Monday, November 29, 2010

TV on DVD: Dexter (Season One, Disc Two)

Episodes covered:  Love American Style, Return to Sender, Circle of Friends, Shrink Wrap

The rise of serialized storytelling in television in the past decade has found the medium realizing its artistic potential.  Gradual unfolding of complicated stories, development of detailed fictional universes, and actual evolution of characters are possible in a long-running TV series in a way that they simply aren't in other artistic forms.  The stakes are automatically higher in a serialized show than in a procedural one, because the events of any given episode will actually impact the way that the characters relate to each other. There is nothing better on a television show than the moments that pay off storylines or characters arcs that have been building for the past five episodes (or five seasons, as the case may be).

But the downside of serialization is that if the story isn't working, the audience is stuck with it, and the show can become a chore to watch.  Such is the case with the Ice Truck Killer storyline from season one of Dexter.  The middle third of the season does finally see some development in its master plot, in the sense that we finally learn the Ice Truck Killer's identity - Doctor Rudy (Christian Carmago), the seemingly nice guy dating Dexter's sister (a twist my wife saw coming a mile away).  But there is still no feeling of narrative momentum.  Every time the show seems like its going somewhere, it hurries back to preserving the status quo.  Dexter is observed committing an atypically hasty double-homicide at the end of "Love American Style," but the only witness proves unreliable in "Return to Sender."  Debra and Batista think they've caught the Ice Truck Killer in "Circle of Friends," but by the end of the episode we know that their suspect is merely a copycat.  In the same episode, Doakes nearly catches Dexter stalking the teenage hustler from disc one, but all it leads to is another "I'm on to you" speech. 

A big part of the problem is that, aside from Dexter himself, none of the characters are very well-drawn.  Its hard to get too attached to police officers who seem like they could've stepped out of any cop show, or a romantic interest that feels derivative of the worst indie romance movies, or the type of quirky serial killer that only exists in popular culture.  Dexter is always a step ahead of the detectives who are actually working the Ice Truck Killer case, so there's really no threat of any of them exposing Dexter as a sociopath.  The introduction of Rita's estranged abusive husband Paul (Mark Pellegrino) hasn't made her character any more interesting, since their relationship basically consists of him making vague threats and her looking scared.  While Doctor Rudy's backstory - his mother lost her limbs in a car accident when he was young, leading to his fascination with perfectly severed body parts - is intriguing in a comic book origin story kind of way, the story hasn't been explored in enough detail yet for it to be truly engrossing.  Eight episodes into a twelve episode season, there should be some sense that the Ice Truck Killer storyline is racing to a climax, but Dexter still hasn't gotten out of first gear.

Quick Thoughts

- Is it just me, or does Erik King, the actor who plays Doakes, look way too much like Mathew St. Patrick, the actor who played Michael C. Hall's boyfriend on Six Feet Under?

- Not nearly enough flashbacks in these episodes.  The lessons that Harry gives to young Dexter tend to be the best parts of this show.

- Though the Dexter/Rita romance isn't interesting, the scene in "Shrink Wrap" where they have sex for the first time is probably the highlight of the season so far, if only for Hall's hilarious facial expressions.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Masterpiece Test: Un chien andalou

Year of Release  1929
Nationality  French
Length  16 min.
Director  Luis Bunuel
Screenwriters  Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali
Editor  Luis Bunuel

Beauty  Un chien andalou begins with one of the most famous montages in cinema history.  A man sharpening a butcher's razor observes a thin cloud passing through the moon.  Cut to a closeup of a woman calmly sitting in a chair, presumably staring at the same image as the man.  Another edit reveals the moon being engulfed by the clouds, which leads to an extreme closeup of the woman's eye as the razor slices through it, the vitreous humor spilling out of the socket.  More than eighty years after its initial release, this image still has the power to shock and offend audiences, but what happens immediately afterward is just as jarring.  Before audiences have time to process (or recover from) what they've just seen, an intertitle announces "eight years later," leading to a series of events with no apparent connection to the opening scene, or to each other.

Strangeness  This is Un chien andalou's modus operandi:  to shock the audience with an unforgettable image and then cut to something completely different before there is time to interpret what's going on.  According to Luis Bunuel's autobiography, the only rule that he and Salvador Dali followed when writing the screenplay was that "no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted."

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  While the visuals of Un chien andalou are certainly striking, it is the way that the images are juxtaposed with one another that gives the film its meaning - or lack thereof.  Bunuel's editing continually mocks the very notion of narrative coherence, from the title cards that set up expectations of plot momentum that the film has no intention of fulfilling, to the abrupt cuts to events that have no apparent relation to what came before.

