Saturday, December 15, 2007

Daft Punk's Electroma

Daft Punk made my favorite album of all time, the pop epic Discovery. To me, it sounds like someone from a hundred years in the future trying to make music that sounds like the 70s and 80s. It’s simultaneously kitschy and totally sincere, never more so than on the standout track, “Digital Love.” Ever since Discovery, the band has been a bit frustrating. Taking four years to do a followup album, then boasting about how they made it in only two weeks, Human After All was something of a disappointment to everyone. I don’t think it’s so much what the album was, as the fact that it wasn’t like Discovery, it didn’t try to please an audience, it just did its thing.

I always liked the album, but it’s only in 2007 that it’s become clear that Human After All is a small piece of an expanding media empire for the band. They put on one of the greatest live experiences of all time, and have now produced a film that explores the themes of Human After All, and the band’s self created mythology in a really interesting way. This film is an assured piece of work, one of the most idiosyncratic and challenging debut features of all time, complimenting their recording work and, much like their albums, existing in a nebulous 70s/future state, somewhat retro, somewhat future, but certainly not anything like the world we live in today.

The precursor to this film is the three videos Daft Punk directed for Human After All. The first, Robot Rock, introduced the new look of their robot characters, black leather motorcycle outfits replaced the more colorful Discovery era look. Technologic expanded things, with the weird organic robot creature that spit the song’s lyrics. The best by far was “Primetime of Your Life,” a work that on the surface should be somewhat campy, a girl whose family is all skeletons feels she’s too fat, turns into a deeply disturbing work. It’s almost hard to watch the video, watch her literally tear herself apart. The album was minimalist, but the videos expand the song’s scope, in the same way that the live work does, reappropriating the pieces of Human After All as the base elements to support the more poppy hooks of their first two albums.

The final piece of the experiment is Electroma, a work that doesn’t actually feature any of their music, but still feels utterly of the universe they created in their recent work. The film feels a lot like Gus Van Sant’s recent death trilogy, rambling and minimalist, at times testing the audience’s capacity to engage with minimal images, and a non-narrative structure. Like in Van Sant’s films, the lack of plot allows us the engage more directly with the images and emotion of the moment. There’s no dialogue in the film, but we can still understand what the characters are feeling, and that’s a triumph of filmmaking.

Visually, the movie is consistently surreal and dazzling, recalling the varied sights and digressions of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. By putting everyone in the film in robot helmets, ordinary scenes take on a menacing, otherworldly quality. The film’s first act is mostly about setting up this universe, showing the robot people going about their everyday lives, while our two main characters look on with trepidation. The filmmaking has a consistently slow pace, letting us dwell in the images before moving on. In that sense, the town scenes have a tableau quality, the people feel deliberately staged for us.

From there, we shift to the white room, where the two robots are remade into crude humans. Visually, this scene is amazing. The attendants wear pure white outfits, and blend in with the background. So, when they reach out to the robots, they it appears like an arm coming out of nowhere. When they carry stuff later on, the item seems to just float through the air. Here, the robots are given crude human faces, out of nasty flesh colored slop and false features. It’s a striking birth scene, simultaneously the most alien place in the film and the most relatable. Throughout, this film just hits so many visual motifs I love, a white room, robots, weird looking desert, cool leather jackets, this is the kind of stuff I like to see in movies, and Daft Punk created a movie with all of it.

One of the interesting things about movies is that the least respected movies and the most respected both rely almost exclusively on visuals. Big budget action movies are criticized for being nothing but eye candy, while at the same time, the arty crowd hails people like Malick and Wong Kar-Wai for making lush, visual opuses. I think the difference is that the big budget films don’t create any emotion in the visual, they just stick a CG effect out there and expect that to wow you on its own. With the WKW or Malick films, the visual dazzle is about creating an emotion. With Malick’s best works, it’s a surrender to a spiritual experience. The New World begins with an incantation to the gods, and the rest of the film is a trip back in time to a place and moment that once was.

Electroma is a similar kind of visual experience. This is a film where every frame is interesting to look at. The props are aesthetically interesting, and the visual composition striking. If I like looking at the images, it makes it a lot easier to enjoy a film. I love movies that focus on making images that pop and are fun to look at. Even a movie like Irreversible, horrifying as it is, is so visually striking, you can’t look away. The problem with classical Hollywood conventions is that they focus exclusively on telling a story and ignore the joy that can come from a great visual. When things are working well, the visuals contain in them emotion and thus enhance the story.

In this film, the images are meant to lull you into a trance, where you get lost in the rhythms of what’s going on. The story exists to provide additional emotional context for the images, but what we’ve got here is really just three silent short films where everything you need to know is in the visuals. The first of these was the trip through the town, the second is the robots’ experience with their human masks.

Wearing the human masks, they wander through the streets, getting odd stares from the townspeople. Read on an allegorical level, this film, like 2001, is about evolution. The robots go into the white room and come out changed, a new form of existence. However, this is a world that’s not ready for change. They want to be human, but only the surface is changed, not the soul. The human masks do not give the confidence of true humanity, instead they’re a caricature. It’s a robot’s attempt to be human, not the sincere thing.

