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.

The Adjustment Bureau

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A rare cerebral and hearty science fiction film with charm and thrills, though weakened by the demands of standard Hollywood plotting.

Review:  Here is a movie that works on levels usually rendered inaccessible by genre-specific direction.  It’s got brains, drama, thrills, and most refreshingly, heart.  Capraesque Americana, Kafkaesque paranoia and classic Hollywood romance blend together with surprising smoothness.  It reaches sci-fi conceptual heights, but remains accessible to a wide audience.  It’s heartwarming, entertaining, intriguing and memorable.

Its chief flaws are trade-offs due to this balancing act.  The paranoid elements gradually soften as the plot mechanics make the titular organization more familiar, and even somewhat friendly.  The Americana of its protagonist’s political ambitions fades out as he falls in love.  So while it lets down two parts in favor of the whole, the film still works because of the strong relationship at its center.  Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have great chemistry and elevate writer-director George Nolfi’s script, which is not bad on its own, into something more believable.  Because we can so easily sympathize with them, the Bureau’s effort to keep them apart — for reasons not unsympathetic on their end — creates real tension.  We may be torn between the Bureau’s point-of-view and our hope for the lovers, but we are never confused.  We know how we want this story to end, and Nolfi executes this dramatic dénouement quite well.  He picks the perfect moment to fade to black.

On top of everything, he manages to invoke an oft-derided (for good reason) but classic plot twist, the Deus Ex Machina, in just the right way.  Done badly, the Deus Ex Machina cheats us, but done well, it seals the story with mystery.  Consider ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and the wrath of God sequence — any other ending, including the one the filmmakers had originally planned, would lack punch and punctuation.

Philosophically, the film’s free will vs. determinism narrative presents a reasonable compromise.  It works as less of a dialog and more of a polemical allegory with obvious Judeo-Christian influences.  This is not necessarily a weakness, as this particular story begs for a conclusion, but there are films that handle the issues in a more compelling way.

Overall, the film is an above-average success.  What it lacks in subtlety and impact it makes up for in entertainment value.  This is sci-fi done right.

Classic Review: Eyes Wide Shut

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A Kafkaesque, terrifying exposé of sexual hypocrisy that stands with the best of Kubrick’s work.

Fair warning:  Because of the film’s disturbing subject, I will be handling mature sexual topics.  Be advised.

Review:  Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed filmography is largely composed of intelligent, penetrating meditations on human nature.  Perhaps the most prominent subject is hypocrisy.  ‘The Shining’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ explored our hypocrisy of violence; famously and controversially, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ extended this critique to sexual violence in a disturbingly graphic fashion.  ‘Dr. Strangelove’ satirically blamed its nuclear holocaust on sexually dysfunctional leaders; ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ again attacks the American elite by way of a bizarre conspiracy of cloak-and-dagger sexual politics, and in the process levels a pointed accusation at humanity in general.  We like to think we’re above the basic instincts of our species, but Kubrick would have us know that we’re walking about with our eyes wide shut.  We are sexual creatures, and we’d better be honest about it.

Kubrick’s cinematic swan song is appropriately meta, to great effect.  The first step is to present audiences with an erotic thriller headlined by two attractive, bankable stars in a well-known relationship.  This draws folks in to see their fantasies realized in a carefully controlled environment.  The next step is to pull the rug out from under their feet, by refusing to show the leads having Hollywood sex with each other, and by forcing the viewer to share the protagonist’s confusion and frustration up to the last moment.  Just as ‘The Shining’ carefully condemns its gorehound audience, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ reminds viewers of their mental promiscuity and love of Hollywood exploitation.  The film’s loveless eroticism serves to put off viewers who are uninterested in this critique.  Instead of a sanitized, pleasant experience, the film’s orgy centerpiece is a flat-out terrifying, Kafkaesque nightmare — to me, it was scarier than ‘The Shining’ — so when the protagonist flees home to his wife, we’re right there with him.

‘Eyes Wide Shut’ defends monogamy, doubtless to the surprise of many self-appointed moral guardians, provided they could settle down for a few minutes to hear it out.  The carefully constructed sexual mythology of human society, and American culture in particular, squeezes the love and life out of monogamous relationships.  For reasons of class and religion, people lie about their most powerful undercurrent, and this results in mutually destructive hypocrisies.  The narrative hangs on two upscale parties held at mansions, the first masking its abusive sexual commerce in hollow pleasantries, the second reveling in open displays cloaked in ritual and threat — the point being, in a dream logic sense, they are the same event.  The multilayered narrative repeats images and themes in a lyrical way, uncovering the uncomfortable truth of each episode.  In the end, the couple has to come to terms with their desires to heal.  To experience true sexual union, stripping to the skin is not enough — they have to strip down to the heart.  Leave it to Kubrick to transform exploitative nudity into an artful statement of the human condition!

