Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

In 00s Hollywood, indie film has become a kind of genre, filled with quirky characters and a low key, absurdist humor. Think of Juno or Little Miss Sunshine, films that aren’t bad, but aren’t particularly challenging in any way. Two years ago, I wrote a post about the way that this shift in what is independent has had a catastrophic effect on American cinema. Much like the Bush administration has changed definitions of what conservative and liberal are, to the point that simply wanting to undo the most catastrophic “tax cuts” in the history of America is seen as class warfare, American cinema has to struggle with a marketplace where mainstream cinema has become so formulaic and lowest common denominator that it’s up to “indie cinema” to make the movies that would have been regular studio movies in the 30s or 70s.

That’s all a way of saying how refreshing it is to see a movie like Rachel Getting Married that manages to capture moments of life and sadness and joy in a way few films can. Most of the attention the film has gotten has been for Anne Hathaway’s lead performance, and she is great, but there’s a lot more to the movie than her. The movie recalls Robert Altman’s 70s films, like Nashville, which are more concerned with human behavior and using large events as a structural element to reveal the nuances of the various characters. I haven’t seen Altman’s A Wedding, but I’d imagine that film influenced what Demme does here.

The film’s best scenes for me were the moments where the event takes on a momentum of its own, and you look on, like a spectator at the actual event. The dancing in the tent segment at the wedding itself had this feel, the camera seemingly abandoning the narrative to instead capture an almost abstract take on the party. I loved the hip level shots of the guests dancing, and though the many, seemingly random musical performances came out of nowhere, they generally worked. I also loved the moment where Kim is trying to dance, but just can’t quite get into the music. She’s probably not used to being at a party without being drunk or high, and though she does her best, she just can’t ignore all the bad stuff in her head and get lost in the moment. But, just because she can’t doesn’t mean the people around her aren’t, Sidney and Rachel dancing in the center of the circle, or the random breakdancing sequence are both exuberant moments.

The film had to walk a difficult line of never straying too far into narrative histrionics, and also never getting too lost in simply showing what happens at a wedding. The rehearsal dinner sequence starts off with a lot of momentum and fun, but by the tenth speech, it starts to get a bit repetitive. Conversely, the loading the dishwasher sequence starts out great, capturing the energy when a large number of people spontaneously decide to do something and all get caught up in it. It reminded me a lot of big family dinners we used to have when I was a kid, if you could get 15 people all together to do something, it felt pretty cool. But, that scene lost it for me when the Ethan plate came out, it was a bit too on the nose,

That’s not to say all the Ethan stuff didn’t work. It was best when it remained under the surface, informing the jealousies and ill feeling of the family without being made explicit. I love the scene where Kim describes what happened at NA because it makes clear that sometimes it’s easier to tell strangers stuff about yourself than it is to reveal it to your family, the people you should ostensibly be closest to. I also like the conundrum that what happened with Ethan creates in Kim. It’s not like she started using to get over this trauma, his death is the legacy of her drug abuse, but at the same time, living with this guilt and trying to get clean is too much for her to handle. There’s no easy answers for her, and the film doesn’t try to provide them. In the end, Rachel and Kim don’t resolve their issues so much as agree to move on and try to live in the happy moments.

I really liked the look of the film. Here, I found the graininess and distinct visual quality of digital video more interesting than the clarity of 35mm. There was an immediacy to the photography that I rarely see. Particularly when blown up and viewed on 35, digital video can look amazing, and it did here.

I’ve seen people criticize the film for its cliché indie handheld camera. The film definitely had a lot of signifiers of realism, in films nothing says real like a character taking a piss. But, I think the camera did a great job of doing what shots in a film should do, direct our attention where it needs to go and use the visuals to reflect character emotional states, and be aesthetically interesting in their own right. These shots weren’t pretty portraits, but in context they worked great. I was particularly impressed by Kim’s lonely drive through the night.

It seems that film culture in America has split in two. Living in New York, the week’s big new releases aren’t the 3,000 screen Hollywood blockbuster, it’s the 3 screen indie movie that’s just coming out. Rachel hasn’t gone wide yet, but it’s what the film communities on the internet are talking about, hell, at this point I’m a couple of weeks behind talking about it. It’s unfortunate that it’s so tough for people to see movies like this when they come out, but I guess if more people did go to challenging movies in the theater, they’d get wider exposure.

Either way, it’s not up to this film to save cinema. What it is is a really well made, emotionally engaging film, and we can never get enough of those.