The most disturbing section of the film was when their faces started melting and they were chased out of town. The camerawork here was very cutty and handheld, an obvious choice, but still effective. The really disturbing section was in the bathroom, as they tore the human masks off their robot faces. It’s the grunginess of the bathroom that makes it work. This isn’t the clean sci-fi space of the white room, it’s a nasty public bathroom, the dreams they had in the spirit-space quickly breaking apart when they come into contact with reality. That’s a central piece of the film’s thematic message, the dichotomy between the dreamspace of the white room and the real world. In the white room, the facial prosthetics look utterly convincing, when brought into the real world, they seem grotesque. For all we know, there was no white room, it was just the robots doing the makeup themselves.

Next up, they retreat into the desert, the section of the film that seemed to cause problems for most people. Yes, it’s a lowkey part, without much narrative drive, but it still works for me. They don’t push things as far as Van Sant does, there’s always something interesting going on, be it in the visuals or soundtrack. Throughout, the sound design and music are impeccable. I was disappointed when I heard Daft Punk weren’t going to be doing music for the film, but the soundtrack they’ve chosen is fantastic. Most of the songs have a 70s feel, and listening to them, you can hear the roots of Discovery. These songs are a bit softer though, with a couple resembling artists like The Carpenters. I always enjoy that 70s soft rock, and it’s often unjustly maligned. I don’t want a world where every band sounds like The Carpenters, but listening to them every once in a while is great.

The sound design, aside from the music, was very effective. There were odd, disconcerting tones creating a weird mood. Thomas Bangalter did the score and some sound work for Irreversible, and this film features some similar work, with the sound deliberately altering the way the audience views the film. Watching this movie makes you realize how little most films actually do with sound.

During the desert sequence, we segue into an interlude set to Linda Perhacs’ “If You Were My Man.” It’s a gorgeous 70s soft rock song, and while it plays we get helicopter shots of desert hills and mountains, which gradually segue into a shot of a naked woman from the ground level, positioned so that you’re not sure if it’s a woman or more mountains. It’s a really pretty sequence, and a succinct encapsulation of the film’s themes, the tremulous borders of humanity. What is humanity and how do we exist in relation to nature?

The film raises a lot of philosophical questions, but doesn’t delve too deeply into them. It’s more interested in what the visuals can do, and letting you bring your own meaning to the visuals. The lack of dialogue helps the film avoid the pretentiousness that could come with people talking. It’s a really relaxed movie, with a sadness hanging over all of it.

It’s interesting to me that Daft Punk chose to explicitly put their logo on the robots’ jackets. The robot characters they made were a fantasy personality put on to separate them from the press, to separate personality from the music. As such, we speculate not on how the film comments on their own lives so much as its relation to the mythology they constructed. Working in electronic music, there’s always this issue of where the ‘reality’ of their music is. The samples aren’t theirs, but they made them their own. In many ways, the film parallels I’m Not There in its exploration of false identities and the mythology surrounding a beloved musical artist. The closest we get to seeing the real humans behind Daft Punk are those grotesque masks. But, the film itself implies that they are not human, the robot beneath is the truth, no matter what they try to do.

The desert sequence eventually leads to despair as silver helmet robot decides to kill himself. The self destruction was a beautifully poetic sequence, the ticking clock setting us up for a stately demise, only to be jarred by the explosive death. This is where the film reminded me most of Jodorowsky, it hit the same spiritual place his work dwells in, the open desert a lonely and desolate place which tests man’s souls. There’s a deliberateness to the sequence, but it works. Once you’re in that headspace, you don’t want things to move faster.

The second robot’s attempt to kill himself is hard to watch, his inability to reach the self destruction switch. This leads to the gorgeous, haunting final shot of the robot on fire moving through total darkness. It’s a striking image, the total blackness of the surroundings really making it work. I wasn’t expecting the film to end there, I thought they would eventually meet some real humans, but end it did, and in retrospect, it would have been a betrayal of the story universe to have real humans.

Ultimately, this movie did what a film should, it presented astonishing images and put the viewer in another mental space. Movies like this are frequently rejected with the claim that you should only watch it under the influence of drugs. For me, the movie itself is a drug. It puts you in another mental space and lets you get lost and wander around there. The sights are breathtaking and beautiful. It bothers me that all children’s fiction is about wonder and strangeness, but once we get older, people want to reject that fantasy in favor of something more “real.”

Reality is not interesting in and of itself. I live the most realistic movie ever every single day and it’s not that exciting. But, representing those same conflicts and feelings in an allegorical genre space, as this movie does, basic conflicts become something extraordinary and wonderful. This movie is powerful and made with care and enthusiasm. Though it’s their first film, Bangalter and Homem-Christo have an innate understanding of how movies work. There may be some rough patches, but films are not about being polished and smooth, they’re about fire and excitement, and that’s what this movie has. This is a movie unlike anything else I’ve seen, and it’s easily one of the best movies of the year. It’s the kind of movie I want to see a lot more of.

EDIT: Here's an interview with Daft Punk about the film. It's rare they do interviews at all, so it's nice to hear them talk about the film. Hopefully they'll do a full commentary and give us some more background on the DVD.

There Will Be Blood

I caught Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, There Will Be Blood at a press screening a few days ago. Anderson is without a doubt one of the best directors working today, Magnolia is my favorite film ever made, and his other three films are varying degrees of brilliant. Coming off Magnolia, he said “I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I'll make pretty good movies the rest of my life. And maybe I'll make some clunkers, maybe I'll make some winners, but I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I'll ever make.”

