Saturday, July 30, 2005

Gus Van Sant's Elephant

I've been reading a lot about Last Days, the new film from Gus Van Sant, and that prompted me to check out his previous film, Elephant. Last Days is supposed to go wide next week, so if it doesn't make it to Westchester, I'll head into New York City to see it. Anyway, the film has received generally very positive reviews, but also a number that call it one of the worst movies ever, and a complete waste of time. These are similar reviews to what Elephant got, and after seeing Elephant, I can definitely understand why people would say this. That said, I would call Elephant a great movie, and one of the few recent American films I've seen that really does something new and exciting with the medium.

I've already written extensively about how bad the current state of mainstream American film is, most notably here, and a lot of those points apply to the so called 'independent film' world too. A film like Sideways might be a good story, but it's not a great film, and it's not much different from a Hollywood film. Sideways is the sort of thing the studios should be making, but because they're not, the indie film community has had to move towards the mainstream. There's nothing wrong with making films that appeal to the mainstream, my favorite film of this year so far is Revenge of the Sith, which is also by far the highest grossing movie of the year. But, Sith is also a film that really pushes the medium in a new direction, using digital filmmaking techniques better than anyone has in the past.

Elephant also pushes the medium in a new direction, though this film innovates through narrative construction rather than through technical advances. Elephant tells the story of a fairly ordinary day at a generic high school, drawing on some of the high school archetypes, but also creating less easily definable characters. The marketing for this film reveals the ending, but this is a movie where knowledge of what will happen actually benefits the film. If you don't know where things are going, it would be easy to wonder why we're seeing what we are, but knowing where things are going lends an air of menace to all these ordinary events, and in each emotional slight, we see the potential seed for the destructive violence that ends the film.

The first three quarters of this film are devoted to showing us totally ordinary lives, giving us snapshots of a number of characters from across the school. The film that this most reminded me of is Frederick Wiseman's documentary, 'High School.' This was a cinema verite piece that just followed a bunch of students, teachers and parents through their day at the school. There's no narrative, just a bunch of scenes from ordinary life. The film features a lot of long takes and tracking shots through the halls that are essesntial to Van Sant's film.

The fact that this film reminded me of a cinema verite documentary is perhaps the best compliment I could give to Van Sant's movie. The characters aren't developed, but that's not the point of the movie, there's no need for exposition or narrative development. We're just dropped into these people's lives and go along with them as omniscient observers. The film is quite different from Hollywood cinema in that there are no character conflicts or goal based narrative. The people in the film may want things, but they're no pursuing them today, instead they're just going about their ordinary lives.

This is a film that is going to be hated by your average filmgoer. Running a film series this summer, I've noticed that most people have little tolerance for films that aren't based around a specific narrative. I guess I've been conditioned by so many years of film study to view a film as simultaneously a narrative and a stand alone piece of visual art. Something doesn't necessarily have to happen in every scene, just setting a mood or showing us a cool image can be enough. But, for a lot of people, there is the need for a more concrete narrative, for a film to have a clear direction. When we showed the movie Safe, people weren't able to sit through the scenes that establish what Carole's life is like, they weren't open to creating a mood through scenes that aren't directly related to the story. So, even though I may crack on mainstream Hollywood, they know what they're doing. People have been geared to expect the three act, goal based narrative, and films have to deliver them.

I feel like the only time people accept scenes that are superfluous to the narrative is if they're action scenes. A half hour long car chase is perfectly acceptable, but a five minute tracking shot of a kid walking down a hall is pointless and a waste of time. I could lament the lack of appreciation for film art, but it basically comes down to the fact that most people view film as a way to tell a story, they're not particularly interested in technique, they have to be hooked by a story. That's why movies are made the way they are, and no matter how great his films are, someone like Wong Kar-Wai isn't likely to get mainstream acceptance. Still, I feel like enjoying film as just a story is a much less rewarding experience than learning to appreciate artier movies. When I watch a great film, it sticks with me, while I feel like people who watch the movie just for the story aren't as deeply affected by the experience.

