightful, bringing the Grinch story to a widespread audience and making it a bona fide cultural phenomenon for the past half-century.  Given the animated program’s popularity and the tendency for filmmakers to put on the silver screen those things they adored when they were young, it was only a matter of time before somebody would turn it into a feature-length film.  That time came in the winter of 2000, and that somebody was Ron Howard.  And the failure he wrought upon Dr. Seuss is something the Whos still sing about.

For those of you who (somehow) don’t know the story of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” let me give you the quick version: the Grinch is a rather ill-spirited loner who lives outside of the town of Whoville.  Every year, the Whos of Whoville celebrate Christmas with much singing, gift giving, feasting and enjoyment, much to the annoyance of the Grinch.  One particular Christmas eve, the Grinch decides to steal all of the Whos’ food, gifts, and decorations in hopes that they won’t celebrate the holiday, only to find the Whos still rejoicing on Christmas morn.  This causes a change of heart in the Grinch, who realizes that Christmas has a much deeper meaning than he had thought, and so he takes everything he stole back to the Whos and celebrates whole-heartedly in the holiday.

It’s a nice, short children’s story, and the message is appropriately subtle.  The book, read thoroughly, can still be finished in a little less than a half-hour, which was also about the running time of the animated program.  You may wonder how such a pithy tale translated to a two-hour film.

Not well.

Let me be clear, I am not criticizing Howard & Co. for needing to add more to this story in order to fit it to film.  I am not criticizing them for exploring Whoville in greater depth, giving the Grinch more personality, or providing him more of a reason for disliking Christmas.  My issue is that this film changes the very nature of the story itself.

In the original story, what the Grinch failed to understand was the concept of the sacramental (see James’s review of ‘The Secret of NIMH’ for a detailed explanation.)  Gifts and feasts and songs are signs of Christmas—pointing to the charity, love and hope of the holiday—but they are not what the season is about.  Though it might seem strange, we, as humans, are more like the Grinch than the Whos in the story, for we often lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas amongst all of the clutter.  The altruistic Whos, then, are what we strive to be, understanding the important role of sacramentals, but never confusing them with or forgetting about the real meaning of the holiday.

Contrast this with what Ron Howard gives us in the film, which is a Whoville that is overwhelmingly materialistic and almost hedonistically obsessed with gifts, celebrations and parties (references to sex, adultery and alcohol—all of which are found in the film—should NEVER EVER belong in anything Dr.Seuss-related).  The Whos are a self-absorbed, self-righteous lot, hardly a model to live up to, hardly a great contrast to the Grinch, played far too extravagantly by Jim Carrey under heavy make-up.  Sorry, Carrey, the Grinch was grumpy and a little eccentric, never border-line insane.

As in the book, the Grinch hates the Whos, but here it’s completely understandable.  He hates them because of their arrogance, their selfishness, their blatantly shallow commercialism, and their underlying cruelty.  It is revealed in flashbacks that he lived among the Whos as a child, only to be mocked and ridiculed by them.  He might be over the top, and he might be a little crazy, but the Grinch’s resentment for the Whos and their holiday is hardly misplaced.  Unlike the book, the Grinch’s flawed understanding of Christmas doesn’t come from some misconception of the Whos and their ideas of Christmas, it is rather a direct result of the attitudes of the Whos themselves.  In that sense the Grinch is almost in the right.  Though he may not understand the meaning of the holiday, neither do the Whos.  The exception, of course, is a young girl, Cindy Lu Who, who seems to consummately grasp the real meaning of Christmas.  In the book she was a charming representative of the Whos’ good ways, here she is an exception to their rule.  Her message of goodwill would be endearing if it unfortunately weren’t so on the nose; the subtlety of the book has been replaced with a kind of embarrassing blatancy.  And unlike the book or the animated program, the film never quite effectively answers what role sacramentals play in the role of holidays.