Kubrick is often labelled “cold”, but in truth he’s simply objective, standing apart from traditional Aristotelian storytelling because he refuses to digest a given film’s ideas into cheap, predictable, marketable patterns.  This is a film with a happy ending and a clear moral conclusion, but we have to go on an unusual journey to find it.  It was misunderstood in its theatrical release, but like most of Kubrick’s work from ‘2001’ on it has gradually won over critics and cinephiles.  For this reason, I call it a classic — a truly adult film.

A Serious Man

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A beautiful, complex cinematic fable that forcefully challenges the viewer to examine his or her worldview.

Review:  Life is complicated.  There’s no easy answers.  It’s difficult to separate cause, effect, and random chance.  We all need lenses with which to interpret the world, but there’s so many of them to choose from.  Cinema, as a lie that supposedly tells the truth, often presents us with a clear worldview that purports to explain every happening within its narrative.  What happens when you remove this objectivity and leave the audience and the protagonist adrift in a tumultuous sea of competing perspectives, leading the audience back to their uncomfortable, uncertain lives?  You get ‘A Serious Man’, a complicated faux-Talmudic fable and Rorschach test as only the Coen brothers can tell it.

From the opening scene, detached from the rest of the story entirely, to the staunchly ambiguous ending, ‘A Serious Man’ manages to keep us struggling in those murky depths for its entire running time.  We’ve never sure whose story is true, or how to process the tragic events and mysterious circumstances that occur outside of the protagonist’s control.  ‘A Serious Man’ isn’t a nihilistic movie, per se; it just challenges us with the horrifying possibility that it might be.  The important thing is to make a choice.

Because of its unpredictable, confrontational approach, ‘A Serious Man’ is highly suspenseful, arguably to the same degree as their previous film ‘No Country For Old Men’, for suspiciously similar reasons.  If a narrative is unsurprising, it is probably unfulfilling.  The chaotic nature of a plot, whether introspective like ‘A Serious Man’ or athletic and violent like ‘No Country For Old Men’, stems from its tent-pole philosophy of faith vs. meaninglessness.  A screenwriter is expected to satisfy burning questions:  Who is who, what happens next, why does it happen, how does it end, and others.  When a screenwriter provides us with just enough information to draw logical conclusions, but an equal dose of counter evidence, we are left on a high tension wire between truth and falsehood, the greatest suspense of all.

In this way, the Coens communicate directly with us, like a wise man spinning an instructive fable.  The intent of such stories is to provoke a proper ethical response to real-life situations.  We are likewise instructed, here, to believe in something.  To remain uncommitted is a great error.  Time and chance happen to us all, but if we see the world through a focused lens, we can take a measure of control.  If you don’t believe, you can’t act.

‘A Serious Man’ is a gorgeous movie.  Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, well, impeccable.  The score plays sorrowful and menacing under Carter Burwell’s hand, and the soundtrack composed of Jefferson Airplane and Hebrew chant is a singular, evocative earworm that keeps the fable running through your head long after the movie cuts to black.

I do like food metaphors.  If I were to compare ‘A Serious Man’ to food or beverage, I’d call it alcohol, and something strong, at that.  An acquired taste that can cause strange reactions and possibly headaches.  It’s damn delicious, though.  Very good year.

No Country For Old Men

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Existential, genre-slashing, disturbing cinema at its very best.

Review:  Cinema gives us innumerable opportunities to vicariously experience fear.  The raw reaction to the most basic of survival instincts is a large part of why we keep coming back for more.  Most times, we opt for the proverbial roller coaster experience; the main characters, our conscious avatars, make it through alive, often by the skin of their teeth to intensify catharsis.  Populist movies are structured to insure such satisfying escapes.  If we want to take these animal emotions seriously, however, we need filmmakers capable of dropping the bottom out.  While we’re physically safe, our psyches, so well-trained by common experience, are vulnerable to truly nightmarish twists.  When filmmakers go this route, they tend to compensate by helping us identify with the killers over the victims.  When the Coen brothers went for it, in their Best Picture adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country For Old Men’, they balanced our sympathies nigh perfectly, creating a truly disturbing film.