His follow up to Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love further develops the magical realist strain present in the former, and does some really interesting things with film form. So, I was excited to see where he’d go next. Unfortunately, There Will Be Blood is easily Anderson’s worst films, a move towards conventional filmmaking at the expense of the unique voice that shone through in his first four films. It’s not a bad movie, but it doesn’t ignite a fire in me the way his other films do. Watching those other movies, I’m awed at the power of what cinema can do, here, there’s some great moments, but the film never quite gets it together, primarily due to the lead performance by Daniel Day Lewis, which ultimately sinks the film.

One of the film’s greatest strength is its physicality. In the opening sequence, we see Lewis’s Daniel Plainview fall down a mineshaft, and the sound and impact of the scene is painful. We’re right there with him as he hits the ground, and the death of a derrick worker later in the film is similarly effective. In those moments, you really get the sense of the danger of this work, but also the sense of discovery. Plainview begins the film as one man in a hole, trying to find wealth, and that pain he feels will be vindicated later in the film.

The film’s strongest material in its first half. We quickly get a sense of who Plainview is, and are able to segue into the film’s central set piece, his creation of a new Little Boston, a town so rich with oil that it’s literally seeping out of the ground. I love watching works like Deadwood or The Wire’s third season that detail the creation of a new civilization. In those works, we understand how a singular vision can lead to vast changes in the lives of all involved. I was feeling a McCabe and Mrs. Miller vibe, with the wealthy industrialist coming to build a town that would make him money.

The film’s most successful bits center around Plainview recreating the town in his image. There’s an interesting moral position here, on the one hand he is exploiting them for their oil. But, if he builds a school and makes them all wealthy, where’s the harm in that? The opening of the derrick is a moment for celebration, and watching the town gathered, we understand the impact this will have. The quiet moments where Daniel and his son, HW, hang out with the locals are some of the film’s most successful, capturing a kind of Days of Heaven utopian feel.

And, this is where the film’s central conflict works best. Daniel and Eli Sunday are rivals throughout the film. In the beginning of the movie, that rivalry sears the screen with its intensity. When Daniel passes over Eli to bless the well, you just know shit is going down. Eli is steaming, but can’t say anything, and Plainview is laughing beneath his genial mask.

Things build to the film’s strongest visual setpiece, the fire at the well. This is another visceral moment, with H.W. nearly getting blown off the derrick by the force of the oil. There’s some beautiful shots of men running to put the fire out as burning oil gushes into the air. The sequence is intense and a wonderful piece of visual spectacle. There are few sights more dazzling than that fiery oil erupting into the sky as the derrick burns. When Daniel abandons his son to go back to the derrick, we know everything we need to know about him. His great accomplishment in the town is burning, everything seems to be falling apart.

At this point, I was liking the film, but not loving it. It was in a position where a strong ending could make it into a masterpiece. Unfortunately, nothing late in the film comes close to matching the intensity or visual spectacle of the burning derrick sequence. That should have been the end of the film, as a visual symbol of Plainview’s destruction, it’s perfect, we don’t need to see any more, that should have been the ending.

The rest of the film is a series of events that don’t really build to anything. Stuff happens, but I never got the strong sense of forward momentum that the film had at the beginning. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the characters were interesting in and of themselves, but they’re just not. The biggest danger when making a period film is to treat the characters like an alien, unknowable people. These characters are bound by artifice and I have no sense of them as people like you or me. They exist in a kind of mythic world that doesn’t feel emotionally real.

The best period films, like The New World or Marie Antoinette, manage to make the characters emotionally relatable. In The New World, the filmmaking itself conveys the universality of the emotions. The shots cut through the artifice of period speech and bring emotion to the fore. Here, Anderson’s style is less overt than what he used in his previous films. I love the breaks from realism of his previous films, the singing sequence in Magnolia, or the lens flares in Punch Drunk Love. They are not real in the sense of something that would happen in our world, but they let us engage with the characters in a way that just showing events cannot.

This film is well shot, but it doesn’t do a good job of making great cinematic moments. Much like No Country for Old Men, I can’t really fault any of the cinematography, but it didn’t hit me like a good movie should. The film flirted with Malick’s style a lot, even using Jack Fisk as production designer, but comparing the movie to Malick makes its failures clear. Malick creates an intensely subjective cinema, one where you’re absolutely drowning in feeling and beauty. Here, you’re always at a distance from the emotion, the filmmaking doesn’t draw you in.

The score is at fault here too. I heard a lot of hype about how unconventional and effective it is, but it sounds fairly straightforward to me. There’s no anachronistic elements, nothing that jumps out at you, it’s just dissonant, buzzing strings and other similar sounds. It’s nothing like Jon Brion’s Magnolia or Punch Drunk Love scores, which provide momentum and additional aesthetic beauty to those films.

I’d suspect Anderson wanted to go minimalistic for this film, to prove that he could make films without “gimmicks.” But, is Malick a gimmicky filmmaker? Is Wong Kar-Wai a gimmicky filmmaker? Those are the guys that Anderson matched up to in his past two films, creating these emotionally immersive, wonder filled epics. Here, he’s making a much more straight ahead film, and it really bothers me that people are calling it more “mature” or a major leap forward. This is exemplary of a bias in film criticism which holds that movies set in the past are somehow inherently more worthy than present day stuff. This movie doesn’t feel alive in the way that his others do, unfortunately, mature is frequently a euphemism for more conventional. But, as Alan Moore said, reality is much less interesting than fantasy, and the lack of stylistic flourishes hurts the film for me.

