Posts Tagged ‘United States


The Canyons (2013)

canyons_ver2_xlgI’ve chosen to return from the blog grave to write about THE CANYONS. Why, oh, why? This should not be taken as a ringing endorsement of the picture. In fact I’m not sure I even “liked it”. However, it does attempt to say a few interesting things, ranging from heavy-handed to slightly oblique, yet in a not-quite-entirely-successful way. I have written a little about Paul Schrader here before. I’ve even talked to the man in person (ooh I’m special), but that, of course, doesn’t qualify me to judge this picture with any kind of authority or intelligence. I’ve only read a bit by Bret Easton Ellis (confession: I never finished reading American Psycho because “I was, all, like, I think I GET IT, DUDE” after a short way into the book. Registered trademark phrase brought to you by XYZ industries Etc.), but this is a VERY interesting mesh of two (male) sensibilities. Let’s call it Calvinist Nihilism, shall we?

SO, onto the picture at hand. What everybody wants to know: What’s up with Lindsay Lohan? How “bad” is she in the picture? Well, surprisingly, Lohan is not bad in this picture. She’s not great, but many of her flaws (figurative and, well, figurative) work for the role. How naked does she get? (topless with a moderate ubiquity). What about James Deen? (better acting, less shots below the waist, than usual I assume). Some hyper-aware critics have referred to this picture as camp (whether it was intentional or not). There is that layer to it, but it is not played for camp in ways that make it any more entertaining (which would be the point of the affectation, no?). The better descriptor would be “meta“. While I agree this is a highly overused descriptor in our post-post-modern media landscape (e.g. NBC’s Community), it is the appropriate oeuvre, if you will, of a so-called Ellis-Schrader combo. This film not only namechecks its “real world” tabloid-life/drama surrounding its two separate leads, but it strives to be a commentary on the current state of cinema economics as it relates to the lack of oil in the dream factory cogs, so-to-speak.





In interpretative terms Lohan(‘s character) is effectively a stand-in for the current state of Schrader’s career. (S)He is trapped in a relationship where s/he has to do what the Money says and if she wants something from him/it, she must receive approval before doing it, or simply assume she should do it to maintain the situation of having “somebody to take care of me”. She has a former lover named Ryan (Nolan Funk), or in Schrader’s case named New American Cinema, that doesn’t make money anymore, so he isn’t more than a nostalgia trip, realistically. So, even though (s)he loves it/him, she confines herself to a performance of a relationship that involves sharing herself with other sexual partners (Schrader’s foreign & Kickstarter financial backers?) at her producer boyfriend’s will. Got it?

The Money, lovingly named after the preeminent socio-financial movement of the previous Millennium, Christian, (Deen’s character/Ellis’ attitude/the producers of every failed Schrader film) is so self-obsessed and lacking actual humanity/creativity that it/he merely does what it wants when it wants, lies when it needs to, and generally expects everyone and everything to go along with this because it is so obviously aware of its viably essential part in the hearts and minds of the heartless and mindless eco(nomic)system. If I cared enough to elaborate further (or make it a bit more coherent), this religious/cinematic metaphor probably plays much better than I am describing (this is Paul Schrader were talking about here), especially with the head-crushing obviousness of the beginning and ending stills of hollowed out movie theaters, like glimpses into some kind of empirically existent artistic apocalypse.


Lohan’s line, as featured prominently in the trailer, is aptly meta, where she asks in a rhetorically Schraderesque way: “Do you really like movies? When’s the last time you went to see a movie in a theatre? You know, a movie that you really thought meant something to you?” For the indoctrinated so-called cinephile like myself, who are fortunate to (at least currently) have a great University Cinema (surely existent only because of tax dollars and philanthropy), this very relevant cultural question may not personally apply quite much as of yet. Yet, for the rest of America and much of the so-called late-capitalist Globe, this is an important thing to ponder. Schrader, Ellis, and yes, even possibly Lohan (on an unconscious level, I suppose) are clearly positing a question: Why create art for the masses if they are going to download it from iTunes steal it and watch it on a tiny handheld screen while consuming it like so much detritus amongst the multitasking multitudes? Why bother producing/writing/acting in/directing a film at all, if everyone expects you to be awful in it or views it as a joke before it even starts? According to me these are questions you should be asking when watching this otherwise relatively conventional, digital motion-picture product. If you don’t, it might just be too boring (though I admit Deen holds what attention he can working within the strictures of his Ellis penned aw-shucks-sociopath).





IF this was Schrader or Lohan’s last film, I would say it is an apt closing “fuck you” to everyone. Travis Bickle or Patrick Bateman responded to their environments with violence. In this later, aged, though debatably more mature time, our younger (though arguably just as emotionally weathered) protagonist(s) has no outlet for escape. The institutional hegemony (here the Money/Hollywood/Deen’s character) has all the power. He/It must always be “in control”. And so we are, at least within the confines of this depiction of Hollywood, without hope. Yet, unlike a depiction of post-Vietnam or Reagan-era type despair, the options for rebellion now seem controlled by forces beyond individualist action. Schrader is clearly screaming under all the muted melodrama here that FILM IS DEAD. Not just the celluloid factories that physically produce the film stock, but the culture of inquisitiveness and cultural dialogue that projected it. And, of course, more essential to its creation, dead is the model for its self-sufficiency as an economic product (go see how easy it is to consume it without compensating the makers). Ellis has seemingly milked this type of post-defeatist attitude in his literary pursuits for decades. Schrader has always had a so-called outsider’s point-of-view of Cinema. Does this mean that we have to accept all this doom-and-gloom? Well, there is still Art being made. Some of it quite affecting and good. But if you think there’s a New-New American Cinema coming anytime soon, keep dreamin’ among the factory ruins. If anything, you may only be reading about it on the Internet and eventually succumb to stealing rather than hope Netflix will potentially license it for temporary streaming or that you can afford to pay for the luxury of cable channels that will make it available to temporarily rent in addition to your already exorbitant monthly bill. These are the thoughts that Schrader brings to the table: Put Lindsay Lohan in your picture, cut a trailer that (mis)appropriates your art as a properly objectified product and intentionally direct information to the media that plays up the kind of on-set antics an audience would need to expect to peak their interest. In other words, act like you’re making garbage and maybe people will flock to the smell. But, there can be interesting bits in every garbage can, if you are hungry enough to look.

