Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In Defense of Interrogation

The last three times I've mentioned that I have Blindness--Fernando Meirelles' 2008 adaption of the José Saramago novel--in my netflix queue, I've received variations of "didn't that go straight to video?" Well no, and in fact, I wish I'd seen it in the theater. There are a few disgusting choices in this movie as well as an intriguing expression of a familiar idea. There's something to be said about Blindness; we cannot stop at the surface, the surface, the surface.

Its plot charges through what happens when All Of A Sudden (!) everybody starts to go blind, epidemic-style. Of course "The Government" has to quarantine folks and of course that means things quickly shape up to Lord Of the Flies dimensions and of course our protagonists (Julianne Moor's cheekbones be poppin' and Mark Ruffulo oddly still pulls off Cute) navigate toward a new freedom. I'll account for the above sass by spelling it out: Yes, yes indeed well-read critics, here the movie sits contentedly with the trite. Blindness' plot serves up the apocalypse and when we feel the film using well-worn tactics, it might be frustrating, boring, or downright painful.

But here's something, I didn't want to watch just another bad movie about the fragility of humanity, so I didn't. Which is not to say that that cliché is not in motion here or that every film is just what we make it--I see the narrative stilts Blindness depends upon; I hear its corny lines; I don't emotionally comprehend a whole lot of the character motivation and I find the pacing of this project (either a crawl or a sprint) to be at odds with its goals--but with a case like this, my favorite people in the world do at least two things that was Rarely done in the critical reception of Blindness; they probe their discomfort or boredom enough to see if there's anything substantial at its roots and, with that accomplished, they ceaselessly look for the best or the most provocative emanations that the object, individual, or artwork has to offer. This isn't about obsessive interpretation nor is it about finding a way to straight praise, it's about seeing the world with an eye toward productivity and construction. It's about wanting to learn so badly that it becomes possible to acknowledge the things that we find dumb and the things that bore us, acknowledge why this is so, and work to push past them and to find something real to talk about. It's true, some films make this critical aspiration nearly impossible or, when exercised, sound naive and altruistic, but Blindness is not that film. With Blindness, it feels at once dangerous and boring to let certain lines in this cinematic drawing go unexamined. It feels dangerous and boring to stop at the surface.

The film's lack of plausibility is not just a disappointment; the lack of comprehensible character motivation isn't just an annoying narrative failure; the empty valor and villainy thrown on characters isn't just silly. These aren't clichés to be bored by, but choices that prove problematic in the most terrifying and grotesque scene in the film. Oddly, nobody I've read says much of anything about the mass-rape scene lying in the dark center of this movie and, I think quite astonishingly, nobody even mentioned that it either shook them from their bored disposition or embodied their complaints with the film. The omission of the rape crime from the "critical" "discourse" (excuse the snarky quotes, but actually don't, just embrace them, thanks) around this film is strange; it seems only natural that the shortcomings of a film would become most apparent in the scene where the stakes are highest and, with Blindness--a movie with a lot of feces and crying and potential treachery, but very little actual violence--the stakes are highest (or the film asks the most of us) when, in explicit detail, eight women are brutally raped and beaten, leaving one woman dead. Here, the film is careless. Importantly, it's not the inclusion of a violent rape scene that I find so offensive--perhaps Saramago's novel pulls it off--but the reliance on action-movie tropes and the clichés of the Lord Of The Flies genre. When you're asking a viewer to watch gratuitous violence and torture, issues of plausibility, character and plot development, and the use of Hollywood/genre cliché become more prescient. What comes off in other scenes as something to scoff at here seems downright irresponsible, leaving (apparently only) this viewer wondering, "Wait why am I watching that terrified woman get screamed at, fucked, and punched to death with all the anger and force her male aggressor can muster?" Here's where it seems to really matter that I found the plot progression--often forced into awkward time lapse/montage sequences composed of visual queues that point at emotional impact without actually achieving it--unconvincing. In this scene it becomes important that the film seems to justify its movements by lazily relying on the audience's cultural cache of Apocalypse/Anarchy genre cliché instead of reinventing and freshly articulating the problems and motivations. We do not know the characters (both rapists and women) deep enough to understand how and why they are making these immense choices (the women "choose" to be raped because they are bartering for food) nor do we know them in a cursory, nameless, apocalyptic fable sort of way which would allow the film to completely abandon the story at hand in favor of a larger allegory. Instead, the film asks us to take these people and their choices seriously while giving us no depth of reason to believe them. It asks us to open up to and allow the most brutal of rape scenes to unfold, with the loudest justification being, "this is just what happens in these types of stories." To make matters worse, by the happy ending of the movie, we're shown three of these women's bodies showering, giggling, calling each other beautiful in all their carefree, sexy glory. Instead of cracking jokes about the cheeseball-factor of happy puppies and cleansing rains at the end of the film, maybe we could take seriously the idea of empty redemption and how that rears a particularly ugly head when we're asked to voyeuristically (framed either as if we're looking through a window or standing back in a dark room and looking through a distant door and stealing glimpses of bare, wet breasts) look upon the naked bodies that were so brutalized previously.