Tradition  For all its originality, Un chien andalou is undoubtedly a product of its time.  The dream associative flow of images, many of which feature normally repressed violent and sexual urges coming to the surface, are clearly influenced by the work of Freud.  Un chien andalou wouldn't have been possible without the relatively contemporaneous development of Soviet montage, although Bunuel's editing is used for the opposite purpose of Eisenstein's.  Where Soviet filmmakers would edit together a series of unrelated shots to create a symbolic meaning, Bunuel emphasizes the disaparity between his images, making the narrative inexplicable and intentionally meaningless.  Bunuel and Dali's anti-narrative seems to have been influenced by the Surrealist habit of sneaking into several different theatres, catching isolated scenes from different movies out of context.  Indeed, the Spanish ex-patriots' narrative stunts turned them into two of the most controversial members of the predominately French Surrealist party.  Every avant-garde film that came after 1929 owes a debt to Un chien andalou, making it one of the most important landmarks in cinema history.

Repeatability  Un chien andalou doesn't feel particularly dated - an unflinching shot of an eyeball being sliced open is always going to be shocking, even though it's common knowledge that Bunuel used a dead calf's eye for the effect - and it towers over most experimental shorts in sheer entertainment value.  But it is far from the most sophisticated piece of art that either Bunuel or Dali would go on to make.  (The duo's follow-up, L'age d'or, is arguably the better film, even if its influence is less pronounced).  Un chien andalou is an enjoyable film to revisit, but its relative crudeness compared to Bunuel and Dali's later solo endeavors, its dependence on shock value, and its deliberate lack of meaning add up to a film that doesn't reveal anything new after the first viewing.

Viewer Engagement  As mentioned above, Un chien andalou is a lot more engaging and engrossing than the average avant-garde film.  In its gleeful absurdity, it is perhaps less of a spiritual ancestor to Blood of a Poet, Eraserhead, and Tropical Malady than Duck Soup, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and Anchorman.  But if Bunuel and Dali were trying to tear down the stifling structure of society and replace it with the freedom of anarchy, they failed.  Viewers are more likely to laugh with the film's absurd anti-logic than to actually have their perspectives changed by it.

Morality  Many of Bunuel's later films - from 1930's L'age d'or to 1977's That Obscure Object of Desire - wed his love of absurdity to a somewhat realistic look at the world we live in.  The satirical edge of most of Bunuel's great oeuvre is lacking in his debut film.  Un chien andalou's string of absurdities are perhaps too disconnected from the everyday to transform our understanding of the world.  The people on the screen are being overcome by their unconscious desires, but there isn't a clear indication of the societal strictures that they are reacting to.  The film's message, insofar as it exists, lacks the punch of its images.

Un chien andalou fails The Masterpiece Test.  It is a good indicator of the thin line that seperates great, culturally important films from true masterpieces.

UP NEXT  Spike Lee's 25th Hour, a film that appeared on quite a few "best of the decade" lists, even though my fuzzy memories of it suggest that it is merely "pretty good."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (Barton Fink)

The standard line on Barton Fink (1991) is that it finds The Coen Brothers abandoning genre pastiche in favor of outright surrealism.  Joel and Ethan's fourth outing isn't a noir like Blood Simple (1984), a live-action Road Runner cartoon like Raising Arizona (1987), or a gangster picture like Miller's Crossing (1990).  But there is a stylistic precedent for Barton Fink's cryptic, nightmarish style, a loose collective of films that we will call "psychodramas."  Fortunately, psychodrama plays to The Coens' usual strengths while largely covering up their weaknesses, and Barton Fink is their most successful film up to this point.

The success of a psychodrama depends less on narrative momentum, substantive social messages, and three-dimensional characters than on moody atmosphere, originality of style, and quirky performances.  These films tend to be told entirely from the (deliberately limited) point of view of their protagonists, to the extent that the entire world surrounding the hero seems to be an outgrowth of their social anxieties.  The protagonist is the only character who doesn't understand the arcane rules that govern the world he lives in, even though it is usually implied that the other characters may be products of the hero's imagination.  The narrative heads toward its climax less through the unraveling of a plot than the increasing intensity of the things annoying the main character.  Examples of the genre include Welles' The Trial (indeed, the entire genre would be unthinkable without Kafka's literary example), Polanski's The Tenant, Lynch's Eraserhead, Kubrick's The Shining, Scorsese's After Hours, and Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York.

Barton Fink doesn't feel as wholly unique as most of the films lifted above.  In fact, the film has more or less the same relationship to its genre as The Coens' early films do to their more well-known inspirations, which is to say that it is part pastiche and part cartoonish parody of the above-mentioned tropes.  But even if Barton Fink isn't wholly original, it is clearly The Coens' most personal film to date.  The situation of John Turturro's titular character - a playwright whose success on Broadway leads to him being hired to write a wrestling movie for a major Hollywood studio - is analogous in some ways to the position that The Coens found themselves in in the early '90s.  I imagine that the independent duo, fresh from the critical and relative commercial success of their first three films, probably turned down a number of high-profile big studio offers, none of which would've allowed them the freedom of final cut that they enjoyed on Barton Fink.  Turturro looks like a caricature artist's rendering of the Coens, and his writer's block was reportedly directly inspired by difficulties that the brothers had in working out the complicated plot of Miller's CrossingBarton Fink isn't any less snarky than previous Coen films, but the fact that they seem to be making fun of themselves does mitigate the smug feeling of superiority that mars much of their other work.