My guess is that Anderson felt Day Lewis would provide the film with all it needed, and his goal as a filmmaker was to just stay out of the way and let Lewis do his thing. Unfortunately, Day Lewis, in my opinion, is not a very good actor. Now, that may be blasphemy to some, so let me explain. For me, acting should be about becoming a character. The best performances are the ones that don’t feel like performances at all, where you assume they just found this guy on the street and put him in the film. However, critics and awards organizations don’t usually award those performances because they’re not showy, if a person seems just like the character they’re playing, it means they’re not acting right? That’s probably why The Wire hasn’t got any acting awards.

Anyway, Lewis is a frequently awarded actor, and has this mythology about his total commitment to every role. This is the guy who sat in a wheelchair for three months for My Left Foot, lived in the forest for a year killing deer for Last of the Mohicans, and apparently he actually took a time machine and lived in 1911 for this role. That’s devotion, right? But, it’s this very devotion to the role that distances me from his work. He always seems to be so intensely into the role, I think more this guy is acting up a storm than just looking at Plainview and thinking, huh, this is a troubled, nasty guy. The performance itself becomes a kind of spectacle, the intensity is so powerful that critics mistake that for good acting. But, to me, the intensity is such that I’m taken out of the film, it’s an extratextual intensity, not motivated by what’s in the film. I never get the sense of Plainview as a human being, Lewis may stay in character all the time on set, but no one in real life stays in character all the time. We shift and change depending on the situation, and I didn’t feel that capacity for varied emotion from the character.

This didn’t really become apparent until the film’s final scene, when Lewis goes so far over the top, I got completely taken out of the film and started watching a guy yelling and going nuts. Should Lewis not prepare so thoroughly, should he be less intense? Not necessarily, obviously the performance works for a lot of people, but this just isn’t a kind of acting that works for me. Anderson’s gotten some phenomenal performances in his previous work, from all kinds of people, and I feel like he lost control of Lewis here. Compare Lewis’s performance to Adam Sandler’s in Punch Drunk. I felt more genuinely scared by Sandler’s intensity because it boils beneath the surface the whole film, only coming out in occasional spurts. There’s no room to be over the top, but we’re always worried he’s just going to lose it. Because Plainview has essentially no foils and no limits, there’s no danger in him completely losing it.

In the case of the last scene, I guess we’re supposed to be worried about Eli Sunday, but Paul Dano is such a non presence in the film, I don’t really care. The problem with his character is that the moment where he sells his soul doesn’t feel weighty enough. It’s a sadistic act by Daniel, but I never emotionally engaged with Eli, so I’m distanced from the whole scene. Daniel has changed a lot over the last sixteen years, Eli not so much, or at least not that I can tell. He has become more like Daniel, but only in one scene do we see that in action.

I think what Anderson was going for was to show us the pain Daniel feels at HW betraying him taken out on Eli, but knowing what he was going for doesn’t excuse the failure of that scene. I think he was going for a Kubrick style almost comedic ending, but it just doesn’t work. Lewis’s performance in that moment kills it for me. It’s already an underwritten finale, and I feel like he’s trying to bring this film to a close by himself if it kills him. There’s an intriguing bizarreness about the scene, and who knows, maybe on another day the ridiculous over the topness would have worked me. But, on this viewing, it didn’t. I wanted something stronger for the ending, I wanted a moment that matched the burning derrick, but nothing ever came close to that. There’s a few good scenes in the second half, but on the whole, we get no sense of what Daniel did to the town, no sense of how the lives were changed, and no real sense of the man himself. For all Lewis’s bravado, Daniel remains essentially unknowable. Perhaps it’s a bold choice not to let him open up, not to show us his feelings, but it leaves me distanced.

I wouldn’t call the film a failure, it’s a solid three of four stars, but from Anderson, it’s a major disappointment. It’s not a step backwards so much as it’s a step away from emotionally real, cinematically dazzling storytelling, towards a more traditional period epic. People have hailed the film for recalling classic Hollywood epics, but most of those movies weren’t good ones. They weren’t as strong as the intensely personal epics that Anderson crafted with his previous three films. There’s no moments in this film that come close to the manic “Jesse’s Girl” scene in Boogie Nights, pretty much any scene in Magnolia, or the gorgeous color flood kisses of Punch Drunk.

Now, you may say I’m criticizing the film simply because it’s different from those other films, doesn’t live up to what I want PTA to be. To that, I say, if this movie wasn’t by Paul, I probably wouldn’t have written half as much. I want to understand how such a great director could misstep in this way. In some ways, it reminds me of Tim Burton’s Big Fish. That was a good, solid movie, but it lacked the personal spirit that infused his best work. People really responded to it, but I don’t know that anyone loved it in the way they loved Edward Scissorhands. Who knows how things will go? Perhaps this will mark the ascent of Paul Thomas Anderson, beloved Oscar winning epic filmmaker, or maybe it’s just a palette clearing exercise before he returns to more personal work. Ultimately, I can only say how I responded to the film, how I responded to the Day Lewis performance and where the film succeeded and failed.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

I'm Not There

Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how pathetic this year’s crop of films was. But, all the while, I was thinking of the fact that I still hadn’t seen Todd Haynes’s new film, I’m Not There. Thanks to a variety of factors, I hadn’t gotten to the film, so when I woke up today, I went to the first show, and finally saw the film. It’s easily the best film of the year, full of ideas and filmic innovation, a real masterpiece, and a great addition to Haynes’s previous music films, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Velvet Goldmine. Like those films, it uses a famous musician as the impetus for exploring a moment in time, and the nature of individual identity. I’m Not There is about Bob Dylan, it is about the cycle of human life, every single human life, from birth to death.