Consider me impressed that peoeple would rather whip out their quips and talk about the size of their yawns than touch this terrifying scene and its aftermath, which seemed to exemplify many of the criticisms pingponging around the film's reception.

I'd like to push my larger point--that there's no time for snarky bullshit when a film holds things (there's almost always something!) to unravel--from another angle.

As you may or probably don't know, this blog is turned on by light, which is to say, films that play with it, make it dance, shut it all the way out or drench a world in it--these films most definitely tickle What Is This Light's fancy. This fascination with light-tricks is (often) a facet of a larger love for cinema speaking on cinema, of formal and narrative self-referentiality whereby a film uses its medium to say something about its medium. Also in this self-reflexive category: concepts of seeing, blindness, and virtually any formal or narrative concept that draws comparison between extradiegetic actions and diegetic actions. This self-referentiality was part of cinema from its starting blocks around the world, became more complicated with the arrival of modernism in film, and grew more abstract as permutations of this cinematic modernism emerged. From this lineage we get not only things like Man With a Movie Camera (1929) or Haji Agha, The Cinema Actor (1933), but also all those New Waves around the world, and Rear Window's binoculars and Blow Up's camera, and Sunset Boulevard, and Caden Cotard and Esther Kahn's (astonishingly different) wills to experience through imitation. It's a rich and deep and sprawling history, one in which I see Blindness operating with intention and invention.

Enter Ben Polk, who said it best:
"I actually found Meirelles' dark, disorienting visual style appropriate and really powerful. The film's overwhelming whiteouts and blackouts, its chaotic closeups, the darkness and blur on the frame's periphery all serve to undermine our (the viewers') trust in our own vision (a fairly ballsy step for a filmmaker, I'd say) and allow us to share the characters' claustrophobic, radically unstable perceptual experience. Much of the film's power centers on explorations of this experience. There are moments of incredible delicacy, as characters grope and stumble through space or desperately reach for each other. And there are moments of suspense and even real horror as we share in their profound, frantic lostness.

So let me suggest, then, that blindness is neither symbol nor metaphor but the very subject of the film itself."

To continue in this vein, I felt this movie drawing a peculiar connection between the viewer and on-screen action. These people suffer from a "white sickness," a blindness of overexposure as compared to the dark universe usually portrayed. As Ben describes, this gives birth to a certain dark and bright aesthetic of confusion. I think this looks good but I also love the way this aesthetic operates; we don't watch the action unfold around these people as a normally-seeing, unaffected person might and, even with all the dark and bright washes across the screen, we also don't ever fully align with the vision of the afflicted. In one of the most beautiful sequences of the film, a woman walks into the ward calling for her husband. The screen is white but we see her outstretched, red-nail-polished hand come in and out of focus as if we and the camera are seeing from her perspective, with her damaged sight. But as we walk on, following her red nails through the white and listening to her forlorn call and response with her husband, the camera drifts and spins and, though the screen is still shrouded in white, it's clear this is no point-of-view shot; her delicate search extends from a separate body and finally both she and her husband come into the frame, burning at the edges with white, their hug celestial. It's beautiful and it exemplifies the third vision being created here: not the distant, untouched observer's, not the diegesis-bound blind, but a third perspective whose exact location is unknown. The vision granted us here is a gift, an expressionistic light-obsessed lens that allows us, quite miraculously, to at once watch the film from the outside and see as our protagonists do. With this single sight, both visual spaces are navigable. In a way, this type of third-party perspective could be argued for any number of films (we perceive a film as a rational outsider and as the insane person at its center, for example), but here, with the ultimate boundaries of light and dark, the Blindness' address to the audience feels explicit. Light literalizes this third perspective (or, really, vision) in a way that, to go back to the example, can't be done with the perspective of insanity; sitting in a movie theater, you can make me see white or experience a completely dark room but you can't make me insane. When the world of the film, when our lens goes white or dark, the extradiegetic Brooklyn 2am bedroom hits pitch black or lights way up. These light-tricks are a literal connection between me, Martha in real time, and the vision put forth by the film. To place this back in film's lineage of reflexivity, this can only be done at the movies. In what other medium would this strange vision, so dependent on light and movement, be possible? Concerned with various ways of seeing, Blindness is a movie that reflects and capitalizes on a special potential of its medium.