Anyway, the reason I love Elephant is the very loose narrative construction. The long tracking shots really put you in the mind of the characters, you get to know the people by the way they walk through the halls and how they interact with those around them. Seeing Michelle awkwardly run down the hall, ducking out of the way of Eli and Jon tells you everything you need to know about who she is and how she feels. It's also interesting how Van Sant plays with time. In a number of cases, we'll see the same event multiple times, from different perspectives. This is most notably used early in the film, when we see Eric and Alex wearing camo and carrying a bag into the school, but it's not followed up on. Later, we see Eric and Alex's story, and they eventually end up at the school carrying that bag, and we see what follows. So, Van Sant creates suspense by having us wonder, are these the people who shoot up the school, when's it going to happen? By the time we reach that moment again, we understand what they're planning to do, and this previously mysterious, but innocuous moment becomes the harbinger of death.

From a technical point of view, the long takes in this film are amazing. I'm a huge fan of the long take, because it really does put you in the world of the film and the mind of the characters. It's used to astonishing effect in Irreversible, where the long take can be used to both show the hellish confines of the Rectum, and the beautiful tender moments shared between Alex and Marcus. What the long take does is show you the moments that a film normally skips over. You get a better sense of environment and a deeper understanding of how a character conducts themselves in everyday life. In this film, almost every shot is a long take, and there's no shot/reverse shot used at all. The challenge is using the long take is to keep things interesting for the audience, and Van Sant pulls it off.

The film ends with violence, as Eric and Alex decide to shoot the students at the school. Even though I knew going in that this would happen, it seems jarring when it finally does, in the great shot of Michelle's blood hitting the bookcase. That's a testament to the filmmaking skill, despite the fact that we're waiting the entire movie to see this violence, it becomes almost unneccesary because the simple act of watching an ordinary day has become enough for the movie.

Still, the way in which the violence is depicted makes the school shooting essential to the film. Most movies, even ones that are making a statement against violence, present it in a way that it's viscerally exciting. Going back to Irreversible, the fire extinguisher sequence is not advocating for violence, but at the same time, there's clearly a certain joy taken in depicting the violence and we can enjoy it at the same time as we're being disgusted by it. Elephant presents violence as cold and real. Characters are gunned down, not to the sounds of Adiago for Strings, or in graphic slow motion, they're just shot and they fall to the ground, a completely ordinary event.

At the end, there's a great sequence where we see one student standing amidst the destruction, we follow him, leading us to believe that he's going to perhaps stop the violence, and try to be a hero, instead we follow him until he finds Eric, at which point he stops and is killed. It's messing with our expectations in a really interesting way.

The film's final moments provide no real resolution, we can assume that Alex will kill Carrie and Nathan, and then kill himself, but we're not really sure. Either way, I like the fact that the film ends not with any reassuring aftermath, instead it's just the reality of the event itself and we're left to fill in the blanks on what will happen next. You could criticize the film for not giving you a resolution, or closure, but the whole point is to show the reality of this event, not the blown up version the media will concoct after, as they struggle to figure out what could drive 'normal' kids to commit this act of violence.

The film flirts with some of the suggested reason for the Columbine shooting, with the Hitler TV segment and the first person shooter, but in the end, there's no real culprit other than the oppressive world of high school itself. All these characters hurt as they move through a social bubble, and it's the feeling that there's nothing outside that ultimately leads them to conclude that by killing their fellow students, they can destroy the world that has made their lives so hellish.

Are there flaws with this film? I thought the scene where the girls throw up their lunch felt a little unrealistic. Maybe this does happen and I just missed it, but it seemed to belong more in a film than in real life, unlike the rest of the piece, which was very realistic. I think Van Sant could have shown the pressure to keep a certain body image without resorting to the melodramatic vomiting. Also, the shower scene felt a bit off, but I don't think it really harmed the film.