canyons-marioncrane canyons-rearview



Compliance (2012)

Compliance is a disturbing film. Some critics are laughing at its ‘unbelievable’ plot, despite it being based on true, verifiable stories(obviously, don’t click if you do not want to know what happens in the film). I think these critics are missing the point (I would link to some, but I don’t want to single any one out in particular). It is not a story to be entertained by. The writer-director, Craig Zobel, is not wanting us to get lost in the story. We are supposed to be questioning the believability here. In our questions of “How could this ever happen?” or our flabbergasted exclamations of “There’s no way this would ever happen!”, we should be reminding ourselves: But it did happen. And go back to our original question.
It’s all there in the title: Compliance. Just as some people are programmed to never respond well to authority, others are the opposite. There are many people that would do whatever someone in authority tells them to do, because that is what they have been told is the right thing to do. And everyone wants to do the right thing (even if they don’t know what that actually is). This is backed up by countless examples like the infamous Stanley Milgram experiment. Society conditions subservience. After all, that is what civilization is: a collective reigning in of our individual base instincts and desires.

What makes this film so interesting is the way in which it leaves us to work all of this out for ourselves. Perhaps I am putting way too much onto the film myself that is not actually there in its construction. I would argue this is not the case, though. It is specifically framed in ways to prompt us to bring up these questions. However, it is only a questioning film for those in the audience that are prompted to question it. It is making its point by showing us our own predilections. If you say, “that could never happen”, then are you predisposed toward not being one of the characters in the story? Do I find this disturbing because I am one of those people who is more likely to blindly follow authority? I don’t think I am, but I wonder if there are less extreme situations where I have/have not done just that. For those that are so cynical as to laugh at the unbelievability of the situations, I wonder if some of these viewers are merely laughing at their own blindness; not being able to see the nuances of psychological control that are at work here. That may seem pretentious on my part to suggest this, but since these things actually did happen, one has to wonder why some people have such a strong negative reaction toward the film’s believability. There is a lot to not ‘enjoy’ about the picture, but I don’t expect to be entertained by everything I see. Sometimes a film makes me think. That is usually an indication that I will want to let people know about it. Because I allowed it to manipulate me into a state of contemplation. The difference here between this film and, say, primetime news or a non-fiction documentary, is that it is dramatized. We are predisposed toward empathy (and therefore emotional illogicalness) here. Like with his debut feature (Great World of Sound), Zobel gives us an underlying layer of emotional argument filtered through a documentary-like aesthetic. Though, most of the news is just like that nowadays too. Maybe a little more critical thinking in that arena might do us viewers some good too…


Jeff Who Lives at Home (2011)

I don’t write on this thing as much as I’d like. Truthfully, I really only pick movies I feel like writing about at the time, or, on the rare occasion, feel like I can articulate something worth reading. This is one of the former, I guess. The Duplass Brothers have something and I can’t quite articulate what that is (see above). Here I go failing to do that: They made The Puffy Chair for $15,000+ and showed a bit of it. They made this very similar film for around $10 million, but wrote a better script. I have seen all of their collaborations together and think that they are gradually becoming better filmmakers with each film. While their previous feature, Cyrus, may share the same fate as this one (meaning that it was hated by a lot of people who were either mislead by the trailer or thought it was going to be something it is not), these brothers are carving quite a quirky niche for themselves in developing awkward dramedies about people who see very little comedy in their own lives. Like the above-mentioned first feature, this film follows characters who may not learn much about their own lives (or the film just doesn’t go beyond that point to let us see it), but it serves to allow us as viewers to process our own relatability through the emotions they display throughout the story. Despite that ridiculously convoluted sentence (see what I mean about articulation?), these are simple stories with simple problems. Whether or not you like the films depends on whether that’s enough for you, I guess.

This is the story of two possibly-perceived-as-loser brothers who seemingly have no direction to their life. Jeff is a 30 year old man who looks for signs in everything (even in the movie Signs) to guide his stoner Buddha-like existence while living with his mother and apparently not doing much else (He is obviously the character Mark Duplass would play, if Jason Segel wasn’t available). His brother Pat is played by Ed Helms with a kind of seriocomic naiveté that removes nearly any ability to laugh at or with him (I’m not sure if this makes me like the performance more or less). He is a man in stereotypical 1/3-life crisis who can’t see the forest through the trees, or whatever metaphor you want to use for his lack of attention to his relationship with his wife (played well by a noticeably more raw than usual Judy Greer).

