Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Jeepers, Treepers,

First, to answer Jim's Tree of Life challenge: As mentioned earlier, I saw it on the big screen twice last year with Sheila and Jason, separately. Each time, the so-called Creation sequence sent me to the stratosphere. The teetering cosmic spindle that Jason describes filled me awe. The outer space effects were awesome not because they were spectacular, but because of the real mysteries they represent.

What is all that out there, beyond the sky, and in there, between cells and atoms and subatomic particles? What is the design, and who is the designer? Folks who shrugged these contemplative images off as mere up-rezzed screensavers strike me as the kind of people who don't contemplate much at all. Or prefer knottier, more philosophically convoluted or intellectually accredited contemplation. Maybe Malick wouldn't appreciate the compliment, but: this film is as plain and simple as Lutheran Sunday school.

And the dinosaurs! Just as he does with humans, Malick chose to capture these creatures at rest, dying or otherwise in between the big, dynamic gestures. The boldest move he shows us is one dino stepping on the head of an ailing one and, after a beat, retreating just when we expect it to move in for the kill. It was pretty clear to me that Malick was preaching that grace and nature have been sparring within the sentience of living beings the as long as the world can remember, that human beings are only a refinement (but far from a perfection) of this process. The Creator sketches and experiments in nature the way scientists and artists do in their labs and studios.

Malick's god is winging it, as if she were finding her way to some kind of supreme grace in the editing room. As in nature, The Tree of Life has spontaneous, convulsive moments of grace in unexpected places.

But that beach scene at the end was wack.

Speaking of awe and creatures at rest, I think Sheila's post about Cary Grant and Jafar Panahi knocked us all to the floor. There isn't much I can add to her statements there, unless y'all know the emoticon for a standing-o. I agree that the essential fight is wherever someone as noble as a humanist filmmaker can be silenced and jailed. I just happen to think that even in our much freer society there are jails and sanctions that go unnoticed most of the time because they aren't policed with arms or open threats. In this country, filmmakers (and citizens) police themselves into patterns that maintain the status quo. Whatever our ideals, we often set them aside in the interest of career
and family. That works out splendid for the (forgive me, Lord) 1%. What is our president if not an idealist who, in the interest of bipartisan cooperation and practicality, allowed 1% interests to sand his initial agenda down the near-nothing? He's a guy trying to hold onto his job, just like most of his constituents.

People trying to be free, whether in Iran or here in the States, are at the mercy of a powerful few who either misdirect their progressive instincts or outright suppress them. It's just a matter of degrees and distinct tactics. Either way, the bond that a truly free cinema could forges between peoples, beyond borders and beyond corporate lines of demarcation, is a dangerous possibility for the ruling elite, no matter which country serves as their perch or what set of directives-- whether enacted as law or carried out as corporate policy-- keeps the people in line.

That's why I can't quite see it all as just show business, Sheila. And, Jason and Simon, I can't settle for the tidy conclusion that, ultimately, show business is just a matter of giving the people what they want. Tastes are so rigidly enforced that the people generally want what NBC-Universal and Viacom want them to want.

I think the solution is to somehow make ticket prices superfluous. There must be some way for all the companies involved in the distribution and exhibition of movies to slake their greed that doesn't rely upon the box office. All they want is the money; isn't there a way to let them have it without having undue influence over the content and range of choices available to every moviegoer? Can somebody crunch the numbers on how to sustain a multiplex modeled after Family Dollar?

Sheila, I frequented the $2 theater in the 90's and remained a faithful regular as the price crept up to $3.50 and $4. It was the second-run Cineplex Odeon Worldwide Theater, and it was the dream: College kids, cops, stockbrokers, homeboys, dope fiends, office drones, Broadway dancers, cabbies, fry cooks... all of them cramming into this multiplex, slapping down pocket change to see whatever happened to be playing that day. For the price, you couldn't go wrong.

I remember seeing Peter Jackson's last great film, Heavenly Creatures, and David Lynch's Lost Highway at the Worldwide. Both were gorgeously projected, with sound that rivals anything I've experienced in the better New York City screening rooms. "Mummy! Mummy!" I remember some of the homeboys watching Heavenly Creatures calling out in fake New Zealand accents, mocking the 1950's schoolgirls addressing their mothers. But the jokes died down quickly as the story (and Jackson's operatic storytelling) cast a spell on the entire audience. Folks likely unaccustomed to sitting still for a foreign film ended up falling in love with and in awe of Heavenly Creatures. The Lost Highway screening was a riot. Packed house. Folks cursed loudly and laughed piteously throughout, but, even having paid so little at the door, not one person walked out. Everybody sat still for this experimental feature film with no great big stars in it and no clear-cut narrative line. Lynch's sensory seduction had them in a trance. Afterward in the lobby and out front, folks gathered in small groups to say, essentially (and in some cases literally), "WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT!" But they were grinning as they said it.

Yes, Jason, every seed like the lost Worldwide screenings eventually bears fruit somewhere in a moviegoer's imagination. The palate learns not to automatically recoil at an unfamiliar taste. Yes, it's a war of inches and all that. I am just forever searching for ways to accelerate the process.

Dennis, I believe every film from 2011 that I liked and, sight unseen, all 512 films that Simon watched (Does the boy ever sleep???) are worthy of a screen at the mainstream cinemas--even the awful ones. Let the big, bad ones remain in the mix, the way that you might photograph a slain beast alongside an object that provides a sense of scale. The great little films will cast that much brighter light in contrast to the shabby colossal films. All they need is a fair fight.