Nihilism and justice collide in an unrelenting chase through Western Texas.  Roger Deakins’ gorgeous and clear cinematography heightens the sense of you-are-there, and the Coens’ screenplay, with minimal dialog, exposes a multitude of procedures that the hunter and hunted use to stay in the game.  Even in the film’s wide vistas, we feel the walls closing in, as the characters we identify with at a simple human level fight to survive.  The hunter and antagonist, Anton Chigurh (played absurdly well by Javier Bardem), exhibits believable sociopathy and a moral code all his own.  He’s a predator incomprehensible to his prey.  In our introduction to the hunted, Llewellyn Moss (ditto by Josh Brolin), the filmmakers encapsulate this theme without saying a word.  Llewellyn is a socially acceptable hunter, a creature who by virtue of intelligence and superior fire power preys on game from a comfortable physical and emotional distance.  In short, in relation to pronghorn, Llewellyn sees himself the same way Anton relates to, well, anything.  Doing his damnedest to put a stop to this cat-and-mouse game is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (ditto for Tommy Lee Jones), an aging lawman who views the unfolding chaos with due horror.

The plot mechanics, the $2 Million McGuffin and the why’s behind it all, take a backseat to the story’s inescapable present tense and ever-increasing violence.  While other stories make a point to ensure the audience’s karmic satisfaction, the kernel of truth here is that, despite the best of intentions, evil continues to haunt the human race.  The struggle here is cosmic, between the animal and spiritual natures of humankind.  Predatory and survival instincts often overrule justice.  Our higher ambitions, a fire in the night, pass from one generation to the next, keeping the cold, meaningless chaos from turning us all into Anton Chigurh.  The Sheriff and Anton are almost absolute opposites, but they both answer to a code of ethics.  The difference lies in empathy.  True justice submits to and ensures harmonious coexistence, countering the lone wolf within us.  Anton’s justice, whatever it is, is truly unknowable, because it belongs to him alone.  It is therefore meaningless.

This is an example of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences making a, if not “the”, right choice.  ‘No Country For Old Men’ is probably the best picture on this subject.  Being a Coen brothers film, it’s the height of craft, but what makes it special is how far they go in subverting genre expectations.  ‘No Country For Old Men’ defies convention and substitutes original story.  This is a movie for cinephiles who like getting existentially scared out of their wits and making sense of their reaction.  It’s not for the fainthearted or brainless.  It’s too good at what it does.

Classic Review: F For Fake

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An excellent film — a sort of metadocumentary — that exposes its own artifice and the relationship between truth and trust.

Review:  In the 1973 film ‘F For Fake’, over 88 minutes cinematic genius Orson Welles examines the nature of art in a filmic form not quite documentary and not quite fiction.   It’s proof that the peculiar magic of the medium is not restricted to the categories dreamed up by marketing departments.  ‘F For Fake’ is a truly self-aware film.  It doesn’t merely acknowledge its artifice in a humorous, superficial way; it turns itself inside out.  It is edited in such a way as to obfuscate our attempts to sort out truth and fiction.  It’s like a photograph of a flower-pot hiding its very subject immediately behind it.  For us viewers at Mr. Welles’ mercy, the question is, when are we looking at the proverbial flower-pot?

Orson Welles is brazen and beguiling as he guides us through the twisted tale of an infamous art forger and his equally infamous biographer.  Throughout the story, he weaves in a bizarre fiction and chases rabbits down their trails.  Mr. Welles promises to tell us the truth whilst declaiming himself as a charlatan akin to his subjects.  Welles in his own estimation is untrustworthy, but we believe him anyway, and that is precisely his point!

While he’s at it, he subtly explores sexuality’s use as a deceptive device, through two sequences in which a beautiful woman distracts us from the ideas at play.  He seems to suggest that physical beauty is often used by filmmakers to divert our attention from both flaws and substantive content.  That’s consistent with how often sex appeal determines casting, particularly in works of a shallower nature.  It wouldn’t be enough to say that this is just good business.  Even if it has become second nature, these techniques are a kind of sleight-of-hand.  The plot could disappear into a deep hole, but your basic instincts might not let you notice.  And, for a storyteller more intent on complexity, using human desires to his or her advantage is a simple and effective way to get an audience’s attention while they work past the mind’s more intricate defenses.