This leads me to believe that Ron Howard, in fact, “stole” The Grinch. He borrows the characters as well as the setting from Dr. Seuss’s story, and he inserts them in a superficially similar, but far inferior, plot.  The combination of over-acting, extravagant but poorly designed sets, and bad cinematography don’t help much either, as they make the film oddly depressing.  The film’s humor does work semi-frequently, but again, it’s typically adult in nature and not really something for a Dr. Seuss story.  Worst of all, again, the film’s moral is too blunt to have the same effect it did in the book or animated program.

All of this is another way to say that ‘Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ is a mediocre film that attempts to cash in on nostalgia.  On it’s own, it’s worthy of a few laughs, and Carrey’s performance, while not faithful to Dr. Seuss, is at times admirable.  But as an adaptation of one of the most profound children’s stories by one of the most influential children’s writers, it simply does not deliver.

Around the Clock — Looper

This review contains devastating spoilers!

Review: Time travel functions with unique philosophical efficacy in science fiction and fantasy stories.  By nature, time travel tests mortality, explores sequences of moral cause and effect, and transcends cosmic expansion and collapse.  In other words, time travelers are analogous to storytellers — through their devices, they alter our perceptions, making us painfully aware of our human frailties even as they give us a god’s-eye-view.  Storytelling, like time travel, transcends the space-time continuum to which our bodies are bound.  Through them we revisit past mistakes and explore possible futures.  Therefore, the time travel conceit, as well as storytelling at large, are both permutations of spirituality.

Rian Johnson’s ‘Looper,’ by narrating a conflict between two versions of a self, embraces the mystical side of time travel.  Consequently, its logic is moral, rather than purely temporal.  Johnson’s script invokes temporal logic — namely, the titular loop — as a metaphor for a cosmological concept.  In this way, Johnson stands firmly within the tradition of classic science fiction authors like Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, who used genre tropes to weave fables.  Young Joe  (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in great make-up) and Old Joe (Bruce Willis, doing great work) constitute a temporal loop that, like Yogic philosophy’s wheel of samsaras, keeps recycling the same bad choices over and over.  In effect, Joe’s loop renders him eternal, as despite his inevitable death his choices lead inexorably from past to future to past and back again.

Now, I’m about to spoil the ending, but it’s necessary to make my point, as to quote FilmCritHulk, “the ending is the conceit.”  Joe’s eventual solution to the horrible cycle first requires a moment of clarity, discerning the loop — an insight analogous to Buddhist enlightenment — followed by redemptive self-destruction.  By death, Joe transcends death, as the destruction of his loop restores harmony to the story world.  Director Johnson’s latent Christianity suggests a Christ parallel, but it’s far more likely, given the thematic significance of cycles, that the Yogic — and by extension, Buddhist — interpretation better fits the film.  Joe’s self-sacrifice is analogous to ego-death, which, in Yogic philosophy, ends the painful cycle and liberates consciousness.  An individual, so liberated, brings balance to his or her surroundings and reduces suffering — exactly like Joe.

It gets better; not only does Johnson’s take on time travel befit mysticism, it speaks to an effective storytelling ethos.  Old Joe, in trying to prevent a tragedy, attempts to rewrite history.  We process time as narrative, splicing memories — like film strips — into logical order.  So Old Joe’s mission is to tell a new story.  However, like his younger self, ego blinds him.  He sees only the historical narrative’s tragic impact on his fortunes.  All other persons and interests become expendable before his ego; he is, therefore, unable to tell a new story.  Young Joe receives enlightenment when he realizes that Old Joe’s selfish (not to mention murderous) rewriting actually ends in the same way that Old Joe tries to prevent — hence the loop.  The only way to write a new story, then, is to wrest the pen away from ego.  Truly inspired, effective storytelling is by nature generous, transcending one person’s interests and harmonizing within the larger human community.

‘Looper’ works because Johnson embraces a thoughtful conceit and lets it structure the film like DNA. Every scene, character and subplot relates obliquely to this DNA strand, even embedding time travel’s mystical dimension into virtuoso sequences of sex and violence.  An all-around brilliantly conceived and executed film, ‘Looper’ vindicates its conceit, genre, performers and director.