I’m not a particularly big Bob Dylan fan. I’ve heard his big hits, and am familiar with his mythos, but haven’t listened to many of his full albums. I don’t particularly like the quality of his voice, but I can certainly respect his writing and enjoy a lot of what I’ve heard. So, I was looking forward to the film more to see what Haynes would do than for any particular interest in Dylan himself.

I’ve heard people criticize the film as of interest only to hardcore Dylan fans, and inclusionary to people as a whole. I think this is totally off, for me, the film is even less about Dylan than Velvet Goldmine was about Bowie and Iggy Pop. It takes pieces of the Dylan myth, but other than Cate Blanchett’s Jude and Christian Bale’s Jack Rollins, the other characters are fairly standalone. I think you could easily enjoy the film without knowing who Bob Dylan is and without having any familiarity with the folk scene it explores. The film uses Dylan’s identity swapping as a jumpoff point to explore the way we all build up different identities over the course of our lives. It’s about the construction of self mythology, and our inability to live up to the image we put forth to the world. And, despite the fractured structure, this film is not six separate stories, it’s one story represented in six different aspects of the same person, following a life from childhood to old age, a life that need not be a famous one.

Right from the opening shot, I knew this would be a good movie, and I knew it would be a Todd Haynes film. The haunting POV shot tracking up to the stage is similar to the haunting POV shot that opens Poison. Haynes has an uncanny ability to create other worlds on screen, worlds that are at times so alien, they just freak you out. Superstar, Poison and Safe all scare me on some level, for the same reason Eraserhead does. It’s not what happens that scares you, it’s the alienness of the world. He’s not trying to comfortably draw you into a world, he’s opening a door to an other place, and leaving you there. This film has some of that otherworldly feel. Despite the big name stars on screen, you can feel adrift and odd. I couldn’t tell you what it is about that POV shot that unnerves me, but it really does.

But, when watching a film, I like to be unnerved. I like someone who opens a door into another universe and lets you stay there. The early section of the film focuses mostly on young Woody Guthrie, a kid who wants to be a blues singer, like his idol, Woody Guthrie. This is a kid who’s trying to be like someone from twenty years ago. He’s living the 50s, but behaves like it’s still the 20s, he has the concerns of an idol from previous times, and longs to live in the world that brought that music to life. Every kid wants to be like his idols, be they blues singers or simply his/her parents. Kids want to grow up, and by playing the blues, Woody is acting older than he is.

He gets mocked for trying to be like someone from twenty years ago, he gets thrown off a train, but he keeps dreaming anyway. He has this idealized version of Woody Guthrie, the older generation in his head. Here, I particularly like the surreal swimming through water sequence, which echoes Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in its ingenious use of layovers. This is one of those moments that only Haynes does, weird and dazzling.

Young Woody eventually meets up with the real Woody, an old man dying in a hospital. This is part of growing up, to recognize the humanity of your idols. What’s left for you once you realize that the man you want to be is flawed? Do you want to take on his flaws, or do you want to be better? Either way, it’s jarring, and marks the moment of change from child to adulthood. With the loss of the older generation, the young man becomes old.

I’d argue there’s a pretty clear structure to the middle segments in terms of overall narrative. Woody’s childhood gives way to rise, as shown in the Jack Rollins stuff. Here, we see a human being getting turned into a myth. The kid who just wanted to sing, alluded to by Julianne Moore, has, by the time we see him, turned into an iconic personality. Using what we’ve just seen, we can understand the impulses that drove Jack to become a singer, the reasons that he decides to move on from the traditionals and start singing his own songs about his own times.

The documentary format here is the most direct throwback to Superstar, but it doesn’t make for the strongest section of the film. It’s notable that we get almost no time watching Jack rise, he goes from kid to success seemingly in an instant. Looking at the film, it’s clear that the old Woody Guthrie’s death leaves an opening for Jack, and he takes advantage. Society will always need a voice, always need controversial figures, and that’s what Jack becomes.

It’s interesting that young Woody talks about wanting to go to Hollywood and become famous, because the rest of the film is about struggling to deal with fame, and wanting to return to the simple pleasures of anonymity. In each of the stories, we see the Dylan surrogate running from something. In the first, Woody is running from his past in Minnesota, he’s not really a blues man, he’s just a kid from suburbia, and this traveling bum is the first persona he’s put on.

Jack Rollins becomes a mythologized figure, someone who means many different things to many different people. At the awards dinner, he disappoints the crowd when he makes a mistake and proves himself to be only human. He can’t really apologize for it, he can’t possibly live up to the messianic image people have of him.

That’s where the Robbie the actor and Claire story comes in. Here, Jack Rollins is a character, a role that can be put on and representative of certain aspirational values. I love the way the characters’ relationship is inextricably wrapped up in the Vietnam War. Theirs was a generation with an idealism that gradually fell apart. Robbie plays Jack in a movie, a movie that both Robbie and Claire put so much into. They want the film to live up to the man himself and be a revolutionary work. Everything starts to fall apart when they see the film and it fails to live up to expectations. This is another case where the reality fails to match up to the ideal. It’s not bad necessarily, just not what they hoped it to be.