On the whole, this is top notch filmmaking. It's like no other movie I've ever seen, perfectly capturing the real dynamics of high school and giving us a window into many lives. The film felt real, and the depiction of violence was one of the most realistic depictions I've ever seen. It's clearly not for everyone, but I love what Van Sant does with the medium, and I can't wait to see Last Days.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Bad News Bears

A few days ago, I promised to write a review of Richard Linklater's new film, Bad News Bears. I saw the film Monday, and the time has now come to review it. Quite frankly, this isn't a very good film, it's not a bad film, but coming from Linklater, you just expect more. It's not as bad as The Newton Boys, but it's his second weakest film, and certainly his most generic film, there's nothing uniquely Linklater about this.

As an auteur work it fails, as a film it's decent entertainment. The story is good, if cliched, and you do get caught up in the travails of the team. There were a lot of bits that had me laughing and Billy Bob Thornton is always entertaining to watch. The problem was too much time was spent with the kids and not enough with Billy Bob. It's largely a repeat of Thornton's Bad Santa schtick, only on a much lighter level, he never gets a chance to be really bad. That's understandable, this is a kid's movie, while Bad Santa wasn't, but still, a little more Billy Bob would have been nice. One of the best scenes was when Liz Whitewood propositions him for sex, and he has an awkward conversation with his son about why he's there.

But, there's just way too much time spent with the kids. In School of Rock, Linklater kept the focus on Jack Black and used the kids primarily as the straight man for him to play off of. Here, towards the end, Thornton becomes the straight man and the kids are the entertainment, only they're not very entertaining. Plus, in School of Rock it was entertaining to watch the kids play music, while watching the kids play baseball doesn't have the same inherent appeal.

Approaching it from an auteur perspective, I just can't see why Linklater would make this movie. It's not original or particularly meaningful, it's a throwaway you can barely remember once you walk out of the theater, and that's quite disappointing. In Dazed and Confused or School of Rock, he was able to craft mainstream movies that were clearly the products of an auteur. Here, he fails to do that, and winds up with a film that could have been directed by anyone. Considering Linklater is arguably the best American director out there today, coming off one of the best films of all time, Before Sunset, it's disheartening to see this utterly pointless movie. Still, at least A Scanner Darkly is on the way, a film that looks totally unique and has the chance to be a major leap for Linklater as an auteur.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Yesterday I watched one of my favorite films, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It's a film that was critically drubbed when it was first released, largely because it's totally dependent on knowledge of the series to understand it. I would argue that Fire Walk With Me is the film with the smallest target audience ever released, you have to have seen every episode of the series to really understand it, and considering the erratic scheduling of the second season, it's unlikely that a lot of people had seen it all when the film was released.

So, when I watched the film this time, it was quite different than watching it after seeing the series. The film works best as a coda to the series, simultaneously a beginning and ending, and it really helps to be in the Twin Peaks mindset. Going into the film having not seen the series in a while, I didn't find it as emotionally affecting as I did on the other viewings.

But because I wasn't so emotionally caught up in the events, I was able to step back and examine the filmmaking more, and really observe how unique a narrative this film has.

Back to the genesis of this film. I'm a huge fan of television because of the storytelling possibilities it offers. To be able to unfold a story over many hours affords the possibility for greater narrative depth than film can offer. You can go further in developing characters and creating huge storylines. However, most TV shows don't take this opportunity and instead struggle to maintain a status quo, or just choose to ignore the past. David Lynch is not someone generally renowned for his narrative clarity, but with Fire Walk With Me he draws on the events of the series to create a fully layered backstory (techinically forwardstory) for the film. We know the world and the characters, so the joy in Fire Walk With Me is to finally find out what it was that killed Laura. There's no question about how it's going to end, we're basically watching this girl freefall until she burns up, because the angels have gone away.

The mere fact that this film exists still astonishes me. It's so insider, and features one of, if not the strangest narrative structures in any mainstream movie. First, there's no attempt to catch up people who haven't seen the series, there's no background on the mechanics of the world, such as what this red room is, the significance of the one armed man or why Cooper is in the Red Room despite previously being seen in the FBI Office. Lynch assumes that you've seen the series and know it by heart, and I love that. It's much better to cater to fans than to try to make the film accessible to new viewers, and end up annoying long time fans in the process. It's not just general concepts that the film draws on, characters who appeared in only a few episodes, like the Chalfonts, become major figures in the film, and the entire mythology of the red room requires multiple viewings to figure out. I'm still not sure exactly what was going on there, but it's ultimately up to each viewer to find something that works for them.