In a film-craft sense, ‘F For Fake’ is really brilliant, with rapid cuts, repetitions, and instantly evocative imagery creating a captivating kaleidoscope.  For those of us in the post-MTV world who have to endure and sometimes enjoy the films of Michael Bay and others like him, it’s positively redeeming to see prototypes of postmodern techniques used so meaningfully.  Paired and contrasted with the classic techniques of ‘Citizen Kane’, it’s perhaps the ultimate example of Orson Welles’ range and influence.

‘F For Fake’ revolves around a simple premise: What we believe is true relies on who we believe is trustworthy.  It is a reminder that those we call experts — such as the art dealers defrauded by Elmyr de Hory — also rely on other people for estimates of the truth.  Considering that a painting mimicking an original may trick even the finest eye, what then is an original’s value?  Isn’t it possible to derive the same pleasure from an original and a fake?  If a duped museum believes that a clever fake is the genuine article, and displays it under this pretense, would the viewers in effect be seeing an original, or even the original by proxy?

The film challenges the notion that art’s virtue is in the truth of itself.  Art, genuine or forgery, is properly measured by how well it convinces us.  Aristotle observed, in reference to theatrical art, that (and the emphasis is mine) “A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself . . . with incidents arousing pity and terror, with which to accomplish its purgation of these emotions.”  In short, it’s a noble deception by which we hope to accomplish an emotional change in those who, for at least a little time, choose to believe it.  As in the case of a painting, a film’s communicated truth is in its emotional effect on the viewer.

One hopes that a filmmaker is responsible and doesn’t betray our confidence by convincing us of ignoble things; but what is there to stop them?  My hope as a filmmaker and a critic is to be an honest charlatan.  I’d like to echo Mr. Welles, who in this magic act says, “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art’.”

NR: Cultural Inception

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

The subject today is the role film plays in changing popular perceptions and cultural norms, piggy-backing off an article in the LA Times about the evolving portrayals of women in cinema.  It’s a fascinating piece and I suggest you read it.

In essence, the article says that the richness of the characterizations found in a new wave of female protagonists denotes a cultural shift, partially necessitated by filmmakers attempting to establish broad audiences.  I would suggest that it isn’t merely an economic consideration.  How filmmakers think about the sexes has changed due to more liberal education and the trails blazed by previous storytellers.  They’re also kicking the ball in a different direction, not merely imitating their forebears.  Although sexism and egregious hyper-sexualization continue to permeate Hollywood portrayals of women, the next generation of filmmakers have the ability to curb these problems considerably in favor of a fair, realistic norm.  They’ll do this simply by doing their jobs.

In Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal ‘Inception’, the team works together to plant an idea in a subject’s dreams, the titular process that mirrors the science of narrative cinema.  The audience, like the subject, gets carried along for an emotional journey in a world based on its own logic.  The magic trick of celluloid is in getting the audience to accept the filmmakers’ philosophical propositions without realizing the process is taking place, at least until the audience “wakes up” upon leaving the theater or turning off the video player.  Cinema is the longstanding practice of cultural inception.  The influential filmmaker chews the cud and breaks her/his ideas down into the simplest emotional concepts, then constructs a narrative out of the raw material.  The narrative itself is a meditation, the gradual awakening to a new idea vicariously experienced through characters.

Now, the trouble is, filmmakers should hold themselves responsible — and if they won’t do it, the critics should — for the ideas that they unintentionally propagate.  Unlike the film ‘Inception’, where the titular process is profoundly difficult due to the mind’s natural defenses, cultural inception via cinema is sometimes frighteningly easy.  Even in something as common and base as a simple shoot ’em up action-adventure story, the filmmaker can perform inception.  A popcorn thriller can promote sexism, knee-jerk violence, and brainless jingoism while all the filmmaker usually wants is to photograph explosions and attractive people.  Because the Hollywood system relies on the kinds of movies that maximize cashflow, the studio system will reflect the negative aspects of culture by giving people what they want.  Say a popcorn thriller with bad philosophy earns a hundred million dollars.  Then a dozen retreads will spawn and the negativity will not only remain, but spread.

This act of cultural “inception”, trying to radically change gender portrayals in cinema and thus society’s basic assumptions about the sexes, must be deliberately, intelligently handled by filmmakers in every genre.  While its true that money is Hollywood’s bread, butter, and gasoline, the opportunities to speak strongly to issues philosophic, political, and even religious are not rare.  Conscientious storytellers must seize the day and make sure that when audiences sit down, they are emotionally moved in the right direction.  Resorting to heavy-handed preaching isn’t the answer.  They must make great movies.