I feel like I’m getting into plot summary here and that is not my intent. The whole point of this movie is following the emotions of the characters and seeing where it unpredictably takes you. The Duplass Brothers say they are influenced most by documentary filmmaking. While this movie does not try to be like a documentary in form (like, say, The Office), it makes use of a DV aesthetic that allows them to focus on the actors rather than the visuals. This is not a movie with great shots or camera movement. In trying to find some stills to add to this post, I had some frustration with getting a decent static image from the lack of attention to character framing or the numerous readjustments of shot length in the middle of a scene. The Duplass Brothers do not seem to be interested in a conventional cinematic display (though they do show occasionally that they are capable of beautiful images of their actors). They simply choose to film the actors in the loosest way possible to capture the emotion they are going for. Mark Duplass has said that, while there is always a traditional script to work from, he prefers that actors improvise, make up their own dialogue, and do whatever works best for the story. This is one reason why they are getting more exposure, because there seem to be a lot of people that want to work with them






I was suprised by how much I enjoyed The Puffy Chair, a film that became one of the first to be labeled with that post-millennial moniker of “mumblecore“. I’ve written about this term before, so I’ll spare you my tirades on the breadth of difference between all these filmmakers that are lumped together under this ‘movement’. This film is especially different than those that I have seen in that it chooses to focus on the mother (Susan Sarandon), an older woman, as its main subplot and it has a final act that is markedly not like any of the others (spoilers withheld here and ahead).
I liked the ending of this movie. It worked for me. Other people will be disappointed, or perhaps even infuriated, based on their expectations coming into it. This is not a traditional comedy. Despite it starring two actors who are mostly known for comedic roles, this film is on the other side of the dramedy coin, so to speak. I like that. I do not need to laugh out loud, if the film is trying to do something else. I won’t try to presume that I can tell you what to feel that this movie is doing, but I have my own version of what that is. While I have some distance from the film now, when it was over I did think it was one the best films I have seen this year. It still is, but I know that’s a personal choice and nowhere near an objective one.


Caged (1950)

Despite being an multi-Academy Award nominated film (Screenplay Virginia Kellogg, Supporting Actress Hope Emerson, and Best Actress Eleanor Parker), this film has been relegated to the Cult Camp Classics label by Warner Brothers on DVD. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve had problems in the past with the “camp” signifier, especially for films not necessarily intended as such. Though this apparently was originally envisioned as a Bette Davis/Joan Crawford vehicle to be titled The Big Cage (according to IMDB), I don’t see much of that carrying over in its finished incarnation (though imagining Davis as the inmate and Crawford as the warden, or vice-versa, makes me want to see that movie!). There are plenty of moments of heightened acting in this film, and the most blatant Sapphic references of probably any Hollywood picture of its time, but it seems to play it quite straight most of the time. Maybe some of the more sober moments come out of give-and-take rewrites with the studio over its wavering morality messages? This is a picture that aims to depict the seediness in the Women’s Prison, while introducing the idea of needed reform. Though, I noticed with interest how blatantly the film suggests that a lack of progress in this area comes specifically from a divide in gender. Men hold the power and they are ignorant of its uses and abuses. While its Prison Matron Harper is portrayed as a corrupt power hog, indoctrinated into the male idea of abusive punishment as a kind of reinforced subservience, Agnes Moorehead‘s Warden Benton fights for a more humane approach to reform and rehabilitation (that I suppose can be coded ‘feminine’, since it is the marginalized one?). It is a clichéd dichotomy at this point, though I don’t know how novel it was for the genre at the time. The interesting part is the defeatist attitude the picture allows of itself. The coda to the film, while functioning as a bit of a Code-inspired justice tag, paints a rather bleak picture of the Warden’s progressive mindset. Bottom line: It is a borderline B-picture, but a B-picture elevated by the talent involved.




IMDB points out that Eleanor Parker’s role here is the tenth that John Cromwell directed to a Best Actress nomination. Though I haven’t seen much of her work (and when I have, like in The Sound of Music, I didn’t know who she was), she is clearly an interesting ingenue. I think I first admired her in The Man With the Golden Arm (in which she is crazily magnificent) and later in The Naked Jungle (a decent Charlton Heston action-adventurer that the last Indiana Jones film stole its ‘ant scene’ from). She is clearly over-the-top in some scenes, but even here her performance is spectacularly accomplished. It all serves the material and the film is better for the presence she brings to it. And not just because of the ‘haircut scene’. I wonder whether her or Cromwell might have seen Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (I’m not sure how available it was before being discovered in that Norwegian Mental Ward closet in 1981). It’s been a few days now since I’ve seen this film, and I am still impressed (which is why I felt compelled to write something about it).

People frequently use the phrase that some films are ‘tame for today’s standards’ as some sort of pejorative qualifier, but you really cannot compare these pre-Method/pre-New Hollywood films with more contemporary ‘realistic’ acting. It is a continuum that has to be looked at in context (which is why it peeves me to no end when certain people complain about early Method actors looking ‘fake’). I guess my point is not that Parker is rivaling Method-like-ness innovation, but that her approach here is so above the need of the film. She (and her quasi-noirish direction) carry this film into an eminent watchability, that I would hope is more appealing to those less inclined to watch these so-called period pictures. I liked the fact that this really seems to have been intended as a “woman’s picture” more than an exploitation film. Films like Caged Heat or Chained Heat obviously came later. I found myself wanting to compare this to something like the Cagney picture Each Dawn I Die (an earlier, higher-budgeted WB male prison drama, granted with a more narratively complex story). I haven’t seen Ida Lupino in Women’s Prison, but that might be where to go from here…though I can’t expect there will be better lines than “Thanks for the haircut” or “Pile out you tramps, it’s the end of the line”….

