Saturday, February 05, 2005

Watching Brutal Movies

I saw Million Dollar Baby today. It was a pretty impressive movie, it really engrossed you in the story. I, and not just me, pretty much every critic, feel like Clint is one of the best filmmakers in making classic Hollywood films, in the sense that everything is designed to just immerse you in the story. There's no showy shots or effects, nothing that really lets you know someone is directing the movie. Now, I love directors that make their style known, people like Lynch and Wong Kar-Wai alwyas let you know they're directing the movie, and there's always an almost artificiality. Paul Thomas Anderson does this too, with his absurdly long tracking shots that draw attention to his form, but overall, I feel like it's more of an Asian thing. WKW and other stuff, like Hero, is just so beautiful, you at once enjoy the story, but are also just awed by the visual.

Anyway, Million Dollar Baby just lets you coast along in the story, and it's a really good story, but it's not quite a great film. That said, I would reccomend it. However, I don't really feel like it's a movie I need to discuss. What it did do was get me thinking about why we see a certain kind of movie, a type of movie I will call the brutal movie.

What is a "brutal" movie? I think it's one that almost presents itself as a challenge to the viewer. It's the type of movie that people will say you have to be in a certain mood for. It's the kind of movie that is more something you "have to see" than is something that's enjoyable.

There's a number of movies that I really love that I was classify as "brutal," most prominent among them are Requiem for a Dream, Irreversible, Oldboy and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

A basic question is, why would you watch something that is really depressing, and so dark it's not really enjoyable in the traditional sense? A film like Magnolia is really dark, but it gives you a happy ending, the above films pretty much don't. There may be a little light at the end of the tunnel, but it's more of a things are so messed up now, they can only get better.

I think the reason I like that type of film is that it's such a visceral experience. Each of them is really immersive, and just traps you in this world, it may be an awful world, but to be able to go there and experience it is something unique.I feel like Requiem and Irreversible really have a point to make, and the violence is a oart of that. It may seem like a ten minute long rape scene is gratuitious, but it's needed to show you just how disgusting, and affecting, the act is. If you cut away, you're not going to get the same impact. Similarly, in the beginning of the film, you need to see the violence of the revenge act, because if you didn't, it wouldn't seem so abhorrent. By juxtaposing the two acts of extreme violence, Gaspar Noe shows us that violence only breeds more violence, and that ultimately, revenge is pointless. Requiem does the same thing with its ending montage showing the effect of drugs. Seeing our main characters completely degraded really shows that maybe addiction is not such a good thing.

The main reason I love Irreversible and Requiem is the filmmaking. Noe's ridiculously long takes, or Darren's hip hop montage editing are completely unique, and perfectly suited to the story. I guess these sort of movies aren't going to have any sort of box office hopes, so the directors can go as crazy as they want. But, sometimes the darkness is needed. The reason the last scene of Fire Walk With Me is so cathartic is because it comes after so much darkness. Without things getting really bad, the good has no meaning.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

No Guilt Here! Watching The OC and Point Pleasant

I was psyched a couple of weeks ago for the premiere of the new show, Point Pleasant, from one of the Buffy producers, Marti Noxon. Other than Joss Whedon, I'd say Marti Noxon had the biggest influence on the show, and she was executive producer during my favorite season of the show, the really dark season six. I feel like Marti was responsible for a lot of the darker tone in season six, the bad relationships, the emotional violence, the emphasis on character relations rather than a big plot. This was all stuff I liked in the season, and even though a lot of people knock Buffy/Spike, I love the way it went, it made for some great story, and was more true to the characters than a happy relationship.

So, she headed out on her own with a show that she compared to Twin Peaks, and was generally being described as Buffy meets The OC. These were all shows I liked, we should have some goodness coming our way. However, the show, at least based on the two episodes I've seen, isn't quite working. Why is this? First, because the characters aren't well defined. The parents are very cheesy soap opera, and aren't particularly developed. Christina and Judy are decent, but then Paula and Jesse seem to be from another show, and that show is called The OC (minus all that is good about it). Paula and Jesse are exactly the dynamic that Marissa and Luke were at the beginning of The OC, and with Jesse falling for Christina, the very same dynamic is once again being played. Not to mention the fact that the premise is the same as The OC, drifter kid without parents comes to rich community and moves in with the family, befriending the socially awkward, wise cracking child. Also, this New Jersey where it's constantly warm and people always hang out on the beach seems a lot more like Orange County to me.

I know it's only two episodes, but after one of Buffy I already had a really good handle on the four main characters. After one of The OC, I knew all the people. More importantly, they didn't have this incongruity between the storylines. The very typical soap stuff doesn't mesh so well with very typical horror stuff, and we're not really given a reason to care about what's going on. There's some definite potential in the premise, but it seriously feels like they just took The OC and turned Ryan into the duaghter of Satan.

However, the show doesn't have the self awareness of The OC. The OC is first of all very funny, and is also aware of its status as a soap opera, much like Buffy was. As a result, you can have the very serious emotional confrontations, but also get to joke about them. Seth in particular is constantlly joking about the show's conventions, right from the first episode, and this keeps you entertained. It's a really clever show, but one that doesn't let the cleverness overwhelm the character development.

Point Pleasant has no humor about itself, and that's odd considering Marti came from Buffy, who even in the darkest times of season six was always also funny. I'm hoping the show will get better, but right now, it's not quite making it.

However, in it second season, The OC is even better than it was last year. I love the character of Zach, the WASPy doppleganger of Seth, and not just for the comic book references, though last episode, when they get together to make a comic book provided many laughs and also some great character insight and emotional drama.