The strengths that have always been evident in The Coens' oeuvre receive their greatest expression to this point in Barton Fink.  As expected, the film looks and sounds fantastic.  Replacing usual cinematographer Barry Sonenfeld with Roger Deakins was a wise choice, as the psychodrama requires more claustrophobic visuals than Sonenfeld's usual wide lens style would allow.  The Coens are more than up to the task of building and sustaining an evocative ambiance, and they succeed in making early-40s Hollywood look like a sordid, suffocating hellhole. 

Highly mannered dialogue sounds natural coming out of the excellent cast's mouths.  Turturro could've come off as an insufferable creep, prattling on about "the life of the mind," but the actor makes Barton's pretentions both funny and strangely endearing.  John Goodman is equally good as the insurance salesman who represents the "common man" that the playwright claims to champion but secretly fears.  The minor characters make a strong impression as well; Michael Lerner and Tony Shalhoub are especially funny as an overenthusiastic studio head and a hostile producer, respectively, while Richard Portnow and Christopher Murney do an inspired variation on the usual "detectives who finish each other's sentences" gag.  A subplot involving a Faulkner-esque famous novelist is an unfortunate reminder of the Coens' relentless cynicism - the entire point of the character seems to be that "great artists" are all ultimately phonies - but John Mahoney manages to give a fairly elegant performance anyway, and Judy Davis, who plays the author's wife, makes a much more effective femme fatale than Frances McDormand in Blood Simple or Marcia Gay Harden in Miller's Crossing

There are still some nagging flaws in Barton Fink - The Coens seem to rely entirely on their cast to make their characters seem like human beings, and their meticulous aesthetic seems out of proportion with the shallowness of their themes.  And there is a feeling that the psychodrama genre is merely covering up some of the duo's persistent flaws.  Nonetheless, Barton Fink seems to mark the point where The Coen Brothers evolve from smart ass pranksters to major filmmakers.

UP NEXT The Hudsucker Proxy

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Postscript to In Defense of Rob Zombie's Halloween: Not In Defense of Halloween II

Despite its poor reputation, Rob Zombie's 2007 remake of Halloween was actually a very interesting and unique modern horror film.  Zombie's movie took the bare framework of John Carpenter's original and did something different with it, which set it apart from the recent crop of unimaginative remakes.  In fact, the film's mournful tone, autumnal cinematography, and deliberate pacing made it feel not just different from the 1978 slasher it's inspired by, but from recent horror films in general.  Zombie's Halloween only really faltered in those moments when it became a slasher film, as it did in its relatively conventional second half.  Unfortunately, Zombie's Halloween II amplifies the first film's flaws while retaining few of its virtues.

Yes, there are a few admirable elements of this otherwise rightfully derided movie.  Zombie is still sticking firmly to his own vision rather than resting on the laurels of a popular series, which makes Halloween II feel less redundant than a sequel to a remake has any right to be.  The iconic Michael Myers mask is rarely shown in full, and when it is it is raggedy and mangled (as a result of the events of the first film), and Carpenter's memorable theme music isn't used until the final scene.  Once again, Zombie hasn't asked his performers to model their performances on those of the original cast.  Unlike most slasher directors, he seems committed to giving the killer's victims distinct personalities, although they unfortunately tend to be loathsome, garish, and one-note.  I don't want to speculate on whether the film's violence is realistic, but I suppose that makeup artist Adrienne Lynn deserves credit for making the unusually blunt and graphic viscera seem plausible.

The makeup effects are a hugely important part of Halloween II - this is a truly gory film.  Clearly the film's subject matter calls for a certain amount of violence, but the sheer quantity of vicious, explicit murders in the "unrated director's cut" (the one that's available on DVD) is much more than the audience needs to believe that Myers is a killing machine.  A lengthy sequence in which Myers slaughters the inhabitants of a strip club - stomping the bouncer's head in, stabbing the owner, and bashing a stripper's face into a mirror until she dies - should be a showstopper, but it is sandwiched in between so much similar brutality that it doesn't stand out.  The endless stream of violence is deadening, to the point that I imagine even the most hardocore Fangoria subscriber becoming bored quickly.  It would be one thing if the blooshed was as perversely inspired as it sometimes is in the films of Dario Argento or Takashi Miike, but Zombie seems to have lost his knack for the overheated carnival imagery that set his earlier work apart from the pack.

There is evidence that Zombie is trying to make Halloween II a film about violence, but his ideas are too poorly articulated for the film to have any thematic weight.  Zombie is clearly interested in exploring the ways that violence affects, and corrupts, everyone in its path - the personalities of the major characters have changed in much the same way that that the characters of The Devil's Rejects evolved from their House of 1000 Corpses incarnations.  Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) is now a cocky publicity hound who uses the memories of atrocities to promote his new bestselling book, while Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) has been driven to near-insanity by her near-death experience.  These aren't bad ideas, necessarily, but Zombie is too poor a screenwriter to make these changes seem organic, or to integrate them into a larger well-developed theme.  The Laurie character is particularly grating.  Taylor-Compton was a weak link in the first film's cast, but the Laurie role was downplayed to the point that she wasn't a major liability.  Her screaching, whiny portrayal here makes her character impossible to root for, which might not be so bad if her growing psychosis were at least remotely convincing.  But surely Zombie deserves some of the blame, considering that seasoned performers like McDowell and Brad Dourif (whose town sheriff plays a much bigger role than in the first film) fail to make much of an impression.