The Ides of March (2011)

One of the first things I thought as the credits were rolling was ‘This must be Clooney’s definitive answer on why he says he will never run for political office’.
Based on Farragut North, a play by co-screenwriter Beau Willimon, the film revolves around the political campaign of a Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) during a well contested Democratic Presidential Primary in Ohio. Though Clooney has less screen time than some theatergoers may like, he purposefully embodies the recent ideals of his Party (with some clever nods to actual policy that should perhaps be in the public dialogue currently). The plot spends most of its focus on up-and-coming political advisor Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) who has to balance his loyalty to the campaign with his loyalty to the cause it/he is fighting for among a variety of players in and around the campaign. To say anymore would be verging into spoiling the particulars. Suffice to say, decisions are made and consequences are had.
However, this film is really about the the dichotomy between personal and public integrity. What makes a candidate worthy of office, or rather, what makes him or her unworthy? I came out of this film thinking about things that anyone with a brain for politics has surely pondered before, but they are ideas no less relevant for the film them bringing up again in our recent political climate (where many are dissatisfied with the choices on either “side” of the spectrum). The film asks you to consider situations where you have to personally judge whether, as they say, the ends justify the means. Leadership is needed, even from fallible people.
Like most films in which Philip Seymour Hoffman is a supporting actor, his character (the senior political advisor) spells out the moral core of the film: Trust and loyalty are paramount in a business where everything is played for political spin. If you can’t trust someone, they have to go. Like Gosling’s character says another in the film: ‘This is the big leagues. If you make a mistake, you’ve lost the right to play the game’. Yet, there are ways to try to play the game against itself.

I’m writing in generalities, again, because I don’t want to spoil the impact of the specific drama of the film (even though it should not seem unique at all). However, like with his previous Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney may be expecting you to go beyond to film and question its place in our current political/social reality. This is where the weight of the picture comes in.
Does a John Edwards or an Anthony Weiner really deserve to “lose the game” for their individual indiscretions (or keep going back in time for countless examples)? Keeping in mind the future that they could have achieved in/for the Party? On one hand they could have had the personal responsibility to simply not do the things they did (or at least have people around them keep them from being exposed), but on the other are these really things that keep these public figures from being trustworthy leaders in executing policy for the national interest?
I do not wish to take a “side” here, I’m simply pointing out that the answer isn’t as easy as you might think it is/was. If you feel like you already have a definitive answer to that question, this movie might not be for you. If you don’t, it isn’t going to answer it for you. I like it that way.
From a comparative standpoint this film really isn’t any better than a more excellently lensed and scored epsiode of The West Wing, but it is better than almost everything else at the cineplex right now. A mental Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, if you will….


Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

I am writing about this movie because I am a huge fan of the original series (which is also why I went to see it on opening day). I also hated the Tim Burton film with a vengeance. I guess writing about it will probably get me more hits on this site too, since I tend to just write about randomly seen films most of the time. The short of it is that I was not disappointed. In fact I might even go as far as to say that its the best possible summer movie I could have hoped for.
The previews showcase the motion-capture developed by WETA over the human acting and I suppose that’s a good thing. The ape actors (blended/disguised with CGI) are actually billed above the human actors in the closing credits. I was afraid James Franco looked too wooden in the trailer. His acting seemed a bit comparatively narcoleptic at times, but it really is not distracting within the context of the film (maybe he was trying for some sort of cohabitation with the visual effect acting, who knows). I would love to see some raw footage of Andy Serkis performing Caesar without the VFX. When Avatar came out I half-joked that I would have preferred watching the raw footage compiled into some sort of avant-garde performance piece. James Cameron‘s film had its moments of believability (aside from the quality of the storytelling), but it was too grandiose, and, well, alien, for the emotional connection to really work for me. This film is a bit more morally complex as well. It deftly moves us away from Franco’s scientist to Caesar as the protagonist of the film, where we end up, in a way, rooting against our own species. The film really pulls you into the mindset of the non-human characters; several of the apes have distinctive personalities and character traits that rise above mere digital animation. The animal rendering, especially in motion, has come a long way since Congo, that’s for sure. At least we can be assured that people will not forget this film come Oscar season in regard to visual effects.

I enjoyed Rupert Wyatt‘s first feature, The Escapist, and was glad to see his ability to balance the emotional element with the spectacle. A lot of this film, especially toward the end, is conveyed purely cinematically without any kind of expositional interference. The human supporting cast all fulfill their purpose rather well, though I think the film would have been stronger if it combined some of the characters. The Brian Cox and Tom Felton characters could have easily been the same person. Freida Pinto‘s could have been given a little more to do other than serve as the unheeded foreshadower who seems to forget her own warning and fall into ‘the girlfriend’ role. John Lithgow is, as usual, as good as he can be with such a small part (adding much needed undisplayed motivation for Franco’s character). David Oyelowo is in the film far less than I expected/hoped and some of the scenes at the Gene-Sys lab do feel badly rushed, even though some are meant to be this way (his character is always moving or at least standing).

Storywise, the film is a version of the verbal story told in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (my personal favorite of the series) about how Caesar came to be and how he started an uprising that led to revolution. Though, it does change/condense this considerably. There are many subtle (and not-so-subtle) references to the original series (my favorite being the Statue of Liberty toy that Caesar briefly plays with in one scene). This film, however, stands alone from the original series. There is a good interview with the screenwriters here that outlines the development of the film. I will refrain from spoilers, but suffice to say, it is not remaking any of the other existing films. I suppose ‘reboot’ is a more appropriate classification, assuming another film will even be made (hopefully so). Speculation already abounds about a one particular piece of television footage shown in the film involving a manned shuttle to Mars….