Blown Out of Proportion — The Dark Knight Rises

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

A great burden has fallen to Nolan’s Batman films. In a genre dominated by successful affirmative super hero films like ‘The Avengers,’ they remain the only deconstructive superhero films to still be successful with audiences.  And this is no easy task—because it is fundamentally harder for audiences to like a film that challenges their faith rather than rewards them for it.  Other attempts at superhero deconstruction, like 2009’s ‘Watchmen,’ failed miserably.  The secret to both ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘The Dark Knight’, I think, was that they sat precariously, but perfectly, on the edge of a knife between philosophy and entertainment—too much generic action and they would have become a confusing mess; too much overt philosophy and it would have become pedantic and muffled.  It’s a miracle that both previous films stayed so balanced, but in ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ the series has wobbled.

Let me be clear here: This is by no means an awful film.  I don’t think it’s possible for Nolan to make such a thing.  He fills ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ with many great elements: a great villain, relevant social themes, clear and concise action.  It’s all there: it just doesn’t mesh the way it should.  Like the child who puts too much sugar in a recipe because he thinks it will be sweeter, Nolan fails in this film to remember that balance and proportion means as much as the ingredients itself.

Nolan’s Batman films, as a whole, intelligently ask the question: Is Batman a good thing?  ‘Batman Begins’ consists of Bruce Wayne’s initial decision to become Batman. ‘The Dark Knight’ deals with the consequences of that decision.  Now it’s up to the ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ to answer whether or not Batman is still “worth it.”  This is the conflict of this film; it should drive it.  We see it with Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, with a young cop, with Commissioner Gordon, and with many other characters.  Everyone, it seems, except Bruce Wayne.

The film begins with a robbery at Wayne Manner that rather suddenly sends Bruce Wayne, a recluse who hasn’t put on the batsuit for eight years, back into Batman mode.  There’s very little sense that Bruce Wayne is at all conflicted about this decision, even as Alfred begs him not to.  Perhaps this is motivated in part by a young cop, Blake, who inexplicably knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman–because of a gut feeling–and tells Wayne to be Batman again.  Afterwards, there’s no real doubt in Wayne’s mind that he should be Batman, and so the fundamental question of the entire series is answered very early on.

Two things come to mind after watching this section of the film.  First, how is it that this cop is the only person that could figure out that Bruce Wayne is Batman?  In the past Nolan found clever ways to get around this issue, but here it just seems like lazy writing.  Second, and more importantly, this film’s decision to answer the key question of the entire franchise so early feels like a mistake.  Yes, most of us were probably expecting Bruce Wayne to conclude that Batman is necessary to inspire people, to remind them that the only true defense against either anarchy (as represented by the Joker in the last film) or tyranny (as represented by Bane in this one) lies in an individual’s choice to do good.  But this should have been a grand climax to this film.  It is not so here.  The events of this first half hour of the film could compromise the entire plot, but instead we are given the shorthand version.  And it seems so strange—Nolan had all the ingredients there, he just forgot about balance and proportion.

Despite this error in the first half hour, the next two hours of the film, which consist of Batman battling the villain Bane, still play out well despite now being devoid of the series’ main question.  Nolan gives us a lot of good action and some great character moments.  Though Bruce Wayne is no longer struggling with the idea of Batman’s existence, he still learns a few important lessons.  Catwoman, as portrayed surprisingly well by Anne Hathaway, is a lot of fun.  In particular, Nolan does a brilliant job with Bane, whom he creates to be an anti-Batman, someone with all the training and resources of Batman (who also wears a mask) who uses his abilities for the complete opposite goal.  This dichotomy really works well, and on the strength of this section I was willing to forgive the film for its earlier blunder.  Though he miscalculated earlier, Nolan remembers balance very well here.