At its best, as in the storylines with Ryan and Seth this year, the show is soapy, but not in an overly cheesy, emotionally excessive way. Having Summer discover the drawings of her, and react intrigued was a nice underplaying of what could either have been an instant revulsion or an instant falling in love. Summer has become by far the best character on the show, someone who is shallow on the outside, but very deep internally. She's in control of her life, and satisfied with herself more than anyone else on the show, and she keeps displaying new layers. Compare that to Marissa who always seems to have a really overwrought trauma. I think the thing I like so much about the Seth/Summer/Zach storyline is that they're not playing it like this is an earth shaking problem they're in, it's small in the large sense, but emotionally meaningful to them, and because we know the characters, we can relate and appreciate the meaning of little events. There's no need for the excesses of the Oliver storyline, because we're aware of how important minute events are to the characters.

Similar stuff is done in the Ryan/Lindsay storyline. I really like how they've made Ryan more intellectual this year, and less prone to violent outbursts. He's a more realistic character, and is sort of the calm center of the show, which makes it more meaningful when he does get violent, as in the episode with Lindsay getting drunk from a couple of weeks ago.

Also, I really like the way the parent stories are integrated with the kids'. Having Caleb simultaneously alienate Kirsten, Lindsay and Marissa ties the characters together and makes you believe that these people really are family and live together. The Point Pleasant parents seem completely removed from the happening, but Sandy and Kirsten are always well integrated into the story, such that the show doesn't feel like a teen show with the parent stories stuck in, it's an integrated piece, in which all the characters play off each other, and events in one storyline make their way around to affect the others. This year, Caleb has become basically the shameful center of the show, as his mistakes affect everyone else. The tension between him and Ryan in last week's episode was great, and had you seeing him as a bastard, but then watching him struggle to gain any control over Marissa, you start to feel sorry for the guy. Each character is seen in a different light depending on who's looking at them. That's why sometimes the relationships feel so tightly knit as to be almost incestuous (practically literally with Ryan and Lindsay), but at their best it works because every event on the show has reprocussions that echo onto the other characters.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Taking Pictures

I'm not sure if it's Muslims, or Indians, but there's some ethnic group, though Muslim is more of a religious than ethnic group, irregardless, there's some group that has the idea that letting smeone take a picture of you takes part of your soul away. Something like that, that taking the picture captures a piece of you, and makes the original you lesser somehow. Now, the obvious response to this is to ridicule it, because clearly these people are afraid of technology, the unknown and the future, and they should just get with it. This is a valid response. Something that always bothers me is the idea that groups should try to hold on to old traditions, and in doing so, inherently have to reject new things. Just because you're a Native American Indian doesn't mean you have to live on a reservation, you could rock a house, with a computer and the internet. This doesn't destroy the old identity, it helps it evolve. To think that things can only be one way is incredibly stubborn and reactionary, and saying it's "your culture" shouldn't excuse that. Culture should always be transient, looking forward not backward. If aliens came down and gave us some new way of doing things, I wouldn't object. There might be some things that were lost from our current culture, but if it gave us a new and exciting world, it'd be worth it.

Anyway, back to my point about the pictures, they don't steal a piece of your soul, but they do take some of your memory. With the proliferation of digital cameras, there's now a boom in taking pointless pictures, and using this as a substitute for actually creating something. Of all the media, I'd consider photography to be the least artistic, because it's just about capturing something that already exists, not creating something new. Here's a question: where is the line between an amazing picture and an amazing thing that exists?

Now, you could say the same thing about film. But, what film has is a narrative context that gives the pure images added meaning. Wong Kar-Wai's movies are beautifully photographed, and would be great pictures on their own, but in the context of the story, they take on so much more meaning.

Pictures are frequently taken to commemorate events in one's life. But, they don't provide a really accurate picture, they just capture a 2D image of a moment. It's very easy to fake a smile, or to capture someone in a down moment, between smiles. You don't know what's beyond the confines of the image, except in your memory. What pictures do is gradually replace your real memory of the event with just a memory of the picture. From my childhood, I don't know if I really remember anything from when I was very young, or if I just remember pictures and extrapolate a story out of them. Now, maybe if I didn't have the pictures I wouldn't remember anything at all, but it's possible that I would remember much more, only those subtle memories have been replaced by the obvious pictures.

I'm reminded of a quote from Lost Highway, the David Lynch film:

Ed: Do you own a video camera?
Renee Madison: No. Fred hates them.
Fred Madison: I like to remember things my own way.
Ed: What do you mean by that?
Fred Madison: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.

What Fred is talking about here is the fact that memories get overwritten by the eye of the video camera. I wouldn't say that video captures reality, which he implies, because by the very fact of observation you change things (witness Schrodinger's Cat). Except on a hidden camera, you can never gague how someone really acts, without the knowledge that they're being taped, and unless you're really sneaky, you can never find out how someone acts when they're alone, because no matter who's around you, you'll always act slightly different than if you're by yourself.

So, what's the point? I think it's that pictures can be a substitute for really doing something, because if you take pictures, it's evidence that something happened, when in fact all that happened was you took pictures. When I see parents at a graduation rushing up to the stage to get a closeup picture of their son/daughter getting a diploma, I wonder why they chose to take a picture of the moment, rather than make their own memory of it. They won't ever experience the real moment, they'll just have the picture. I'd rather the memory of the real event happening than a picture. I'm not saying that it's pointless to take pictures, some really do reveal elements of people. But, be careful to never let the taking of the picture overwhelm the reality of living the moment.