Sunday, January 17, 2016


Does this piss you all off the way it does me? There’s a very presumptive ad running on TV right now—it’s for iPhones or the Siri experience or some such hypnotic shit—that kind of sums up the dark side of the whole How The Way We Watch Movies Is Changing thing, and it doesn’t have nearly as much to do with the size of the screens as with the attitude of the soft brains behind the eyes staring at them. During a 30-second bombardment of evidence meant to suggest just how fulfilling the experience with your iPhone can be, an intertitle on screen pops up which reads: “Siri, find the best sci-fi movies.” This is followed by a shot of Keir Dullea from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is then rapidly followed by another intertitle: “Only the new ones.” This is followed by several shots from The Martian. 

Surely the intent is to impress us with the iPhone’s ability to reach all the way back to 1968 to find a possible candidate for filling the distraction void in the phone addict’s experience, but all I can think about is how ads like these shape the perceptions of the (young) people toward whom they’re most aggressively pitched. Is it any wonder little Johnny and Debbie don’t give two shits about Keir Dullea? They’re practically being told not to.

These thoughts were swirling in my head right about the same time that I read Phil’s noting of the 40th anniversary of Jaws, which premiered during the summer of 1975, and how Spielberg’s movie has lost absolutely none of its precociously masterful ability to do unto audiences what it damn well pleases. I took my kids to see it in a local movie palace here in Glendale the summer before last, and though their knees weren’t reduced to jelly the way mine were when I saw it way back in the Pleistocene, it still knocked ‘em for a loop. (I recently found that the effect of another great horror movie, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, released one year earlier in 1974, has remained undiluted, but the kids haven’t seen that one yet!)

There was another movie in 1975 that I’d say, without fear of hyperbole, changed my life, and it did so in a much sneakier way than Jaws did. I saw Nashville for the first time when I was 15 years old, the same age my oldest daughter is right now, and not only was it not “the damnedest thing I’ve ever saw,” I didn’t know what the hell it was. So of course I didn’t “like” it. But that movie followed me around. All the folks I ran into in the film department where I based my college studies seemed to be big Altman heads—one of the teaching assistants seemed to throw the term “Altmanesque” around as often as she used “the” or “and.” I saw it three more times and continued to dislike it.

But by the fourth time I’d managed to live a little more life and the movie’s loose-limbed rhythms suddenly began to speak to me. Nashville, and a whole passel of other great movies the experience of opening myself up to Altman’s world allowed me to appreciate, changed the way I looked at movies, the way I permitted myself to receive them.
Even now, after 38 years and God knows how many viewings-- 25? 30?-- the movie catches me off guard and thrills me in new ways with its vision of a world where optimism and defeat are mutually exclusive but can often coexist in the same moment, making meaning with each new apprehensive breath.

So when I see that damn iPhone ad, I can’t help but wonder if 15-year-olds in 2015 will have the same opportunity to have their worlds shaken up by a movie like Jaws or Nashville, whether it’s possible for them to be open, in a world of so many distractions and options for staving off boredom, to the possibilities that a great movie can offer. Last January I took my 15-year-old (who was technically 14 at the time) to see The Godfather at a theater in downtown Los Angeles, and she’s obsessed with the movie now—she’s seen it two more times since and owns the annotated screenplay. It’s the least I can do.

As for this year, there’s something creepy and depressing about The Revenants instant coronation as the Oscar front-runner and imagining all the endless hype and “analysis” by the Oscar prognostication crowd over the next month and a half, designed to squeeze as much air out of what fun the contest itself might have to offer, including any lingering notions of Oscar-night surprises.

That’s to say nothing of the Academy’s lily-white nominations as a whole, which say more to me about what Hollywood is putting out there in general than it does the Academy’s ability to discern quality that crosses racial boundaries. In any hypothetical year where there were, say, 50% more films made and populated by people of color, the Academy would probably still get it mostly wrong. But the movies have to be there to begin with, and not just ones like Creed which offer up a ton of African-American talent alongside a ripe opportunity for that talent to be eclipsed come award time. The Los Angeles Times offers up cries for diversity around Oscar time, but they should be front and center year round when it comes to campaigning Hollywood to shake up its value system and start telling stories from the fresher perspectives of the diverse community by which it is surrounded.