The Claire and Robbie stuff was my favorite of the six milieus of the film. The look of the segment was deep and wonderful, the film technique giving us the story of these characters in a small amount of screentime. We don’t need to know all that they are because we can feel what they’re feeling in the moment. That’s what good filmmaking does makes you experience the world in a different way, and in this case, it was through the eyes of these two characters.

Probably the most honest, least affected scene in the film is the discussion about the differences between men and women. There, we get some raw emotion, and really feel the idealism of the 60s cracking all around. The love they had, born out of an oppositional counterculture movement, is dying at the same time as the war they fought to end is ending. The seemingly arbitrary end of the Vietnam War doesn’t match up to any counterculture activism, it just happened. The sense of futility that Robbie discusses here perfectly captures what a lot of people, including myself, feel about the Iraq War. It feels like there’s nothing we can do to stop the war. In the context of the film, that means that the music is futile, protest songs don’t stop a war, they’re just a way to feel less useless. That’s what Jude says at the press conference, and it’s that fatalism that alienates Claire.

Ultimately, the storyline is about the way our own memories of the past become impossible to live up to. Robbie constantly flashes back to his first meeting with Claire, which is starkly juxtaposed with the coldness they feel in the present. The makeup work on Charlotte Gainsbourg is really fantastic, showing the effects of aging. I also love the cinematography here, particularly during the sex scene, with its abstract close-ups. A lot of Hollywood sex scenes become more about watching famous people naked than watching characters in an emotional moment. The extreme close-ups here work much better than something like Tell Me You Love Me’s explicitness at conveying the emotion of the moment.

In the end, Robbie and Claire are a casualty of the post 60s loss of idealism. This story is the last tied to Dylan himself, it’s more about the impact of the work he did. As such, it’s the most emotionally relatable in a traditional way. It’s the probably the least essential for the film’s mission, but I’m thrilled that it’s in the film.

The storyline that’s attracted the most attention is Cate Blanchett’s performance as Jude, the 60s celebrity Dylan. At first, it was a little distracting, when they called Jude him, it jarred with what I knew about the actress, but once the storyline got going, I forgot about that and just settled in.

The examination of celebrity culture has a lot to say about the world we’re living in. It’s difficult to make a movie about movies and celebrity without seeming self congratulatory, but, from a human identity point of view, I think it’s fascinating to consider the lives that people like Britney Spears or Brad Pitt must live. They have literally no privacy, and are hounded wherever they go by cameras. What does that do to your concept of life, to know that any time you’re out in public, you could be being watched. I think most people would find it hard to feel bad for celebrities, after all, doesn’t everybody want to be famous? But, as in all things, you want what you can’t have. I bet Brad Pitt would love to just walk down the street and not have to worry about who might be watching, but he can’t do that. Would he give it all up for a normal life? Who knows, I’m sure there’s a lot of days when he just wishes he could run away from it all.

The Jude segment is about the way that celebrity can produce an increasingly warped reality. On a pure visual level, this is best expressed by the scene at the Warhol party, where Jude gets sick while looking at his own image projected on the walls behind him. Cate Blanchett looks the most like Dylan, and her segment is the one where the most notable real world event is folded in, the electric performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The impact of this is represented in the great moment of automatic machine gun fire on the stage.

The aftermath of the electric performance is where the film most explicitly recalls Velvet Goldmine. I think Goldmine is a stronger film, but it’s also more explicitly tied to its subject matter. That’s a movie about glam rock, this movie is more about the nature of individual identity. Goldmine focused on the movement and impact of the ideas on individuals. However, both films are ultimately about the social construction of identity. In Goldmine, individuals adapt the glam rock style as a fiction suit, a new liberating persona. That’s most explicit with Brian Slade becoming Maxwell Demon, killing him and being reborn as Tommy Stone, but throughout the film, we see characters who find liberation in glam rock style. It is all about transcending societal norms and expressing some deeper sense of self in the outrageous clothes and makeup. That’s what Christian Bale’s character tells his parents, that underneath, he is Maxwell Demon.

I’m Not There interrogates this process of identity creation. Jude Quinn is a construction, one that people enjoy. They like his outrageousness, and they want him to change the world. It’s not the person they like, it’s the personality. However, Bruce Greenwood’s character needs to see behind that, to puncture the persona and discover the real person. He asks Jude the questions that others won’t ask, and winds up revealing the truth about who he was.

In the end, Jude moves further and further away from reality, invoking the wrath of fans who loved his down to Earth, socially interested early work. The funniest bit is when Jude asks Jesus “Why don’t you play your early stuff”? Once a celebrity, he is constantly maligned for not living up to who he was earlier. Jude has lost touch with the spark that ignited young Woody Guthrie because he is not a common person. He hangs out with other celebrities, has relationships with models from magazine covers and is constantly hounded by the press. How can you write about the working man when you’re living like that?

The notion of an eighty date tour drives him over the edge, retreating into a dream. I love the image of Jude suspended on a string, not quite drifting away. It’s an 8 ½ quote, and a well used one. Even the character’s own dream life is bound by what’s been set out in pop culture. He is existing in an echo chamber, and rebels against his fans as a result. They want you to be the same as you were, but if you stay the same, they’ll criticize you for that.

Coming off the manic celebrity of the Jude segment, we return to Jack Rollins, who has become a Christian preacher. While this references Dylan’s Christian period, it also works as a logical progression from the hyper celebrity. Jude was an isolated character, constantly surrounded by an entourage, but with no real friends. To become a preacher is to become part of something larger than oneself, to recover meaning. Perhaps the best musical performance of the film is Jack’s song from the pulpit.