These thematic failings might not be as big a problem if Zombie would at least stick consistently to a gritty, "realistic" tone, but Halloween II is all over the map stylistically.  If anything, it may be the director's most scattershot, self-indulgent film to date, which is really saying something.  At several points, Myers is visited by the ghosts of his childhood self and his mother, who are always accompanied by a white horse (whose symbolic significance is clumsily explained in an opening intertitle).  This pedestrian Freudianism becomes even hokier when Laurie begins being visited by the same ghosts.  Zombie's first Halloween improved on a fairly stupid plot contrivance from the original series of films - the revelation that Laurie is Michael's long-lost sister - by pointing out early on that Laurie is the baby that ten-year-old Michael spares when he massacres the rest of his family.  But the vision connection thing here is silly even by the standards of bad dream sequences, and it doesn't square with the rest of the film's decidedly non-supernatural aesthetic.  It's bad enough that Halloween II feels so pointless, unpleasant, and vulgar.  Did it have to be so sloppy?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season One, Discs 3 & 4)

Episodes Covered:  Throwaway, Dragonchasers, Carnivores, Two Days of Blood, Circles

First seasons are rarely the strongest outings for any TV series.  Exposition of a show's premise and introduction of its characters can certainly be interesting, but these things are rarely as satisfying as payoffs to long-building stories or as exciting as significant developments in a character arc.  A mediocre episode of a veteran show can still entertain fans who just want to spend an hour with characters they know well, but it takes time for this relationship to develop.  Writing staffs refine their original concepts as they figure out what sounds natural coming out of their actors' mouths, and what the rhythms of the show are, so early episodes tend to appear less organic than later ones.

Season one of The Shield displays some of these beginner's jitters, but most of the kinks were worked out in time for the fantastic two-part finale "Two Days of Blood" and "Circles."  The show's greatest strength at this point is its multi-faceted portrayal of its police department.  Practically every major character has a distinct agenda, level of experience, and methodology, so there is a lot of dramatic potential in bringing the various detectives into conflict or alliance with each other.  Shawn Ryan and his creative staff have already exploited a great deal of tension from placing various characters in close proximity, but, more importantly, they've built up a strong foundation for future seasons to play off of.

Vic experienced varying levels of antagonism from virtually every character this season, so it seems fitting that his only powerful supporter, Assistant Chief Ben Gilroy (John Diehl), would finally turn on him in the season finale.  Gilroy wasn't a major player in the earlier episodes that he appeared in - to the point that I didn't even mention him in my reviews of the first two discs - but Diehl always gave the character an air of desperation and guilty flop-sweat that conveyed the years of corruption that weighed on his character.  But it was easy to assume that the extent of his corruption was protecting Vic from internal investigations.  I wouldn't have expected Gilroy to be involved in the illegal real estate deal revealed in the two-part finale, yet it seems like a logical outgrowth of what little we previously knew about the character.  The Assistant Chief's scheme also functions as a clever plot device that brings that tension between Vic and a few other characters to a head.

Aceveda has been trying to form a case against Vic ever since the murder of Terry Crowley, so when Gilroy attempts to frame Vic for a murder connected to the real estate deal, Aceveda would seem to have all the evidence he needs to put the renegade cop behind bars.  But Vic cleverly maneuvers his way out of the situation by convincing his politically ambitious boss that exposing Gilroy's corruption would look more impressive to voters than catching a violent but talented cop.  By the end of the season, Aceveda seems poised for his coveted city council position, yet it's his arch enemy who put him there.  It will be very interesting to see where the tenuous partnership between Vic and Aceveda goes in season two; I think it might actually be more interesting than their outright antagonism from this season.  It'll also be interesting to see who winds up replacing Aceveda if he does indeed move up in the world.

And I think it might be Dutch who winds up taking the Captain spot.  Dutch has gained a lot more respect in the department since capturing the serial killer he's been pursuing all season.  Initially, it seemed a little disappointing that the serial killer storyline ended in "Dragonchasers" - I thought it could be an intriguing series-long plot for Dutch, especially since it was a lot more compelling than the various standalone cases we saw throughout the season - but it ultimately serves a necessary thematic function by demonstrating that major cases don't need to be solved by brute force and manipulation (Vic's methods) if a cop is good enough at the by-the-books work (as Dutch is).  It also works as a strong plot point in the season finale, where Vic attempts to use the newly respected detective's skills to expose Gilroy's land deal, but instead winds up having to cover up his own corruption when Dutch nearly stumbles upon evidence implicating Vic in the murder Gilroy is trying to frame him for.  Since the show has established Dutch as a great detective, there is a lot of genuine suspense to be found in his investigating Vic, which is a direction I could see season two going in.  But after the intense and suspenseful end to season one, I trust that whatever course the next season takes will be fascinating.