Getting back to The Revenant, though it’s hardly a personal cause—the movie landed somewhere around #27 on my year-end list-- I have to say I liked it a whole lot better than Odie, and certainly Brian did. It feels weird to me to find myself in the position of defending one of Alejandro G. “Ayotitoo”’s movies. I’ve never been a fan of this director’s desperation to be taken seriously, especially in his earlier pictures like Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, all of which stirred up pessimistic moralism inside of a swirling pot of messy chronology (for the post-Tarantino new world, I guess), aggressively annoying, fashionably jittery mise-en-scene and, of course, lots of random, rub-your-privileged-nose-in-it violence.

And though I was primed to hate Birdman based on my reaction to Inarritu’s previously dizzying levels of pretension, I found it to be a troubled, imperfect sort of marvel, and I can’t help but think that, in setting himself the challenge of the film’s illusory, one-take strategy, he constructed a movie that was, at least in part, an answer to those of us hated his movies because we couldn’t recall a single image of distinction from his oeuvre--  all that seemed to remain in the memory from, say, Babel, was storytelling nonsense whose images were reduced to the equivalent of shattered glass—too many reflections, no resonance.

Where once there was jittery disregard for visual coherence in Inarritu’s films, there is now an attempt to wed the visual element in his films to the way people in his films experience the world, which is, I think, a far cry from writing off Inarritu’s intent as an effort to reduce the American frontier of the 1830’s recreated in his new movie into a first-person shooter game environment. Objections like the ones Brian raises—“a bullying assault on its audience, a macho dare to dislike it and therefore be out of the loop”-- seem rooted in resistance to a perceived tactic that wouldn’t be out of line with Inarritu’s directorial past, but one which I’m not convinced is entirely fairly applied here. (This is not Gaspar Noe’s The Revenant, after all, and thank God for that.) There is a certain level of verisimilitude that comes with the territory of telling a story like this, one which has been cherry-picked by Hollywood before, by the way, most notably in the 1971 Richard Harris epic Man in the Wilderness. But I never sensed, as Brian clearly did, that I was being put through the ringer by an expert sadist for the dirty thrill of it—for that privilege see instead The Hateful Eight, if you must—or that the movie’s “grunting antics” were “art house porn for people who wouldn’t be caught dead at a Peckinpah or Don Siegel retrospective.”

Maybe it’s Inarritu’s technical mastery itself that some people object to, that causes suspicion as to his motives. Phil wrote in his last post, “A director who concentrates on perfecting a visual style or establishing total control at the expense of using the actors as full collaborators—I would name cite Kubrick and recent Malick as cautionary examples—does so at his peril.” Inarritu may indeed end up becoming one of those directors for whom the composing of an image, or the constructing of a sequence according to a rigorous technical choreography, eclipses the need for true collaboration between himself and his actors. He’s not exactly got what I would call a warm approach, but I don’t think he’s in the Remote Aesthete club yet either, if the juice secreted from the likes of Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough and Lindsey Duncan in Birdman, or Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter and Forrest Goodluck in The Revenant is any true indication.

Of course there isn’t a movie with so much as a pinky toe dipped in history that even comes close to any meaningful representation of “historical accuracy,” no matter how hard the idea gets chased. I’d also suggest that a movie like The Revenant’s not being held to the same rigorous, nitpicky standards of “historical accuracy” as something like Straight Outta Compton has as much to do with modernity versus the distant past as it does with racism. Surprise, surprise—a lot of people’s perspectives are noticeably narrow. If the movie is set in the distant past and not within spitting distance of our immediate experience, or a setting in which the experience might be more immediate, I’m guessing most people would be less quick to start snooping around for anachronisms and other representative deficiencies. (The level of anger Odie characterizes as being part and parcel of Straight Outta Compton’s dramatic strategy may have caused some to duck for cover and push the movie away too.)