And then in the last fifteen minutes of the film, things go down hill once again.  It begins with a plot twist that derails Bane as the main villain, revealing that he was working for “someone else” all along. And this “someone else” (I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers for those who still haven’t seen the film) is then killed five minutes later, so that there isn’t really enough time to develop this twist.  It feels cheap and tawdry, and it is something that Nolan should have known better than to do.  A twist is fine, you just need enough time to make it mean something, and it doesn’t do so here.  I really loved Bane as a villain, and to mark him down to “Number 2” so close to the end just doesn’t work.  And the ending itself is a little confusing–still more plot twists manifest  as Nolan tries to manipulate the audience from somberness to joy in a matter of seconds.  It’s a little too much, even for Nolan, and so this part falls a little flat.  Not a lot, but a little.  And a little is all it takes sometimes.  As in the beginning, Nolan makes the mistake of mismanaging elements.  All the ingredients are there, he just didn’t have a sense of proportion and balance.

In that sense ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is ultimately a disappointment.  The series, which for two films had sat precariously on the edge of the knife, finally loses balance and slips off, and so this film falls short of being truly groundbreaking. But, to take some of my own advice, let’s keep things in proportion. ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is still good, it is still entertaining, and there are still ideas and themes in it that are worth examining by writers much more capable than I; and so while it is not what it should be, it is good for what it is, and it ultimately doesn’t hurt the legacy of the earlier films, nor Nolan as an auteur.  This is still the definitive Batman saga, and it will be a long time before anybody tops it.

In one more bit of reflection, let’s look over this summer as a whole in regards to the superhero genre. Right before the ‘Avengers’ came out in May, I recalled thinking that this summer, with the ultimate affirmation (‘The Avengers’), what I thought would be the ultimate deconstruction (‘The Dark Knight Rises’), and a reboot of Spider-Man (‘The Amazing Spider-Man’) would be legendary and represent the height of this genre.  And financially, at least, it was, as all three films did very well, which shows that the public still has a lot of faith in super heroes.  But because of my disappointment with ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (which was edited out of greatness) and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (which was mismanaged), I can’t say, with full conviction, that this was the best summer for superheroes ever. Still, as Heimdall said in ‘Thor’, there is always hope; and with the continued success of superhero films, I still find myself excited for what the likes of Marvel and DC have in store for us in the years to come.

Perfect Pacing — Independence Day

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: ‘Independence Day’ is a good movie.  There, I said it.  I have watched and read review after review on the Internet trying to tell me otherwise — that this film is too ridiculous, too over-the-top to be ever be truly good; that, at best, the film falls in the so-bad-it’s-good category.  But I’m not buying it.  I have seen this film countless times over the past sixteen years since it premiered in 1996, and my resolve remains unshaken. It is many things, but a poor film it is not.

That isn’t to say I don’t understand people’s common criticisms about this alien invasion flick, namely that it has key plot holes, token stereotypes, overly silly moments, and a corny theme of American patriotism.  All true, all true.  There’s no question that infecting an advanced alien spaceship with a ’90s computer virus, as they do in the film, is a little absurd.  There’s no question that the film’s inclusion of characters such as a stereotypically Jewish man who says stereotypically Jewish things is a little ethnically insensitive.  There’s no question that the U.S. president jumping into the cockpit of a jet and fighting the aliens head on is a little silly.  And there’s no question that the film’s indulgence and build up to the titular holiday — and the president’s speech that accompanies it — is a little blunt about the whole “America Rules” idea.

But here’s the thing.  Wasn’t it fun?  I know that’s a very basic question to ask, but didn’t you, whoever is out there reading this, have at least a little fun watching it?  Weren’t you entertained during the jet-on-spacecraft dogfights?  Didn’t the president’s speech, silly as it was, move you just a little?  I know it’s ridiculous and implausible (an argument can be made for “stupid” as well, provided one is cynical enough,) but can’t that argument be levied against nearly all science fiction?  By attacking ‘Independence Day’ as absurd, escapist trash, have we not mistaken the messenger for the message?

Those are questions that you, individually must answer, but I will attempt to sway you with one idea: pacing.

Pacing is the rhythm of film.  It is less about what happens in the story and more about when it happens.  It’s about how long we wait and whether or not that waiting means anything.  Good pacing builds to an effective climax, it allows time for characters to stop and breath if necessary, it lets the story go to different places if necessary; but it is always building to something important.  The road to catharsis must be well-paced.