So putting aside the fact that the film requires prior knowledge of 29 episodes from the TV series, there's the fact that the film's narrative structure is really odd. The first time I saw the film, I felt the opening episode with Chet Desmond was a waste of time, but looking at it now, it's one of my favorite things in the film. In the opening shot, Lynch destroys a television, symbolically communicating to the audience that this is a different entity from the series, and we're going to play by different rules. Then, we go into the Chester Desmond sequence, which is very odd, but quite enjoyable. You can view it as a parody of the series, instead of a welcoming community, Desmond finds himself in a bizarro Twin Peaks, where getting things done is a huge struggle. This sequence best captures the tone of the series, with its offbeat humor and odd behavior. I love Harry Dean Stanton's characters, including the classic line "That trailer's more popular than uncle's day at a whorehouse."

And then Desmond disappears and never returns, not in the series or in the film. It's a lingering loose end, one that's perhaps best explained by the dream theory, which stipulates that the entire sequence in Deer Meadow and the Philadelphia scenes are actually Cooper's dream. If you watch the scenes, there are a ton of references to dreaming and needing to wake up. I think those scenes being a dream definitely works within the context of the film, and certainly make it a more cohesive entity. The question that arises is, did Lynch intend for them to be a dream? If I had to guess, I'd say no, but the film's out of his hands now, and takes on meanings of its own, regardless of what he intended.

The Philadelphia scene is my favorite thing that Lynch has ever done. It's arguably the most bizarre five minutes in any film ever, with all manner of crazy stuff going on, right from the sudden David Bowie appearance on. I love the way the static cuts into the frame and the Bowie voiceover goes over everything. And then the images are just crazy, the formica table bit, this sequence shows you how film can create incredibly bizarre environments, Lynch is firing on all cylinders there.

I think the crucial thing to keep in mind when watching Fire Walk With Me, particularly if you're not immersed in the world of the series, is that it's not designed to piece together exactly. There's no key to understanding FWWM that will put everything in perspective, as there is for Mulholand Dr. There are elements that are in the film solely for their visual value, and then there's other elements that you have to bring your own meaning to. Viewing this film from a critical perspective, it's easy to fault Lynch for having random strange things occur, but if these elements have value in and of themselves, maybe they don't need to contribute to the narrative. For example, the scene where Leland leaves Teresa and the boy in the mask jumps around in the parking lot as he's leaving. You could say why is the boy there? Why does he disappear? Or you could view it as an example of an incredible visual that gives a sense of foreboding to the scene, regardless of the narrative specifics.

This isn't to say that the elements in the film don't piece together. All the business with the red room makes sense within the context of the series, and certainly works on an emotional level. Though, I'm still wondering what the deal was Judy, who's mentioned by the monkey and Bowie, that's something we may never know.

The reason I'd consider this Lynch's best film is because it's the only film that sucessfully merges the emotionally relevant, character based storytelling of Blue Velvet with the surrealism of Eraserhead. In Mulholland Dr., there are a lot of surreal moments, but the narrative itself is all explainable in real world terms, in FWWM, the action seems to take place in a world where the supernatural is possible and there's not the strict division between reality and the mental realm that you find in MD or Lost Highway. That's not to say these films aren't surreal, or great, it's just that they're based around a central conceit that screws with reality, while FWWM presents a world that seems real, but in fact has a lot of crazy stuff going on beneath the surface.FWWM picks up on the dream inspired drifting consciousness of Henry in Eraserhead, characters appear and disappear and Laura herself wanders through multiple worlds. I love the way he plays with time, having characters from the end of the series appear here at the beginning, most notably Annie, but also Dale in the lodge.