At the very least, if marketing wizards are going to continue to insist on shoving “Based on a True Story” or “Based on Actual Events” down our throats, we ought to be capable of adopting enough smarts to understand that what’s on the screen rarely has much to do with what may have happened in real life. The act of dramatization itself is fibbing for effect, and The Revenant is well acquainted with the practice—just compare its grueling last act, in which Di Caprio, playing real-life survivor Hugh Glass, finally catches up with Tom Hardy and goes mano-a-mano with the man who did him wrong, with the somewhat less than rousing finish to the events as they actually transpired, and then imagine Inarritu and his screenwriter enthusiastically approving that official version for their film.

Okay, before I allow myself to rattle on any further, let me pay a little attention to the questions I posed in my last post before I begin readying the Treehouse to be shuttered for another year.

Like Brian, I have a great love for Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy’s “Moments Out of Time” a piece that used to be published annually in the pages of Film Comment in which the two critics would poetically recall some of the year’s most indelible movie moments. I cannot claim Jameson and Murphy’s brand of eloquence, but I offer these moments remembered from 2015 anyway.

Room: Boy meets dog, and also the first time we meet Leo, who Boy (and we) size up suspiciously—he’s got that look—an understandable prejudice which turns out to be completely unfounded.

Chi-raq: Sam Jackson’s introduction of Lysistrata, with accompanying visuals, the Chi-lites sequence, Nick Cannon’s opening rap (with lyrics), but most of all, the impassioned, enraged words of John Cusack as Father Mike Corridan, based on Chicago’s Father Michael Pfleger, presiding over the funeral of a little girl murdered in the streets.

Phoenix: Nina Hoss, in bandages, and much later sidling up to the piano to finally sing Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low,” the movie ending of the year.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem: Increasingly frustrated by the lopsided rabbinical judgment favoring any male voice and stomping on her own, Viviane comes to a courtroom session wearing red shoes, exposing her ankles.

Meru: the story of nomadic climber Renan Ozturk.

Mad Max: Fury Road: A movie so loaded with “favorite moments” that, after five viewings, I doubt I’ve even seen them all. I’ll pick one: Max’s “thumbs up” regard to Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) just before her awful exit.

Spotlight: the final confrontation between Boston Globe editor Michael Keaton and Catholic lawyer Jamey Sheridan, and a coffee shop conversation between Rachel McAdams (sympathetically listening, never telegraphing hers, or our, expected reactions) and a grown-up victim (Michael Cyril Creighton) whose confessions of adolescent homosexuality were supported and then exploited by an abusive priest.

Best of Enemies: the account of the fallout from the exchange of insults (”Crypto-nazi!” “Queer!”) between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal on national television, and the quiet pall that settles on the film as it begins to reflect forward on the effect of the debate along the medium’s timeline.

Mustang: the odd, almost resigned reaction to a sudden, loud sound as a family prepares for an arranged marriage; later a reunion between teacher and students.

An Honest Liar: James Randi’s fascinating account of the exposure of an evangelical faith-healer, and the film’s late revelation which proves Randi’s own maxim that the smarter you are, the easier you can be fooled.

Brooklyn: young women gathered together at the boarding house dinner table; Julie Walters’ Mrs. Keogh might be the year’s most undervalued performance.

Youth: Gazing, fixed, upon a pop singer on a rotating stage while her audience swirls around the in the shadows; floating on the incantatory ocean of “Just” over the end credits; and drop the needle on almost any random moment in between those two-- there’s another favorite moment.  (Read my review here.)

The Forbidden Room: Maddin favorite Louis Negin instructing his audience, with delicious insinuation, on how to take a bath-- starting with the armpits and working slowly down to the genitalia, “in ever-widening circles.” Oh, and those intertitles!