Batman: "The Club of Heroes" (#667-669)

There’s an ongoing debate in my mind over who’s the best comic book artist, Frank Quitely or JH Williams III. Reading something as great as All Star Superman or We3 makes me think that nobody could be better than Quitely. Then, I read Promethea or Seven Soldiers #1 and I find it hard to believe anyone could top Williams. But, it doesn’t have to be an either/or, they’re both amazing, and luckily, they’ve both done a lot of work with Grant Morrison lately. I’m still waiting for the previously mentioned Morrison/Williams creator owned series that’s likely still a ways off, but more recently, we got their three issue arc on Batman, a great story in its own right, but one that only adds to the fractured inconsistency of Morrison’s Batman run on the whole.

Reading Batman straight through is a schizophrenic experience. We jump from the Kubert stuff to a seemingly totally disconnected standalone tale with The Joker, back to regular continuity for a couple of issues, then it’s over to a similarly disconnected tale set in the future. Then, it’s over to this Williams stuff, which doesn’t seem to flow that logically out of the previous issues, then over to the Ra’s al Ghul crossover, and it’s not until Batman #672 that we’re back to the ‘normal’ storyline, with the three Batmen and all that. I’m on issue #673 now, a dazzling, brilliant issue, and it’s possible that all these disparate issues will come together in the RIP storyline, but for now, the rapidly swerving art styles and narrative focuses make it difficult to take away anything coherent from the run.

Still, as an essentially standalone story designed to reincorporate some 50s motifs and introduce the Black Glove, the “Club of Heroes” arc is great fun, with art like only Williams can do. Reading a Williams issue, you get the feeling that everyone else out there is lazy. He puts so much detail into every panel, using color and layout to help tell the story, and create something that’s aesthetically interesting on its own terms. He draws all the different heroes in a slightly different style, giving Batman a very monochromatic mysterious look, while El Gaucho has a slightly fuzzy European feel and Wingman has a very Image look. It’s a smaller scale version of the stylistic variations he used in Seven Soldiers #1, and it helps to make the characters distinct in a very short period of time.

The story picks up on a lot of the themes of Seven Soldiers, particularly its exploration of what it means to have been a hero and not to be one anymore, of this struggle to live up to the legend of a guy like Batman. One of Morrison’s central conceits in his run is the notion that its one guy who’s been through all the adventures that Batman has had in comics. So, for the Club of Heroes, Batman has ‘matured’ while they’ve stayed the same goofy people. The arc is told from their perspective, Batman is more of an absent father figure, the guy they all blame for their personal failures.

My major frustration with this arc is that it’s so thematically close to what Seven Soldiers did, but without as much of the relatable emotional feel. In Seven Soldiers #0, and in the minis, the attempt to be a hero is analogous to all of our attempts to do things in our life, to be better. The DCU and superhero milieu is used as a way to dramatize these essential conflicts, it functions as a meta comment on superhero comics, but also as a comment on life itself. Here, because the characters don’t get as much time to develop, it becomes more about wallowing in comic book history and while I do enjoy any time spent with Man-o-Bats, Morrison has done similar, better stuff in the past.

Much of Morrison’s Batman run has been about exploring the different aspects of Batman himself. The initial arc is about Batman trying to rediscover Bruce Wayne, then he has to deal with Damien, and after that the three Batmen. Here, Batman’s surrounded by a legion of imitators, but the only one who can actually match up to Batman is John Mayhew. The arc begins with Batman saying he’s always been interested in what super-wealthy men do when they get bored, obviously a question he’s got an interesting answer for himself. Mayhew is a twisted reflection of what Bruce Wayne could have become, as are pretty much all the motley crew we see here. If Batman loses his intensity and discipline, he could just as easily become one of these guys, struggling to keep up with the times.

While I do have some quibbles with the storyline, it’s a lot of fun, and the kind of book that makes you realize just how good a monthly comic can be. Reading All Star Superman makes it clear just how large the gap between what a comic can be and what most are is. Joss Whedon said that part of the reason he made “Once More With Feeling” was to show what a regular TV episode could be. And, reading an issue like All Star Superman #12, you realize how much can be told in 22 pages, how many concepts and ideas can be in there, how much emotion. If every comic was like All Star Superman, or these Batman issues, there’d be a lot more comics readers. There’s a lot of great moments in here, Man-o-Bats saving Raven Red from the tank of piranhas, Batman on his jetpack cutting across the page, the abstract watercolor pages that close each issue.

