Sunday, September 30, 2012

Enigmatic movies

There is a recent LA Times article by Stephen Farber titled: 'The Master' is too muddled to be a masterpiece.

I have no problem with Farber not liking the movie. I myself didn't much care for it. And I also don't have a problem with the headline in general. But I do have a problem with one particular part of the article, which to my mind, is completely wrong headed and naïve. He writes - in all seriousness:
"The Master" epitomizes the rise of a new school of enigmatic movies, which parallels similar post-modern developments in literature and music. Recent movies embracing inscrutability hark back to landmark European films of the 1960s that shattered traditional narrative conventions. Films like Ingmar Bergman's "Persona," Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blowup" and Luis Buñuel's "Belle de Jour" incorporated surreal dream sequences and built toward mysterious, sometimes impenetrable endings that delighted art house audiences of the era.
This cryptic style of filmmaking has resurfaced in recent movies by Terrence Malick — "The Tree of Life" as well as his newest effort, "To the Wonder" — and even Christopher Nolan, who made the mind-bending thriller "Inception" that tantalized many audiences (and left others befuddled). And this same oblique approach to storytelling has characterized a new generation of European filmmakers such as Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke. "The Master" aims to join this company, but its release only proves to me that the cult of incoherence is beginning to pall. Too many movies, novels and even TV series dispense with all sense of logic; they revel in unintelligibility and dare audiences to enter their tangled web.
How does one begin to tackle this absurd view? With a straight face he is criticizing a slew of movies for essentially being non-formulaic and hard to follow. He actually has the audacity to say that movies that 'dare audiences to enter their tangled web' are a bad thing! How can we take Farber seriously as a critic if he favors a Hollywood mainstream mentality over movies that challenge him, expand his horizons or make him think?

He has to know that most all children's movies, action films, comedies, romantic movies and feel good dramas are depressingly formulaic. This, no doubt, has been the case since movies were silent. We can forgive many of these movies [especially the older ones] because part of the evolution of the art form was one of mass entertainment. This has been the case for 100 years and continues today. But one thing a smattering of movies in each decade and particularly movies in the 1960's and early 70's did was to accept the fact that the audience was made up of adults who wanted to be challenged just a little bit. Rather than lay out the plot in an obvious [boring] manner some of these movies allowed the audience to partake in or contemplate the movie's precarious or, at times, intellectual narrative; Movies such as The 400 Blows, Persona, Red Desert, Weekend, 2001 A Space Odyssey come to mind. They allowed moviegoers to exit the theatre and have a conversation about the movie rather than just have them nodding in agreement and then forgetting what they saw.

I don't know how Farber can call himself a critic if he is not open-minded enough to understand that the art form simply cannot move forward if these kinds of 'enigmatic' movies are not made. What's more, he seems to be holding a 40 year grudge against movies that 'shattered traditional narrative conventions.' That debate should be long over at this point.

To call The Master enigmatic or a film that defies understanding is to be incorrect [it's not that hard to understand]. But then to up the ante on the critique and embrace an idea that tells the world you don't enjoy following a non-formulaic narrative and that [just maybe] you are turned off by movies that make you think is odd. I don't believe that is a message any critic in any field wants to leave his readers. But until further clarification by Mr Farber I have to conclude that is what he wants us to believe.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Anatomy in Cement

I found this in a historical info flier [pdf] for Anatomy of a Murder from the Marquette County History Museum. [Lee Remick gets a hand from Otto Preminger while a couple of guys look on].

During the period when the cast was in Marquette County, it was decided that the community should have a permanent reminder of the filming of Anatomy of a Murder. Members of the community arranged to have large slabs of concrete poured into molds in front of the Marquette County Courthouse. One by one, the stars and director of the film placed their feet, hands and signed their signatures into the cement. The plan was for these slabs to be placed in front of the new Marquette Chamber of Commerce when the filmed was released. However, local officials felt the film was too controversial and should not receive formal recognition. In danger of being destroyed, they were saved by a local farmer who kept them for many years. In 1984, they were installed in the sidewalk in front of the Nordic Theatre, with bricks that stated the name of each person. Over time, the slabs deteriorated due to the road salt being poured to melt snow on Washington Street. They were removed and now are stored by the City of Marquette. Unfortunately, they are completely illegible. Somewhere, however, there is rumored to be molds of the original slabs. If you have in-formation about the whereabouts of these molds, please tell the staff here at the Beaumier Center.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Master

The Master is a film about a man who needs to get laid.

I wish I was being sarcastic. But just go see the film for yourself and see if, indeed, the main character needs [or at least thinks he needs] anything other than a good woman to save him.

The time is postwar America. Young men have come back from the stress of war hoping to achieve the American dream by starting businesses, having families and, in essence, moving America forward. But some of the men who came back have suffered in one way or another and are trying to find a way to fit back in to society. Enter Freddie [Joaquin Phoenix] a completely fucked up, lonely, unstable, drunk who - despite an ability to make a killer drink [paint thinner and all] - can't hold a job or find a friend. Escaping into the dusk after having been accused of trying to kill a fellow worker he jumps aboard a small vessel right into the clutches of a cult leader name Lancaster Dodd [Philip Seymour Hoffman] who has a growing legion of devoted fans and is looking to make an impact to further his religious / self help cause.

This being a Paul Thomas Anderson film the themes are have the semblance of being big and the emotions run high. But it's also a film, unfortunately, in which some of Freud's creaky ideas [psycho sexual, the male id and all] play a big role. So much so that it borders on irony - although I don't think it is. [Despite Phoenix's claim that he felt the movie was a comedy].

Freddie is mentally probed and broken down by Dodd who feels obligated to cure him of his base, animal self. But Freddie's [actually Phoenix's] squinting, snarling scowl, oft times impatient anger, explosive fits of rage and frustratedly pacing through scenes tells you this is not going to happen. And, frankly, the guy needs medication - not spiritual help.

Phoenix does not so much act as pull a big stunt here. So much so that - other than a few moments of genuine emotion - the performance is rather distracting. He's like a reality show character who's dropped in on a movie. How will he top himself next? Hoffman, on the other hand, is quite good as the charismatic, quack cult leader and shows some character growth. The two form a bond that feels right and honest much of the time. The film's script by Anderson is best when they are together and it seems, to me, that the film was written around these key scenes. Other than that the film does not hold well enough together to be as powerful as it could be. Instead, we get a series of good scenes strung together amounting to little except an idea of something bigger and better. All the other acting in the film passes muster but doesn't deliver. Amy Adams, for instance, is given a side role as the wife of the cult leader who has her own draconian way of demanding fealty from Freddy.

**Spoiler of sorts**

In the final scene Freddie is shown having sex with a young women he has just met in a pub. Mission accomplished. What took so long? Whether or not he will remain happy - given his highly volatile nature - seems unlikely. But since he is no longer involved with the cult leader [father] or his judgmental wife [mother] or the skeptical family members [brothers and sisters] he can move on with his life into the void of his own disturbed and lonely psyche.

Kent Jones at Film Comment has an insightful review.
Richard Brody at The New Yorker [blog] also has a good review.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Malick's Wonder

The LA Times writes:

"To the Wonder" represents what is arguably Malick's most experimental film yet, but [Rachel] McAdams expressed surprise at some of the audience reaction. After all, it shouldn't come as a shock that Malick would craft a lyrical tone poem, given that his narratives have long been infused with evocative imagery and abstraction.

"It's funny, all we say we want in life is freedom — of speech, of religion, of thought," McAdams said. "And here's Terry definitively not telling us what to think, and some people don't like it."

LA Times