But at the same time, this is the film where Lynch best merges the surrealism and narrative experimentation with strong emotional content. Laura's story is incredibly tragic and disturbing, both in the real world and in the black lodge. Lynch pulls this off again in Mulholland Dr., but not quite as well. There's nothing as intense as the scene at the end where Leland kills Laura, and the angel saves Ronette. MD is a cooler movie, and by cool, I mean there's a slight distance from all the action, only in Club Silencio do we really feel what Diane/Betty feels. Here, we're always there with Laura.

One of the most emotional sequences is also extremely real world, and that's Laura's night of prostitution with Donna. The scene where she hears 'Questions in a World of Blue' and starts to cry is startling and then the 'Pink Room' sequence is some of Lynch's best filmmaking, the driving music and Laura's unhinged demeanor creating a hell on earth. The final shot, where the camera pans over the bottles and cigarettes is great too.

This merging of emotional and surreal storytelling reaches its height in the last scene. After the great garmonbozia sequences, we jump forward 25 years. In the interim, the original red room scene occurs, and Laura tells Dale who killed her. I would say that this time was a penance, resisting Bob is not enough, she must also help bring him to justice, and doing this requires waiting 25 years before she can tell Dale who killed her. Then, we see Cooper with her, and the wonderful image of her rapturous laughter as she finally sees the angel and ascends to the white lodge. Purely symbolic storytelling, and what a close for the film.

What I love so much about this scene is the way it simultaneously provides closure for the series after an earlier scene provides the perfect segue to the pilot. Laura is there with Cooper, and in this moment, the film and series are connected. She looks up and finds her goodness vindicated, and at last, Laura Palmer can rest in peace.

When I first saw this film, I was disappointed that we didn't get to see many of the Twin Peaks residents, or find out what happens after the series, but in retrospect, the series ends perfectly and so does this film. The film brings everything full circle and manages to work as both a perfect closing to the series and perfect beginning to venture into it again. Lynch has crafted a film that can be analyzed until the end of time, because there's no 'trick' as in Mulholland Dr. There's no need to explain everything, because the big picture is right there, but picking apart the details requires a lot of study, and once season two comes out on DVD, I'm going to rewatch the series and do some of that study.

I don't mean to crack on MD, it's no Sixth Sense style twist ending, but I just find what Lynch does in FWWM so compelling and unique, basically any other film compares poorly to it. Mulholland Dr. does have a ton to analyze and is an awesome movie.

But back to FWWM. I hate it that the film is so poorly thought of. Lynch was so popular in the early 90s, that by the time FWWM came out, it was time for a fall and this convoluted, inaccessible movie provided the perfect excuse for media skewering. After this film, Lynch became more interested in playing around with narrative and presenting subjective views of reality, in two incredible films, Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. But those films are a step back towards conventional narrative after the experimentation of FWWM. There's nothing wrong with that, but with FWWM, the established world of Twin Peaks, gave him a base from which to create a truly experimental, surreal and emotional film that is thankfullly finally getting some of the recognition it deserves. This is an extension of the series, but that doesn't mean that it can't be Lynch's richest, most challenging work as well. It does what film is meant to do, and that's use visuals and sound to elicit an emotional reaction.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Hustle & Flow and Coffee & Cigarettes

Hustle and Flow - This is a film about a pimp with the dream of becoming a rapper. It was a huge hit at Sundance and is now getting a fairly wide release, which it deserves. It seems like every summer, there's a few films from Sundance that make it out and become the token indie that people can go see. Like Garden State, this film isn't exactly two people making a film in their backyard, when Ludacris is in a movie, you're not too indie. Still, it is a film that was made without a studio, which means that the film is a bit more singular vision than a studio film is.

But enough about the behind the scenes, how's the film itself? This is a movie with a fairly cliched story, a story that's the same as countless backstage musicals from the 1930s and 40s, an unknown hopes to make it big musically, but by putting it within the world of a pimp, the story is reinvented to be more relevant to today's audience. Between this, 8 Mile, and the upcoming 50 Cent biopic, it seems that the musical is being reincarnated with hip hop films. Hustle and Flow has a similar plot as 8 Mile, but I think the film is more effective than 8 Mile because you're pulling for the characters more.