Quick Thoughts

- The one big flaw of The Shield is still the underdevelopment of the other members of Vic's Strike Team.  At various points in the season, Shane was depicted as the emotional member who might crack under internal investigation pressure or the hothead who would do something stupid that would bring the Team down, but the writers seem to have ditched this in favor of making him a violent redneck.  "Throwaway" is a showcase for Lem, but we don't really learn anything about him.  And Ronnie hasn't been given any personality so far.  Hopefully season two will flesh these guys out a lot more.

- I don't know how I feel about Vic's family leaving him at the end of the season.  It makes plot sense, but we haven't seen enough of them for this to really register as a major crisis, even though Michael Chiklis sold the hell out of the scene where he found his house empty.  The success of this plot point will depend on how they follow up on it in season two.

- I'm aware that the "Armenian Robbery" arc of season two is divisive among fans, but I know virtually nothing about it.  It sounds like next season will be more tightly serialized, which I'm in favor of.

- How is it possible that I never heard of Jay Karnes before I started watching this show?  He had a small story arc on the first season of Sons of Anarchy, but I didn't know his name at the time and I've never seen him in anything else.  But Dutch is my favorite character on the show at this point, mostly because of Karnes' multi-dimensional performance.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Masterpiece Test: M

Year of Release  1931
Nationality  German
Length  110 min.
Director  Fritz Lang
Screenwriters  Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Cinematographer  Fritz Arno Wagner
Set Designers  Emil Hasler, Karl Vollbrecht
Sound  Adolf Jansen
Editor  Paul Falkenberg
Cast  Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens

Beauty  I can think of few directors with as strong a visual sense as Fritz Lang, and perhaps none of his films have a greater quantity of unforgettable shots than M.  A publicly displayed newspaper article about a child killer is partially obscured by the shadow of the killer's face.  A bizarre balloon animal, belonging to the killer's most recent victim, dangles hopelessly in power lines.  An extreme low angle shot of a hulking bully is contrasted with an extreme high angle shot of the innocent old man he is harassing.  A massive blowup of a fingerprint hovers over a forensic investigator's desk.  The killer, pursued by a cabal of criminals, hides behind a stack of rotting wood like a cornered, feral animal.  A mass of grotesque faces stare at the killer in a perverse kangaroo court.  Three hysterical mothers weep for their deceased children on a courtroom bench, the middle woman's face nearly catatonic with grief.  Every visual aspect of the film - from the actors' faces to the set design to the cinematography - is perfectly calibrated to convey a haunting half-Expressionist/half-Realist portrayal of a decaying German city in the immediate pre-Nazi era.

Strangeness  M is partially based around a series of gruesome murder cases that occurred in early-30s Weimar Germany, but it is far from a typical "ripped from the headlines" suspense story.  Serial killer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) is portrayed as neither an evil monster nor a sympathetic victim of his own insanity, but rather as an unknowable, disturbing force that society is not equipped to deal with.  The everyday reality of Weimar Germany is increasingly defamiliarized as the city becomes more and more hysterical in the wake of the child murders.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  M doesn't follow a protagonist - the closest thing it has to a main character is a frightening, impossible-to-relate-to murderer - but instead follows an entire city as it responds to a wave of killings.  The narrative moves smoothly from one level of society to another, showing how common civilians, homeless beggars, the police, and a cadre of petty criminals each respond to the threat of the murderer.  Each scene comments on what came before, simultaneously reinforcing how big a problem these murders are and making the city's increasing hysteria look nearly as, if not more, dangerous than the actions of the killer himself.  The subject of the film is not the headline-grabbing murders, but society's response to the murders.

Tradition  M was made during the privileged period of film history when filmmakers who had mastered silent film conventions were just getting used to dealing with the possibilities offered by sound.  Lang, one of the premiere directors of the silent era, was able in M to simultaneously refine the techniques that he helped to invent in the '20s while innovatively using the new tools available with sound recording.  In fact, one could argue that M uses sound more effectively than any subsequent film, often contrasting periods of complete silence with Beckert's creepy "Hall of the Mountain King" whistle.  Lang knows when it would be more effective to drop the sound entirely - as in the elegantly brutal montage showing all of the places that Elsie Beckman could be if she wasn't dead.  In other spots, the film manages to fuse the best of silent and sound cinema.  When Beckert finally defends himself in front of the kangaroo court, Lorre's volcanic performance finds a perfect middle ground between the highly stylized Expressionist acting of silent cinema and the equally intense method acting of later sound films.  If Birth of a Nation is the film that summed up all of the possibilities of silent film, and Citizen Kane did the same for the sound era, then M is the film that manages to do both simultaneously, which arguably makes it the most important artistic landmark in all of film history.