In the context of an action film like ‘Independence Day’ pacing is about knowing when to pull the punches, and that often means not jumping into the action right away.  It is about letting time pass; not to waste it, but rather to build suspense and add gravity to the action.  Again, the key is the action has to really mean something.  By contrast, when action movies are crammed full of as many guns, explosions and chases as the filmmakers can manage, the beat is is buried under noise, and the audience is denied the plot’s theoretical impact.  Thankfully, ‘Independence Day’ is in fact a darn near-perfect example of pacing, and so, even with all of its silliness, the film still seems meaningful.

Allow me to demonstrate: the film opens with an enormous mothership flying toward earth and releasing smaller ships, which enter our atmosphere.  They position themselves over cities and then what happens?  Do they immediately try to destroy them?  No.  They do nothing, at first.  That’s brilliant — people stop, they take notice, they wonder what the hell is going on.  Some are optimistic and try to communicate with them, some flee, others continue to scratch their heads until one man figures out that these extraterrestrials are organized on a countdown, but to what exactly he doesn’t know.  Then, as the countdown completes, the ships finally unleash hell upon the world.  And it means something.  That’s the key: it really means something now because we got to know people first, to identify with their unique mix of fear, paranoia, delusion and simple curiosity.  We, too, wondered what would happen at the end of the countdown.  And it’s great that the filmmakers made us wait that long, it was great that they knew when to build anticipation, and this sort of thing continues on until the end when we have a truly satisfying final battle.  Why?  Because the movie was smart enough to make things matter, and the only way you do that is by letting the film rest appropriately, allowing for the times between action scenes to have real weight and importance.  Most of the film, by the way, isn’t action.  For a film that stretches over two hours in length, I don’t there is much more than a half hour of pure action in the film, which again plays to its strengths.  Again, it’s the moments between all the fighting and explosions that are true heart of this picture, and I, at least, found myself believing in it.

So there, I have attempted, best I can, to convince you all that ‘Independence Day’ is a good film.  Undoubtedly some of you will cling to your former beliefs, but I hope that at least a few might consider giving this one another view, perhaps appropriately on the Fourth of July.  If nothing else the score is pretty awesome.  I think we can all agree on that.

Cameras in Orbit — Chronicle

Review: If there’s any conceit in post-modern filmmaking that strikes me as dubious, it’s found-footage.  Though of course, it certainly is a fantastic example of blatantly post-modern filmmaking, in that it deliberately makes the audience aware that they are watching a fictional world through a camera.  Conversely, classical Hollywood style — the most pervasive form of filmmaking in the world — tries to render narrative construction and the camera invisible, so that the viewer sees only the story and not the seams.  Found-footage changes the rules, reframing fictional narratives as cinema verite documentaries, and therein lies the rub — audiences don’t like being reminded of a film’s fictionality while they are watching it.  They want to be fooled.  (As an aside, this is exactly why the French New Wave persists as such a big hit with filmmakers and the intelligentsia and not regular disinterested folks; French New Wave techniques, being deliberate exposures of the filmmaking process, appeal to those who can appreciate films objectively or even ironically.  Most people just want to have a good time, and why shouldn’t they?)  To understand this phenomenon, consider dreams: the emotional power of a dream relies on the dreamer’s belief, while in the dreamworld, in the dream’s veracity.  When the dreamer becomes aware that the dreamworld is a lie, the dream loses its power, and the dreamer seeks escape or control over the dreamworld, a rebellion against the unconscious fears and desires that shape dream logic.  Movies, however, require willing suspension of disbelief.  They are, in effect, dreams on demand.  What matters, therefore, is the filmmaker’s promise to the prospective dreamer about what sort of story, and, more importantly, what sort of emotions they will experience in the fictional world.  This is why genre exists: it’s a shorthand for a promise.