I do hope this film makes some money, despite the apparent lack of proper Summer Movie Marketing behind it. It delivers enough action to warrant being labeled a “Summer Movie” (probably a wise decision by Fox to bump it up from its original Thanksgiving release date), but it also delivers a bit more story with it. However, the film does shy away from the past series’ allegorical slant (Conquest was clearly intended, as Paul Dehn has attested, to be seen as a possible commentary on the Black Power movement of the time). I suppose there are environmental aspects that the film may be advocating in the background. The California Redwoods play a prominent role, clearly being suggested as a sanctuary of Nature that is portrayed as some sort of place divided from our badly shiny modern civilization. I’m not exactly sure what the film is trying to say, if anything, here. And, again, without spoiling anything, I was left with a confused sense of what we were supposed to expect was going to happen after the film ended. Though, the coda after the credits start does give some obvious indication of what will be happening, it doesn’t indicate what will become of it. And that, of course, is where a second film comes in…and there is nothing tacked on at the very end of the credits to suggest any sort of commitment by Fox to another film. We’ll have to see what the money says, I guess (especially in the coming weeks after it opening relatively well). Until then, I hope to get a chance to check out James Marsh‘s thematically related Project Nim documentary coming out soon….


The Way Back (2010)

This will be short. I just want to point out this movie that got lost in the award season release schedule and is now finally on DVD. Though, this is the kind of epic, on-location type movie that should be seen on a big screen, if possible. This is also, sadly, the type of movie that just isn’t made that often anymore. Peter Weir managed to scrape together enough to get this made from various sources (National Geographic even threw in some money).
This seems like the type of film that would be a great supplement to reading the story first. Based on The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz, this film triumphs in its attempts at realism (earning its well deserved, though only, Oscar nomination for Best Makeup).
The international, ensemble cast is marvelous with Jim Sturgess and Ed Harris leading, along with Saorise Ronan and Colin Farrell (with yet another surprisingly good supporting performance). The plot concerns the journey taken after a Gulag prison break.
My one complaint is that, with this movie only being slightly over 2 hours, it is much more fragmented in its editing than I would have liked. Despite the lack of changing narrative (it is a fairly linear journey, at least geographically), it could have easily been a half hour longer. And, if you are one for uber-realism, it might be hard to take that Bulgaria stands in for Siberia and Morroco for Mongolia. But the landscapes still look amazing.
The Gulag part of the film really could have been its own feature-length film, but really takes less than 1/4 of the running time. As Weir says, it is all about “the journey”. Definitely worth taking, if you are familiar with Weir’s past adventure tales or just like a good visual story…











Taxi Driver (1976)

I had the privilege of seeing the new restoration of Taxi Driver projected in Digital 4K at an actual theater with Paul Schrader in attendance this past weekend, so I figured it might be worth writing a bit about here. Schrader stayed for a Q&A, as well as a more general forum the following day and gave me quite a bit to think about.
I had not seen the film in years and did not really remember enough to form a coherent thought about it from before. I saw it when I was quite younger, yet I am too young to have seen it in its original release and context. Part of the discussion revolved around its 35 year history and how it has come to take its place in the pantheon of ‘great 1970’s American Cinema’; a time where the so-called New American Cinema, which included such new ‘film-school directors’ as Martin Scorsese, began a short lived era of newly found creative freedom from the Studio system who were eager to capitalize on the growing, yet hard-to-understand youth market.
After a strict Calvinist upbringing that apparently kept him from seeing a film until he was a teenager, Schrader started a career as a film critic, a self-professed protege of Pauline Kael, who veered into screenwriting and then directing. His first solo screenplay was Taxi Driver, after only co-writing The Yakuza with his brother Leonard (which was apparently one of the highest selling scripts of all-time, at the time). It is a story he claims came about as a means of “mental therapy” for the “dark place” he was entering in his life. Schrader confessed that he is very much drawn to character-driven, confined pieces (in comparing himself to Scorsese, with his penchant for broad canvases, sweeping over an ensemble of characters and setups, Schrader prefers to focus on drilling at one particular pinpoint of one particular skull within that canvas, if I’m remembering the metaphor correctly). Taxi Driver is very much a film about a guy confined inside his own space, working out (or rather not working out) his own mortality.

Whether you have seen the film or not, you have no doubt heard of its lead character Travis Bickle, or at least seen a clip of Robert De Niro‘s infamous “You talkin’ to me?” monologue. This is the stuff of film history, forever imprinted on the cultural consciousness. But what exactly is it all about?
I don’t think I could properly answer that question, at least not in a way that has not already been covered by entire books devoted to the subject. I just think it’s worth remembering that every film that reaches such levels of exposure has its context evolutionarily shifted outside of it and its authors control. Schrader approached this point in responses to questions about Travis Bickle’s anti-hero type status on the culture (from his likeness being co-opted as “punk” to his comparisons to real-life terrorists (mostly of the pre-9/11 variety). Schrader was adamant that this character is a psychopath. He is not to be sympathized with (he kept the references to Vietnam to a minimum in part because of this; he did not want people to use this as a rationalization for the character’s behavior). The original character was apparently also much more overtly racist (all the people killed in that scene were intended to be African-American). Schrader made a case that he saw the characterization being racist as being different than the film being racist, but Columbia Pictures appropriately differed with this view and required otherwise.