Repeatability  It goes without saying that M holds up on multiple viewings; the film is so detailed that it reveals something new every time one watches it.  Part of the appeal of M for today's audiences is as a historical document of one of the most fascinating periods in history, Germany in the immediate pre-Nazi era.  The film is obviously too heavily stylized to be considered strictly "realistic," but the filmmakers clearly tapped into a very real psychology of the period.  Whatever liberties the filmmakers take with real life are in service of an unforgettable portrayal of the desperation of a society devastated by one world war and on the verge of an even more disastrous time.  It isn't hard to imagine Hitler as a member of the kangaroo court at the end of M.  The film has contemporary resonance as well; the paranoia that the city develops as a result of Beckert's actions is analogous in some ways to the contemporary fear of terrorists.

Viewer Engagement  M is a highly gripping film from beginning to end.  With the exception of an unneccesarily long sequence in which Detective Lohman (Otto Wernicke) interrogates one of the criminals to learn about Beckert's whereabouts, the film is as perfectly balanced and paced as Rear Window or Seven Samurai.  But M doesn't seek to merely entertain the viewer, but to force them to take an active role in interpreting its meaning.  By denying viewers a figure to identify with, M virtually turns us into citizens of the city that the story is set in.  The viewer must always consider where they stand in relation to the other characters, a dialectic which reaches its zenith during the kangaroo court scene.  When Beckert speaks, he is looking not just at the court, but at the screen, implicitly putting us on the same level as his criminal accusers.  When members of the court speak, we are placed in Beckert's shoes, justifiably frightened by the mass of fascists staring us down.

Morality  The film's dialectic narrative constantly puts viewers in the position of different characters, each time defamiliarizing our previous position and forcing us to reexamine and criticize what we think and how we feel.  M manages the tricky balancing act of neither condemning Beckert as a monster nor excusing him for the atrocities he's committed.  More importantly, the film shows that while individuals may have understandable motivations for the way that they respond to tragedies, mobs of people can become as (if not more) dangerous than the fears that they are reacting to - a message that could hardly be more relevant in pre-Holocaust Germany.  M is a great moral film not just because it understands humanity, but because it doesn't allow us to redeem ourselves.

M passes The Masterpiece Test.

UP NEXT  Un chien andalou, the Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali short film that is as widely acclaimed as M, even though its appeal is harder to explain.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Masterpiece Test: An Introduction

Everyone has films that they consider great.  But how do we decide which films represent the best that cinema has to offer?  What criteria are we using, beyond our own personal taste?

In his essay "Canon Fodder" - an epic magazine article that originally appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of Film Comment (and can now be found online at - Paul Schrader proposes seven criteria that we should use to determine whether or not a film is a masterpiece.  Though I highly recommend that you read Schrader's article in full, I'll briefly summarize his criteria (as I understand them) below.

Beauty  This isn't simply a matter of a film being pleasurable to look at, but could also refer to the elegant expression of an idea or ideal.  Masterpieces will not merely attempt to entertain the spectator, but also attempt to change the world for the better in some small way.

Strangeness  It goes without saying that a masterpiece should be original in some respect, treating its subject matter in a fresh new way.  "Strangeness" goes beyond "originality" by adding "unpredictability, unknowability, and magic."  A masterpiece will not only be original but will be so distinctive that it can never be exactly duplicated, or assimilated into the culture at large.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  The stylistic traits of a film - its approach to narrative, cineamatography, editing, acting, etc. - help give meaning to its themes.  The quality of a film can be largely determined by the degree to which its form and subject matter are unified.  "It's impossible to discuss the form of The Rules of the Game without also describing its subject matter."

Tradition  "The greatness of a film...must be judged not only on its own terms but by its place in the evolution of film."  A masterpiece will build on the successes of past works while also influencing the cinema of the future.

Repeatability  A masterpiece holds up over time, deepening its impact on repeat viewings and retaining its appeal for future generations.

Viewer Engagement  A masterpiece does more than entertain us.  It must also engage us, allowing each viewer the chance to experience the film in a different way and draw their own conclusions.  "The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it."

Morality  A masterpiece should not reinforce our preconceived notions - be they based on political, social, or religious beliefs - but should instead challenge these ideas, thereby enriching our understanding of the world.

The only disappointing part of Schrader's essay is the 60-film canon that he proposes at the end.  Certainly the list is interesting, containing not only expected classics like Tokyo Story and Citizen Kane and popular favorites like The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in the West, but also idiosyncratic personal choices like Performance and Nostalghia.  Schrader's canon doesn't disappoint me because I don't agree with each individual selection - any two people making such a list would come up with different results, even if they were both using the pseudo-science of Schrader's seven criteria.  Personal bias is going to intrude upon even the research of scientific facts, so we shouldn't expect any canon to be definitive. 

What does bother me is that Schrader doesn't include any justification for his individual choices.  No one could reasonably deny that Metropolis is one of the most important and influential films ever made, but shouldn't its incoherent patchwork of Christianity, Romanticism, Marxism, and Fascism disqualify it as a moral film?  What aspect of Seven Men From Now makes it distinctive enough from other westerns to pass the Strangeness test?  What about Talk To Her suggests that it will hold up for future generations, thereby meeting the Repeatability qualification?  I imagine that Schrader could offer elegant defenses for each of his choices, but it is frustrating that we don't know why he thought that some of these films lived up to his criteria.