Since found-footage is a conceit, not a genre, it cannot be used as such a promise.  In fact, found-footage often betrays these promises by failing to justify its use as a narrative conceit.  For example, ‘The Blair Witch Project‘, which, as perhaps the most famous found-footage horror film ever made, set the tone for all films of its type.  A great deal of its box office power came from the filmmakers’ elaborate marketing campaign, in which they promised that the fictional legend of the Blair Witch was real, and that the footage assembled into a mass-market horror film came from a real ill-fated expedition.  How or why or even if anybody ever really believed that is unclear.  But they were making a promise, one that tied directly into the found-footage conceit and supported it; though the film has lost its luster now due to endless imitations, it’s still fascinating as an experiment.  Of course, what it really proved was that the found-footage conceit is limited to how plausible it seems to the audience, making any narrative so framed vulnerable to critiques leveled at the conceit rather than the narrative itself.  In short, found-footage is dubious to me because it’s a needless risk.  That’s not to mention the aesthetic shortcuts made by filmmakers in its name, of course, although these shortcuts are arguably just as bad in classical Hollywood style films that employ lots of shaky-cam.

To counter that sour note, let’s move on to ‘Chronicle’, the first film from young director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (yes, the son of John.)  Beyond being remarkably succinct and emotionally credible as a story, ‘Chronicle’ does two really interesting things.  First, it directly challenges the superhero genre — which is in a bit of a renaissance at the moment — by playing out as a superhero drama rather than an action-adventure.  Second, it uses the found-footage conceit primarily as a character device, and at the first opportunity more or less jettisons cinema verite in the name of a unique binding aesthetic that could only exist in its particular fictional world.  In other words, it presents a real step forward for its genre and conceit, an organic evolution in narrative technique that emerges out of human drama rather than pure experimentalism.  It is, in a way, the anti-‘Blair Witch’.

There’s no attempt to get the viewer to believe any of this actually happened; instead, from the outset, Trank & Landis establish the camera as the protagonist’s method of engagement with the world.  It’s how the character defends himself against harm, makes sense of life, exercises control and renders his identity.  As the story progresses, the protagonist makes friends (with whom he gains telekinetic powers, which is almost incidental) and the camera’s use expands — it no longer functions at his exclusive command.  Instead, the movie includes cameras of all sorts, the sort of footage you could never find and assemble into a narrative like this.  That’s because “found-footage” is in this instance a misnomer — ‘Chronicle’ is too evolved for that.  Brilliantly, Trank & Landis hijack the conceit and make it do something a great deal more interesting.  Since the story revolves around three contemporary teenagers, the camera’s function as a metaphor for the nexus between the self and the world makes perfect sense.  The titular chronicle is the echoes their lives leave behind in omnipresent media devices, and the protagonist’s struggle to gain control over his world means he must direct the camera, thereby seizing the chronicle itself.  Hence, the protagonist literally fights for control over the movie, a daringly meta dramatic device that never rings false.

Earlier I alluded to the notion that this is a superhero drama and not an action movie.  While there is action, there’s no good vs. evil or find-the-MacGuffin plot, but plenty of deft writing that strives moment-to-moment to cultivate empathy for the characters.  Action, therefore, appears as character crisis.   Indeed, the biggest and most satisfying burst of action in the story emerges out of the rage of a traumatized teenager.   Furthermore, this climatic battle serves to sum up the film that preceded it, pitting the protagonist — who becomes the villain in a practical sense — against his super-powered cousin, as hundreds of visible cameras spin around them in the air, a striking image that renders the film’s main theme obvious.  Interestingly, the protagonist acts as if he’s fighting to protect his dominion over the movie, centering the cameras on him, putting them up, as he does in the opening scene, as an emotional shield.  His cousin isn’t interested in wresting the movie from his grasp, though he’s aware of its existence; he just wants to break through the shield and rescue the protagonist.  In sum, the climatic sequence functions as pure drama, simultaneously thrilling and tragic, and says everything the film wants to say with poetic brilliance.  Is it too early to call Trank & Landis virtuosos?  Too bad.  They’re virtuosos.  Deal with it.

Unfortunately for found-footage filmmakers, ‘Chronicle’ is a logical end-point for the conceit, returning to filmmaking’s raison d’être — any image created by the camera must develop the immediate experience of human emotion.  An audience, once betrayed, is never emotionally invested in the story.  Therefore, found-footage should be avoided in all cases that do not reward audiences for their faith.  ‘Chronicle’, by reinventing the conceit, builds a bridge between the audience and its characters, never once denying that it is fictional, while simultaneously being self-reflexive in order to strengthen that very bridge.  As a drama and an evolution in cinematic technique, ‘Chronicle’ is a triumph.