Schrader has had 35 years to answer questions relating to Travis Bickle, so I take it that he would have expounded a bit if he had some sort of ambivalent identification with the character. Schrader acknowledges that the character comes from both his own creative inner musings and from what he had read about real-life figures like Arthur Bremer (though he claims to not have read his diaries until after writing some of the narration and being surprised at how accurately he mimicked the writing style).
He did touch a bit upon the idea of the “glory in death” that is symbolized by the mohawk that Bickle changes to at that particular moment in the film that he has given himself over to his own evil. Though this could have come from the character’s background as a combat solider (though again this is never expounded upon within the film), Schrader made the obvious, retrospective link to his latter interest in and film biography of Yukio Mishima (which comes from a completely different cultural context, but perhaps shares some similarity in their grandiose/delusional? ideas of ritualized performance).

As another completely unrelated piece of trivia, Tony Bill, a producer who would eventually leave the project, originally pushed for Jeff Bridges as Travis Bickle, because of his previous involvement with the actor. Neither Schrader or Scorsese thought Bridges could pull off such a performance at the time. Scorsese originally wanted Harvey Keitel to play Travis, because he was much more intimate with him than De Niro at that point. Scorsese was eventually convinced otherwise, obviously.

One of the most interesting things Schrader said about the film was his belief that it works as a kind of “evil loop” both structurally and thematically. It starts with the shot of a taxi driver plowing through the smoke-filled streets and ends with the same. Schrader referred to it as a “metal coffin” floating through the decay of the world. Being a self-proscribed “Midwesterner”, Schrader attributes the ethereal filmed New York setting entirely to Scorsese and seemed to not entirely articulate (or even grasp) its importance as a character/setting here (especially in comparison retrospectively to today). The “metal coffin” remark makes me think of the narrative indebtedness to Ancient myth, though this could have been more simply culled from something like Jean Cocteau‘s Orpheus.
Almost every scene is seen through or from Travis’ unreliable viewpoint. Scorsese had Schrader write two additional scenes without Bickle, one between Albert Brooks and a campaign advisor in a hotel room (which was later cut) and the one between Sport (Harvey Keitel) and Iris (Jodie Foster) in the bedroom when he keeps her from leaving him. Schrader hated both of these scenes because they did not adhere to narrative structure.
While there is that question of a skewed perspective through the eyes of the unreliable narrator, Schrader was also insistent that the epilogue to the film was entirely realistic. It is not a dream or some sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy. While he acknowledges that it is obviously ironic in its intention, Schrader says that Travis is no longer interested in Betsy (Cybil Shepard) because he will simply “find another one” and “start all over”. The cycle will presumably continue he gets caught and/or dies.

There’s not much analysis here on my part. I guess I just wanted to get across the thoughts that Schrader put out there for the crowd. Taxi Driver is a film that he included in his own attempt a few years ago at putting together a cohesive film canon in the great piece of writing “Canon Fodder” for Film Comment that can be found, along with much of his other writing, on his personal website.
Schrader seemed very soberly pessimistic about the current state of American film financing (meaning there is no money in the U.S. to be had these days for films many of us are interested in). I’m not sure if I’m quoting or paraphrasing, but he said something to the effect of: “Hollywood doesn’t make dramas anymore. It doesn’t do character-based films”. Spectacle (3D or otherwise) and broad comedy is all that is expected to make money, so that is what is produced. He frequently reminded us all that technology is making the old way of making, distributing, and viewing movies obsolete. Though, he is in no way against incorporating new technology (in forgetting to bring the DVD of his ten minute showreel of film clips, he showed a downloaded version from his phone). It’s just that, with the proliferation of choices out there that this technological revolution has brought, no one has figured out a proper revenue model to pay for the quantity of quality product that could rival something like the “New American Cinema” these days. Looking around at the beautiful new theater in which his film was just projected (in 4K digital no less), Schrader deliberately remarked: “This is so twentieth century”….

Paul Schrader is currently awaiting scheduling and finalized funding (“from the Latin market”) to come together for The Jesuit that he hopes will star Edgar Ramirez (‘if he can get him’) and frequent collaborator Willem Dafoe. Prompted from my own question, he will hopefully be following this with Xtreme City, a “Bollywood American Gigolo” that currently has interest from Shah Rukh Khan and Leonardo DiCaprio (with Martin Scorsese in a producer capacity). Schrader explained the complicated courtship of Khan (co-writing the script with a relative of his who wrote his upcoming RA. One). Schrader doesn’t think DiCaprio will choose this project, as he has many other more lucrative offers to choose from. However, SRK has apparently agreed entrust the American casting decision to the filmmakers (which he would normally have control over before accepting). I’d like to see a masala crossover film and Schrader would certainly bring an interesting perspective to what one usually expects from Mumbai…


Somewhere (2010)

Initially, I watched Somewhere and just did not like it. I thought, hey, this movie is BORING. There is nothing happening here. And what little that does is basically solipsistic, self-referential, whiny Hollywood bullshit. Though, I also understand that this is what the surface of this movie is about. The characters are not supposed to be relatable and dynamically interesting. I guess it is too easy to focus on the Hollywood aspect of the story and not realize this is a simply a film about a man who seemingly has everything but is nothing (or maybe it’s the other way around). I get that Coppola is not interested in making a film that builds to some sort of obvious, onscreen emotional catharsis. To that I say, I guess I think that maybe this movie just wasn’t for me. But having seen it a week ago, I still keep thinking about it. And that is the mark of a film that has something. Even if you can’t actually figure it out. So, I guess I’m ambivalent about it.