I thought it might be interesting to start a series of posts devoted to reviewing films by using Schrader's seven criteria.  Established classics, personal favorites, and award winners will be put under the microscope and judged according to whether they live up to "Canon Fodder" standards - or whether they pass what I will call "The Masterpiece Test."  I'll try to withhold personal bias as much as possible, and not shy away from the flaws that inevitably pop up in even seemingly perfect films such as Rear Window and Seven Samurai.  I won't look at any films that will obviously fail the test - if I do review any films that I'm not personally fond of, they will at least be notable, culturally important works.  I'm going into this assuming that a number of films I love will not pass the test, and that some that I'm less fond of will.  If a film fails, it doesn't mean that it isn't terrific - it just means that it hasn't lived up to the very highest standards.  Perhaps we will find that a film does not meet all of the criteria, yet is still a masterpiece, or, conversely, that a film meets all of the criteria yet remains strangely lacking.  Should these circumstances arise, I'll attempt to adjust the criteria, and possibly add or take away one of our seven yardsticks.  Basically, I don't know what's going to happen.  But I look forward to finding out.

UP FIRST  Fritz Lang's M, which I have long considered to be the greatest film of all time.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (Miller's Crossing)

So far, the most disappointing thing about following The Coen Brothers' filmography in chronological order has been realizing how little I actually have to say about their early work.  Their versatility is undoubtedly impressive - few filmmakers would follow a somber film noir like Blood Simple (1984) with a cartoonish action-comedy like Raising Arizona (1987), and no one could've predicted that their third film would be a period gangster drama.  Miller's Crossing (1990) finds The Coens exploring an entirely new setting, with their most complicated script and largest ensemble cast to this point.  But the surface ambition can only do so much to cover up The Coen Brothers' lack of development as artists.  They are moving around instead of moving forward.

If the point of view of Blood Simple and Raising Arizona is "people are stupid," then the worldview expressed in Miller's Crossing is "people are corrupt."  Prohibition-era mobster Gabriel Byrne is betraying his boss Albert Finney both by sleeping with the older man's mistress, Marcia Gay Harden, and by working with a rival crime lord played by Jon Polito.  Harden's brother, John Turturro, is deep in gambling debt to Polito, who wants Finney's gang to wipe Turturro out.  After a series of complications, Byrne - who is more of a backstage politician than a killer - is ordered to eliminate Turturro himself.  Deep in the woods where the execution is supposed to take place, Byrne offers Turturro an ultimatum - he will fake the shooting as long as Turturro leaves town and is never heard from again.  But Turturro never leaves town, and instead attempts to blackmail Byrne into killing Polito.

For this story to work dramatically, viewers need to be invested in Byrne's increasingly frustrated attempts to keep the peace between the other characters.  The arc of the narrative is Byrne gradually losing his will to hold his world together, but it doesn't register emotionally because the character is a cipher who never loses his cool even under the most stressful circumstances.  It also doesn't work because none of the characters are well-rounded enough to be interesting, which is a recurring problem in The Coen Brothers' work.  In this case it isn't just a problem of the filmmakers using thinly-defined stock characters, but of the relationships between those characters seeming implausible.  There is no onscreen indication of why Byrne and Harden are attracted to each other, or why Byrne and Finney are supposed to have such a close partnership, so there is no weight to these relationships falling apart.  It doesn't help that a few of the key roles are badly miscast - Harden is a fine actress, but she is totally unconvincing as a femme fatale.  Worse still, some of the characters don't make a lot of sense.  It's hard to believe that Finney could be running a city yet be totally clueless about an affair going on right under his nose.  Turturro is the only cast member who appears completely comfortable in his over-the-top performance, yet his character is depicted as such a creep that it seems that The Coens think he deserves to be murdered.

Fortunately, The Coens' strengths are on hand as well as their weaknesses.  They once again manage to create a distinct, rich atmosphere, with the lush production designs immaculately captured by recurring cinematographer Barry Sonennfeld, who delivers his most handsome work to date here.  The dialogue is memorably quirky ("Last time we jawed, you gave me the high hat") and smoothly delivered by the talented cast.  The few brief action scenes are visceral and inventively staged  in a way that only Coen Brothers scenes are, particularly a home invasion sequence that ends in a ridiculous blaze of tommy gun fire, and a scene where Byrne beats Turturro to the bottom floor of his building by jumping out of his window and running back in through the door.  But The Coens have known where to put the camera and how to film dazzling setpieces since the beginning.  They have a harder time supplying a story with characters we can care about or deep thoughts that stick with us after the credits roll.

UP NEXT  Barton Fink

Monday, November 1, 2010

In Defense Of Rob Zombie's Halloween

American horror directors are running out of ideas.  For every Drag Me to Hell or House of the Devil there are ten remakes of horror movies from the '70s and '80s.  In the last decade alone we've seen remakes of The Amityville Horror, The Crazies, Dawn of the DeadThe FogFriday the 13th, The Hills Have EyesLast House on the LeftMy Bloody ValentineA Nightmare on Elm Street, The Stepfather, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and that's just naming the few that instantly come to mind.  None of these remakes were considered improvements on the originals, but that hasn't stopped movie studios from pumping them out regularly, or horror fans from flocking to theaters to see them., even if they inevitably wind up disappointed with the results.