Here's hoping I found some version of productivity.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Silent Light: An Image Essay and a Prayer

Maybe film stills, individual frames, aren't the building blocks of moving pictures and maybe the cinema's constitution is based in movement itself (or an idea of movement), but sometimes it seems still frames betray a film's deepest sentiments, even illuminate its greatest accomplishments. Watching Carlos Reygadas' recent marvel, Silent Light, I was struck by a desire to break down this already very still, very quiet movie even further, to sit among its most impacting frames, and experience their sum in a different way. My impulse to take Silent Light to a base, photographic form seems in line with Reygadas' larger aim toward both the celestial and the simple; it's a film about moral struggle in a religious community and, opening and closing with a meditation on things (the sun and its spectacular will to rise and fall!) much greater than humankind, the film takes on the form, pace, and focus of a prayer. Help us be better than we are. Help me find and recognize my place among the cosmos above and the flowers within reach. In form and content, Silent Light works to break things down and then recognize the grandeur of the pieces. If I've succeeded in carrying (what I believe to be) Reygadas' driving force to its next incarnation--that of the still/ photo essay-- you'll find each piece below at once basic and overwhelming, simple and humbling, and the sum of the parts to be somewhat of a prayer.

Three Sweet Trailers

It seems great trailers are few and far between, most films choosing to go with a revved-up music video style that manages to hit every plot point in 2 minutes. I think this is too bad; to my eyes, the film trailer can be a space where the world of advertising can give itself over to art, where a commercial can be a work unto itself. I know people argue that commercials always carry this potential and I know that the winners of this year's Television Advertising Awards probably want to hold up their own medium as an artistic one. But film trailers are an especially intriguing form; at 2-4 minutes, they can drop gags and hooks in favor of things that take just a bit more development, like rhythm and tone. What other form of advertising could work to establish rhythm and tone without the weight of a clear, pushy message? And, with a parent film behind them, the trailer at its best is a fascinating editing exercise that--in movement, language, and concept-- both capture something essential of their parent features and create something new and beautiful unto itself. With that, let's hit my top three:

#3: Inland Empire--David Lynch
I love this thing because with every terrifying breath it seems to elude to a firm plot. "This looks riveting! What are those creepy bunnies doing in there?! Why is Laura Dern freaking out like I've never seen her before!?!? I've gotta see this thing!" And then you hit the opening night performance or add it to your netflix queue only to ask basically the same questions throughout the film. Both trailer and film use strange tonal devices to terrify, but the trailer holds a hope that these will be revealed in a fantastic play-by-play Hollywood escapade while the film just throws a nightmare at you with no hope of explication. Once any allusions to a firm narrative are found faulty, the trailer becomes a perfect miniature of the film itself.

L'eclisse--Michealangelo Antonioni
This trailer works beautifully because, in a way, it really embraces its advertisement yet manages to be a pretty and intriguing object unto itself. We get Antonioni's name up on our screen first, then the name of the film in big block letters, and then our two stars get portraits with their names shining bright. We're told it's "an exceptional film!!!" and it's bookended with that silly twist that makes you wanna shake a leg in 1960s Italy as soon as possible. And behind all these traditional hooks, we have just seven shots, dispersed among a full 2 minutes, that almost mathematically set up oppositions. The distance and space of the first shot coupled with the crowd of the stock market; the portraits of individuals in their elements against that strange lovers' hand-tango; that dark barn beneath the the words "The Eclipse"--these things play off and against each other in a tidy sort of poem. I find it at once quite practical and quite beautiful.

And Finally,

Toni--Jean Renoir
I could watch this thing once an hour for the rest of my life. I've really stopped thinking of it as connected to a larger project because it stands alone so extraordinarily. A tune welcomes us into a world where a train gives birth to two lovers walking down a path. Grapes to bees to hugs. Then a series of dark, shocking images and, though the tune progresses, the ominous sounds of moving trains slowly rise. These mechanical churnings push the tune into mournful territory and suddenly we find ourselves among the surreal--on a quiet lake, alone and scared; standing by while rock slides and crumbles; a moment of confrontation; a desperate, suspended sprint. In 1 minute 21 seconds and without a word of dialogue, this thing conjures grand emotions. From those bright grapes to desperation above serene water, this trailer demands we take it seriously unto itself and feel its beauty without reference to another site.