This brings us to the final segment of the film, and what’s apparently the least popular, Richard Gere’s William and the town of Riddle. It’s tough to engage with because the connection with Dylan isn’t immediately apparent. That’s true, but I think it’s actually a good thing. It’s the segment that broadens the film’s scope and makes it more universally relatable. In Riddle, it’s Halloween all the time. People can go there put on a different personality, and no one will notice.

That’s what our main character has done, once a renowned outlaw, he now lives a quiet life of anonymity. To understand this segment, you have to understand that everyone reinvents themselves, creates different personas for different purposes, and doesn’t necessarily want to be reminded of who they once were. People talk about how radical it is to have six people playing one character, but what it is is a literal representation of what we all do in our own minds.

Here, we follow an old man, who’s been through celebrity and chaos and now just wants to be left alone. But, it’s not so easy to change identities, memories and legends always exist, and people won’t just leave you alone. The highway is coming to Riddle, society returning to disrupt this haven. A central moment here is when Rimbaud Dylan is talking about the seven rules of disappearing. One is not looking at yourself, we see Woody Guthrie, the only time two Dylans meet, but William doesn’t look at him. That kind of self examination is not for him at this moment.

His desire to move on from the past continues when he encounters Pat Garrett, a man who is this realm’s incarnation of the Journalist, both played by Bruce Greenwood. The film is one story, and character types recur throughout. This is the most obvious one, a character who seeks to push through the secrecy surrounding this man, and find the truth. However, what the film makes clear is that the identities one puts up to protect him/herself reveal a lot more about the person than the strict facts. That’s why this film is so much more successful than a traditional biopic. We know the facts, facts don’t tell us anything. We’ll never know what things were really like for Dylan, and honestly, watching that story doesn’t matter.

Superstar broadened Karen Carpenter’s story into a wide ranging exploration of how society forces women to conform to certain images, it’s about the social pressures we all feel in our lives. A straight biopic, of either her or Dylan, would lose that universal relevance. I don’t know what it’s like to become famous, and I can’t really relate to that story in the way I can to the story of someone who constructs false identities, all in search of some idealized self.

In the end, Garrett interrogates William and a temporary stop along the way ends. He’s back on the run, just like he always was. He has gone from childhood to old age, gotten everything he wanted, and now is happy to be back in the same place, dusting off the old guitar and rediscovering what made him want to get into music in the first place. Bringing it full circle gives the film a strong finality. He will continue to reinvent himself, but at the core there is the music, and the hope that somehow, singing these songs will make a difference. It’s not about people hearing it, it’s not about being famous, it’s about the simple joy that playing the guitar can bring. Maybe this machine can’t kill fascists, maybe it can’t change the world, but it sure can affect people, and maybe making them happy is all you can hope for.

There’s a wonderful haunting quality about the final scenes, as William watches his dog fail to catch up to the train. He wanted to take part of that life with him, but it didn’t make it, and really he doesn’t need it.

I think this film is a linear narrative, just one that’s split across six different characters. It’s the story of one man’s growth, rise to fame and ultimate rejection of the role society tried to put on him in favor of a simpler, quiet life. Wrapped up in this narrative are five individual stories, each aspects of the larger whole. It’s a really interesting structure and one of the most ambitious pieces of screenwriting I’ve ever seen.

At the same time, Haynes’s nails the directing side of things. He’s got so much ambition, nimbly leaping from style to style, all the while keeping things unified. There are images in here that sear into your brain, and throughout, he manages to distill complex emotions and ideas into singular images. Watching the film, there’s always something cool going on, something you want to watch. There’s no scene in here that feels “normal,” no exposition to get through before the good part. It’s all good, and this is easily the best film of the year. It’s a movie about the way we all live, as exemplified by one specific life.

Film in 2007: A Medium in Flux

The past few years, I’ve made a bunch of posts about the changing relationship between cinema and television, and with each passing year, the visual works that have really amazed me have been more and more on TV. This year is being called a great year for movies, but I haven’t seen one movie that I really loved, a movie that I could wholeheartedly recommend to people as a great cinematic experience. We’re approaching the end of the year, and I haven’t seen one truly great movie, and only a few really good ones.

Last week, I saw No Country for Old Men, a movie that’s being called the best film of the year by a wide range of critics. Personally, I liked the film better the first time the Coens made it when it was a pop, scrappy B movie called Blood Simple. No Country isn’t a bad movie, but it never gave me a charge. The plot wasn’t predictable, but the film style was. Once I figured out there was no music, and they were shooting from a restrained, objective style, I just sort of settled in, and was never really wowed again. Was I surprised by developments late in the film? Yes, but the problem is, as a two hour film, it’s hard to make me engage with the characters in a way that makes me really care about that surprise.

It’s a loose connection, drugs mainly, but watching the film, none of the characters had half the pizzazz of even minor players on The Wire. The thing that long form TV shows can do that features can’t is let the characters just exist. In screenwriting, tightness is admired. If you put a gun on the wall in the first act, it’s got to go off in the third act. The mother in this film has to factor in later because she’s talked about early on. At this point, it takes a truly fucking amazing story to make me care about the characters in a film.