One director who is not lacking for ideas is Rob Zombie.  If anything, House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects suffer from an overabundance of ideas.  Densely packed set designs rub up against a dozen half-formed plot points, which add up less to a coherent story than a clearinghouse for the most lurid fantasies of Zombie's pop culture-saturated youth.  But even if those films don't ultimately cohere, there is still a palpable sense of joy to their making, and a feeling that Zombie is paying tribute to some of his favorite filmmakers without actually stealing from them.  For all of their gore and vulgarity, Rob Zombie's first two features feel like the work of a talented kid showing what he can do with his favorite toys.

So it was a bit disappointing to hear that his next project would be a remake of John Carpenter's seminal 1978 slasher Halloween.  After seven increasingly pointless sequels, it was hard to see what anyone could do with the Halloween franchise.  And although Zombie's take on the material made enough money for Dimension Films to finance a sequel two years later, it didn't take with critics.  Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a paltry 26% approval rating, and many critics predictably compared Zombie's version unfavorably to the Carpenter original.

But Rob Zombie's Halloween deserves better than being lumped in with the aforementioned crop of assembly-line remakes.  In many ways it rises above the disreputable slasher genre, and offers a fresh perspective on seemingly moribund material.  It isn't a flawless film by any means - some of the dialogue is embarrassingly juvenile, there are some pacing issues, and the film's second half is noticeably less interesting than the first.  And yet the 2007 Halloween is a visually stunning, surprisingly ambitious, and even occasionally emotionally resonant film that could hardly be further apart from the average horror film of the last decade.

Obstacles to Appreciation

The Reputation of the Original Film
John Carpenter's Halloween is often considered to be the landmark slasher film, an artistic high water mark that an army of sequels and imitators has consistently failed to live up to.  But it is not the best or the most interesting film of its genre.  It isn't as genuinely terrifying as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or as witty and imaginative as A Nightmare on Elm Street or Child's Play.  And the film is so basic and elemental that it won't reveal anything new with multiple viewings; much of its power comes from its stripped-down narrative and simple characterizations.  Halloween is to slasher films as Stagecoach is to westerns or The Maltese Falcon is to private eye movies, which is to say that it is perhaps the definitive example of its genre, the one that most clearly displays the traits of the genre by not deviating from them in any significant way.  Carpenter's film is essentially a girl being chased by an unstoppable maniac, with few embellishments other than his memorably creepy synth theme music and autumnal cinematography.

The Bias Against Remakes
Given that simplicity and minimalism are two key factors in the original Halloween's success, it does seem a bit odd that it would even occur to somebody to remake it.  Fleshing out the characters or providing motivations for Michael Myers' killing spree diminish the effectiveness of the material, as demonstrated in the seven Halloween sequels.  There is seemingly nothing to add to or subtract from the original experience, and who wants to see a more gory version of something they've already seen?  What could a director conceivably add to this tough little genre picture without disrupting its aesthetic?

The strength of Zombie's remake is that he essentially makes an entirely different film out of elements borrowed from Carpenter's original.  The first half of his film is devoted to a biographical study of the young Michael Myers (played as a ten year old by Daeg Faerch), and is therefore made up entirely of original material.  This part of the film is essentially a prequel to the events of Carpenter's original, documenting Myers'   troubled home life, his development into a killer, and his therapy sessions with Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell).  There is a mournful tone to this half of the film that sets it apart from other works in the genre; in fact, it is hardly a slasher film at all, despite featuring a sequence where Myers murders his father, his sister, and her boyfriend.  Zombie successfully aims to methodically creep the viewer out with dreamy looks at nightmare images (the clown mask that Myers wears is seriously disturbing, and the image of the ten year old body wearing the classic Mike Myers mask for the first time is memorably fucked up).  The film uses elements of Carpenter's original (the famous mask, the theme song) but is otherwise telling a completely different story, demonstrating that remakes needn't be slavish recreations.

The Baggage of the Slasher Genre
Zombie's Halloween only really suffers when it becomes a slasher film in its second half.  It is nice that the filmmakers didn't feel a need to exactly copy Carpenter's plot, and I like that Zombie doesn't ask Scout Taylor-Compton to mimic Jamie Lee Curtis' performance as the original film's heroine in any way.  But it still feels as if Zombie has certain genre expectations that he feels he needs to fulfill, and when the film turns into one killing after another it turns somewhat dull.  The slasher film of the second half is fundamentally incompatible with the character study of the first half; it isn't possible to accept Myers as an unstoppable "boogie man" when the film's spent an hour humanizing him. If Zombie had stuck to his guns, he might have made one of the best horror films of recent years; as it is, the 2007 Halloween is simply the most interesting remake.  But it deserves credit for trying something new and ambitious in the mercenary world of slasher remakes, and largely succeeding beyond the standards of its genre.