Like a lot of Morrison stories, this one is teeming with potential stories. I’d love to see more adventures with Beryl and Robin. Their teamup to save Raven Red is so much better than the lame Robin solo stories in Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul, and ties nicely back to Morrison’s JLA: Classified arc. He’s built his own corner of the DCU to mess around in, and the stories tie together nicely.

But, at this point, it’s hard for me to connect this story to the rest of the run. I respect and really like these issues, but it wasn’t until I read issue #673 that I found a Morrison Batman issue that I really loved. That issue was the kind of insane story that only Morrison can do, unhinged in a way he hasn’t been in a while. At that moment that Batmite appeared, everything changed, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. I’ve got all the single issue of RIP to date, so I should be able to catch up on them this weekend, and be ready for the big finale.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Batman: The Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul

With the release of ‘The Black Glove’ in hardcover, and the buzz surrounding RIP, I figured it was time to catch up on Morrison’s Batman run. That started with a reread of Batman and Son, then segued into a trip through the crossover, “The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul,” a storyline that was justifiably ignored or panned by most of the comics world. Reading this hardcover is like tripping through a myriad of bad art and writing styles, all struggling to mold some decent ideas into a coherent narrative. Coming from Morrison and Peter Milligan, among others, it’s pretty disappointing. By no means is this their mythical collaboration “Bizarre Boys,” promised in the intro to the first Invisibles trade, instead it’s a bunch of workmanlike issues that don’t build to much.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the first Morrison Batman trade. I liked sections of the Damian storyline, the Joker prose story and the weird Bane Batman stuff, but for every good part, there was an underwhelming one. But, at least that felt like a Morrison book, this crossover has very few moments that capture his voice, and the spark that makes his work so special. With 52, it seemed like all the writers made each other up their game to try to keep up, here it’s like everyone’s sinking to the same weak level. It boggles the mind that the same guy who wrote something as brilliant as X-Force could write the Robin issues in this crossover. Morrison’s issues aren’t as outright bad, but they’re not particularly good either.

The biggest disappointment for me is the total mishandling of Damien. Morrison’s characterization there was one of the high points of his initial run of issues, managing to filter the petulant selfishness of a spoiled thirteen year old through the skillset and worldview of someone who’s been raised by a League of Assassins. Damien wouldn’t just throw a fit when he didn’t get what he wanted, he’d go out and kill someone. Here, Damien’s mannered way of speaking is replaced with a generic teen voice, which pretty much kills any interest I had in the character.

Also troubling is the rambling bad joke laden inner monologues that underlie both Robin and Nightwing. Is this the way these comics are always written? Maybe I’ve stuck to Morrison and other great books lately that I’ve got a skewed view, but seriously, aren’t comics better than this? The most interesting character dynamic is the love/hate relationship between Bruce and Talia, Talia’s ambiguity makes her the most interesting character here, but she gets too little time in the spotlight.

The most interesting moments for me were the Seven Soldiersesque reinvention of a group of three bad girl henchwomen. These characters are all past their prime and know it, but deliberately take on the role of henchwomen to Talia to try to get back in the game. That storyline doesn’t really go anywhere, but it has some interesting moments along the way.

The story is perhaps fundamentally flawed for me because I can’t take seriously a guy with the first name Ra’s. There must have been five or six panels with Batman shouting RA’S! and everyone took me out of the story pondering why this guy doesn’t have a more regular name. I suppose he is meant to be from far in the past, but still, the apostrophe in a character’s name always comes off as a bit ridiculous.

So, this story was pretty much a dud, and it seemingly had very few ties to the rest of Morrison’s run, so it would be pretty easily skippable should you choose to do so. Hopefully the Black Glove and RIP will treat me better.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Mad Men: 'Jet Set' (2x11)

Last night’s Mad Men takes the show in yet another strange direction with an initially confounding episode that has stuck in my head as one of the series’ best, and most ambitious episodes to date. While still great, the show had been dragging a bit for me since the Bobby Barrett arc ended, but this episode threw everything back into motion, and most importantly, provided a surreal series of set pieces that forced Don to look at himself and wonder about the kind of life that he has to live.

The entire band of European vagabonds plot had the bizarre internal logic of a 60s European art film, dealing as much in metaphor and subconscious experience as in any kind of surface narrative. I watched Pasolini’s Teorema a few weeks ago, and that film reminds me a lot of the way things happened here. Things just happen without much explanation or concern for the plausibility of events. Is it likely that this band of people would just approach Don and take him with them? In real life, probably not, but in the context of the show, it makes perfect sense.