The thing that changed that was watching long form TV series. The best TV shows create fully realized world. In The Wire, a character can just be there, not serving a narrative purpose, rather existing until he’s needed again. Someone like Bodie doesn’t need to be in the show after the first season, but he’s an interesting character, and it’s nice to spend time with him. The gun on the wall doesn’t have to fire in the third act, maybe it just looks nice on the wall.

I think Bodie, to choose a random example, is a more interesting character than Welyn because Welyn is always subject to the needs of the narrative. Because the film is only two hours, shortcuts are used to show us who he is. We see the truck, we see his home life, we know the guy. But, we don’t really. We’re dropped in at a point in his life when something interesting happens. The longform nature of The Wire means that we can really become a part of the characters’ lives, and understand their entire world. There’s story that happens, but the real point of the work is to create a world.

Those shows have been so successful that they’ve turned narrative cinema as we knew it in the past into a second rate medium. It baffles me that a film like No Country could get so much enthusiasm, is a competently executed film enough to make people go nuts, to be ranked the sixteenth greatest film ever made on IMDB?! The filmmaking is solid, but solid isn’t exciting. I don’t get a charge out of watching a “well made” film because I can watch a well made epic in The Wire. On TV, there’s less of a need for showy craft because they can create truly interesting and fully developed characters and worlds. In a movie, just telling a story in well done way doesn’t do it anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love movies, I just think they have to operate in a different way. TV has taken over stories, that’s gone as we knew it. What movies can do is tell stories in a way that TV can’t. That’s where style comes in. Wong Kar-Wai is the template for me, his films are not narrative based, instead they are about using film style to represent character emotion and create a really visual filmic experience. His movies could not be done on TV because they are about perfectly executed dazzling setpieces that immerse you deeply in platonic concepts of emotion. Looking at 2046, there is a narrative in there, but the specifics are stripped back to instead leave you with this overwhelming emotional force. It’s a perfect use of what only cinema can do.

Miami Vice is another great example of this, a film that also falls in the territory of The Wire. However, unlike The Wire, it chooses to dwell in an emotional place. The camerawork draws you into the characters’ lives and provides a constant string of visual spectacle. The visuals and music are entertaining, without any narrative attached to them, but the real purpose is to use these enveloping visuals to make us feel the relationship between Isabella and Sonny.

Looking at this year, the best movie so far has been Death Proof. What Death Proof did was decentralize the narrative and instead let us just hang out with the girls in the first half. The specifics conflict is not really spelled out, instead we just get the emotion of moments like Julia texting her boyfriend. And, throughout Tarantino is wowing us with the spectacle of his dialogue and the pitch perfect cinematography and musical choices. He is showing us a place and letting us hang out there. Narrative occasionally enters the film, but the real focus is the hanging out.

Planet Terror, its grindhouse counterpart, is another fantastic film. This was a movie that went so far over the top, the joy is in watching Rodriguez push his film to comical, grotesque heights. In both Terror and Death Proof, there’s so much joy in the filmmaking itself, such a love of the material, it’s infectious. It’s this pop fantasia that separates those films from most horror films.

Other than that, there’s not much to speak about for this year. I saw There Will Be Blood the other day, which I can’t fully review for a couple of weeks thanks to a press blackout, but I’ll just say that it lacks the pop dynamism of Anderson’s other films, and is marred by an awfully hammy Daniel Day Lewis performance. Rather than use film technique to let us feel character emotion, as in Magnolia, Anderson just lets Lewis go nuts, to the point that he completely loses touch with reality. I never at one point got the sense that this was not a performance, that it was a real person. It baffles me that he’s in consideration for a best actor award, the guy should get some cheese to go with that ham.

It disappointed me because there were some great moments in there, but again, critics are hailing Anderson for the film’s “maturity,” which is a code word for boring, unobtrusive filmmaking. When you can do much with the medium, just sitting back and letting things happen is pointless. I don’t want minimalism, I want filmmaking that creates stirring emotional moments, the sort of filmic crescendos you can only get in movies. Look at a moment like Pocohontas’s arrival in England in The New World, that is a just awe inspiring moment because of the full combination of screenwriting, shot choice, music choice and performance. You couldn’t get that awe if you used a more minimalist style.

To use Anderson’s own work, what makes Magnolia so special is the way cinematic technique is used to make us emotionally engage with these characters. Look at the audacious “Wise Up” sequence, that sequence gets to me so much, and just those elegant, silent push in shots of the characters do so much. Blood lacks that grandeur, it’s like Anderson saw his sets and decided he didn’t have to do anything more, just sit back and film it. Coming off the formal experimentation and virtuosity of his past three films, it’s distressing to watch him retreat to a more hands off style.

It’s not mature to make movies like that, it’s that adolescent notion that ‘realism’ is somehow more valid than fantasy. Wong Kar-Wai movies may not look like the real world, but they feel like my subjective experience of reality. There are moments in Miami Vice that feel like what I’ve done in my own life, and that’s what cinema can do, that TV cannot, capture our internal feelings. But, it can only be done through the use of film technique that can be considered “showy” or “intrusive.” But, believe me, the unreality of the “Wise Up” sequence pales in comparison to the unreality of Lewis’s film closing histrionics. It’s particularly disappointing coming off the lighter, but still magical Punch Drunk Love, a decidedly underrated film.

So, if this is a great movie year, what are the great movies? What do I need to see that I missed? People who’ve read the blog know my taste, so perhaps they could recommend this year’s Domino, the kind of crazy, but great film that can slip through the cracks.