After reading A.O. Scott’s glowing review I could appreciate some of the things I could not quite articulate on my own. I definitely, retrospectively, see the grasping at Antonioni (or even Fellini) that is going on with its Italian influence. And I never doubted Harris Savides‘ always amazing cinematography.
I wonder if I have a weakness for not recognizing accomplished formalism. Or maybe, like the majority of the planet, just instinctually know when some formal exercises are excuses for a lack of emotional depth (edit: that sounds more harsh than I meant).

For those that want to/do not know, this movie revolves around a seemingly well known movie-star named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), hanging out at the Chateau Marmont in-between movies, who ends up spending some time with his eleven-year old daughter (Elle Fanning) who he admittedly has not been around for very much. This man does nothing much more than drive his Ferrari, smoke, drink, eat, (try to) have sex, play video games, and generally narcolepse through his time on screen. While this comes off as nearly as unappealing as I am insinuating, and we certainly do not need anymore indulgences into the realm of celebrity in this culture, it must be said that this is not necessarily such an easy thing to act. This is a film drama, after all, and not some reality show. Stephen Dorff should be commended for committing to such a subtle performance (a subtlety that should not be confused with a wealth of rich background, but rather one that is intentionally unobvious in its emotiveness). The interactions with the daughter are the only scenes that create any semblance of narrative. One assumes that the man is learning something about himself as he realizes his part in the life of this girl who is more mature than him, yet retains some sort of quasi-innocence that he has long since forgotten. Part of my problem with this film is that these interactions lead nowhere for the viewer me. We are meant to piece together a conception of this man and this girl and make suppositions about their character in ways that are devoid of any actual diagetic substance. Everything important happens before and after the film. Yet, I doubt some sort of conventional exposition or flashback structure would fit with the style of this film.

My initial reaction was that this film would perhaps benefit from a more well-known “celebrity” playing the part, all the better for a level of meta-interest. Having thought about it more, I still would have preferred this (though I concede that this is clearly not the point of the film). Part of why Lost in Translation worked so well is that it had the image of Bill Murray to play with. I would love to know if Coppola wanted someone (else) specifically for the lead role. This is not a slight on Dorff’s characterization. I just think that the film would be completely different (for good or bad) with a different actor propelling the whole of it.
I’m not sure if that makes me a hypocrite or a staunch proponent of meta-acting.

Sofia Coppola definitely has her own slant on filmmaking, one that she has surely, consciously developed in her forging a name adjacent to her family film dynasty. Yet, I can’t help but think that this reliance on formal, visual “poetry” eschewing traditional narrative cinema is a crutch that is used to distance herself from that very dynasty. But, what do I know.
If I was any kind of cineaste, I would have used this space to analyze the ways in which her film echoes the same kind of “film grammar” of a L’Avventura or meta-commentary of a La Dolce Vita. Though, I just don’t see the point. Maybe that’s nostalgia clouding things. Or maybe it is my lack of understanding of the complexity of (celebrity) ennui. There is neither a consistent atmospheric construction of mood (like with of the best parts of Marie Antoinette) or a coherent exploration of the characters’ environment here, that I can see/feel.

There is no ending, only an attempt at a new beginning left under-imagined. That is how I felt when this picture was over. Underwhelmed not with its lack of imagination, but with its under imagination. Then again, maybe that’s my fault (since plenty of people are applauding this very same “European minimalism”). Though not necessarily a step backwards (if we want to be totally auteurist about it), perhaps her next film will be a step forward and not a step sideways as it is here.


Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958)

In conjunction with The Lambs in the Director’s Chair #12 focus on Edward D. Wood, Jr., I give you an old essay I wrote in 2001. If it reads like a school assignment, that’s because it was (it references two texts; an essay by two sociologists named Paul Lazarsfeld and R.K. Merton called “Mass Communication, Popular Taste, and Organized Social Action” and a noted Film Comment article from July/August 1980 by J. Hoberman entitled “Bad Movies”). I include this here, because I don’t think I could really come up with anything better to write about the film right now (I assume others will be comparing it with the Tim Burton faux-biopic or mentioning various players, including Bela Lugosi and his unfinished part in the film).

Plan 9 from Outer Space has been popularly conferred status as the worst movie of all time, which, strangely enough, legitimizes an heightened status of acceptance in the culture. One would think that if a film really was bad enough to be the worst of all time, that not very many people would want to see it. There are a countless number of “bad movies” that very few people have seen. So, why does Plan 9 continue to be hailed the worst when it continues to gain satisfied viewers? Despite it being a bad (or even the worst) film, people watch it anyway, with this “cultural signifier” placed upon it, and it becomes, like any cult film, something to be judged apart from all those mainstream movies (that, curiously enough, may begin to seem nearly just as bad).
It is this “status conferral function” that Lazarsfeld and Merton (L&M, 20) articulate that makes Plan 9 stand out so much from all those other “bad movies” that nobody usually wishes to see. Only because Plan 9 has received a significant “mechanism of public exposure” (L&M, 21), creating a sense of curiosity as a film to see (because it’s just so bad?), does its status cross over from a set of limited, individual “private attitudes” to a more widespread “public morality” (morality, in this sense, meaning a matter of public taste) (L&M, 22). Plan 9 becomes more than just one of those films-that-no- one-has-heard-of that you watch for laughs, because you happened on it by chance. The film has been inserted into the cultural landscape, acting as a kind of threat to the “social norms” of what the mass-audience considers “good” cinema.