They see a kindred spirit in Don, someone who’s restless and unwilling to accept the rules of society. These people have shaped themselves into the most glamorous, cool aesthetic they can imagine. The Viscount and Joy are invented personas, they’re living as the people they want to be instead of the people they actually are. They’re not actually rich, but they can squat at peoples’ houses and pretend to be. The act of doing something is what matters more than the truth of it. Don Draper isn’t real, but when Don lives that life, he becomes real. And, when he chooses not to live like Don Draper, that persona just crumbles and disappears. It plays a bit weird that Pete isn’t more disturbed at Don’s disappearance, and absence even from their flight home, but it serves to reinforce the fact that Don has slipped out of one life, and could just as easily slip out of this one.

One of the things I loved about the episode is the surreal, slightly disconnected feel that everything has. Don sees Betty in the bar, but it’s not Betty. Does he really want to be back with Betty, or is this just a manifestation of his guilt? I feel like at this point he thinks he has to get back with Betty, that she is so crucial to the self identity he has constructed, left alone he’ll crumble away. But, as we soon find out, that’s not exactly the case.

Joy’s name has obvious symbolic connotations. She could be seen as a devil, a temptress drawing Don away from responsibility and obligation into a hedonistic world of pleasure without consequences. But, the way the show plays it, there’s no moral judgment. Joy asks him why he doesn’t just do the things that would give him pleasure, if he wants to go to Palm Springs, there’s no reason that he shouldn’t. The objectification of Don in the episode is particularly interesting, Joy wants to use him for her own pleasure, and even her father notes how beautiful he is. He loses all control over his life, is totally feminized over the course of the episode. In the context of the cultural shifts of the 60s, Don experiences an idealized ‘free love’ world here, the promise of a utopian existence free from the arbitrarily imposed conventions society forces us all to conform to.

Back in New York, Kurt’s frank revelation that he’s a homosexual ties in to the new world Don goes to. We’ve watched Salvatore sublimate his true desires behind a sham marriage, and it’s shocking for him to see just how easy it is for someone to get whatever they want, as long as they’re not scared of the societal response. Kurt isn’t locked into the old world values that most of Sterling Cooper hangs on to, but Sal is, and he can’t even conceptualize giving in to his desires. It’s something that’s just not done.

On a totally different note, it’s notable the way that shows set in New York conceptualize California and vice versa. On Six Feet Under, New York was Claire’s escape at the end of the show, the promise of a cool place where she could grow up and pursue her art. Here, for New Yorkers, California is representative of a totally different set of values, a world where people spend all their time sitting around the pool, looking for movie stars. California’s image is inextricably tied in to the Hollywood studio system, a place that molded individuals into stars, changing names, background and inventing personal details to back up the image they had created. Norma Jean Baker becomes Marilyn Monroe, a troubled personal life becomes a perfect dream that everyone aspires to. But, with the studio system in decline, those personas crack. Marilyn is no longer a dream to aspire to, she’s a cautionary tale.

Last season, Don got high and found himself unable to fit in with the beatniks. Here, he doesn’t have that problem, perhaps he’s more at home with this old world idea of cool, or maybe it’s just that he’s changed. Cut off from Betty, he no longer feels the need to be the suburban family man. It’s only when he sees two kids that he’s reminded of his old life and has a moment of pause. But, that pause doesn’t last long, he’s soon back to having sex in a pool.

In the end, the entire episode is about Don tearing through the Don Draper persona and finding a piece of his self that he had left behind. Don Draper is a fiction suit he’s been wearing so long, it’s become real, but as he strips that suit off, he finds that something of who he was remains. Who is it he calls at the end, who would still know Dick Whitman? I don’t know, but the real significance is that he would invoke that name, reclaim the self he had left behind.

The episode reminded me a lot of similarly trippy explorations of self identity in The Sopranos’ Join the Club, and Kennedy and Heidi. It’s a kind of storytelling I love, taking place in a subconscious state of being, where the things that happen all comment on the mental state of our troubled protagonist. It’s a kind of storytelling that’s seen very rarely today. Most indie films stick to a tired ‘realist’ aesthetic, as if the greatest aspiration of cinema is to recreate the external existence we perceive with our eyes. The world is so much more than that, it’s a churning mess of feelings, thoughts and ideas all crossing over in our mind, moments from the past and present crossing and commenting on the things we’re presently experiencing. Mad Men is almost always a great show, but this episode went beyond just a great story, it’s great art. This is where the challenging art cinema of years past lives on, and because we’re connected to the characters in a way that we aren’t in most art films, it takes on added emotional significance. This is the best episode of the season to date.