Lemme exhale some of this helium and get specific: It's absurd that
Attack the Block, the greatest sci-fi action adventure that Steven Spielberg and Ken Loach never made, grossed only $5 million worldwide. Since it cost $13 million, I suppose that makes it a huge flop. Despite all the critical praise and glowing word of mouth, 2011 was not AtB's year. I don't have any grand conspiracy theories about that one, just a deep sigh at what could have been. Director Joe Cornish grafted the disaffected teenage souls of Los Olvidados , Pixote, Sweet Sixteen and La Promesse onto a silly little crowd-pleasing monster movie. There is no good reason a film so entertaining, so prescient and attuned to its times while offering premium popcorn thrills should not gross more than Avatar, Titanic and Star Wars combined. Was its distributor, Sony Pictures/Screen Gems, too busy pushing forgettables like Green Hornet and Friends with Benefits?

Now, what moved me about Attack the Block? So many things, but nothing so much as the final image, of a 15 year old kid who was certain that he had no future or worth to anyone and thus never smiled--until now. The smile could only have been more moving if he'd turned to the camera, like Chaplin or Giulietta Masina. As it is, it's radiant enough to change the world-- if it could only get on enough screens.


Steven Boone is a freelance writer whose work can be found at Capital New York, The Demanders (RogerEbert.com), Press Play and Hentai Lab.


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Joel Bocko said...

A grand conclusion, and again I'm much in agreement.

As for the studios, what is needed I think is not change from within (or rather, it can't be expected) but competition from without. Initially, this would most likely have to occur on the internet as most independent filmmakers or film buffs can't finance an exhibition center. And even those who can, or who set up a homespun variation on the idea, would not be able to attain much market share. The audience would probably be limited to hipsters and bobo types who, bless their souls and good intentions, have a tendency to collaborate in their own marginalization. I think to steal the status quo's thunder, a counterculture has to emerge with a wide enough reach to actually change the conversation. I'm not sure how this will happen, but I think it's important to keep this model in mind.

(continued below)

Joel Bocko said...


At the same time, I had my initial doubts about OWS last fall in part because, after getting excited hearing about them, I saw that to a certain extent they fulfilled the "usual suspect" stereotype of protest movements.

Visions of preemptive Middle American dismissals danced in my head. But then something funny happened: despite some incredulity from the media and conservatives, these events - particularly the one in New York - captured the public's imagination. Eventually it reached the point where people tended to write them off as I initially feared ("oh, just another bunch of malcontents etc etc") but in the mean time, they had gained some (temporary, but surprising) public sympathy, they had changed the conversation and caught the media's spotlight, and they had planted the seeds that I think we've yet to see fully sprout.

I think there were a few reasons for this: 1) the timing - while the mainstream may have antipathy toward anarchist youths they have far more antipathy, right now, toward wealthy bankers, and OWS capitalized on this resentment better than any movement other than the Tea Party (which squandered its more universal themes from the get-go by tying itself to partisan politics); 2) the attitude - though the media often obscured this fact, anyone who visited the site and a lot of the people who viewed it from afar realized that these were not, for the most part, a bunch of whiny foot-stompers but rather defiant, free-spirited, fed-up but not bitter kids with a lot of energy and excitement. That was certainly my impression when I visited the park in October - these were among the nicest people I'd ever encountered, and there was a healthy mix between more conventional political protestors, more offbeat types like the ubiquituous Ron Paul libertarians, passerby who disagreed but found engaging arguments with the people there (it was like a live-action internet forum I found myself thinking in one burst of euphoria), and a lot of people who didn't seem to fit within America's fondness for strict either/or political paradigms but seemed to have an open mind and a penchant for exploration; 3) the location - OWS' coup-de-grace was positioning itself in the fact of what it was protesting. In a sense, this made the need for concrete demands or more forceful acts of violence superfluous - OWS' mere presence served as a provocation and allowed the rhetoric and the activities themselves to take less obstinately confrontational tactics.

I seem to have wondered off-topic, but really I think it's related. Because what's desperately need in the film world is an Occupy Hollywood mentality (but one which hopefully goes further and remains even LESS bound to stereotypes or marginalization than OWS, which was a good start). This would serve to both puncture both the Hollywood monopoly and, even more importantly, the twee, small-minded indie cliches that have defined the notion of "independent films" for too long. Relevance, diversity, and reclamation would be the keywords.

To me, it's the difference between a subculture and a counterculture. I think the American film scene needs the latter right now.

Joel Bocko said...

*in the face of what it was protesting

Steven Boone said...

Thanks again, Mr. Bocko. Your eloquent comments under our posts constitute unofficial Tree House entries.

2) the attitude - though the media often obscured this fact, anyone who visited the site and a lot of the people who viewed it from afar realized that these were not, for the most part, a bunch of whiny foot-stompers but rather defiant, free-spirited, fed-up but not bitter kids with a lot of energy and excitement. That was certainly my impression when I visited the park in October...

Mine, too. And the "fed-up but not bitter" part is often overlooked in assessments of any resistance to the mainstream. As dismissals go, "You just hate success" is to the arts and show business what "They just hate our freedom" is to boorish American foreign policy.

To me, it's the difference between a subculture and a counterculture. I think the American film scene needs the latter right now.

Exactly. No more sitting in the sidecar. The means to set up an alternative that will turn (some) heads away from the dominant culture producers are available now. It's time for a whole new trip, and I don't mean 3D TV sets. It's already years underway, all over YouTube, Vimeo, Blip, et al. A new class of online distributors is finding ways to turn a bit of a dollar on such offerings. I never got around to mentioning that Louis C.K. is the real big independent "film" story of 2011. His self-produced-and-distributed and online-marketed comedy special is the future of "indie."

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Steven. This was a smorgasboard of food for thought, hopefully of the sort that can give one zip and energy going forward (some mental meals bog you down, others build you up). Good luck in 2012.