The “cult film” is, in a sense, a form of “counterpropaganda” against the “monopolization” (L&M, 27) of (Classical) Hollywood filmmaking. Plan 9 would, supposedly, never be confused with even the worst of Hollywood films – so its inherent difference signifies to the viewer what is not a part of the mainstream monopoly, and therefore what is not a part of the “conformist culture”. It is this identification with non-conformity and something Other than the so-called “good” of Hollywood that a (re-)viewer of Plan 9 identifies with.
However (according to the 1948 mindset of Lazarsfeld and Merton), the so-called cult-media does not pose any kind of applicable threat to the “social and cultural structure,” for the same reason that they argue the mainstream monopoly does not affect change: “locally organized centers for face-to-face contact has seldom been achieved in groups striving for social change” (L&M, 30). Part of the “fun” in one’s support of a non-conformist, cult cinema is in its minority status as the aesthetic Other. “Bad” cult films would no longer have their “special status” (and the majority of them would presumably be re-discarded as “bad”), if they were incorporated into a more even mass-cultural significance with the mainstream monopoly of Hollywood films. [Edit: This may be one of the many reasons Hollywood is compelled to remake films like these, rather than re-release them to a wider audience. To allow the original film to dominate would constitute a shift in hegemonic power from the established system, which only happened briefly in the age of New Hollywood and, arguably, with the rise and eventual co-opting of Independent Cinema in the ’90s.]
What J. Hoberman terms an “objectively bad” film (Hoberman, 13), something that is deemed bad beyond personal taste (which, assumedly, is subjective), serves a social function that has a greater potential impact than Lazarsfeld or Merton imagined. One could say, as Hoberman argues, that Plan 9 acts, unknowingly, as a kind of cultural critique of mainstream, “good” cinema (and therefore, mainstream, “good” culture?). If a film is “objectively bad,” and must relentlessly draw one’s attention away from its absurd plot (Hoberman, 15), then one may be inclined to look for things within the film that are not superficially part of the intended viewing experience at all. It seems that Hoberman is insinuating that “objectively bad” movies have the potential to turn anyone into a film critic.
Simply because Wood’s delivery of his message is so badly executed, one may be more readily compelled to listen to his (conflicted) attempt at a socially relevant, anti- nuclear technology moral. Wood provides an extremely non-conformist (perhaps even radical) view in the ending dialogue between Jeff, the human aeroplane pilot, and Eros, the alien commander. Jeff  “stupidly” wonders, “So what if we were to develop this solaranite bomb? We’d be even a stronger nation than now.” Wood seems to be suggesting, through the more intelligent alien’s overdramatic response of “Your stupid minds. stupid stupid!,” that ideological nationalism is just that – plain “stupid”. In this horribly acted, “bad” movie scene, Wood can be interpreted to be effectively criticizing mainstream Cold War ideology; he is stating that the nuclear arms race is a product of “ancient juvenile minds” (of course, Wood may have overlooked the fact that these same minds, like his own, also make films). The sympathetic Colonel reinforces this ‘stupid is as stupid does’ mantra of humanity in the last line, agreeing, after the alien ship is destroyed by a human-started, “stupid” fire, that “they’re far ahead of us” (I can’t help but think if the U.S. Military really had a “dichtolobator”; “a machine that breaks down any language to our own,” that communication with the Soviets could have been a lot more peaceful and non-threatening, though if we couldn’t use it properly with the aliens, then I guess it wouldn’t have worked with the Soviets either).

As usual, in an Ed Wood scenario fraught with technical mistakes and conflicted dialogue, one cannot help but think about how he missed an opportunity to do something better; how he screwed something up –  though, this seems to be precisely the point that Hoberman is making –  if it was not this “bad,” you would not have thought about it all. The seamless narrative execution of (the majority of) mainstream films expects the viewer to forgo this experience of thinking about the cinema, in favor of escaping into the story. Despite Hoberman’s disdain for the Medveds, their playing a part in popularizing “bad” films by the likes of Ed Wood only further serve toward getting that much closer to proving Lazarsfeld and Merton wrong. When “bad movies” can compete for viewership with mainstream films (especially with the explosion of video and DVD), the “untutored audience for the arts” (L&M, 25) may begin to have an outlet for developing critical, cinematic thought.
However, it must be granted that all of this possible interpretative and critical thought that Hoberman says can be gained from “bad movies”; postmodernly narrowing the boundary between “trash art” and “high art” (if one is to assume that the function of  “high art” is to inspire thought) is an expression (and sadly, an ability) of only a minority of film viewers. Hoberman’s assumption that a film has to be “objectively bad” for a viewer to look beyond its surface appearance is also a bit suspect. One would assume that this “genius” of “bad movies” would transfer to mainstream films as well. Is it only certifiably “bad,” non-commercially successful films that provoke thought rather than, say, boredom (Is this because one assumes the film will be bad before viewing it?)? If the ordinary mainstream theater-going viewer sees something like, say, Batman & Robin – knowing full and well that it is, objectively, a big piece of cinematic crap – can one get the same benefit as one would get with Plan 9?  I have no idea where this is going now, so I will stop.

featured Short film (9 min)

Blue Shining (Richard Vezina, 2015)

great scene from a great film

Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)

June 2023