A Bureaucratic Cosmos — The Cabin in the Woods

Though the film has already seen a pretty wide release, I’m putting up a SPOILER WARNING right here, just in case anyone wants to preserve the surprise.

Review:  It’s a very good year to be Joss Whedon, not only because of ‘The Avengers’, his triumphant return to feature film directing, but on account of his co-writing, with first-time director Drew Goddard, the excellent and under-seen horror flick ‘The Cabin in the Woods‘.  In some superficial senses the two films are similar — they both epitomize their respective genres via the kitchen sink approach, they both feature ensemble casts with Chris Hemsworth, they both feature shadowy government agencies — but their themes are diametrically opposed.

Artistically, of course, this is a wonderful boon for Whedon, marking him as a flexible writer with a taste for genre-specific philosophies, meaning he approaches screenwriting with a critical, rather than purely exploitative, eye.  Whedon knows why filmmakers do what they do and why audiences watch them.  Better yet, he doesn’t write to deconstruct genres (at least not in the sense of dismantling to discredit) but rather to deliberately and overtly explore genre psychologies while crafting fulfilling narratives in their own right.

To see how this technique works so subtly, compare Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ to Christopher Nolan‘s ‘The Dark Knight‘; here’s two great superhero films that push their title characters to the absolute limit in search of their respective cores, hoping, at the end of each film, to remind audiences why the protagonists ought to matter to them.  Superficially, then, despite differences in tone and political philosophy, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ have the same kind of rousing conclusion.  By contrasting them, however, we see where Whedon’s technique differs substantially from Nolan’s.  In ‘The Avengers’, Whedon uses the ensemble approach to turn character complexities into a straightforward putting-the-band-together narrative, and wraps a rote summer blockbuster story around classic comic book optimism, rejuvenating the genre without resorting to major surgery.  Or, simply put, Whedon puts the fun back into it.  We, the audience, need the good guys to come together and put the smackdown on evil.  It just helps when we believe in it, and Whedon makes that possible.  Nolan’s approach to ‘The Dark Knight’, on the other hand, is to explore the post-9/11 political climate — which, worldwide, is afraid of both authorities and anarchists — by exposing Batman’s inherently fascist elements and the Joker’s archetypal resemblance to real-life terrorists.  Here’s the world on the edge of a knife; the audience must choose which way to lean.  Rather than affirming the genre’s emotional truth, Nolan goes for the big artistic bucks and tears Batman down, generating catharsis by making him a tragic figure.  In other words, Nolan takes the fun out of it so he can make us think.  The trouble with Whedon’s approach is that it’s limited; it can never be quite as definitive as Nolan’s technique, as we’ll see in Whedon’s writing of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’.  However, the trouble with Nolan’s take — at least in ‘The Dark Knight’ — is that it doesn’t allow for unironic genre consumption.  Rather than rewarding viewers for their love, it punishes them, hoping to affect their outlook towards thoughtfulness, though it often generates cynicism instead.  For Whedon, though, the audience is king; they just sometimes forget what they want.

Which is why ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is such a different beast.  Rather than just catering to our tastes, like ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ wants us to have a critical, detached look at our cake and to eat it sincerely, too.  The problem, of course, is that these demands don’t really jibe without generating an unnervingly pessimistic theme.  In order for you to understand what I’m driving at, I have to describe the film’s mechanics in detail, hence the spoiler warning up top.