Mistress America: the extended, scattershot, brilliant farce of a day in the country.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: the unexpected visual wit (from Guy Ritchie!) of a car chase choreographed like an ice-skating duet; the boat chase that speeds past the windshield of a truck (and our field of vision), inside which Napoleon Solo, not paying attention to the extended action, regards a purloined sandwich; the fashion argument between Solo and Kuriyakin; and, really, just about any piece of clothing any of the actors, but especially Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debecki, have draped on or sculpted to them courtesy of the movie’s brilliantly observant costume designer, Joanna Johnston.

The Least-Familiar Movie(s) On My List On Behalf Of Which I Will Happily Proselytize:

There are a couple. First, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, a delirious celebration of cinema and storytelling that rockets way past delirium and into a realm that can barely be described. Jonathan Romney in Film Comment does the best job I’ve read of attempting the task, but I still think there may simply be no combination of words that will ever suffice. Just see it when you get a chance.

And also, it’ll take a little effort, but finding your way to Jim Akin’s beguiling coming-of-age mood piece The Ocean of Helena Lee is one of the richest favors you can do for yourself in the coming year. Akin is married to singer Maria Mckee, who has a small role here, and he has fashioned a fresh take on growing up amidst the seduction of the boundary-free Southern California lifestyle, filtering his images and sensibility through that of influences as far-ranging as Fellini, Wenders, the Dardennes Brothers and Brian Wilson, but coming up with a perspective that feels embryonic, new, exquisitely curious. (Read my review here.)

Favorite Movie-going Experiences of the Year: 

My annual trip to the TCM Classic Film Festival is always big-- 2016 will be year seven of the festival and my seventh time attending. But this year I have to include taking my daughter to see The Godfather, Once Upon a Time in the West (our first visit to the New Beverly Cinema in nearly a year, since Tarantino took the theater over in 2014 and replaced owner-manager Michael Torgan, who has since returned) and the double bill of Hitchcock/Truffaut and Psycho. I also rediscovered the avant-garde charm of Robert Altman’s much-maligned Popeye. But the absolute height has to be spending an entire Saturday afternoon in the presence of the restored Apu Trilogy— Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Aparajito and The World of Apu, one right after the other. Movie bliss doesn’t get much blissier than that.

Biggest Disappointment of the Year: 

Has to be The Hateful Eight. Once perceived to be enduring a bit of a backlash/referendum based on the perceived direction of Quentin Tarantino’s career, the backlash now seems to have reversed in light of the movie’s stronger-than-expected box-office performance and must-see buzz over its technical presentation. Whatever. It’s still an ugly, bloated bore.

Least-Favorite Movie of the Year:  

There were a couple of close contenders—low-hanging fruit like the abysmal Pixels and Joe Wright’s misbegotten Pan—but I saw no movie in 2015 more stillborn than Woody Allen’s Irrational Man. I’ve heard a lot of people express the sentiment that we should be more tolerant of Allen’s less successful films and not wait until he’s gone to acknowledge his mastery, a point of view often wielded as a strike against expressing dissatisfaction with Allen’s unstoppable output. (Bizarrely, I heard the same sort of talk floated in defense of Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak, as if to not hold the movie in high regard was akin to a sort of cultural blindness.) But movies like Irrational Man make it awfully difficult to prop up this sort of forgiveness. If there’s anything more dispiriting than the lethargy symptomatic of endlessly recycled themes and increasing indifference masquerading quasi-European style by which Irrational Man sputters and coughs, I don’t want to see it. (Read my review here.)

Thanks to everyone for following this year’s SLIFR Treehouse. But as much as I appreciate that someone might actually be reading this stuff, I offer my most grateful appreciation to those fine writers and thinkers who acceded to spend time with me here this week—Brian Doan, Odie Henderson, Marya Murphy and Phil Dyess-Nugent. It was a real privilege. As they used to say at the end of the James Bond movies, the SLIFR Treehouse WILL RETURN! And I hope you all—Brian, Odie, Marya and Phil, along with everyone who clicked in and read our posts this week-- will consider doing the same.


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