In addition to reinventing the backstage musical, the film is a return to the tradition of 70s blaxploitation cinema. The title screen, with its bold yellow letters is pure blaxploitaiton and the presence of Isaac Hayes furthers the connection. Then, there's a top notch 70s inspired score that really helps the film.

One thing that can make a film work is to have the audience really pulling for the characters. All too frequently in movies, you know the outcome, so you're not really concerned when things go bad for a character. Look at the sad montage in any romantic comedy, where the characters are broken up for a bit, even though we know they'll get back together in the end. There are no real negative consequences in the world of those films, however, in this film, things do get bad for the characters and that makes you want them to succeed more. When writing about The Office, I said that you want the characters to succeed because so much bad stuff happens to them that they earn a happy ending, and that's the case here too. DJay may do bad stuff, but you really want him to succeed as a rapper, and any time you really care about a character, your film will be successful, at least on an emotional level.

The best scenes in the film are the ones where DJay and his production team make the music. You really get the sense tha they are creating something and when the song finally works, it's a triumph. Hearing Shug sing the chorus for "Hard out there for a Pimp" is the best part in the film. It doesn't hurt that the rap songs are pretty good. I love when Key is bobbing subtly to the music, he's just really feeling it and that translates to the audience.

As in any film, things go bad, and it's quite a disappointment when you see DJay's demo in the toilet. You want him to succeed so much, because things are so bad for the characters. Like 8 Mile, this demo is his last chance to leave behind a life of poverty, and in the end, it's the music that gives all the characters a higher purpose beyond their boring lives. I really like that message, that creating art can make ordinary life so much more rewarding.

The film's weakness is in the fact that it's really a pretty cliched story. It's just so well told and acted that it totally succeeds as an emotional experience. It earns the happy ending.

Coffee and Cigarettes - This is a film by Jim Jarmusch, consisting of a series of short pieces revolving around the titular two vices. As in any anthology film, there's ups and downs. Looking at it as a whole, it's a really entertaining package, wiith enough great moments to overwhelm the shorts that don't really go anywhere.

The film reminded me a lot of Linklater's work, especially in the early going. Much like Slacker or Waking Life, we get to know a bunch of characters and hear them talk about something they're interested in. There's even some of the metaphysics that Linklater loves, with talk of dreams and Tesla Coils. However, the film lacks the narrative cohesion of Linklater's talking epics, and towards the end, the film becomes much more about comedy than the more lo-fi shorts near the beginning.

But this is actually a good thing. The final shorts present a really interesting comment on celebrity. 'Cousins' tells the story of Cate Blanchett and her cousin, Shelly (also played by Blanchett). They have a really uneasy relationship because of Cate's celebrity, with Shelly viewing any kindness as condescension, such as when Cate gives her a bag of free stuff she got due to her celebrity. Meanwhile, Cate struggles to seem genuinely interested in Shelly's life, even though she's really just killing time before an interview. It's a really uneasy dynamic, and I imagine that's what it would be like if your cousin is a celebrity.

The awkwardness reaches unbelievable heights in 'Cousins?' where Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan meet up. Alfred is very excited because he's discovered that he and Steve may in fact be cousins, but Steve is totally uninterested and in a hilarious exchange, refuses to give Alfed his home number. The interaction here is very real, and nicely exploits social boundaries, there's no acceptable way for Steve to not give Alfred his number and him trying to find a way is hilarious. One of the funniest lines is when Steve says his grandmother loved Alfred in Boogie Nights, clearly unable to remember any other film he was in. Things reverse when Spike Jonze calls Alfred, and Steve is now desperate to befriend Alfred, but can't because he has already offended him. It nicely captures real interaction and is incredibly funny.

My favorite segment was 'Delirium' in which the RZA and GZA of theWu-Tang Clan go to a diner and are surprised to be served by Bill Murray. It's really bizarre comedy, Bill is apparently working at the diner because he's in hiding for some reason and the things they say are just hilarious. It's the broadest piece in the film, but the combination of RZA and Bill Murray really works.

There's some slow parts, some pieces that don't work, but on the whole it's a really fun film that's worth it for the Bill Murray piece alone.