In the film’s world we have three levels: on the surface is, basically, the real world, with the control bunker beneath devising murderous scenarios that fulfill horror film tropes, and deeper yet is the prison of the Ancient Ones — evil gods who threaten to destroy the world if their desires (for elaborate and sexualized sacrifices) are not satisfied.  In a psychological sense, this geography seems pretty well spot-on — well, at least if you subscribe to the dominant Western view of human nature.  The Ancient Ones are primal human instincts (soul, a wellspring of evil,) kept in check only by the bureaucracy (mind) which in turn determines events in the surface world (body) in service to the underlying instincts.  If the problematic facet of this isn’t obvious to you, well, here’s the deal: we, the audience, are the Ancient Ones.  We are a wellspring of evil.  So that we don’t run wild, the filmmakers, in touch with their own violent instincts, create fantasies to satisfy our desires and keep our darker selves sublimated.  Horror films exist to save society from collapsing into chaos. This is line with the world according to Hobbes and indeed most of Western philosophy.  Unlike ‘The Avengers’, where Whedon trumpets humankind’s ability to overcome pretty differences in service of unmitigated good, this is a deeply pessimistic film.

However, it’s also brilliant, and pretty well spot-on in regards to the spiritual machinations behind horror films.  Yes, horror films do exist to fulfill a ritual function that taps into, and satisfies, a violent and sexual undercurrent of the human psyche.  That much is clear.  What ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ doesn’t offer, though, is what Nolan might have created using his toolbox — a deconstruction that provokes real doubt in the viewer as to the genre’s legitimacy.  Whedon & Goddard never really question it; they just accept the premise of humankind’s inherent evil and roll with it, seeming to point an accusatory finger at the audience while giving them a sympathetic wink.  Therefore, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ approximates Whedon & Goddard’s solution to Truffaut’s Law; that is, the aphorism that you can never make an anti-war film, because war is inherently spectacular in the literal sense, and people like to see things blow up.  Put another way, the gross features of human nature will always undercut any serious attempt to critique them by using imagery that excites those same features.  Contrary to Truffaut’s Law, however, I suggest that it is possible to create an anti-war, or, to the point, an anti-horror film.  Just avoid spectacle, which is, after all, the exploitative fuel which war, horror and erotic films run on.  With an oblique approach, it is possible, in theory, to directly comment on these genres without participating in them.  That’s assuming, of course, that a screenwriter could resist exploitation’s pull on the page, and a director could do the same.  Again, Whedon & Goddard’s solution is that there is no solution, and we might as well make the most of it.  We can never defy the Ancient Ones; if we do, they destroy the world.  Catch 22.  Keep the spiritual bureaucracy running.

In view of Whedon & Goddard’s brilliant, if negative, writing, is it possible to make a plausible alternate reading of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’?  Yes, actually, and to their credit, Whedon & Goddard deliberately give us this option, even though it runs counter to the film’s obvious thematic statement.  Like our lead characters, we can choose to defy the Ancient Ones anyway, grasping at the dignity of the choice that prevents the leads from murdering each other, even though it unleashes a greater, indeed apocalyptic evil.  In a way, the writers are penalizing us for this reading by suggesting that, if we chose to stop making horror movies, we would release real sublimated evil into society.  Whedon & Goddard are not about to play fair on this point.  They’re kind of cheating, which is of course their right as artists.  On the other hand, if, like the leads, we decided that rising above the negative aspects of ourselves was worth the cost, there is no proof that it would actually unleash the apocalypse.  Counter to the Western view to which Whedon & Goddard subscribe, if we accept an Eastern take on human nature — namely Taoism — we could conclude that the goodness inherent in all things would overcome the temporary destabilization caused by refusing to participate in horror films.  Therefore, though brilliant, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is understandably biased towards its own conclusions, and with a more comprehensive outlook and even hand, it need not cut to black on the end of the world.  Like ‘The Dark Knight’, it could have benefitted from a conflict and conclusion based on balance, rather than acting in typical Whedonesque fashion as an absurdly well-written genre tract — though, again, such affirmations are not in any way less artistically valuable.

All of this is not to say, however, that the horror genre is necessarily a product of human evil that must be done away with.  I’m not here to make any such definitive statements, though I can sympathize with arguments for and against its existence.  Indeed, that’s ultimately what makes ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ such a terribly good movie; it provokes critical discussion deliberately while also functioning as a pure exercise in entertainment.  It’s a subtle, intelligent work, proving Whedon’s excellence once again and hopefully paving the way for Goddard’s should-be-long-and-wonderful career.